Spike Lee adopted the Africana tradition of story-telling in his award-winning film about a 1970s Black detective, Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington, son of Denzel) who, as the first black cop in the city, infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and also infiltrated a radical Black Students’ Union in Colorado Springs and eventually helped to save the life of the female president of the students’ union (Laura Harrier).
The police chief had wanted to assign him to the drug squad to target the black community but he used his discretion to open contact with the KKK and apply for membership in his real name, requiring a white officer to pose as him during meetings. The entire movie was made up of stories within stories but the moral of all the stories is the same: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned in the Letter from Birmingham City Jail.
W.E.B. Du Bois theorised in Black Reconstruction in America that it was poor whites who did not own slaves who were most passionate about fighting during the civil war to keep slavery going in defence of “white jobs” and who intimidated black voters to supposedly restore “the southern way of life” after the abolition of slavery. They could have united with poor blacks to elect representatives who would prioritise the interests of the poor in public policies as attempted by the Black Reconstruction elected officials. Du Bois also questioned what was wrong with “The Souls of White Folk” to make poor whites to willingly join terrorist organisations like the KKK just to threaten the lives and liberty of African Americans?
Spike Lee offered an original critique of Du Bois in the film by quoting his dictum in The Souls of Black Folk about a “double consciousness” that waged a war within African Americans who were not accepted as full Americans by their fellow citizens. The student leader urged the undercover cop lover to end the war within himself and declare that he is an African by coming out in support of the Black revolution that leaders like Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) advocated with black pride. The detective confessed that he liked being a cop but that he was still in support of black freedom and would do all he could to save lives. The student leader said that she could not sleep with the enemy but the detective insisted that he was neither an enemy nor a pig, just a black cop. Du Bois had urged African Americans to close ranks by joining the military to fight against Nazism before Muhammad Ali inspired the Black Panthers to chant, “Hell No We Won’t Go”, in opposition to the draft to fight in Vietnam.
To those who believe that the KKK is only a threat to African Americans and to Jews, the film warns that white supremacy is a threat to all of humanity. The French sociologist, Jean Baudrillard, following Georges Bataille, called this the accursed share theorem that arises from the hysterical desire to eliminate difference which would end up costing humanity dearly because diversity is unqualified human good. As Albert Memmi and Frantz Fanon demonstrated, colonialism did damage to the colonised as well as to the colonisers, though not equally.
Many will question the claim that the threat to justice for African Americans posed by the KKK was a threat of injustice everywhere or for everyone. The KKK is usually viewed by all as being threatening to those who are targeted while white people are always presumably privileged when it comes to white supremacist violence. The Liberation Sociologist, Joe Feagin, identified this tendency as the “White Frame” through which discrimination and oppression against people of colour are presented to the poor whites as being in their interest when in reality the poor whites also pay a stiff price for the preservation of social injustice and should support reparations for people of African descent in their own interest.
Spike Lee introduced the film with the preliminary subtitle that it was based on “fo real fo real sh*t”. Almost all the people killed were white folks as a result of violence by white folks. The only exception was in the long story (could have been shown rather than told) by Harry Belafonte about a childhood friend with learning disability who was castrated and lynched by white people after he was wrongly accused of raping and killing a white woman. Not reflected in the movie was when Billie Holiday sang about the “Strange Fruit” and when Ida B. Wells documented the “southern horror” of lynching black men sometimes for no reason at all.
Also not alluded to in the film was the penal abolitionism of Angela Davis who warned white women to avoid being co-opted by white men in the racist terror against African American men because it was the white men who were most likely to rape white women and then accuse black men of rape even when there was a consenting adult relationship. As a result, the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for rape with the case of Furman V. Georgia when it was shown that from 1932 to 1972, almost 90 percent of those executed for rape in the US were black men but there was no way black men were committing so many rapes and the crime is so emotional that white jurors could not be objective when trying black men for the alleged rape of white women.
