Journey into the heart of hate
Before I went to see it with a friend, I knew almost nothing about Spike Lee’s latest movie “BlacKKKlansman” other than it was based on true story.
In a nutshell: the first black police officer ever appointed in Colorado Springs answers a KKK ad in the paper and begins a murky terrifying journey into the heart of hate.
The movie is based on a book by the black cop. Real people are involved (David Duke is reportedly less than happy about his portrayal), including the white cop who posed as the black one in the Klan infiltration investigation for obvious reasons.
I have to say, while the black officer who started it all was the mind and the spirit behind the operation, the white officer who walked into this mess had cojones, nerves of steel, and ice water in his veins. There are a couple of heart stopping scenes where the entire audience gasped or held their breath because things were riding on the edge of a knife and it could have gone either way.
This is a remarkable movie, savage and brutally honest, both funny and poignant. It is a portrayal of raw courage, frustration, pain, rage, terror, fury.
There is a segment which cuts between two gatherings – one, a Klan initiation ceremony, which then segues into a loud and boisterous viewing of “Birth of a Nation” and then a roar of voices over hands raised in a Nazi salute: White Power! White Power!
The other gathering is young black students quietly listening while an old black man recounts what happened to a friend of his – 17, and described as “slow” – who was accused of raping a white woman, in graphic detail. The young people gag at some of the details with their hands over their mouths as they look at photos of what happened. Finally fists rise in salute and you hear THAT roar – Black Power! Black Power!
The chasm has never been more visible, more visceral, even back in the 70’s in which the movie is set, and it’s only grown deeper and wider in the years that have gone by since then. It is almost impossible to believe that there is a bridge between these two worlds, that it would ever be possible to connect and understand. Too much has been done to too many.
Today, white women call the police to report black families having a barbecue in the park, a black kid selling lemonade “without permission”, a black student asleep in the common room of her own dorm. Today white policemen shoot a black child in a playground, a black teen in a hoodie, we see a black man in car for no reason at all, simply because they “feared for their lives.”
We see people who believe that the Black Panthers were a great danger to “national security”. There are people who believe in Jewish conspiracies to rule the world, starting with making up the entire “Holocaust story”.
There is a scene in the movie in which a Klan wife has just placed a bomb, and our black undercover cop gets there just too late to see where. He races after her, brings her down and demands to know where she placed the bomb. A squad car arrives and two white cops drag *the black man off the white woman* and brutally beat him while she screams “He tried to rape me! He tried to rape me!”
The movie opens with the most bitterly honest scene from “Gone with the Wind” – the one where Scarlett O’Hara enters the makeshift field hospital in the rail yard where the Confederate wounded are, and then the camera pulls back and back and back and back giving a wider and wider view of the yard and it is full of the wounded, it is packed with destroyed people, all in the name of the tattered Dixie flag that the camera finally stops at, waving like an accusation above that waste of life below.
It ends – and lingers here for a long passionate moment – on a huge screen-sized image of an American flag… upside down… the classic sign of extreme distress.
The message is as clear as a stab in the heart, particularly (SPOILERS!) in the final few frames of the movie itself, where our black cop protagonist and his activist girlfriend are in the throes of a painful breakup because – as she says to him – “I can’t sleep with the enemy.”
In her eyes he is still a “pig” and works with the establishment and she can’t deal with that. There is a knock at the door. They can see a flicker of light as they both pull guns and point them at that door.
Cut away to a Klan circle burning a cross, throwing burning torches at its foot. Cut to the two protagonists side by side pointing their guns, the expression in their eyes almost too much to bear. The camera pans out, and it’s like you’re looking down a long, long corridor… and then… cut away… to 2017, and the marches in Charlotte, and Trump voicing his never-to-be-forgotten “some of them are good people” remark aimed at the Nazi-symbol-wielding thugs who took to the streets in Charlotte, and the real David Duke STILL saying exactly the same things he had been saying back in 1972.
And then that upside down flag.
There are a lot of words I could use to describe how I felt when I walked out of that theatre: appalled…bewildered…chastened…devastated…frustrated…horrified…nauseated…scared… wrecked…
My friend and I went to see it in a small arts cinema in my home town. But this is a movie that should be seen by MUCH larger audiences, in MUCH larger release.
It is a witness to our times. It is a light that shines with the kind of truth that obliterates that savage burning cross and shows it up for what it is – a terror tactic perpetrated by small, scared men for whom destruction of anything other than their own small, scared, narrow selves is the only way to justify their own small, scared, desperate existence.
The only way that they can perceive themselves as worthy is if they can find someone else whom they can perceive as less worthy and turn all the anger and fury of futile, unremarkable, hopeless lives which must be SOMEBODY’s fault and never their own onto people they can find or if necessary create as being lesser than themselves. It is the pitiful insistence of pitiful people that there HAS to be a totem pole, and there HAS to be someone lower on that totem pole than they are because otherwise they have no reason to live.
This whole movie is a powerful flying of an upside-down flag, a distress call.
We ignore that call at our peril.
First, see the movie. Then think about the chasm. If we can’t build that bridge perhaps we can start throwing stuff into the yawning gap, stuff that we don’t need, don’t want, stuff that NEEDS to be thrown off a cliff and destroyed, stuff which needs to be wrecked but whose wreckage might start to fill that canyon and whose destruction might provide new ground on which we can – bridgeless – cross that great divide which needs to be crossed if the human race is to survive its own bitterest demons.