Colorado Springs police detective Ron Stallworth, 1979
Ron Stallworth today
Spike Lee accepting the Grand Jury prize at Cannes
USA (135 mi) 2018 ‘Scope d: Spike Lee Official website
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
―William Faulkner, from Requiem for a Nun, 1951
When did Spike Lee become Michael Moore, as this film all but embraces a stinging satirical rebuke of a sitting American President, turning his all too real actions into utter buffoonery. Sure it’s laughable to see someone lampooned in this manner, but Lee simply doesn’t have the sartorial wit of Molly Ivins or Tim Russert (may they rest in peace) to match the Coen brothers in their drop dead hilarious portrayal of a KKK rally gone wrong in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). Nonetheless, it similarly depicts the so-called leader of the free world as little more than a blithering idiot, a man who elevates the phrase “forked tongue” to new elevated heights, holding little to no meaning to the outside world, who view his doublespeak as an abject joke, yet appears to be catnip for his cultish, overly devoted followers. At some point in his career, perhaps 25TH HOUR (2002), Lee shifted his interest from exclusively black stories to ones that might have a broader appeal, fully aware that blacks in a nationwide democracy need the support of whites if they ever expect social and economic gains, as blacks only comprise about 14% of the U.S. population. So consider this a history lesson from Spike Lee primarily targeted for white audiences, for it’s exclusively that population who fully embraced this President on election day, signaling the end of the Obama era, a coalition of black and white progressives, along with a mainstream core of white voters who were thoroughly disenchanted with the sudden downward turn in the economy, where much of Obama’s early legislation was spent propping up the established financial institutions and major industries so the nation didn’t go bankrupt, losing much of his good will in the process, as it appeared he sold out to Wall Street while neglecting the little guys who lost their homes. Viewed as the biggest economic depression since the Great Depression, it was those very economic institutions and businesses saved by the government that bounced back quickly, while others were simply left behind. Rather than understand the basic economics of what transpired, many of these undereducated whites were prone to blame it on others, on blacks, minorities, and immigrants who were supposedly stealing the jobs whites used to have. While this ignores the fact that so many businesses left the neighborhoods completely to set up shop overseas where labor was significantly cheaper, all but guaranteeing huge profit margins for the businesses, but also wide pockets of economically depressed neighborhoods that were abandoned, this residue of white resentment remained, along with this suppressed hatred for “others,” allowing prejudice and racial animosity to foment, further stirred up by the extremist right wing who advocate similar views. Quite simply, Election Day was a day of reckoning in American society, where all the hate groups previously hiding under the rocks came out into broad daylight, suddenly free to spew their toxic venom. All of this culminated on one particular day, when the KKK and other white supremacist neo-Nazi groups marched with swastikas, Confederate flags, and burning torches, chanting racist slogans for a Unite the Right rally through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11th and 12th, 2017, when one of the white supremacist marchers intentionally rammed his car through a crowd of protesters, killing one, Heather Heyer, and injuring 19 more. But instead of condemning the violence, the President blamed both sides, implying a moral equivalence between the white supremacist marchers and those who protested against them, basically validating white nationalist views. The lines of demarcation are drawn, and this film, released on the one-year anniversary of the event, is a direct answer to the President, and is dedicated to Heather Heyer.
