I am a great fan of Spike Lee’s cinema and have followed his extraordinary career closely. A few of his films, fiction and documentary, such as Do the Right Thing (1989) and 4 Little Girls (1997), I consider among the masterpieces of world cinema. Malcolm X (1992), his greatest film, is a staple of the courses I teach at Columbia.
When his new film, BlacKkKlansman (2018) came out, a filmmaker friend and I made arrangements to go and see it right away at my regular hangout, Magic Johnson Theater in Harlem. We sat there dutifully from beginning to the end of the film waiting, hoping against hope, for the other shoe to drop. Alas! It never did.
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It is deeply disconcerting to watch the decisive failures of an iconic filmmaker you have always loved and admired. How could a gifted filmmaker who in his youthful thirties made a powerful epic like Malcolm X, in his mature 60s make a reactionary flop like BlacKkKlansman? What happened?
The question is not disappointment in one filmmaker, in one of his films. The implications of the failure, given the serious subject matter of the film, are far more important.
After I saw the film I went to read some of the reviews to see if I had missed anything. In the first sentence of his review of BlacKkKlansman, the prominent New York Times film critic AO Scott declares the film Spike Lee’s “best nondocumentary feature in more than a decade and one of his greatest.”
Although we frequent the same movie theatres, he and I must have seen two different films, I thought. AO Scott’s laudatory review marked precisely where the trouble lies in this astonishingly reactionary film.
So how could the epic filmmaker who gave the world Malcolm X be so blindsided in his latest film and how can critics fail to call him out? What happened?
Let me cut to the chase: Barack Obama happened – the most reactionary liberal affliction to the revolutionary momentum that was set in motion by generations of black critical thinkers and social movements capped by their crowning achievement, Malcolm X. That is what happened. Let me explain. (Spoiler alert: If you have not seen the film yet don’t read the rest of this essay until you do).
BlacKkKlansman is a biopic based on the 2014 memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth. Set in 1970s Colorado Springs, the film narrates the story of an African American detective who infiltrates the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. This setting provides the background against which we see the ridiculous antics and delusional racism of the KKK.
As a period piece, the film could have been a perfectly powerful examination of the nasty roots of racism in the US. The trouble with the film starts when it leaps to larger ambitions, of being relevant today – in Trump’s America, when the deep-rooted racism, xenophobia, and bigotry definitive to this country have come out for a joyride.
With punctual references to the Black Lives Matter movement, many other suggestive phrasings, and the decisive ending of the film with footage of the Neo-Nazi white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, as well as with many interviews after the film was released, Spike Lee has made it clear this is a film about now, and not just about then.
And it is this big ambition that makes BlacKkKlansman a politically outdated, retrograde, cliche-ridden nostalgia – indeed, not a period piece but a museum piece at a time when the world is in dire need not of more truisms of racism in the US but a deeper examination of the renewed roots of its resurgence, and the arts and ideas of how and where to fight it.
It is here, today, that Spike Lee in his latest film proves to be a deeply flawed, deeply reactionary filmmaker out of touch with the ugly truths of his own society.
If a film made in 2018, in Trump’s America, does not see that anti-black racism, anti-Jewish antisemitism, anti-Muslim Islamophobia, and anti-immigrant xenophobia are all variations on the same white supremacy theme, it has failed to see racism. It has fetishised the racist manufacturing of the colour “black”, bought into the white-centred codification of power, remained trapped in the dominant racist discourse, and failed to see or show beyond into any horizon of liberation form them all.
By adopting myopic provincialism and abandoning the larger national and global context of racism and militarism, BlacKkKlansman shoots itself in the foot. Neither in the 1960s and – a fortiori – neither now, was the liberation of black people so insular and unaware of the larger global context.
While towering moral voices of the time like Martin Luther King Jr and Mohammad Ali were widely aware of the link between domestic racism and global militarism of the United States, it was Malcolm X who blasted the black liberation movement into global context by actively connecting it to African, Asian, and Latin American revolutionary mobilisations.
In his film, Spike Lee seems entirely oblivious to any such relation of what the fight against racism at home and militarism abroad means. All he had to do was to look at the aggressive militarisation of police forces, particularly in black neighbourhoods like Ferguson, and pay some attention to the fact that Israeli security forces are training them.
The reason why BlacKkKlansman doesn’t make this connection is because it targets the Obama liberals as its choice audience and stays there from beginning to end. In the process, the film gives short shrift to the most revolutionary mobilisation of African American politics in the 20th century, reducing it to cartoonish characters who speak like robots, act like mindless minions, and exude a fanatical obsession with their race.
In catering to a middle-class Obama voters’ audience, Spike Lee remains fatally limited to a white liberal constituency that join in laughing at David Duke and other ridiculous KKK caricatures and never see themselves implicated in the terror of Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and the rest of their wicked company.
