Blackkklansman: The Double Edged Sword of Doing the Right Thing
I was not yet alive when Do The Right Thing came to theaters across America. I grew up on the opposite coast from my parents who raised me in separate homes in and outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. The first time I watched Do the Right Thing, I borrowed my fathers university of Viriginia ID to check it out of the media library there. The movie changed the way I think about cinema, storytelling and neighbors. The neighborhood where I went to school was primarily African American. My middle school was built as the primary building for an all black high school, which was desegregated in 1958.
The thing that still stands out to me the most from my first viewing of Do The Right Thing (outside of Fight The Power) is the increasing stress that bares down on Mookie, a man caught between his Italian employer and the African American neighborhood where he lives and works, trying to sift through each to discover what is truly right for him. It was hard to watch and as a child who spent time feeling torn between worlds, all too relatable. He wants to stand up, but only because he knows he will never live completely outside of conflict. He is a reluctant hero, in the eyes of some not even a hero, but certainly a young activist. Eventually, Mookie comes to the realization that as much as he tries to forge peace between white and black characters at some point he feels he has to fight for what he thinks is unfair, even if it means losing his job. Spike Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansman, made me revisit that theme and add to it. I left feeling that to discover what is truly right putting yourself in a position to enact it is only half the battle.
Ron Stallworth was a real cop who lived in Colorado Springs. In 1979 he went undercover and infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. Infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States would be difficult for any police officer considering many government officials and police officers were part of the Klan as well as people who held highest office like Harry Truman. Ron’s work is amazing in particular because he is a black man, who gets constant bullshit from his fellow officers. Early in his career, Ron was asked to infiltrate a meeting of the Black Panther party, he became deeply engaged with the black community of Colorado Springs, one that (rightfully) detested the outwardly racist and criminal police force.
Ron is confronted by members of the African-American community who say that working as a cop is a betrayal. At work, his fellow officers berate him for asserting that he is an officer in his own right, not just a diversity hire. Ron is faced with the universal conundrum of being an activist: there will always be people who say it’s too little and always people who say it’s too much.
How we stay the course of navigating what we hear inside us and what pressure is applied from outside is nothing short of a miracle. After Ron hits his first mark in the long and arduous investigation that he has initiated, the police chief suggests that Ron take a vacation. This I find to be another troubling facet of activism; can one ever consciously take a vacation from it? We fight day to day to defeat forces so colossal and hidden that I think it’s important to try to compartmentalize, but the risk is always suppressing the greater picture.
The political rhetoric touted by the far right and left is peppered in throughout the movie in a way the reminds us that, despite the fact that everyone is wearing clothes from the 1970’s , this is hardly a period piece. Both the dialogue of the police officers and black activists feels as if it’s rippling through the streets of Bedford-Styvesant, and America today. The opening sequence presents Alec Baldwin dressed as a medical emissary of the United States Government presenting the benefits of eugenics in some sort of pro white PSA.
Baldwin screams dead pan into the camera in absolute seriousness about “mongrel nations,” all of whom pose a threat to “our holy white Protestant values”. There is something, perhaps the sweaty circularity of his face, or just his unhinged and inexplicable anger, that makes him look like Alex Jones. Alex Jones, a man who has frequently claimed on his radio show that the KKK is made up of black people pretending to be racist as a stunt, and who highlights members of the democratic party as “demons! They’re frickin’ invaders OK? I’ll just say it, make fun of me all you want on CNN or wherever, but everyone already innately knows this. These people are not frickin’ humans OK! Hillary Clinton is a goddamn demon!”
In history class, in Albemarle County, the county surrounding Charlottesville Virginia, we learned about eugenics. Eugenics was touted a breakthrough in the study of genes and human beings summarized as the science to sustain the purity of the American race. This movement began in the state of Virginia and would become central science to the rhetoric justifying the death of 8 million Jews. We learned about the history of the Civil War, which was framed as a battle for states rights, and eugenics year after year, but it was not until my junior year in AP American history that The Black Panther Party and Free Breakfast program was even mentioned. And AP American History was a class that not everyone took.
In Spike Lee’s film about Ron Stallworths life, the more intimate scenes between and his love interest named Patrice Dumas showcase the tireless work of young activists of color, articulate young women leaders involved with organizations of the 60’s and 70’s like SNCC, the NAACP, and Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Patrice is the president of the Colorado College Student Union and brilliant outspoken activist leader who organizes events, leads protest actions, and. Patrice lives by a strong moral code. Perhaps one of the least believable parts of the film (to me) is Patrice’s ability to forgive Ron after discovering that the first time they met he was spying on her and national civil rights leader Kwame Ture at a speaking engagement Patrice has planned and overseen. Considering that many African American Leaders during this time were under government surveillance, I think the reality of this circumstance would be very hard to forgive. I think even within local activist communities it is hard to know who to trust, who at a block association meeting has a vested interest in the swift gentrification of a neighborhood and who is really there to dedicate time to preserving an equal opportunity for stable living.
It is clear from the start that Ron, who was raised in military family, is one who feels comfortable within structures and systems. Patrice is not. This causes friction at every point of development in their relationship. I so often feel the urge bubbling inside me to shout at my friends or parents that government jobs, no matter how alluringly stable, are part of the problem. At worst they force, you to assist with dark deals. At best they make you complacent. But it’s good to remember in all ways and at every occasion that people are not the same.
Different things make people uncomfortable and even if they agree with you on a political issue, their goals for enacting change or doing what’s right might be completely different then yours. Perhaps there are some who can take a straight job at a bank, yet still stay aware of the ways in which capitalism is a system that is bad for women and people of color. Can you find a happy medium between dedicating your existence in its entirety to doing what is right without being driven towards an inevitable breaking point.
Last year when the violence in my hometown, Charlottesville, Virginia, was breaking out I was away on vacation, alone in Prague writing a play. To find out two days later that my brother and father put their lives of the line while admiring architecture made me feel inactive and distant. This year I felt the same but worse.
For the second year in a row my brother and father headed into the center of Charlottesville to stand in solidarity with people of color and the Jewish people who live and work in the City of Charlottesville, and have for many decades. I went to see Spike Lee’s movie instead, realizing quickly that I knew an equal number of actors as I did citizens captured in the documentary footage from Charlottesville last summer. BlacKkKlansman was fantastic, and important to me on many levels. I was very skeptical to hear that the footage of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville including footage of the counter-protesters, the car attack, and President Trump’s statements after the events. It was well used.
The events of last summer was a wake up call for many white middle class civilians in Charlottesville, many of whom are blind to racism and the way it impacts the day to day lives of citizens, African American owned businesses, and home owners. It is now easy to recognize the presence of these fascist groups and racist individuals. The Mayor of Charlottesville, Nikuyah Walker, had this to say: “Charlottesville has always been a pretty segregated area. I grew up like many black families in the community: working-class families, parents working every day, multiple jobs, attempting to make ends meet. It’s a very different experience from the Charlottesville in our brochures and the “world-class city” designation we attempt to give ourselves.”
The legacy of white supremacy is rich in our country, one that on a day to day basis we fail to recognize permeates all of our systems in ways we fail to realize. The constant vigilance required to stamp out these evils that allowed our country to grow as a world power must be considered everyday in all interactions. Perhaps my absolute favorite thing about the movie is it’s abrupt transition in to the present. We are left to realize that Ron did his absolute best to infiltrate the Klan, did that successfully, and then was taken off the case which received no follow-up from Colorado Springs PD.
We cannot let the white supremacists slip back into the woodwork and ignore the role of law in the crimes they have perpetrated on so many people all over the country.