Every film has its share of critics, and while only being in wide release for less than two weeks, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman has found a sharp, prominent one in filmmaker Boots Riley. Following up on a deleted tweet last week, Riley, the Oakland artist who is both a musician and writer-director of this summer’s indie breakout Sorry to Bother You, posted on social media a three-page critique for Lee’s film, which offers an embellished account of Ron Stallworth’s infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s.
In the film, rookie cop Stallworth (played by John David Washington) infiltrates the KKK after cold calling the Klan following seeing an advertisement in the local newspaper. His efforts include sending a white police detective (Adam Driver) on the Colorado Springs police force undercover with the KKK, despite the detective being Jewish. A number of liberties were unabashedly taken by the Spike Lee joint, beginning with moving the operation from its real life timeline of 1979 and 1980 to 1972 in the film. However, it is the basic conceit of depicting the police effort to infiltrate the KKK as heroic—especially at a time in 2018 where the issues of police violence in African American communities has finally come to mainstream prominence—that Riley takes the most point of issue.
Warning: As Riley begins in his own tweets, the rest of this article, and Riley’s comments, contain BlacKkKlansman spoilers.
While beginning with a point of deference to Lee, who Riley credits with inspiring him for even attending film school, Riley goes on to cite Lee’s frequently vocal criticism of other films’ failings, particularly along the lines of depicting race relations, as also an inspiration to in turn criticize Spike Lee’s joint.
“But to the extent that people of color deal with actual physical attacks and terrorizing due to racism and racist doctrines – we deal with it mostly from the police on a day to day basis,” Riley writes. “And not just from white cops. From Black cops too.”
Hence his “disappointment” with Lee for making a film that depicts the police as heroic, which he underlines is mostly buttressed by fictional events in the film, such as Driver’s detective being Jewish and thus having “skin in the game” (in real life he was not), as well as the climax of the film which involves attempting to thwart a KKK bombing planned in Colorado Springs against black college activists. Stallworth claims no such event happened in his memoir Black Klansman, nor is there a moment of record where Stallworth and fellow like-minded white cops create a sting operation to bust a fellow racist cop for admitting he harasses, beats, and can even kill black citizens with impunity.
“There was no cop that got recorded and/or arrested due to saying things at a bar while drunk about how he’s OK with shooting Black folks,” writes Riley. “This also was not in Stallworth’s memoir. This was put in the movie to make Ron and the rest of the police look like they were interested in fighting racism, like they didn’t protect whatever racist and abusive cops are in there.”
However, Riley’s largest point of contention is with the depiction of Stallworth himself and his operation. In BlacKkKlansman Stallworth is depicted as going undercover and wearing a wire at a single black “radical” organization meeting. In reality, and by Stallworth’s own admission, he went undercover with black radical organizations for three years. And given that operations relation to the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (Cointelpro) from that era, this meant creating infighting and weakening black activists’ groups.
By association, Riley dismisses the rest of Stallworth’s claims from his memoir—as the records of the KKK investigation were destroyed—which claim (as the film shows) his investigation rooted out Klansman with high ranking military security clearance, including at NORAD. However, Riley suggests that while Stallworth’s investigation was a local police affair, that it should be viewed as part of the Cointelpro playbook, which infiltrated white supremacist organizations in order to use them to threaten and/or “physically attack” black radical organizations.
“Without the made up stuff, and what know of the actual history of police infiltration into radical groups, and how they infiltrated and directed white supremacist organizations to attack those groups, Ron Stallworth is the villain,” Riley says.
You can read the rest of Riley’s critique in the above documentation. It should be noted his issues with the film are not of the actual craftsmanship, but on his view of the real-life Stallworth and law enforcement efforts. Personally, however, it seems unfair to condemn Stallworth’s claims in his memoir as all but lies due to the lack of evidence while then condemning Stallworth as a “villain” in regards to his KKK infiltration also without actual evidence of what occurred in Colorado Springs. Similarly, to suggest that Lee’s film “feels” like an extension of an ad campaign he participated in with the New York Police Department aimed at “improving relations with minority communities,” also appears somewhat off in a critique based in a demand for factual accuracy.
Additionally, the film does in fact show ambiguity, even after the honestly quite incredulous moment of the cops busting a racist amongst their ranks. Because right after that sequence, the chief of police in Colorado Springs, implicitly under pressure due to bigoted figures in the community leaning on the police, forces Stallworth to suspend his operation and erase all evidence. The Klan also returns stronger with the film documenting in its final moments how then-Grand Wizard David Duke (played by Topher Grace in the film) has seen his ideology spread wider into the mainstream given the tragic and heinous events in Charlottesville last year, and in the White House every day. Lee very much is commenting on the history of bigoted hate seeping into pop culture via historical revisionism in cinema, and is here swinging back, offering a rebuttal. To dismiss everything in the film’s text is… something we leave up to you to decide upon.
Riley, for the record, has since tweeted that he thinks people should see BlacKkKlansman to make up their own mind before talking about it, and says he will refrain from tweeting about in the future.
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