Racism on film, and in the street

kkk-display-joel-bellman.jpgKlan display at the Selma National Voting Rights Museum and Institute. Photo: Joel Bellman.

President Trump repeatedly disparages African-Americans like CNN anchor Don Lemon and Rep. Maxine Waters for being "dumb" and "low-IQ" individuals. He publicly attacks Omarosa Manigault-Newman, an African-American woman who formerly worked on his White House staff, as "a crazed, crying lowlife" and praised his chief of staff for firing "that dog." His own press secretary can't say with certainty that Americans will never hear their own president say the n-word, on tape or anywhere else.

In this context, it's hard to say whether the timing is good or bad for Spike Lee's latest, "BlacKKKlansman," with its heavy-handed efforts to connect Trump's barely coded bigotry to the overt and violent racism engaged in by the film's Klan characters. It's redundant even to be debating the question of Trump's racism. As Jason Johnson, politics editor for The Root, pointed out in a recent WaPo op-ed, that determination "doesn't hinge on his being outed...by a tape of him using that word." Trump has more than 40 years of personal, professional, and family history of bigotry to answer for.

If the movie's central message--we're still living in a racist era, just look at our national leadership--is as stale as the 2016 election results, what else does it have to offer? Despite rapturous reviews, I still can't figure out. An awkward mash-up of police procedural, buddy movie, action-comedy, blaxploitation nostalgia, and political polemic, it failed for me on all levels. Lee doesn't have the chops for action, the deftness for comedy, the film-geek grasp of blaxploitation tropes (next time, hire Quentin Tarantino), or the finesse for sophisticated political commentary (instead, he just plops Harry Belafonte down in a chair and has him deliver a monologue, crudely intercut with other footage.)

Moreover, the movie's not even that faithful to its billing or its source, a memoir by former Colorado Springs police officer Ron Stallworth. The story's black protagonist, mainly shown pranking in "white voice" Klan members on the phone, never actually infiltrated the Klan himself; his white partner did--who's Jewish in the film, but was not in real life. Lee arbitrarily shifts the setting from the late '70s in Stallworth's book to the early '70s when black screen idols like Pam Grier, Tamara Dobson, Richard Roundtree and Ron O'Neal reigned, seemingly for no other reason than to showcase fashions, Afro wigs, street slang, and general cool badassery from the "Soul Train" era. And several action and comedic set pieces simply never happened at all.

As disappointing as "BlacKKKlansman" was, it did trigger my curiosity about other films prominently featuring Klan-related storylines. And there, I discovered some interesting things. It might explain the film's awkward title, for instance, to learn that there has already been a movie titled "The Black Klansman," released in 1966 to cash in on the racial turmoil of the civil rights era and the Watts riots. Despite its low budget and grade-Z acting and production values (blame producer-director Ted V. Mikels, better known for drive-in fare like "The Corpse Grinders" and "Blood Orgy of the She-Devils"), this grubby little exploitation flick was at least actually about a black man who personally infiltrates a Klan chapter in the Deep South by passing for white. He is bent on avenging the death of a young daughter killed in a church bombing like that of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church, which infamously killed four little girls in 1963 (the subject of an earlier Spike Lee documentary.) It may not be good, but it got there first.

The most notorious modern-day film is probably "The Klansman" (1974), another action movie set in the Deep South. It tells the fateful story of a rural Alabama sheriff forced by circumstances into confronting a rising Klan sentiment in his community that he can no longer ignore, with tragic results. It had an A-list talent roster including bankable stars Lee Marvin and Richard Burton, a seasoned director in Terence Young ("Dr. No," "From Russia, With Love,""Thunderball"), and a script by Millard Kaufman and writer-director Samuel Fuller, working off a novel by William Bradford Huie (the journalist who bought the interviews with Emmett Till's murderers--who had already been acquitted by an all-white jury and thus were protected from retrial by double-jeopardy--and published their confessions in Look Magazine.) Ignored by audiences and dismissed by critics as violent exploitation junk, this Paramount release stuck closer to its source and even as pulp fiction, displayed more verve, narrative momentum, and character development than Spike Lee's film. Bonus: O.J. Simpson's major-feature film debut, playing a vengeful black vigilante.

kkk-robe-display-joel-bellman.jpgMost controversial of all would certainly be "The Birth of A Nation," D.W. Griffith's three-hour 1915 epic, based on the 1905 novel "The Clansman," the second in a trilogy by Thomas Dixon retelling history from the Southern perspective. Griffith, born in Kentucky as the son of a Confederate Army colonel, romanticized the antebellum South, populated his film with every conceivable degrading black stereotype, and glorified the Ku Klux Klan for rescuing Southern white society from the "depravity" of Reconstruction. None can deny Its historical significance as one of the first American feature-length films and financial blockbusters, and many filmmakers rightly credit its cinematic innovations. But the film's most lasting legacy is its notoriety for inciting violence at screenings, and as a potent recruiting tool for the Klan that almost singlehandledly revived that dormant organization and swelled its national membership into the millions, and far beyond the confines of the former Confederacy, by its 1925 peak. As recently as 2014, "The Birth of A Nation" still proved so inflammatory that a scheduled screening at the legendary Silent Movie Theatre had to be cancelled.

Photo: KKK robe at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, by Joel Bellman.

As potent and frightening as the Klan has traditionally appeared on film, history teaches that the ongoing threat of racism comes not only from hooded nightriders burning crosses and carrying out isolated lynchings under cover of darkness. It comes from "the fine people" who casually embrace attitudes and institute policies to marginalize, exclude, and disenfranchise people of color from full democratic participation and exercise of their constitutional rights.

Under President Trump and "the party of Lincoln," those efforts to curtail minority rights continue with more intensity today than at any time since the end of the civil-rights movement more than 50 years ago. The November election is just around the corner, a potent reminder that it will take much more than the occasional movie polemic to turn that around.

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