A Movie by Spike Lee
*For those who have NOT watched the movie
So if you haven’t watched the movie your first reaction will probably be to the title referring to someone who is black (African American) AND a member of the Ku Klux Klan (a group whose mission it is [at a minimum] to spew hatred against African Americans or [further] to send African Americans back into slavery). How could an African American ever become welcomed in the Klan?
Well, that’s enough of a draw to get you into the theater. Obviously, everything is not what it seems. A little trickery will be in order. That chicanery drives the main plot and it is entertaining the way a good mystery or suspense thriller is entertaining. It is also very uncomfortable to be in the presence of so much hatred (albeit portrayed by actors).
The major theme concerns race relations both in the story’s center, 1972, and today in 2018.
For those who are intellectually and emotionally drawn toward this theme, this is a movie you should see as soon as possible. It is one of Spike Lee’s best.
*For those who HAVE watched the move
The year is 1972. Richard Nixon is running for re-election. The posters abound. The place is Colorado Springs, CO. Ron Stallworth (John D. Washington) is a recent college graduate looking for his mission in life. He decides to join the Colorado Springs Police Department. Their recruitment sign said that they were open to “minority candidates.” But the facts on the ground were more ambiguous. They had no black police officers on the force. The lieutenant said that Stallworth would have to be the “Jackie Robinson” of the police in Colorado Springs. Though there was some support for Stallworth—particularly by the man making the hiring—there was significant resentment, too, among a few. The rest were perplexed.
Because Ron Stallworth was bright, he did not like his first job in the records department walking back and forth among metal open shelving to retrieve and present files to one of the racist cops in the department. It is an interesting scene of “micro aggression.”
Then Ron confronts the man who hired him so that he might go undercover. The boss was interested but where would he send the rookie? The lieutenant leaned towards narcotics. Why did he think Stallworth would fit in there?
Then they changed their minds. The lieutenant decided to wire him for a speech to be given at the university in town sponsored by the Black Student Union, whose president was Patrice (Laura Harrier). The speaker was the one-time Stokely Carmichael, now named Kwame Ture. Ron is supposed to mingle among the mostly student crowd and determine just what the reaction is—viz., is there a “black revolution” on the horizon? Ron meets Patrice. He listens to the speech and feels conflicted. He appreciates the depiction of the wrongs done by the white society to those of African descent. But he is inclined to support the tactics of gradual change from the inside instead of violently attacking the system. This has been a tactical dividing line among African Americans since the days of Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey.
Ron arranges to meet Patrice at a bar. She is late because the local police harassed the speaker and his entourage (which included Patrice). She was groped and disrespected by the police who were bent on low-level violence as an act of power.
The next day Ron makes his report. But the brass do not like the information on police misbehavior. It was time to re-assign Ron. The boss thinks narcotics would be a good place for Ron since African Americans were really the main source of drug use. Ron gets a better idea. He sees an ad for a white supremacist group. He calls the number and uses his “white voice.” Ron gets an invitation to join. Ron presents the idea to the brass: Ron talks on the phone and gets all the contacts while a Jewish cop, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) becomes Ron Stallworth-2 and shows up with his white skin as a calling card.
Ron-2 meets with the group that is a Klan cell with some Nazi inclinations, as well. Ron-2 meets with some skepticism in the five-member cell. But the head likes Ron-2 and so he is invited to fill out membership papers. One member is very suspicious of Ron-2 (thinking he is a Jew, which he is by birth). There is a scene in which the paranoid man, P-1, tries to get Ron-2 to take a lie detector test in the basement and also wants to inspect his penis for possible circumcision. When Ron-1 hears all this on the wire, he thinks fast and throws something through the window of the house giving wife of P-1 the heavy-jeevies as she sees a black man running away. The small klan cell takes to the yard. Ron-1 is speeding away in his car while P-1 tries to shoot. Ron-2 takes the gun away and shoots after the car (obviously missing on purpose).
Things are getting tense.
There is a scene where the Klan cell tries to demonstrate to each other their shooting skills by shooting at targets that look like caricatures of natives from Africa. Ron-2 shows himself to be a sharp shooter. (Does this give the Klan cell second thoughts about Ron-2 missing the car that carried the “reengage black man”—really the police officer Ron-1)?
Ron-1 has a number of phone calls with David Duke (Topher Grace). These are wonderful examples of racial prejudice and its marketing plan for the general public. Some of the interchanges are subtle; most are very gross. But the worldview behind these exchanges gives an insight into one sort of racial hatred. The word “white” becomes a tag-word on so many expressions by Duke.
Duke loves his new recruit Ron-1 so he wants to come to Colorado to meet him. At the same time there is an icon of the very early black movement (in the WWI years) who is still alive. These two celebrities come to town and this is the final section of the main plot. The Klan cell wants to put a bomb next to the place where the African American icon will be speaking (played by Harry Belafonte). The deliverer of the bomb is P-1’s wife who is itching to kill African Americans. The police ironically assign Ron-1 to be the body guard to David Duke.
With much suspense Duke controls his “religion-like” message except when Ron-1 gets Ron-2 to take a Polaroid picture with Duke. Duke is confused, but allows it to happen, but gets flustered when Ron-1 puts his arm around Duke’s shoulder (so that the picture depicts Duke embracing a black man).
The bomb episode is thwarted by Ron-1 who gets the police there. Plan-B is instigated by the wife. Then Ron-1 saves Patrice in a tense scene while P-1 shows up but because the bomb is misplaced he detonates it and is killed himself. P-1’s wife is confronted by Ron-1 who wants to handcuff her. However, she puts up a fuss while the white police arrive and beat on Ron-1 who tells them he’s a cop, but they don’t believe him. When Ron-2 arrives, his word is immediately respected and all is good.
Then in a cameo scene the cop who had harassed Patrice is caught as he tries to do it again—this time while Ron-1 has a wire. That cop is history. It all seems like a happy ending.
THEN, fast-forward to Charlottesville, VA, 2017 and the events there with the President refusing to denounce the Klan + Neo-nazis. It is a chilling ending.
Random Thoughts: 1. It is interesting that the Klan in the movie use the phrase of purpose: “Make American Great Again.” (In this case, I believe reference to the South and Slavery.) 2. It is also interesting that the Klan cell chants (what seems to be in the context of the movie) a general Klan-neo-Nazi refrain—“American First.” 3. David Duke’s speech pattern instead of representing the way that people from Louisiana speak—sounded to this viewer as the speech patterns of Donald Trump. This #1-3 sounded like a statement that Trump represents this group and that, like Woodrow Wilson (who played “Birth of a Nation” in the White House), is the most overtly racist president the USA has had in the last 100 years. 4. Plato said that evil was ignorance in practical decision-making, phronesis. Since the Klan cell described in the movie represent very stupid people, this might be seen as reinforcing Plato’s idea.
Philosophy of History: The Klan randomly idealizes a time in history that is the “golden age” = slavery. Since the time of Hesiod in ancient Greece, this has been one attempt to understand historical development. It is aligned to the idea that the conquerors write history from their own perspective. Whether the verdict is evolution or devolution, most people living in a period are not well-equipped to render such historical judgments.
Assessment: From what is the scope intended, I think the movie delivers the goods.