These creatures did not come out of nowhere. Their roots are right under Spike Lee’s nose. But he does not see it.
In perhaps the most abusive sequence of the film, we see the venerable figure of Harry Belafonte (as “Mr Turner”) surrounded by young revolutionary activists moved to the liberating cry of “Black Power” intercut with a KKK initiation ceremony’s crescendo to “White Power!” – devoid of any understanding of the differences between the two cries, one by a victorious racist ideology, the other by a defiant mobilisation against it.
Behind history, not ahead of it
Today, a racist Trump campaign aide screams at an African American man, “You’re out of your cotton-picking mind!” loudly and openly on national television and gets away with it. Today, a white Florida GOP gubernatorial nominee publicly warns a vote for his black opponent would “monkey this up” and also gets away with it.
Yet, in his film, Spike Lee decided to come nowhere near and decidedly stays far away from the roots of this evil to give his liberal white audiences a football field of comfort zone not to see themselves in such ugly phrases. BlacKkKlansman is made for a “post-racial” delusion in a pre-Civil War resurgence of racism in the United States.
Laser-focusing on the ridiculous KKK and partaking lavishly in the liberal class-conscious disdain of the white working-class places Spike Lee right next to Obama’s liberal imperialism and far from the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement, now definitive to this generation of progressive politics.
In his 2018 reading of racism, Spike Lee opts to come nowhere near a Muslim or a Mexican or an Arab or Afghan refugee as the primary targets of Trump-era xenophobia. There is not a clue of the interpolated spread of racism across the US society. Only a cliche-ridden rendition of a black police officer frozen in his cocoon, cut off from the moral fabric of his time and history.
This was not the America of the 1970s, and this is not the America of the Trump terror. “While this platform is focused on domestic policies,” reads the platform of The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), right now in 2018, “we know that patriarchy, exploitative capitalism, militarism, and white supremacy know no borders. We stand in solidarity with our international family against the ravages of global capitalism and anti-Black racism, human-made climate change, war, and exploitation.” This is now. This is at the time that Spike Lee was making his film – and yet he is farthest removed from its towering moral power.
“The Movement for Black Lives stands with the Palestinian people and especially those in Gaza, that have been engaging in resistance at the Gaza border.” This, too, is the position of the single most powerful moral stand of Black Lives Matter today when Spike Lee made his film under the illusion that he has something to teach these brave and visionary activists.
There are a couple of references to Angela Davis in the film but no awareness of what she stood for then or what she or other luminary revolutionary leaders like Alice Walker stand for now. What sustained the civil rights movement of the 1960s were the massive demonstrations against the Vietnam war, was the now legendary MLK speech at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, on militarism and racism, was Muhammad Ali’s heroic refusal to be drafted into the US army to go kill people who had done him no harm.
What enriches the M4BL today is in equal terms its antiwar positions in Iraq and Afghanistan and particularly against the Israeli crimes in Palestine. None of this means anything to Lee in his latest film. His myopia is blinding.
Failing to read the present moment
By the time we get to Spike Lee’s final montage of the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally in August 2017, when platoons of racist Americans faced courageous counterdemonstrators, he has wasted so much precious time on cliche antiquarianism and demonisation of black activism that it feels and looks like a cheap-shot slapstick.
Because of its sustained dramatic failures, the film ends with this forced denouement that fakes a Brechtian “Distancing effect” but ends up being a cop-out of any meaningful resolution to a moral crisis he had failed to map out.
There are student activists present at that rally who have strongly objected to Lee’s use of that clip and accuse him of opportunism and of abusing their anti-racist movement to cap a deeply flawed rendition of black revolutionary activism and of whitewashing the role of the police then and now.
They have even pointed to Spike Lee receiving money from the New York Police Department to whitewash their image in black communities. But, again, serious as these charges might be, the question is not just historical inaccuracies. The issue is the moral imagination of the film itself, which is so deeply flawed.
The racist white supremacy that stages itself in bold vulgarity in Charlottesville rally or in the White House has its roots in the liberal imperialism that happily handed its reigns to the first black president for eight years before losing it to its more vulgar version that Trump embodies.
The potent liberal roots of that white supremacy get a free pass in Spike Lee’s new film, happily hide in the dark movie houses and laugh at idiot klansmen and write laudatory reviews of his film. This is what the liberal blind spot of a visionary filmmaker did not allow him to see.
I will continue to love, respect, and admire Spike Lee for the best of his work, above all for his monumental achievement Malcolm X. At issue here is not one filmmaker failing to live up to his own best work in his latest film.
The issue, rather, is the changing neoliberal climate of opposition to Trump that is abusing a legitimate criticism of a racist charlatan to muddy the water and dismantle an entire critical history of black revolutionary thinking and action against racism, with the token of Obama liberalism distorting an entire spectrum of far more serious promises.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.