In Spike Lee’s world (and pretty much all of black America), Trump is in real-life the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, carrying out policies that David Duke (former Klan Imperial Wizard, now called National Director, who unsuccessfully ran for the United States Senate using the subtle political slogan, Racial Purity Is America’s Security, who remains the highest profile within the organization) and others tried to enact but failed, making Trump, in effect, the white supremacist leader of the country, carrying out views and ideas that have been kicking around since before the Civil War, with some still believing that whites are inherently smarter and superior to blacks and/or mixed races. Believe it or not, black nationalists and white supremacists actually have something in common, as both groups believe in racial separation. David Duke advocates the positon of black nationalists, as he believes blacks should stick together. His problem is when they mix with the white race. So long as they stay separated, he’s good with it. Duke hails from the state of Louisiana, where an all-white constitution convention in 1898 formed a state constitution that to this day still reads as its stated goal, to “perpetuate the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race in Louisiana.” That’s not holding anything back, is it? Duke is the college educated version of the Klan, dressing in business suits and ties, always speaking coherently and intelligently in front of groups, refraining from using the n-word in public, conveying a sense of professionalism. As Duke is a central character in the film (played by Topher Grace), the views he espouses are on display, where Lee cleverly inserts into the mouth of Duke many of the catch phrases connected to Trump, like America first, or make America great again, where it’s clear his advocates believe something has been taken from them that they believe is rightfully theirs, that they are entitled to, like the preservation of the white race, where white nationalism or belonging to the Klan offers white American men a restoration of their masculinity. Refusing to be called bigots, they have rebranded themselves into something more socially acceptable, though at the time the prevailing sentiment would accurately be reflected in the commentary, “There’s no way that someone like David Duke will be elected President of the United States.” Then again, let’s let today’s reality sink in, as these are actually harsher times. A whole host of conditions may lead people to join hate groups, which includes inheriting the beliefs from their father or parents, but also includes experiences such as isolation, depression, anxiety, or childhood abuse that typically serve as stepping stones to extremism. In January 2017 the Obama administration awarded a $400,000 grant to Life After Hate (Life After Hate | Southern Poverty Law Center), a nonprofit organization co-founded by a male and female pair of former neo-Nazis whose mission is to target and identify hate groups, particularly white supremacy groups, and are among the first to advocate an exit strategy, helping deprogram people from their intolerant and potentially violent views. In June 2017 the Trump administration revoked the grant, ordering the Department of Homeland Security to stop identifying white nationalist groups as hate groups (though home grown, American bred whites are responsible for a majority of the terrorist attacks on American soil), just seven weeks before the notorious march in Charlottesville by alt-right activists and white supremacists.
The film works well as a piece of stinging social criticism on the pernicious effects of racism in film history, picking out two hugely influential films where the overtly racist black stereotypes went unchallenged for half a century, clearly having a negative influence on how the movie-going public viewed black people collectively. Opening with sweeping scenes from GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), where a distressed Scarlett O’Hara is in tears, stumbling through crowded streets that are literally flooded with Confederate soldiers being patched up from wounds inflicted during the Civil War, becoming a sea of battle-scarred trauma, the likes of which the country as a whole hasn’t recovered from even after 150 years. Lee connects a historical thread that moves from the Confederacy to clips from BIRTH OF A NATION (1915), with a popcorn-eating group of Klansmen enjoying shouting racist epithets at the screen, which is particularly blood-curdling when they grow elated and euphoric at a lynching, genuinely reflecting a group lynch-mob mentality, where this film gets to the root of that phrase. At the outset is a chilling opening monologue by Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alex Baldwin, who interestingly also plays Trump on Saturday Night Live skits), espousing the fear-mongering tactics of the White Citizens’ Councils of the era, opposing black voter registration efforts and mandated school integration, warning white Americans how inferior criminal-element blacks are taking over the country, spewing the hate-filled racist vitriol of the 50’s and 60’s, yet it sounds surprisingly like the same rhetoric heard today by the far-right on Fox News that Trump is so enamored with, like Laura Ingraham’s recent anti-immigrant tirade that may as well be the mantra for white nationalist ideals (Laura Ingraham: America as we know it doesn't exist anymore due to ...), lamenting how the “American we know and love doesn’t exist anymore” because of massive demographic changes in the country that she blamed on out of control levels of legal and illegal immigration. David Duke couldn’t have said it any better, seen espousing his own similar views from archival footage on the day of the Charlottesville march, all of which connects a Confederate white supremacist agenda from the Civil War era to the Trump presidency, where there are no black senior advisers currently serving in the White House, which is certainly living up to its name, offering a complete restorative corrective and whitewash from the diversity of the Obama administration. To the extent that Lee exposes the Grand Wizard of Oz, removing the curtain of respectability, and unveiling the white nationalist platform as the centerpiece of his administration, the film is a bona fide success, winner of the Grand Prix award (2nd place) at the Cannes Film Festival, returning Lee to exalted status internationally, where he still believes he was robbed in 1989 when Do the Right Thing (1989) failed to win any awards at Cannes (still one of the greatest films to depict spontaneously erupting violence on the streets, mirroring the world we live in), yet Jury President Wim Wenders was convinced Lee’s character of Mookie “was not a heroic character,” believing he did NOT do the right thing, so the film did not deserve to be recognized. The film also failed to receive a nomination for Best Picture in a year won by the safely unprovocative DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989), which received a whopping ten nominations. In 1989, America and the world were not yet ready for that film, while this film received a ten-minute standing ovation at the initial screening, but true to form at the Cannes festival in recent years, the critics got it wrong, as despite the exposure of things most of us already knew even before the recent Presidential election, this is a rather tepid and mainstream film, where the hype does not reflect the actual merits of the film, which is not nearly as daring or as challenging as his previous film, Chi-Raq (2015), which was all but ignored by critics as well as the public. But the Spike Lee hype machine has taken care of that, jettisoning this film to immediate relevancy, much like Michael Moore did with FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (2004), which won the Palme d’Or (1st place) award at Cannes, but despite the hilarious lampooning of President George W. Bush, it didn’t prevent him from winning re-election, as the right wing hatred for Michael Moore was the rallying cry to get out the vote. Spike Lee may have a similar influence.
