by Steven G. Fullwood
BlacKkKlansman wants you and me to wake up. No, seriously. Brown-skinned people who have been terrorized by the murder of dozens of unarmed Black people including children, women and men by the police or any random white men. You, me, us Black folk, individually and collectively have had to suffer and mourn the loss of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Donte Hamilton, John Crawford III, Michael Brown, Jr., Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Phillip White, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Korryn Gaines, and so many more, and we are the ones who, Lee believes, must wake up.
Honestly, I don’t know how much more the fuck I can wake up. My eyes burned away eyelids decades ago and I’m sick to my damn stomach about the deliberate and strategic extermination of Black life.
Lee has been hollering wake up for like, what, 30 years now? To what, exactly? And what you got for those who cannot sleep?
Spike Lee is not the filmmaker you need. He’s the one you dream about, Black, conscious, revolutionary. And although he’s undoubtedly talented, at this point he’s just Black. Lee’s had the benefit of emerging during Hip-Hop’s first Black consciousness moment with interesting films and later amazing documentaries. Sometimes. With BlackKklansman, a tv-movie-of-the-week-posing-as-a-serious film, Lee demonstrates that not only is he out of touch, he is surprising irresponsible.
I had no plans to see the film because Lee’s last few films left me wanting. But a friend invited me and well, I was curious. BlacKkKlansman is painful to watch because it takes up race and white supremacy at its center with so little to say about either.
But before I deep dive, let’s all give Lee a hand for trying to make a contemporary, socially-relevant, fictional film. Aight, just one clap, please. For effort. That’s all he’s earned and he did it much better with Do the Right Thing 30 years ago.
Lee’s Black 101 consciousness repeatedly fails us (see Chi-raq for deets). Black 101. So, you go to class and you’re taught that there’s racism. That’s all. No follow up lessons, no 201, 301, or any advanced classes. You can stay mad and largely ineffective. My pal, writer and thinker, Harold Pride, rightly stated that Lee is “perfectly willing to let whiteness off the hook by assuming to be its only teacher.”
Teacher, don’t be teaching me no nonsense.
So, what’s the point of this film? Is it an advertisement?
“Lee wants his audience to develop empathy for the protagonist, a Black cop who participates in the surveillance of Black Power activists and the KKK seamlessly as if, as Donald Trump has concluded, they are morally equivalent (emphasis mine),” said filmmaker, scholar, and activist H, “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams. Williams soberly observed that, “COINTELPRO has been revitalized by the FBI in the form of ongoing surveillance of Black Lives Matter or other pro-Black groups today.”
Lee would do better to critique the system he’s celebrated by, bound to, and recently contracted to. The New York Police Department paid Lee $219,113 in consulting fees to consult on how to treat “minorities” better. That’s a hellava paycheck for work that New York activists have been doing forever, for free, with the NYPD, to say the least.
Or maybe Lee’s just naïve. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
Given the subject and the context, Lee’s take is laughable. Call it artistic license, but I call it lazy. There are too many moments to name but several infractions include the fictional relationship between the lead protagonist detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and head of the Black Student Union, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). Perhaps it was to humanize Stallworth, who after all, was a Black cop who goes undercover to report on the agenda and activities of Black Power activists at a Kwame Touré lecture. Dumas’s character has no arc, few lines, and no other purpose but to sport a dope ‘fro. Lee makes the white officer who portrays Ron as the white man (Adam Driver) seeking membership in the KKK Jewish for no other reason than dramatic tension and possibly to elicit Jewish sympathy, maybe among the Academy Award voters. There’s an evil white woman (Ashlie Atkinson), literally a “BBQ Becky” that’s sloppy and cartoonish.
Ok. Here’s are some thoughts on #Blackkklansman.
Contains spoilers, so don’t read it if you haven’t seen it and you don’t wanna spoil it. pic.twitter.com/PKfnePrFGy
— Boots Riley (@BootsRiley) August 17, 2018
Aesthetically, the film underwhelms. 70’s styled big Afros, bell-bottoms and a dope soundtrack are requisites for a film about the 70’s and Black folk. What else you got, Spike? Split screens? Check. Your signature double dolly shot? Got it. Beautiful Black people? Been got.
Lee’s unable to let people talk in his BlacKkKlansman, they speechify. People rarely act, they just talk, talk, talk. Words shoot your ears so you never ever forget the point of the film—white people bad, Black people good. Now, I like some speechifying if guided by a thoughtful filmmaker, but there’s no irony, satire, or air to breathe. That’s one of his main problems—Lee can’t let the audience think. They must be yelled at, preached to. Because niggas need to learn.
The ultimate comeuppance is designed to give us (again) what we want but hardly what we need. Ron, after having numerous conversations with one-time KKK leader David Duke who doesn’t know Ron is Black, tells the notorious white supremacist that he is Black. It is framed like a victory, but ah, no. All that was missing was the requisite door slam and canned laughter and George Jefferson pimp walking away. Meh.
Then there’s the ending of the film. Showing real-life footage of the clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, back in 2017 and news footage of Trump talking about good and bad people on both sides is the triggering-est trigger that ever triggered in the history of triggering. Maybe Lee couldn’t end the film without one last smack upside the head and this footage certainly does it. Without it, the film is forgettable.