Spike Lee's 'BlacKkKlansman' Mines the Past to Explain Our Racist Present
The film references 70s blaxploitation to tell the true story of a black cop who infiltrated the KKK.
Adam Driver and John David Washington in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. Credit: David Lee / Focus Features
Set in the 1970s, Spike Lee's new film BlacKkKlansman tells the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first black detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. To make his mark on the department, Stallworth decides to infiltrate the local Klu Klux Klan chapter and bring their plans to light.
To tell his story, Lee employs a number of visual callbacks to the blaxploitation film era. For a brief time in the 70s, there was a proliferation of black representation in lead roles—roles that certainly would have gone to white counterparts under regular circumstances. The films played up black stereotypes, but they also cast us as the heroes of our own stories, an exception in Hollywood, arguably both then and now.
Lee’s film about Stallworth hits audiences with a dual historical reckoning: the state of race relations in the 70s (which feel, unsurprisingly, familiar) and the history of black representation in Hollywood. BlacKkKlansman and other recent films like Blindspotting, Sorry to Bother You, and The Hate U Give all seem to be doing something similar: representing the black experience in ways akin to blaxploitation films in the 70s. But are we in a redux of that era or experiencing something new that expands upon the foundation laid by black filmmakers over 40 years ago?
At the New York premiere of BlacKkKlansman, Lee told VICE that he wasn’t sure whether the new film would be considered a reaction to the current political climate or a catalyst for something greater. But he does see the film as a conversation starter: “Just talk. Let’s be alert, wake up—I’ve been saying this since 1988, School Daze: 'Wake up.'”
With all this in mind, considering the ways black filmmakers have conveyed segments of the black experience, I called up Awam Amkpa, a documentary filmmaker, writer, and professor at New York University who is also one of Lee’s colleagues. We discussed the current state of black cinema and where BlacKkKlansman fits into the historical narrative of black film.
VICE: How would you define blaxploitation?
Awam Amkpa: It’s part of the economic history of American movies, in that Hollywood knew there were black audiences—especially in cities—but it didn’t know how to tell the story of black people, despite people like Oscar Micheaux who opened a pathway for black stories, especially about the Great Migration, or issues of being biracial, or being conscious of the whiteness in one’s blackness, and so on.
If you fast forward, it would be the likes of Melvin Van Peebles that opened Hollywood to the idea of blaxploitation. His Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song was really about the inner-city, about the hustle of living in the city, and what it means to be a black subject in a neighbourhood that’s economically circumscribed. Van Peebles’s film was attracting a lot of people, but Hollywood was not tapping into that, and it was the birth of what would become blaxploitation.
Who was really behind blaxploitation? Was it like BlacKkKlansman, which sees Jordan Peele producing, is directed by a black person, and has a black main character?
Blaxploitation was not necessarily produced by black people, although it was acted by black people and in some cases directed by black people—very few cases, that is. But in general, it was a space opened up in the economy of Hollywood to allow for black representation.
It’s a very paradoxical idea, blaxploitation, because on one hand it exposes the racism of the American movie industry and its economy, but on the other hand it was also a space where African-Americans could insert their own stories.
So where would a film like BlacKkKlansman fit into the historical context of blaxploitation?
The idea of blackness becomes like a counter narrative of American nationalism. It’s counter in the sense that it never fully belongs, and it has to create its own space. We’re all these years after slavery, and blackness is still seen and codified—both judicially and culturally—as a crime: either crime happening or crime waiting to happen.
It’s that counter narrative that feeds into all the films you’ve been watching recently. And this current one by Spike, case-in-point, shows what happens when the black body is toxic in mainstream America. The historical arc shows that what’s going on is not just new but it’s carried over: it’s a continuation of a history which our educational system, our culture, even our politics sees as a bad time but is replaying itself uncontrollably.
That’s why going back to this story of the Klu Klux Klan and this undercover detective who infiltrates the organisation is really interesting. When you get somebody who’s a black cop, upholding the legal structures of the system, going into that group, it becomes this play on inclusion and exclusion: how can African Americans be included in the American narrative when their bodies are always criminalised and demonised?
You would think after eight years of Obama the comfort of black bodies in leadership positions would have arrived. Instead we see it thrown back into another, earlier kind of society where things never changed. This film is situated in history, but it’s two histories: the history of American cinema but also the history of American nationalism.
Lee presents this true story that feels somewhat triumphant and then by the end essentially says, “Wait, don’t celebrate yet, we haven’t really triumphed over anything.” Why do you think he chose to do that?