All the killings shown in the film itself, from the opening scenes of the American Civil War during which 600,000, mostly white people, were killed over some states’ rights to continue slavery; through the bomb detonated by the KKK leaders that blew them up instead of killing the black female students’ leader who was targeted in the film; to the closing scenes of the “for real for real sh*t” that took place in Charlottesville during the “Unite the Right” rally during which one white woman, Heather Heyer, was killed and two white police officers died trying to enforce law and order exactly one year before the film opened in theatres. Spike Lee showed that vast numbers of the victims of deadly white supremacist violence are white people “fo real fo real”.
However, the film did not show any character that changed by resigning from the KKK to embrace fairness for all. For instance, Hugo Black joined the KKK in Alabama to get elected to the Senate where he became a New Dealer who proposed to create six million new jobs for poor whites by cutting the work week to 30 hours during the depression. Yet, he later turned out to be one of the most liberal justices of the Supreme Court where he wrote an opinion in support of the application of the 14th Amendment by the states towards the protection of the rights of minorities (not reflected in the movie). The language of realism may have been excessive because the use of racist slurs by the white supremacists sounded too obscene, making the film look like an attempt to criticise pornography while abundantly displaying hard-core porn. It was distasteful fandom for the undercover black cop with his big Afro to pose for pictures with KKK leaders and hug them to their dismay.
The KKK leader was trying to test the purity of the whiteness of the Jewish detective who played the role of the black detective in face-to-face meetings with the KKK members that the black officer contacted by phone. The denial of the holocaust by the KKK was deployed as an indirect reference to the huge cost paid by tens of millions of poor white people who were killed in the fight to prove that the Nazis were the master race. Rather than agree with the false assertion that the holocaust did not take place, the Jewish undercover officer argued that he believed that the holocaust was the most beautiful thing because it helped to get rid of millions of people who were considered to be rubbish by the KKK.
The KKK leader insisted that there was no evidence to support the fact that the Nazis killed six million Jews but Spike Lee is indirectly pointing out that there was no doubt about the fact that an estimated 60 million people (mostly white) were killed in the second imperialist European tribal war otherwise known as World War II. Ironically, the KKK members who hated Jews burnt crosses and wore the cross as a symbol while swearing by Jesus Christ, a Jew, and while repeating the racist prayer, “God Bless White America”. As Desmond Tutu preaches, God will not refuse to bless anyone because of the colour of the skin.
Spike Lee used the film to directly warn white voters against electing a character like David Duke into the White House because such a politician would only be interested in his own selfish class interests without caring if poor white people had access to affordable healthcare coverage, for instance. The film also questioned the usual excuse with which poor white men and white women join the KKK: the idea that black men were lusting after white women as was alleged in the racist propaganda film, Birth of a Nation, the long footage of which was incorporated in Blackkkkclansman (with one k missing in the title, in my opinion) while the white women cheered. The subtitle stated that Woodrow Wilson, the only president of the US who held a doctoral degree, screened the racist film in the White House and praised it.
It was the white woman who volunteered to go and plant a bomb at the home of the black female student leader and Spike Lee may have used this to remind poor white people that it was the votes of white women that put Donald Trump in the White House where he condemned professional sportsmen for protesting against racist violence but claimed that there are “very fine-fine people on both sides” of racist hatred that took the life of a white woman who was killed by a white supremacist white man in Charlottesville. Spike Lee ended the film by showing the memorial of Heather Heyer Way, named for the crime scene.
The film used the technique of the looping voice-overs, by which the sound from a coming scene is heard before the current frame faded, to remind viewers that the film was about the history of the present and not about ancient history. The implication is that if poor whites realised that the police who harass African Americans and kill them in large numbers also kill white people in even larger numbers, they would more likely join the Black Lives Matter Movement to campaign for an end to white supremacy because it is a threat to the whole of humanity.
By casting white officers as comrades of the black officials who were racially despised by other white officers in the struggle to end racial hatred, Spike Lee is pointing out that ending racism is not a task exclusively for African Americans given that it is not a threat to only people of colour and when victory is won it will not be enjoyed only by people of colour. The film should have emphasised this more by casting more white extras as part of the demonstrations against racist violence as was the case in Charlottesville and in all the struggles by people of African descent that always involve allies who are not Black just as many men support the struggles of women and some rich people support the struggles of the poor.
* Doctor Biko Agozino is Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, United States of America.