How is it you don’t feel like you have any skin in the game? The question, asked by undercover police officer Ron Stallworth to his Jewish counterpart Flip Zimmerman as they prepare to infiltrate the KKK, rests at the center of Spike Lee’s masterful film BlacKkKlansman, released Friday on the 1 year anniversary of the Nazi rally and subsequent riots in Charlottesville. The film explores the true story of a black police officer leading an investigation into terrorist activity at the local Ku Klux Klan chapter in Colorado Springs.
Here is a black man who is pretending to be a white man. Here is a Jewish man, who only sees himself as a white man, pretending to be the black man who is pretending to be a white man. Here are a group of white men pretending to be brave and powerful when they are cowards too stupid and blinded by their own beliefs to get it right. Here is a room full of activists who refuse to pretend to be anything but black and proud. All this is set in a country built on racism pretending to be a multicultural pluralistic democracy. The brilliant interplay of masks and layers in the film reminds us of the complex dance between who we are and how we are seen by others in our racialized society. Master the dance, and you can navigate our treacherous landscape, but make a misstep and the consequences can be lethal.
Set in the 70s the film’s commentary on racism is uncomplicated by social media or tech tracking tools and hackers. Free from technology that so often frames our current debates about race, the essential arguments for and against racial justice stand out plainly against the backdrop of the plot. There is no quick escape for racists trolling in the real world. There is no surveillance tape or citizen video. Instead, there is slow action as the cops build a case against the klan.
Lee gives us long scenes with big blocks of dialogue—a speech from Kwame Ture (the Black Panther formerly known as Stokley Carmichael), a speech by David Duke and long sequences that bring us into the reasoning of various characters. Most powerfully is the recounting of the lynching of Jesse Washington by Harry Belafonte to a rapt black student union. We hear people in their own words, a broad range of points of view, complex, messy, sometimes conflicting ideas in the same mind. There is time here to reflect, to listen to the thought process behind the sound bites of ideology.
Ron and his gang must think carefully about what white supremacists want, what they fear, what they talk about when no one is listening, in order to make the klan think they are one of them, and we get to listen in on the wire. Even as we hear various points of view the film itself leaves no room for false equivalencies or the bias of both sides having “good people.” The film makes clear to us that racism is untenable both personally and politically.
This is also the second movie this summer along with Boots Riley’s brilliant Sorry To Bother You that hosts “the white voice” as an important device advancing the plot–Sorry’s voice is fantastical while Blackk’s white voice is more functional–the character’s own daily code-switching. Ron Stallworth, played by the gorgeously talented John David Washington, pulls off his brazen plan using a voice described in Boots Riley‘s film Sorry To Bother You as the white voice.
To be black in America requires you to familiarize yourself with white people who make up the vast majority of this country–about 70% currently. Often positions of consequence–teacher, police officer, banker, politician–are more likely to be occupied by a white person. In order to navigate the world, replete with racists among the population, black people are often hyper-aware of the ways that white culture moves, thinks, and feels; as for any prey, understanding your predator is the key to survival. In Sorry to Bother You the white voice is the key to the Lakeith Stanfield’s character Cassius Green rising through the ranks to telemarketing superstardom. Being able to speak the King’s English opens doors for Ron Stallworth in BlacKkKlansman, but it is his intimate knowledge of how to speak to the soul of the Klan members that gains him access to David Duke.
Both films share the understanding that voice is not just diction but culture, beliefs, and values. Both Stallworth and Green leverage this ideological disguise to move in white cultures with such success, invisible to White people as they reflect back to whites their own cultural image. Here is where diversity behind the camera is so important: unpacking the concept of the white voice and the power it has beyond words is something that can be done best when fueled with the lived experience of a creator that has navigated this voice his whole life. This is a delicate and complex cultural process unfolding often outside the view of mainstream white America. To have this dance dragged out into the light to show the benefits and consequences of strategically navigating whiteness as a black man in this country is a gift to our dialogue about race and an opportunity for moviegoers to understand a way of being that is rarely
A view of whiteness through the eyes of black artists and authors is too often excluded from our media, but integral to understanding the many ways of thinking and seeing race in America. The conversation about race in America often centers around othering people of color. In both films, the exploration of the white voice and the power it wields is an exploration of whiteness itself. In Blackklansman we have an opportunity to explore the ideology of white supremacy while listening and watching through a black lens.
Most explorations of whiteness come from white directors writers and producers. Their lived experiences, implicit biases and beliefs infuse their work, often with a sympathetic eye. Well known movies about the klan range from the fawning–Birth of a Nation to the cautionary tale–American History X, framing the klan as heroes, antiheroes, or at worst misled youth and exaggerated nazis. From behind the camera, Spike Lee refuses to give the klan credit for being clever monsters or pure-blooded gentry. In Lee’s film, The klansmen are farcical. They are equal parts keystone cops, 4chan losers, and townies. While watching the movie in a theater of mixed moviegoers, a single white woman guffawed at the klan’s clunky shenanigans, but her laugh echoed in the silence of the theater. The shit is not funny. The film disses klansmen but is sure to remind us the mess these fools create has material consequences like the threats hovering over the black activist throughout the film.
We know how the story ends: Ron Stallworth, after all, lived to tell the tale and the Klan lost no one but their own members in the incident detailed in the movie. There is no such neat and tidy ending for our own time though, as Lee reminds us in a powerful coda. David Duke survived too, and now claims a friend in the President of the United States. Conversations throughout the movie that highlight different points of view on race are completely familiar, ripped from your social media feed and stuffed into the mouths of the characters. The pending Unite the Right rally coming up in DC Sunday is set to repeat the public display of vitriol from Charlottesville just a year after Heather Heyer was killed by a white nationalist terrorist. Police are still shooting people in the back. We are haunted years after Stallworth’s success by manifestations of racism that too many thought was long gone.
No nation can be great when part of the population is bent on genocide of the rest. The violence of oppression has a wide-ranging impact that touches every life in this country, whether people acknowledge it or not. BlacKkKlansman reminds us there is no simple mathematic formula delineating who is harmed by racism. Stallworth’s partner Zimmerman, played by Adam driver tells him it is his [Zimmerman’s] business why he doesn’t’ think he has skin in the game and Stallworth reminds him, “No, it’s our business.” Whatever complex factors affect your own experience of race, this is your fight to win or your loss to bear. There is no being colorblind to the dynamics of oppression. We all have skin in this game.