Warning: As this is a philosophical review addressing the issues raised by the film, spoilers are inevitable.
The latest offering from director Spike Lee comes with a lot of hype. The promotional poster at my local theater declares it to be “the most important film of the year.” That might be a bit much, but it is probably Lee’s best film in years, and more importantly for my purposes, it forces some critical philosophical questions for the progressive community that will no doubt be thought-provoking to its audience.
The film tells the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a rookie Colorado Springs police officer in 1972, who attempts to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Of course, the irony is that Ron Stallworth is black, and the fact that he so easily gains the confidence of Klan leaders at both the local and national level is what gives the film its charm.
“Charm” might be a strange word to use for a film dealing with weighty issues of racist violence, but charm is right. We in the audience are charmed as we watch Ron Stallworth earn the trust of David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Klan and one time Republican nominee for Governor of Louisiana. We are charmed as Ron’s mere presence makes fools of the central precepts of racism.
But once we get past the paradox presented by the film’s title, we are left with a film that offers a much harder and more troubling message for those paying attention. Far more important than the tension of whether Ron or his Jewish partner, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), will be discovered in their ruse, is the tension that exists between Ron and his love interest, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier).
Patrice is the president of the Black Student Union at the local college, and the two meet as Ron is asked to “gather intelligence” by attending a speech by former Black Panther Kwame Ture (previously rising to prominence under the name Stokley Carmichael). Hiding the fact that he is a cop, Ron cultivates a relationship with Patrice, who refers to cops as “pigs.” The conversations the two have, both before Patrice discovers Ron’s true occupation and after, press the question of whether change can happen within the oppressive system, or whether it must come from without.
I will only mention in passing that the film raises significant questions about the nature of black identity within the oppressive structures of white America. What questions this film raises for African-Americans specifically, I will leave it to African-Americans to say. I write from the perspective I inhabit, and the question for me, which crosses boundaries of race, gender, and class, is, simply put: reform or revolution?
Throughout the film Ron argues for changing the racist structures of white America from within. Thus he takes the initial position he is offered, an undercover cop spying on the Black Power movement, and transforms that into the central story of the film, an undercover cop infiltrating and interdicting the activities of the Klan.
Of course Patrice doesn’t see it that way. When Ron’s true occupation is revealed she goes so far as to compare him to a house slave betraying his own people. Even at the end of the film, after events that might demonstrate the value of Ron being a police officer, Patrice demands that he resign from the force if he wishes to continue his relationship with her.
Patrice’s attitude reflects the rhetorical proclamation of self-identified, black, lesbian, feminist, Audre Lorde, who delivered the address “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Lorde’s address was initially delivered to a room of white feminist academics at a conference in which she was one of two black women invited to attend. She chastises them for, despite their rhetoric against patriarchy, inhabiting and promoting a position of racist privilege by excluding women of color, poor women, and lesbians from the conference. They cannot, in other words, play the traditional game of academic privilege and exclusion as a means to overcoming privilege and exclusion.
Likewise, Patrice’s position seems to be the same. How can Ron both wear a badge that represents systems of oppressive violence against people of color and fight to overcome such oppression? Ron exists in the prevalent belief that “not all cops are racist.” But Patrice counters with the idea that the racism inherent in policing is not the result of a few bad apples, but is built into the very system Ron serves and perpetuates.
As Ron attempts to diffuse the bomb plot of the Klan towards the end of the film, he begins to arrest the middle aged, matronly white woman who planted the bomb. But all too predictably, two uniformed cops appear and assume Ron to be the assailant, refusing to believe he is an undercover cop as the true criminal accuses Ron of attempted rape.
We may believe that these uniformed police are also “a few bad apples,” but Lee doesn’t give us the information necessary to draw that conclusion. Instead, the uniformed cops assess the situation in the most straightforward way policing demands, according to the lens through which they see the world. The black man is automatically suspect, the white woman presumed to be the innocent victim.
This presumption is not the product of “a few bad apples” but of an entire system of so-called justice that Ron has decided to represent. The ugliness of systemic racism is prefaced by the appearance of Harry Belafonte recounting to the members of Patrice’s Black Student Union the historical event of the lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas. In addition to the gruesome details of the torture and murder of a black man with mental disabilities, Belafonte’s character is careful to note both that Washingon was convicted by an all white jury after deliberating less than 5 minutes, and that, while technically illegal, the police stood by watching as the crowd mutilated the young man. An event so normalized within society that post cards were sold depicting the mutilated body as mementos and keep-sakes.
But even as the film reinforces Patrice’s position that systemic racism makes it impossible to both defend and change the system at the same time, it appears to provide ample evidence that reform is possible. Ron does take on the Klan, outing members of the military involved in the Klan, interrupting a murderous plot, and exposing and arresting a racist cop. It’s easy to believe that Lee’s message is that for all of their rhetorical bluster, Patrice, and even Kwame Ture, aren’t really accomplishing anything as radicals. Ron, despite what might be considered his collaboration, is the one who really makes a difference. This culminates with Ron reminding Patrice that he had saved her life when she makes her demand that he quit.
But wait, he really hadn’t saved her life. For all of his activity, for all of the appearance of engagement and importance, Patrice is only still alive through mere happenstance and the incompetence of the Klan. Ron, for all he did, did not actually protect the black activist community or prevent the Klan from setting off their bomb.
This realization seems highlighted by the film’s end, which sees Ron and Patrice confronted by a cross burning in response to their activities. For all that was accomplished, nothing was accomplished. A sentiment echoed by the montage of film footage of the events in Charlottesville, VA 2017, some 45 years after the events in the film. Not only is the Klan still prevalent, still inflicting violence on people of color and their allies, but so too is David Duke still an active voice in American politics, a clip of him is shown praising President Trump and linking the white nationalist rally to Trump’s presidential rhetoric of “taking America back.”
This is a far cry from Lee’s Malcolm X which ended on the positive note of Nelson Mandela speaking to school children about the importance of Malcolm X and having each of the students declare, “I am Malcolm X.”
In this film, the positive story of Ron Stallworth is undercut by the continuing reality of white supremacist violence, the last shot of the film highlights the death of Heather Heyer, who was run down in the streets by one of the white supremacists attending the Charlottesville rally. And despite Ron Stallworth’s seeming happy ending, by the time the montage of present day violence has finished, Prince’s arrangement of the traditional, “Mary Don’t you Weep,” which plays during the credits, is apropos, because weeping is all I wanted to do.
And so we return ultimately to the central question: reform or revolution? The film, despite what many see as a reformist message, ultimately reminds us that forty-five years of reformist good intentions has led to Trump and Charlottesville, and the general perpetuation and strengthening of racist patriarchy. The revolutionary may seem unrealistic in her goals, and even ineffectual, but the reformist is wrought with contradictions that eventually undermine his own successes, perpetuating that very system he would undermine. We are ultimately left with a kind of hopeless questioning, “where do we go from here?” Honestly, neither the film, nor I, can provide any answers.