There are moments (mostly the innocent ones) in Black Klansman where the movie seems to be telling us something about the 70s. There are other moments (as in references to “America First” or allusions to the Trump administration) when the movie is clearly telling us something about today. Most of the time, however, the movie seems to be telling us about both at the same time. What’s missing from this movie is the period in between, a good three or four decades, depending on how you count them, when many of us might have thought race relations were getting better. Perhaps that thought was never more than naiveté, a mere fantasy, but if so the fantasy was certainly a part of the world erased in this film. I’d like to think Spike Lee is wrong to erase those years in this film, but he isn’t.
That erasure, it seems, is precisely the point.
The hope of those intervening years between the end of segregation in America and the present rise of white nationaism is in fact well well represented in Black Klansman. It’s repreented by Ron Stalworth (played by John David Washington), the central character in Black Klansman, a story inspired by events in the career of a real life police officer. We meet Stalworth as he becomes the first black officer on the Colorado Springs police force. It’s a step forward, some might have said back in the day. “Selling out” might be how others would have put it. Stalworth lives in the tension between these two ways of looking at his career, one which envisions police authority as consistent, at least in theory with the possibility or racial justice, and one which sees it as an explicit tool of white supremacy. For his own part, Stalworth is clearly trying to make the former outlook work, but he’s torn from all sides, both by racism within the police force and by those who see police as an essentially racist institution.
To hear him talk, Stalworth could pass for white, which probably says as much about those in the movie (and those of us watching it) who think he sounds white as it does about the man himself. Whatever the reason, this feature of Stalworth’s character has an obvious utility; it will enable him to pass, at least on the phone. Stalworth is also willing to cut his fro if the Police Chief wants him to, but no, that’s not necessary, The Chief likes it. At the same time, Stalworth fights a never ending battle against the casual racism of his fellow officers. What to do about the overt bigots whose racism is far from casual, he isn’t sure, at least not at the outset of the film. Stalworth is picking his battles. Fair enough! But is the trade-off equitable? One gets the impression no-one is quite happy with the arrangement, least of all Stalworth himself.
It’s this awkward effort to find an acceptable accommodation between social justice and institutions which have historically enforced racism that makes Stalworth a great symbol for the intervening years between the seventies and the modern era. He is a back man trying to make America work. for his own people along with the rest of us. Some might consider that a fools errand, but Stalworth lived in an era when it seemed almost possible.
The Police Chief takes Stalworth’s discomfort up a notch by asking him to go undercover to attend a speech by Stokely Carmichael so he can keep track of the radical students who sponsored the event. There Carmichael is known by his new name of Kwame Ture. Ture speaks of police abuse, even the murder of African-Americans. He also urges his audience to prepare for violent revolution. Stalworth is surprised to find that he likes Ture’s speech, and the fact that he likes the speech is a big problem. It’s a problem because Stalwort is there to spy on the man and the black radicals listening to him. From the snadpoint of the police department, he’s not supposed to like the speech at all. From the standpoint of the student radicals, he isn’t supposed to be there at all, at least not for the reasons he has come.
…and certainly not wearing a mic.
It doesn’t help matters that Stalworth knows people in his own police department guilty of the very racism Ture was talking about. It also doesn’t help that he is falling rapidly in love with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), President of the Black Student Union. She is arguably the main subject of his investigation, and she herself certainly would not approve of his undercover work. It REALLY doesn’t help that she was pulled over by racist police officers after the speech and sexually assaulted during the stop, confirming everything Ture said in his speech while underscoring Stalworth’s inability to do anything about it.
So, how is he going to explain Ture’s promotion of revolution to the Police Chief? How will he explain his role in the police department to the love interest who sees police as the enemy? It’s a problem.
All of this comes before Stalworth’s infiltration into the Ku Klux Klan.
If there is any ray of hope to found in these initial scenes, it comes in the form of a night spent dancing in the wake of Ture’s presentation. Whatever Ture’s rhetoric, the radicals who brought him were content to spend the evening peacefully enjoying themselves on the dance floor. This gives Stalworth an angle, so to speak. He decides that these radicals are just talking about the violent revolution. They aren’t actually planning to kill anybody. It’s not the easiest message to sell. The Police Chief doesn’t buy it any more than Patrice and her companions buy the notion that police are meant to serve the community.
If there is a way to make police-work consistent with racial justice, Stalworth hasn’t found it when the larger plot kicks off, when Stalworth stumbles upon the opportunity to open up an investigation into the Klan with the help of Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). If the black radicals he’d been investigating at the start of this film weren’t really violent, the Klansman certainly were, at least enough of them to pose a threat. Of course this investigation is the real focus on the film. It’s also where the film departs most from the actual events of the real events in question. The real investigation led to the transfer of Klansmen within the military away from sensitive security positions; the movie investigation leads to a real crime.
What interests me about the story most is the larger racial politics of the film itself, and of the society it comments upon. One gets the impression Stalworth isn’t in the most tenable position to begin with. He knows very well the laws he is charged with enforcing hurt his own people, and he also knows anyone seeking to change that poses a real threat to the institutions he represents. Stalworth is caught in the middle of many forces he cannot controle; he has set himself up for a life-time of pushing back in all directions. The main plot seems almost to rescue him from the ambivalence of his position at the outset of the film.
…which brings us back to the political history of the film. Its final moments aren’t about the tricky life Stalworth has set up for himself so much as the rise of violent white nationalism with the advent of the Trump administration. Here Spike Lee drops the fictional story-line entirely and shows us real footage of real white nationalists at work today. It’s a fitting shift, of course. Like the Klan in this story, Trump’s America has fallen on the nation like a great big old boot stomp on the many conflicts that used to plague our politics, conflicts that now seem subtle by comparison. Like the Klansmen in this film, the present administration and its supporters aren’t really all that interested in figuring out the details of social justice; they are happy to promote a clear and obvious vision of white supremacy. If the crime Stalworth thwarts in this move is fictional, the threats posed by a political regime wedded to the likes of the Klan is real. If justice eludes us, the present regime certainly ought to inject a degree of clarity into political questions of our own day.
If it isn’t entirely clear how we should handle racism in police practice, the sort of problem Stalworth is dealing with at the beginning of this film, it ought to be very clear that the present President couldn’t care less. Neither could those who support him. If it isn’t entirely clear how the rest of us should live together, it ought to be very clear that a good number of Americans no longer mean to do so at all, and that they have help at the highest levels, help they are using to undermine every means at our disposal for forking out any equitable solutions to the nations problems. The nation as a whole seems ripped away, like Stalworth, from the tricky problems about racial justice. What we have now is a problem much like that he faced in this film; how to stop those consciously working to ensure no such answers will ever be found.