The much-hyped new film release BlacKkKlansman has once again brought the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to public notice. Never one to shy away from a racially sensitive issue, director Spike Lee’s most recent film, set in 1979, follows Colorado Springs Police Department’s (CSPD) first black officer Ron Stallworth as he supervises an undercover operation infiltrating the Klan.
Sticking relatively closely to the real Stallworth’s 2006 memoir of these events, the film lays open the institutionalised bigotry of the era. Appointed as a nod to the prevailing trends of integration, the heroic Stallworth fights racism within the all white Colorado Springs Police Department.
The film has the look of a true 1970s blaxploitation movie, in which black ethnic stereotypes take centre stage. But there is more to it than that. Alongside the questionable clothes, afros and chrome-covered gas guzzlers, this is a film about a race war. “Black Power” was taking on white supremacy and Lee personalises the struggle.
On the one side, is David Duke – the glad-handing, ambitious, preppy “Imperial Wizard” reviving a moribund KKK. Ranged against him is the charismatic and articulate Stokely Carmichael: a frontline civil rights activist, Student Non-Violent Coordination Committee founder and Black Panther leader. Both are demagogues, both want revolution, and both are willing to use violence. Stallworth investigates the two and Spike Lee shows both those investigations.
But what is interesting about the true story is what Lee doesn’t have the time, or perhaps the inclination, to show.
Investigating the Klan
In many ways, the CSPD’s investigation of the Klan was a surprising move. In 1979, undercover operations in general had a bad name, and those investigating the Klan were seen as particularly dubious by both the public and the police.
This stemmed back to the deep cover Cointel Program in which J Edgar Hoover’s FBI used undercover agents to investigate what was termed “white hate”. This effort, which began in 1964, ceased in 1971 having suffered from persistent accusations of Bureau agents themselves being involved in a range illegal activities. These included high profile racist crimes like the notorious 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and the 1965 murder of the Civil Rights activist Viola Liuzzo. In addition, undercover work in general became difficult to sanction at a federal, state or municipal level following the scandal of the 1972 Watergate break-in which tainted all clandestine investigations in the 1970s.
Even given a successful investigation, it is worth asking what could then be done with the information gained. America has no “hate law” today, let alone in the 1970s. This essentially means membership of the Klan was not, and is not, illegal – as such. Then, as now, extremist groups were adept at sheltering under America’s First Amendment protections of free speech. They also seemed to have influential members at all levels of the establishment. As Stallworth shows in his memoir, they were powerful in law enforcement. BlacKkKlansman features Stallworth’s run in with at least one deeply racist cop.
But it is true that Duke resigned his imperial position in 1980. So, did Stallworth’s work destroy Duke’s Klan? In Stallworth’s own account, he is proud to have gathered some useful intel on the racists of the region and prevented a series of cross burnings (the bombing in Lee’s film and the comic exposure of racism in the CSPD are fictional). But while the operation probably didn’t help Duke’s leadership, the Wizard’s growing ambitions for national political office and getting photographed selling the lists of Klan members were probably the more important elements behind his departure.
Speaking of membership, Lee’s film pivots around an understanding of the Klan as being so dumb, so responsive to Stallworth’s dog-whistle racist phrases, that it allows him – a black man – to become a member.
In fact, this is not the first time the Klan were duped in this way. Apparently, the powerful 1920s Klan was tricked into a giving membership to an African American, because in its drive for massive membership it allowed unverified mail order subscriptions. Nor is Lee the first to see the issue’s comic potential. The black comedian David Chappelle has already made fun of the idea. His character, a blind black man, Clayton Bigsby, is unaware of his ethnicity and rants white supremacist propaganda to a baffled Klan audience. This video has over three million hits.
And in some cases, black Klan membership was not accidental. David Duke himself attempted to create a more inclusive Klan in the 1970s by playing down the hate speech – at least in public – doing away with robes, except for ceremony, and allowing Catholics and women to have full membership.
John Abarr of Montana has taken this idea of inclusion even further. In 2014, Abarr’s Klan-based Rocky Mountain Knights abandoned the principle of white supremacy altogether. Abarr even met with the foremost black civil rights group, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which he called a “really good organisation”, adding: “I don’t feel we need to be separate.” Consequently, the Knights have no bar on membership based on race, religion or sexual orientation. His stated aim is simply to cut the power of the federal state, and anyone who shares that view is welcome to join his order.
Most of the far right condemned Abarr’s suggestions and Lee makes sure to highlight their ongoing commitment to exclusion and violence. The final scenes of the film use original footage showing horrific scenes of the Unite the Right rally in August 2017. This is not the first time Lee has married shocking documentary footage with his cinematic work. His 1992 biopic Malcolm X opens with bystander video of the LAPD officers’ 1991 beating of the black taxi driver Rodney King. What is more, while promoting Blackkklansman, the director has been outspoken – missing few opportunities to associate the Trump administration with the racist right.
But perhaps all this dialogue between film and reality is missing the point. I would argue that Lee’s use of mockery is a more effective tool than blunt polemic when used against the Klan and its allies. Humour not only takes the sting out of the hate message: in doing so, it should also depress Klan recruitment.