Based on a true story, incredible as it sounds, about a black police officer infiltrating the KKK, Ron Stallworth is hired in 1979 as the first black police officer in Colorado Springs, though Lee sets his film a bit earlier in 1972, coinciding with the law and order Nixon presidency, the Black Panthers and their rhetoric, always referring to the cops as the pigs, and those crazy Blaxploitation flicks like SHAFT (1971), SUPERFLY (1972), or COFFY (1973), where Stallworth, played by the son of Denzel Washington (John David Washington), is assigned to go undercover as part of a surveillance network surrounding a speech made by black nationalist spokesperson Kwame Ture, (Corey Hawkins, who played Dr. Dre in Straight Outta Compton 2015), formerly Stokely Carmichael, author of the book Black Power (1967), required reading in the day, and former member of the Black Panthers, condemning them for not being separatist enough, marrying South African folk hero Miriam Makeba and returning to Africa to live in Guinea, becoming an aide to the President, embracing a philosophy of Pan-Africanism. Noted for being a rousing speaker, he plays to a packed house, sponsored by the local Black Student Union, headed by Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier, going all Kathleen Cleaver on us), very reminiscent of the rhetoric of the day, “Black Power,” “All power to all the people,” and “Can you dig it?” Stallworth introduces himself to Patrice, but gets no special consideration, having to head to the back of the line that extends around the block, but people are galvanized by the enthusiasm he brings. Easily the best scene of the film happens afterwards in an after-hours club where Stallworth meets Patrice for a drink. Despite being upset, as a racist cop hassled her while driving the host speaker back to the airport, the scene turns into a love affair and anthem on being black, especially the Soul Trane style dance sequence set to Too late to turn back now - Cornelius Bros and Sister Rose YouTube (3:13), which plays from start to finish and couldn’t be a more enthralling, exquisitely joyful affair. Stallworth’s professional evaluation reported to Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) is that people were more stirred emotionally, riled up and feeling good about themselves, rather than any specifics of the message, believing revolution was not going to hit the streets of Colorado Springs anytime soon, despite a revolutionary call to action. While browsing the morning paper, Stallworth sees an advertisement to join the Ku Klux Klan, calling the number and spewing racist venom over the phone, which certainly draws the attention of the other white officers in the room, like a ridiculous theater-of-the-absurd charade, but they decide to follow up, sending in a white officer to take his place, Detective Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who wears a wire, removing the Star of David necklace he wears before they meet. The Klan are probably the weakest element of the film, as they are all too cartoonish, like caricatures trying out for The Beverly Hillbillies, where it’s obvious Lee has nothing to draw upon for the Klan experience, so his depiction rings hollow, lacking authenticity, where probably the most unvarnished look at the backwoods white rural experience of Obama hating Trump supporters would be Robert Minervini’s The Other Side (2015). One standout is a particularly incendiary hothead member who is a real loose cannon, Felix, played by Finnish movie star Jasper Pääkkönen and his pawing wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), a Klan wannabe, but women aren’t allowed, excluded from the serious business. The introductions go well and Stallworth is quickly offered membership (robes and other accessories cost extra), though not before Felix nearly blows his head off in one of his unorthodox “Jewish tests.” Out of the blue, Stallworth calls the number of David Duke from part of the handout material he was given, which begins a lengthy relationship over the phone with the national head of the Klan at the time, becoming friends, getting down to personal stuff, with raving racist rhetoric offered as first-hand experience. Again, all of this actually happened.
