On Friday, August 18, the director of the superb and super-surreal Sorry to Bother You posted on Twitter a short essay that criticized Spike Lee's new film, BlacKkKlansman, for presenting the institution of the police in a favorable light. In Spike Lee’s movie, a black undercover cop, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), works with a white undercover cop to infiltrate and disrupt the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. The film is based on a true story (written by a former black cop, Ron Stallworth), and is set in the late 1970s (the Twilight of the Good Times). Riley claims that the story is nowhere near anything that can be called true. The first and sharpest point of his criticism is that the real black cop had actually spent more time infiltrating and monitoring and undermining black revolutionary groups (three years) than the KKK (six months). And that the police never really disrupted the KKK in any meaningful way. Indeed, Riley states that the cops used the organization to kill and bomb blacks. Riley is on this tip: The real cop was a bad person, because he was a cop, and cops are just bad, no matter how you cut it. (SPOILER ALERT.)
Riley also suggests that Lee is being paid by the police ("over $200,000") to make the institution look good. He has, in effect, gone to the other side. But is this criticism fair? It makes some valid points (particularly concerning the scene in the bar that has a bad white cop being arrested by good whites cops because he says he can do whatever he wants with a black woman—the set up and the arrest are not at all believable, even by Hollywood standards). But Riley also fails to mention two things. One, the KKK operation is abruptly closed because it is clear those at the top are not interested in the radical white supremacist groups, and, two, the hero and the love interest, a college student and activist Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), never romantically connect. She refuses to date a cop. Full stop.
But I think Riley failed to see the biggest thing in the film, which has nothing to do with the cops. It's about establishing a bond between two groups that have a long and very painful history with white supremacy. Riley indeed mentions how the bond is constructed, but then completely misses its significance:
[Stallworth's] partner that did the infiltration of the Klan was not Jewish and did not look Jewish to people. This was a made up thing to raise the stakes and make it seem like cops were sacrificing more than they were.Now, Riley begins his essay by claiming he has no problem with the truth being messed with. He is, he writes, not really into the truth at present. Indeed, what else is Sorry to Bother You but non-stop messing with reality? (And considering the film's political target, the structures of neoliberal exploitation, it has to mess with the truth to get at deeper truthes—more about this in another post.)
Riley, however, feels Lee's film is being "pushed as a true story" and therefore it must be just that, a true story. For numerous reasons, such a commitment to facts is, of course, an impossibility for narrative filmmaking. There's always lots of cheating to be found in the construction of a feature film. But making the real white cop (named Chuck) into the fictional Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), a non-practicing Jew, is not cheating. It is artistic brilliance. Riley misreads it as just another attempt to make cops look good when, plainly (please watch the movie again, Riley), it is about a Jew facing the same racist poison as a black man.
BlacKkKlansman might be Lee's first Jewish film (that will be for another post). The background is: a Colorado police station, an undercover operation, a potential romance in the twilight of the black power movement. And the foreground is: Zimmerman having to face who he is, his people's history, and their history of pain. And this history of pain connects with that of blacks, and in this way Lee is not only addressing white anti-Semitism but also black anti-Semitism. We are, he is saying, in the same boat. Riley sees none of this. He sees just cops.
In one scene, a KKK guy claims the Holocaust never happened in Zimmerman's face. Zimmerman responds by praising the fact that it actually happened, that millions of Jews were actually killed. Why should that be denied? He stuns the Holocaust denier. This is how Zimmerman connects with Stallworth. This is the bond that Lee wants to make visible to blacks and Jews. And it's all over the film, from beginning to end.