Skin in the Game: Review of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman
A single light glares so strongly upon the nameless white race theorist that he nearly blends into the backdrop, a screen playing the racist 1915 Civil War epic, “The Birth of a Nation.” He asserts that the 1970s were “marked by the spread of integration and miscegenation,” hellbent on destroying “true, white Americans.”
As he trips over his own words, the speech’s fumbled delivery undercuts its heinous intent. The speaker’s venomous ranting about black “radicals” and “blood-sucking” Jews highlights the horrors of our national past, but the uneasy familiarity of the language also creates a sense of timelessness, a present urgency, because we have heard this rhetoric before.
Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, a period satire released this August, tells the story of Ron Stallworth, the first black cop in the Colorado Springs police force, and his undercover mission to expose the local Ku Klux Klan through remote contact. Unable to attend meetings, Ron enlists Flip, a white Jewish cop in his precinct, to join the KKK and infiltrate the organization.
Lee has said that BlacKkKlansman cannot and should not be viewed as a comedy. Many scenes at the exposition seem ridiculous, products of the movie’s ironies and contradictions, yet they hint at grave consequences. Ron’s mission itself—his attempt to use remote contact to circumvent the consequences of race—is at once idealistic and insane. In the trailer, mere seconds after Stallworth lightheartedly grooms his afro, he tells a KKK leader over the phone, “I hate blacks. I hate Jews, Mexicans, and Irish, Italians and Chinese. But, my mouth to God’s ears, I really hate those black rats, and anyone else really who doesn’t have pure white Aryan blood running through their veins.”
Yet, unlike Ron’s portrayal of how bigotry manifests, the film shows the real KKK as people tethered to normalcy—people with homes and wives; people who refuse to say their organization’s full name out loud, let alone muse about “pure white Aryan blood,” but who still spend meetings planning to murder young black activists. Ron’s work initially fails to materialize only because his blackness is inescapable: his first attempt to dismantle the KKK is limited to verbal charades and the code-switching language of phone calls.
Caleb Gayle writes in The Guardian, “[America’s] neutered view of race, informed by bad recollections of history, forced Ron and continues to force many people of color to fit into boxes of docile activism.” Ron’s skin is a constant source of vulnerability. He cannot navigate public space without being reminded that, given the social and racial forces at play, merely existing is a political act. And because Ron is limited to his designated box, he cannot convincingly pretend to embody white supremacy. Ron is frustrated not merely because the KKK exists, but because he is incapable of penetrating it.
Ron recognizes this when he asks Flip for help. While the KKK viewed both black and Jewish people as enemies of whiteness, Flip’s ability to pass as white is what allows him access to the KKK. There is no way to identify Jewishness in his language. Some of his facial features raise questions, but they offer no definitive answer. When asked if he is Jewish, Flip replies, “I dunno, am I?”
Although Ron’s commitment to his mission does not falter throughout the film, the audience watches as Flip becomes increasingly comfortable with the KKK members and adept at mimicking their intolerance. He learns to mask knee-jerk repulsion with greater bigotry, including when he counters Holocaust denial by asserting, “The Holocaust was beautiful.” For him and for the audience, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between performance and reality.
While Ron can never disown his blackness, Flip, in a rare moment of vulnerability, reveals, “I’m Jewish, yes, but I wasn’t raised to be. I was just another white kid.” He later continues, “I never thought much about it. Now I think about it all the time.” Flip’s ability to come across as non-Jewish also allows him to disavow a marginalized part of his identity and persuade himself that white supremacy is not intimately personal. Flip confronts Ron: “For you it’s a crusade. For me it’s a job.” Ron responds, “You’re Jewish. They hate you. Doesn’t that piss you off? Why are you acting like you don’t got skin in the game?”
BlacKkKlansman is the story of a bond between two men, each on the periphery of whiteness, defining their identities in the face of hatred. Ron’s position in white society is part of a larger conversation about what race means in America; there is no doubt that he knows the stake he has in dismantling the KKK. But as Flip becomes more absorbed in the vitriol of the KKK, he needs Ron to remind him how personal the threat of white supremacy remains, even when he can pretend to be a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), even without any outward indications of his bloodline.
BlacKkKlansman’s narrative ends with the distant glow of burning crosses under a dark Colorado sky. But the film is not over until it fades into video from the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. The movie’s audience becomes one with the swarms of protesters, the high-pitched screams, the car that cuts across the screen and eventually kills Heather Heyer. The Charlottesville footage is grounded in its historical moment, but these images, like the clip at the movie’s opening, also contain a certain element of atemporality. The smooth transition between film and newsreel images illustrates how little has changed, how deeply racial hatred is woven into America’s national consciousness.
Faced with the immediacy of the Charlottesville footage, the audience, like Ron and Flip, is forced to consider how we see ourselves against the backdrop of white supremacy. As Ron cannot forget, and Flip comes to understand, we all have skin in the game.