“Look at my films: they’ve been very critical of the police, but on the other hand I’m never going to say all police are corrupt, that all police hate people of color. I’m not going to say that. I mean, we need police. Unfortunately, police in a lot of instances have not upheld the law; they have broken the law. But I’d also like to say, sir, that black people are not a monolithic group. I have had black people say, ‘How can a bourgeois person like Spike Lee do Malcolm X?”
That was famed director Spike Lee’s rebuttal to criticisms from fellow filmmaker Boots Riley of Lee’s now-Oscar nominated 2018 drama BlacKkKlansman.
Riley, frontman of political rap group The Coup and director of the also-acclaimed Sorry to Bother You, called out Lee back in August for his film. The movie is a loose adaptation of former police detective Ron Stallworth’s 2014 memoir Black Klansman, which details how Stallworth infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan’s Colorado Springs chapter in 1978 while he was an intelligence detective. The movie’s opening declarative that “Dis joint is based on some fo’ real, fo’ real shit” is, per usual, the subject of much debate. And Riley took exception to more than just the film’s historical liberties. He blasted the film for distorting history to sell a cops-as-good-guys narrative in a lengthy indictment of the movie he published via Twitter.
“It’s a made up story in which the false parts of it to try to make a cop the protagonist in the fight against racist oppression,” he wrote last summer. “It’s being put while Black Lives Matter is a discussion, and this is not coincidental. There is a viewpoint behind it.”
“The real Ron Stallworth infiltrated a Black radical organization for 3 years (not for one event like the movie portrays) where he did what all papers from the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (Cointelpro) that were found through the freedom of information act tell us he did—sabotage a Black radical organization whose intent had to do with the very least fighting racist oppression.
“Cointelpro’s objectives were to destroy radical organizations, especially Black radical organizations,” Riley stated. “Cointelpro papers also show us that when White Supremacist organizations were infiltrated by the FBI and the cops, it was not to disrupt them. They weren’t disrupted. It was to use them to threaten and/or physically attack radical organizations.”
With BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee has received his first directing Oscar nomination. In a career that has seen him deliver some of the most important films of a generation, it feels frustratingly overdue. But it’s also uncomfortable, considering how hard and how long Lee fought to preserve his creative voice against the machinations of the white Hollywood establishment, to know that this particular film would be the one that broke through to that establishment.
Spike Lee famously fought the major studio machine to get X made in the way that he envisioned. He campaigned furiously to helm the project after Norman Jewison’s initial hiring; and he endured criticism from notables like activist Amiri Baraka after he was named director. He had to drum up outside funding to shoot the movie’s pivotal scenes in Mecca and Cairo, and after climbing those mountains, he was famously snubbed by the Academy in 1993. Star Denzel Washington was nominated for Best Actor (he would lose to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman), but Lee didn’t get a nod for his work nor did the film get recognized with a Best Picture nomination. But X, in all its epic grandeur, became one of the most beloved black films of the ‘90s, both because of the gravitas of what is portrayed onscreen and what the film’s realization meant behind the scenes. In an era of Spike, Julie Dash and John Singleton, it felt like a culmination.
In the scorching summer of 1989, Do the Right Thing felt like a firebomb of righteous rage hurled at a Hollywood that hadn’t shown the nerve it would take to make this kind of movie. The killings of Michael Griffith and Willie Turks had already made headlines in New York City and around the country. And while it was still hot in theaters, 16-year-old Yusef Hawkins was murdered in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn. Hawkins was shot and killed when he and his friends were attacked by a mob of white men who planned to assault black youths they’d suspected of dating a white girl in the neighborhood. The film seemed prescient as the murder led to protests and widespread media coverage, a reminder that racism doesn’t always wear a white hood.
But this movie, in these times, feels different. BlacKkKlansman doesn’t feel like the incendiary indictment that Do the Right Thing was in 1989. It doesn’t feel like the lionizing of a definitive-if-polarizing urgent black historical voice like X did in 1992. BlacKkKlansman feels like the kind of “we’re all in this together” fable that makes everyone in the audience feel better about not being “the problem,” and that feels like the kind of message the current wave of inclusive Hollywood image-makers can’t resist championing. It feels like the kind of movie that audiences, critics and the Academy really want to believe represents a truth about “allyship” that supersedes the harshness of our racial reality. The current wars being waged across this country’s landscape for its soul are the result of an immense denial we’re all too eager to engage in. And Americans have shown how easily we can be placated by sugarcoated sentimentality as it pertains to cops, American racism, and how intertwined and pervasively oppressive both are.
The movie makes a point to acknowledge how white terrorism was celebrated casually by white citizenry via a harrowing sequence featuring Jerome Turner (played by Harry Belafonte) recounting how his childhood friend Jesse was castrated and set on fire by a white lynch mob (the real Jesse Washington was horrifically killed by a mob in Waco, Texas, in 1916.) The scene is intercut with David Duke (Topher Grace) and his fellow Klansmen’s ritualistic inducting of undercover cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), and their guffawing during a screening of D.W. Griffith’s Klan-galvanizing film The Birth of a Nation. The presentation of white supremacy at its most callously vicious and insidiously mass produced is juxtaposed against otherness via the Klan’s extremism. The hate is the exception, the movie suggests, and the cops aren’t a part of it.
In 2016, the NYPD hired Lee’s advertising firm Spike DDB to consult on a campaign aimed at improving relations between the department and minority communities. That bit of information cast a film like BlacKkKlansman in a particularly glaring light. It bends over backwards to make sure you come away believing the cops are the good guys—and with so much on our Twitter feeds and TV screens, that message feels hollow and even dangerously misplaced. It urges all of us to take our eyes off the ball.
In the same year that fellow Best Picture nominee Green Book has been showered with criticism for historical inaccuracy, wrongheaded messaging and plain tone-deafness, BlacKkKlansman has had to weather critique, but not the same kind of hard scrutiny. And it’s understandable that, after 35 years of doing his thing, Spike Lee is due his flowers. Martin Scorsese took home the statue decades after Taxi Driver and Goodfellas. But if Spike wins the big one, the cheers from a lot of folks will be conflicted. Because a lot of us aren’t exactly comfortable with what this movie says. And we’re even less comfortable with who this movie is for.