Once a great director, with BlacKkKlansman Spike Lee makes a pedagogical fudge wrapped in cheap humour. BlacKkKlansman tells the true story of Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), an African-American detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department, who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. He does so by establishing contact with Klan’s leaders on the phone and through a Jewish colleague, Flip Zimmerman (played by Adam Driver). Spike Lee oscillates between teaching his audience about American history and identity politics and portraying the KKK as fools, between tragic and comic mishandling both. Ironically, Tarantino’s Django Unchained made fun of the KKK effortlessly, a film Lee vowed never to watch Tarantino’s film because he felt it was disrespectful.
In BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee has played it safe giving us a crowd-pleaser, but one that is muddled and weakened by the tension between comedy and melodrama. Gone are Jungle Fever and Do the Right Thing with their uncompromising look into a messy reality told with ironic anger. The only poignant scenes are the real footage of Charlottesville’s ‘Unite the Right Rally,’ where a white supremacist drove his car deliberately into a crowd of anti-fascist protesters and killed Heather Heyer, to whom the film is dedicated. As we face with repugnant political rhetoric and mistrust of democratic institutions and politics, we need more than a comforting lesson in history. We need a window on the everyday racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and prejudice against all those who don’t conform. We need someone who can tell that the experience of being Other with no frills, no romanticism, and no easy good and bad dichotomy. We need the old Spike.
Buried underneath the self-satisfied humour and self-righteous preaching, BlacKkKlansman offers a few glimpses of the making of racial identity that are worth considering; in particular, it touches on the embodied and cultural aspects of race and Jewish racial identity. Race is embodied difference but also performative. Ron Stallworth does a ‘white voice’ to fool the Klan, but can only infiltrate it because of the ‘white body’ of his colleague Flip Zimmerman. To persuade his boss to let him go under cover with the Klan, Ron tells him there are those who speak ‘King’s English’ and those who speak ‘Jive’. He’s perfectly fluent in both. Ron needs Flip Zimmerman to play him as a white man with the Klan. In a moment of camaraderie, under instruction from Ron, Flip tries to perform a speech by a black power leader, only to be outperformed by another colleague (on blackness, performance, and politics see Patrick Johnson’s Appropriating Blackness).
The construction of identity is highly symbolical and cultural. In the film, the KKK repertoire of language, symbols, and rituals is contrasted with that of the Black Power Movement. The storytelling of White Supremacists watching DW Griffiths’ A Birth of a Nation, is counterposed with Harry Belafonte’s telling of the lynching of black people. In the very few moments when Spike Lee puts the pedagogical impulse aside, a more subtle dimension of identity emerges, as in the case of Zimmerman facing up to his Jewishness.
Confronted with the purity boundaries of the Klan, he finds himself thinking about rituals and heritage. Flip’s Jewishness is called out by a colleague mentioning his ‘Jewish necklace.’ Flip replies that ‘it’s not a Jewish necklace, but the Star of David.’ Asked whether he’s Jewish, he says: ‘I don’t know. Am I?’ Flip tells Ron that he was not raised to be Jewish, it was never part of his life, he had never gone to bar mitzvahs, and never had a bar mitzvah. He never had Jewish friends, he was just another ‘white kid’ until the Klan shattered that self-understanding. Identity is social, not just personal. Today’s celebration of self-identity misses the fact that our identity doesn’t stop at how we see ourselves but includes how others see us.
Identity politics rightly problematised the collective identity of a country by showing how power had delegitimised the Other and legitimised hierarchies based on race, religion, gender etc. Liberal universalism is not enough because it is not a neutral worldview. The emphasis on difference has been necessary in advancing the legitimacy of different perspectives and experiences. That has meant establishing identity markers, formulating the essence of an identity, and establishing boundaries. This process of identity-making can be dogmatic, reifying, and essentialistic. I believe it needs to be balanced out with a degree of universalistic ethics.
Boundaries are an inescapable reality; they are never clear cut and never done once and for all. In my own theoretical framework, I distinguish between purity and compassion, where purity is a concern for norms and compassion is a concern for the person. Boundaries emerge from the interplay between the two. Either extreme can be destructive. Extreme compassion can lead to a preference for accepting a person no matter what and a denial of justice, while extreme purity (be that cultural, normative, biological or other) will lead to exclusionary practices, and judgmentalism. This is not a division between Liberal and Conservative, only one between those who are more concerned about defining an identity and affirming boundaries, and those who are more concerned about being inclusive and questioning boundaries. Neither is superior to the other. At a time of clashes across political positions on identity issues (including gender), it might be better to appreciate our overlapping identities that are always in becoming.