BlacKkKlansman isn’t a story of infiltrating hate, but a harsh reminder of how easily pro-police propaganda can disguise itself in radical Black aesthetic.
This essay contains spoilers for Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” and mentions of racist violence, police brutality, sexual assault.
By Vanessa Taylor
With the tagline “infiltrate hate”, Spike Lee’s latest joint, “BlacKkKlansman”, boldly burst onto the scene this summer with a marketing campaign that focused on its basis as a true story. At its simplest, that is true. “BlacKkKlansman” is a biographical dramedy based largely on Ron Stallworth’s 2014 memoir, Black Klansman. However, to say that the movie adaption holds completely true to either Stallworth’s memoir or the history it draws from would be a lie. Although adaptations often take liberties and make changes when bringing true stories to the big screen, “BlacKkKlansman” and the way it treats this particular story brings up questions about what kind of responsibility adaptations such as this has to its subjects as well as its audience.
The film follows Ron Stallworth, the first Black officer to work for the Colorado Springs Police Department. Stallworth is able to use his position to launch an investigation of the Ku Klux Klan, assisted by fellow officer Flip Zimmerman. As a Black man, Stallworth can only infiltrate the KKK via phone calls, so Zimmerman is the one who portrays him in any face-to-face interactions with the hate group.
To understand the criticisms which cite the film as cop propaganda, it’s necessary to parse out fact from fiction. In Slate, writer Jasmine Sanders breaks it down for us. The film very briefly touches on the issue of anti-Blackness within the police force, but largely portrays the problem as belonging to one cop, Landers, who shot and killed a teenage boy prior to the film’s beginning, harasses Kwame Ture, and sexually assaults Stallworth’s love interest, Patrice.
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According to both Sanders and Epstein’s Quartz article, Landers was invented for the movie. Although it can be argued that Landers exists as a stand-in for the countless stories of police brutality and sexual assault, to boil it down to an individual person, rather than an institutional problem, ultimately plays into pro-police rhetoric. Throughout the Black Lives Matter movement, which began after the murder of Trayvon Martin and gained momentum following Ferguson’s uprising after Michael Brown’s shooting, a common line in defense of police has been that not all cops are bad. Instead, we are asked to focus on the individual, who becomes a placeholder for the blame that belongs to the institution as a whole.
Flip Zimmerman is portrayed as Jewish in the film, however, his real-life inspiration was not. With this, the film makes feeble attempts at a plot line that involves antisemitism. The character of Patrice is similarly fabricated. In many ways, she becomes a shallow stand in for Black radical thought; she matches the aesthetic, she organizers to bring Kwame Ture to Colorado Springs, and she is the target of a fictional bombing attempt by the KKK. On the whole, Patrice seems to exist to help the film continue its push towards the concept that if a Black cop means well, he can change everything from the inside. Police brutality is, after all, the issue of only one bad seed.
Beyond the character inventions, “BlacKkKlansman” portrays police surveillance as largely positive. Indeed, it is an understandable reaction to root for the surveillance of the KKK. However, both the police force and interpretation of government surveillance that it invents did not exist in reality. This film is set during the height of the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPro), a series of operations by the U.S. federal government against Black activists.
In an August 1967 document, former director J. Edgar Hoover described COINTELPro’s purpose as “to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder.” As I outlined in an article on Black Muslims and surveillance for The Establishment, COINTELPro assisted in setting the groundwork for surveillance as we know and fear it today. COINTELPro was responsible for undermining resistance efforts of Black liberation and other radical groups across the country.
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Although COINTELPro did surveil the Klan, similar to individual police forces, nothing came of it other than documentation. On the other hand, members of the Black Panther Party, such as Fred Hampton in Chicago, were killed, Mumia abu Jamal remains wrongfully imprisoned, Assata Shakur fled the country, and Angela Davis ended up behind bars. The destructive power of COINTELPro continues today, emerging under new “threats” such as the FBI’s monitoring of “Black Identity Extremists”, the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division monitoring Muslims, and Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism program, a combination of entrapment and surveillance work targeting Muslim, and overwhelmingly Black, youth.
The name of Spike Lee may foster nostalgia for many, but that does not absolve him. A recent New York Post report shows that Lee’s advertising agency was paid more than $200,000 to work on a New York Police Department campaign meant to improve relations with minority communities. You cannot truly support a Black liberation agenda while taking money from the police to help improve their image.
Spike Lee insists that this film is a story about some fo’ real, fo’ real shit, yet instead of acknowledging the reality of police violence, it ultimately operates as pro-police propaganda. It distorts the reality of police and government surveillance, while diluting the severities of anti-Blackness and antisemitism within its own narrative.
“BlacKkKlansman” is not a story of infiltrating hate, but a harsh reminder of how easily pro-police propaganda can disguise itself in radical Black aesthetic. More than anything, it is a frightening reminder of how easily history, even one as carefully documented as the true intentions of government surveillance, can be rewritten.
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