This essay contains light spoilers of BlackKkKlansman.
Last week, I sat down at a small local theater to watch BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee’s latest film about a Black undercover cop, Ron Stallworth, who tries to unravel the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. I had heard the film, loosely based on real events and Stallworth’s memoir Black Klansman, was necessary viewing—and I grew up on films like Malcolm X and Crooklyn—so I was down to see what all the talk was about. I was also curious after Boots Riley, director of Sorry To Bother You, shared an intense yet honest take on the movie via Twitter. Riley mentioned that Spike Lee was apparently paid by the NYPD to “to help in an ad campaign that was ‘aimed at improving relations with minority communities.’” Yikes.
And just ten minutes into the movie, I knew BlacKkKlansman was going to be an emotional experience. I heard the N-word multiple times in rapid succession—sometimes from the mouth of an older white police chief played by Robert John Burke.
Over the course of the two-and-a-half hours long film, I witnessed clips from Birth of a Nation, a KKK initiation ceremony, and a morbid detailing of the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington. There were also extensive mentions of the Black Power movement, but the scenes recalling unabashed white supremacy are the parts of BlacKkKlansman forever etched into my memory. To tie the historic events of the film into everyday occurrences of modern racism, the phrase “Make America Great Again” was alluded to, and the movie closed with real-life footage from the Charlottesville riots. The latter was triggering, to say the least.
BlacKkKlansman‘s bridging of the time gap between these various injustices—and the events of the film itself—fed me information that I already knew to be true: racism has always existed in America.
It has changed its face a bit. Overseers are now officers, as KRS-One’s “Sound of da Police” told us, the War on Drugs is actively destroying the Black community, and racist legislation is often hidden under the appearance of “normal” politics. Ultimately, the disenfranchisement of those who are not Christian and white cannot be ignored just because it’s now normal for oppressors to hide behind social constructs like religion, and for politics to be entrenched in racist people’s dark ideas of what America should look like.
Racism may look different now, but it is the same racism Black people have faced for centuries. It is just as violent as it was 200 years ago, and Black people and people of color—the building blocks of America—are still upholding the country through physical and emotional labor. Young men and women are still being violently murdered for doing nothing more than breathing while Black. Donald Trump is possibly more mentally aligned with the forefathers of America than any other president. Like slaveholders George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Trump fearlessly stands to uphold the racial inequalities that are woven tightly into this country’s fabric.
BlacKkKlansman was set in the 1970s. Social studies textbooks make it seem as if the ’60s were the end of the fight for civil rights and the ’70s were all about glitter, sex, and disco.
That’s historically inaccurate. Radical communist Angela Davis was falsely imprisoned in 1970 and Bernard Whitehurst Jr., an innocent, unarmed Black man was killed by the police in 1975. The real Ron Stallworth spent three years infiltrating and undoing a Black liberation movement himself and reporting it to the FBI around this time (a fact that Riley includes in his critique of the film). We continue to make strides for the basic right to live without persecution: Graffiti artist Michael Stewart was murdered in the ’80s, Rodney King was beaten by white police officers in the early ’90s, and Trayvon Martin was gunned down by a racist man six years ago. Philando Castile, Nia Wilson, Eric Garner…these injustices continue.
To me, BlacKkKlansman is forcing us to ask ourselves what progress really is.
Even with all of the dash cams and instant spread of information via social media, we still have yet to undo racism. This film is showing us a mirror of ourselves in the past, present, and future, and asks us to point out the differences. Yeah, I’ve never seen a burning cross in real life, but I have seen footage of a woman getting run over by a car because she stood with Black people who demanded fairness. Some unofficial members of the Klan, or “the organization” as it is called in the film, have decided to adopt tiki torches. Others are trading in their hoods and sheets for suits and running for office. Watching BlacKkKlansman hurts because it reminds me that, in so many ways, society is stuck in its violent past.