Spike cannot tell an optimistic story of blackness. He’s a guy who did Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, all those films with the hope that in the future, by today, he would be making films that are even more progressive, more promising. But the society has not changed. If anything it’s gotten worse. So, he cannot give the mainstream a feel-good story about America for black people. It’s a way of underscoring that: the fact that all these years later it’s still a problem to be black and to be American. I can’t see him doing that—in fact his traditional constituency would have killed if he had gone and given you a feel-good story. Not now.
Would you say we’re in another blaxploitation era or something like it?
Well, the thing is, there has been progress: there are more black people making films and telling black stories. There has been some progress in the fact that a lot of us have developed tools of telling stories, and there are more platforms for telling stories. We don’t only have to tell our stories in the movie theatres, now Netflix can serialise She’s Gotta Have It, Amazon can stream Boyz n The Hood.
The sad part is we can’t seem to tell a story past the one about reducing the black body from being full and affective citizens of the U.S. We’re still going in circles because of the historical context. While we have more opportunities, the historical context has not shifted significantly, and that is troubling and reductive. Our stories are just going within the same circle rather than actually giving us the prospects of imagining a utopian space where it doesn’t matter anymore what our pigment looks like. What matters is that we’re citizens, and we’re proactive members of a society.
Do you think that’s the ultimate goal then? I’m just trying to clarify your last point there about a utopian space—we want to be working towards a place where race isn’t the end-all-be-all of a person’s identity?
Yes, because the reality of our lives is that we’re more than the color of our skin. The reality of everyone’s life is that we are not one thing: we are many things at the same time. But society keeps telling us we can only be one thing no matter how successful we are. So you can be a professor at Harvard, you can be an actor with Oscar nominations—it doesn’t matter: you’re still just black.
The real ideal in any society is that, regardless of your origin, you are a full and active participant in your society. So it wouldn’t matter if you’re black or a quarter black, whether you just came from Africa or the Caribbean, what would matter is that wherever we are, we are allowed to be full and affective members of the society. But we can’t even go there—we can’t even begin to imagine going there when the historical context still traps us in a past that doesn’t allow black bodies to be subjects. Rather we will continuously remain objects in white history.
What do you think current black cinema is asking of its audiences? Is it asking for us to get to that utopia you’re talking about or something different?
It’s asking us to be constantly vigilant. It’s asking us not to be complacent. It’s pushing that we have not yet come to what some people would call post-black, post-racial. Which was the sentiment of people, including black people, when Obama was in power. They said, “Alright, we’ve come to a point where we can even produce a president of the U.S. so we should be thinking post-black.” We’re not there yet.
Even as a fantasy it’s a very flawed fantasy because the reality is, if anything, the success of a few black people intensifies the prejudice of mainstream society. Even me, as a professor at New York University, a colleague of my wife will come up to me and say that I must be earning four times as much money as them just because I’m black. But when you look at it critically it’s more likely they’re earning much more than I am, because they don’t have to prove themselves as much as I have had to prove myself. We haven’t come to a point where we can forget.
So it’s another way of doing what Spike Lee is doing with his movie. In a way, because there are more of us in the industry both in telling the stories and framing those stories, there is a groundswell; I wouldn’t call them blaxploitation anymore. It would really be black subjecthood. Because only as subjects can we even begin to imagine a world that’s not simply about our color.
What do you think BlacKkKlansman could be trying to explain about blackness to its audiences?
This generation, we don’t give a damn about explaining to white people what the black experience is. That’s their problem. We will continue to live our lives, it’s the same American life. If white people see it and feel a part of it, fine. But if they don’t, that’s okay too. The days of always explaining to the white world what the black world is, they’re done. Some people still do it because it gives them opportunities, but for the majority—there’s so much more life to live: who gives a damn what meets the approval of white people.
If people take Spike and this movie and say, “They’re trying to explain the black world to the white world,” we’re not going to go down that road. We’re not going to go down that road, like when the blues became jazz and the black culture was taken out, by only feeding mainstream Hollywood an explanation of black stories. That’s what would continue the blaxploitation game.
Black folks do not owe white folks an explanation of how we live. They know the black world intimately: they take what they can take repeatedly, they love hip-hop but don’t have a black friend. We’re in a situation where we just have to get on with it and tell our stories, and if people get it, fine. It’s paradoxical to say it, but we’re in a good place right now: we have multiple generations of black folks who are more conscious and we also have multiple spaces to gain that consciousness. I’m hoping that we live in a situation where the younger generation leads rather than the older generation doing the same old thing.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.