The most preposterous aspect of the film is all made up, however, and that is the romantic liaison between Stallworth and Patrice, who in real life would have had nothing to do with him, finding all cops offensive, so this adds a fairy tale aspect to the film that is admittedly crowd pleasing, playing to the middle. According to Stallworth, who is still alive today and doing interviews at age 65, publishing a book entitled Black Klansman in 2014 about his experience infiltrating the KKK, this romance and the activities of the Colorado Springs Black Student Union simply never happened. What is amusing, however, is the portrayal of Stallworth, considering the setting, where he is representative of the times, seeing himself as Richard Roundtree in SHAFT (1971), the baddest dude on the planet, who expectedly has the charisma to get all the girls. Washington’s acting leaves something to be desired, never really opening up or allowing himself to be vulnerable, so instead Lee uses the Blaxploitation allure and period music to offer interest, where it amounts to more hype and the power of suggestion than actuality, as the Klan ceremony with the presence of David Duke, where Stallworth actually gets inducted, simply doesn’t have the pizzazz of the rest of the film, with Stallworth ridiculously assigned as the police protection cop for David Duke (Yeah, sure), But what it does do is amp up the melodrama to operatic heights, using the Coppolla mirror image technique so exquisitely utilized in THE GODFATHER (1972, 1974) movies, where the White Power speeches are intermixed with the student union Black Power speeches, both attempting to rev up the troops and stir them into a frenzy. But nothing does that for the Klan better than a raucous screening of D.W. Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION (1915), with its explicitly caricaturist representation of the KKK as heroes and Southern blacks as villains and violent rapists and threats to the social order, broadly appealing to white Americans who subscribe to the mythic, though it’s one of the most sinister catalysts of racist thought and action, a connecting link from the past to the present, reportedly viewed by President Woodrow Wilson as the first film ever screened in the White House. Perhaps the most gleeful at the screening is Connie, Felix’s wife, identifying with the hateful message of eradicating the enemy, including a view of blacks as savages who deserve to be lynched and killed, egging them on as they do just that, like a fantasy version of what they stand for. Connie is perhaps the unsung character in the film, intimidated and browbeaten by a fanatical husband, she tries to please him by being even more extremist and hateful, desperately hoping this will bring her love. Her character is emblematic of the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump, as they are the ones who benefit most explicitly from white male patriarchy. The system props them up and they don’t want to lose what they believe is their birthright. This is the way it has always been since the dawning of America, when the Founding Fathers were all-white, continuing from the Civil War to the present, accepting the status quo, where they don’t need blacks stirring up more trouble, especially not when they have the means to put them in their place. This is precisely the same message David Duke presents at Charlottesville in August 2017, with archival footage used to end the film, where the real David Duke echoes the words of Trump, claiming these are the “first steps towards taking America back.” The first Spike Lee film since OLDBOY (2013) to be shot on film, this all too imperfect effort will be drastically overpraised, though it’s uneven, with tonal shifts that jump all over the map, yet remains highly entertaining, as somehow Lee pulls everything together, where mostly the success is a sign of the times, as it accurately reflects the racial divide that plagues this nation, that goes back to the original sin of slavery, owning slaves as property, free to treat them as subhumans, even fighting a Civil War over the right to maintain these white supremacist principles, the ramifications of which still linger today, cue the music of Prince over the end credits, Prince - 'Mary Don't You Weep' (from 'Piano & A ... - YouTube (4:39). The real question hovering over American society isn’t about blacks, but instead asks when whites will become humanized? And Spike Lee is simply not the deliverer of that message, though he is no doubt encouraged by the many white protesters in Charlottesville, where he didn’t tell them to shout “Black Lives Matter.” They did that on their own. Nonetheless, there is a plague of racist venom draped across our nation, like a poisonous scourge, with a President intentionally plunging us even further into the darkness, eradicating all signs of diversity and social progress.