BlackkKlansman & White Saviors
Reading Time: 4 minutes
You know that feeling when you go back and try that one thing that you loved as a child only to find it completely horrible and (impressively) nasty?
You know what I’m talking about. Like, when your momma was convinced that ham was the devil and you ate straight PBJ banana and honey sandwiches or bean sprout and mayo sandwiches for school lunch for daysss.
You tried to trade it up and no one would touch it so you finally ate that ish and would make loud satisfying noises just to see if someone would trade you their normal ham and American cheese for your healthy option?
Yeah. Don’t ask me why that was so strangely specific. And yes, I’ll take more ham please.
Or those completely foul Lick n’ Sticks…
Or, my personal favorite/why in H-E double hockey sticks did I ever like—pixie sticks.
Let me tell you, that stuff right there is definitely not some magical candy unicorn dust you are licking out of those paper straws.
Tastes like cavities and debt.
Movies can be the same way. Certain things that you were okay with back in the day suddenly got you seeing all sorts of subtle context and dog whistles and social commentary you didn’t even know was there.
It’s like the first time you notice all those not so subtle ‘images’ in the clouds of Lion King…
For me it’s the whole white savior complex.
That complex is the perfect Hollywood Box Office Hit: The Blind Side. Avatar. Dangerous Minds. Lawrence of Arabia. Blood Diamond. Gran Torino. La La Land. The Help. Radio.
And, it’s formulaic: savage, untamed, poverty-ridden POC’s. A white helping hand. Boom.
You feel me?
A few days ago, I went on a double date to see Spike Lee’s new movie, BlackkKlansman. I like Spike Lee. I like the way in which his cinematic vision infuses realism with the grotesque. I like his social commentary. But, I found his film rather alarmingly and belatedly problematic.
And yes, I know that basically every white liberal has labeled this movie as Spike’s best most important movie ever.
Well…you already know that I am not a white liberal.
I believe that as creative souls we have a responsibility to tell true stories and to tell them to the best of our ability. I also believe that when we tell stories that are not well known it is then our duty to 1) tell the true story or 2) name the places in which we have adjusted.
Altering stories that center POC’s without explicitly naming such alterations is particularly problematic because in a society that centers whiteness, media is often a primary source of public pedagogy. While this argument perhaps then lends itself to the argument regarding the source of responsibility, I find it helpful to frame media, particularly film, as an educational source, although not necessarily a credible educational source.
To be completely honest, the story of Ron Stallworth was a completely new history lesson for me. And, to be fair, I skipped my due diligence before I went to see the movie. Sure, I could have read scholarly articles about Ron. Sure, I could’ve come to the movie “prepared,” (*cough* who really does that *cough*) after all “based on a true story” really means – we basically made up a new story and inserted real people names. And, sure, I could’ve at least Googled him…but I didn’t.
And, I’m betting that a whole majority of people didn’t either.
See, while I am fundamentally opposed to marginalized groups always being a source of education, I do think that when stories are told, particularly POC stories via film, I think it is imperative that we tell true stories.
And, that we recognize that not all stories are equal. Nor, do all stories need to be told.
In a nutshell, BlackkKlansman is a story of almost supernatural mishaps. A black rookie cop, (Colorado Springs’ first black cop) manages to inadvertently infiltrate the local KKK chapter after seeing a recruitment poster and calling them to inquire…with (*Spoiler Alert*) his real name.
I liked Spike’s intentional commitment to illustrate Blacks as a non-monolithic group. ie: The juxtaposition of Patrice and (black) Ron Stallworth.
But, to me, BlackkKlansmen’s “hero,” Ron Stallworth, was inherently problematic from the beginning. Not only did he ooze 70’s stereotypical black masculinity, but he also inherently denied his role in being problematic. When called out by his black female bae, Patrice, he stumbles through a fallacy laced argument of basically, if I work in the system I can make people care about liberation.
And, while I understand the function in which Patrice plays – an efficient and effective soundboard to argue, perhaps futilely – perhaps not, the efficacy of radically racial and reformist policies, I also can’t overlook her glaring invisibility.
But Spike gets a pass, right?
I also get how, if you stretch it – Ron’s argument for working for the cops is similar to the dilemma of every POC working in a PWI.
Or is it?
Not only is Ron problematic in regard to black feminism, but the film bizarrely rushes a story of white compassion and savior-ness.
*Spoiler Alert* Like, consider Ron’s relationship with Patrice. Or, the whiplash conversion of his undercover team. Sure you can spew your racist rants but then suddenly everyone is high fiving and are best friends?
To be fair, I am not saying that white people can’t choose to be allies (although, after a recent Church service, I like the word accomplices in the struggle better), but there wasn’t any real coherence in the undercover team’s sudden conversion.
In short, the film dances around white Ron Stallworth’s (Adam Driver) internal confliction (he is a Jew), elevates black Ron as the hero even as it further sexualizes and de-centers black women and never really investigates the subtext of colorism, identity politics and body politics.
But, that’s just my opinion.
What did you think?