Reclaiming The N-Word - Spike Lee's 'BlacKkKlansman'

Published: Fri 17 Aug 2018 10:48 AM
Reclaiming The N-Word -
Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman Confronts White Supremacism
W.E.B. Du Bois
This article is dedicated to the Memory of Jamie Du Bois
and Maxwell Farrell Davis, my Guiding Light and Inspiration.
"Fervour is the weapon of choice of the impotent." - Frantz Fanon
Black resistance to institutional racism in the US has a long, tangled, and traumatic intellectual history. Although we may have assumed much too easily that white supremacists like David Duke had become marginalised as a political force, in reality they never really disappeared. Last year's events in Charlottesville revealed just how deeply embedded the roots of racial hatred and animosity lie buried - as well as how close to the surface such polarising beliefs remain. The 2016 US presidential election and subsequent actions of America's Commander in Chief have only served to demonstrate the alarming truth of novelist David Foster Wallace's prescient warning that there is no such thing as not voting.
In 1895, the year Frederick Douglass died, Booker T Washington gave a speech comparing black and white people to the fingers on a hand, separated but working together in conjunction with each other. Washington recommended that black people accept Jim Crow, stop agitating for restoration of the civil rights they had enjoyed during Reconstruction, and concentrate instead on self-improvement and economic development. Washington's conciliatory approach made his autobiography, Up from Slavery (1901), a best-seller and he was hailed as the most influential black spokesman of his day. Theodore Roosevelt even invited him to dinner at the White House. Washington's programme may have won him a degree of white admiration, but he never managed to persuade many black people, at least as far as sociologist and historian W.E.B. Du Bois was concerned. In The Souls of Black Men (1903), Du Bois argued that the influence of three main attitudes could be traced throughout the history of black Americans in response to their condition - “a feeling of revolt and revenge; an attempt to adjust all thought and action to the will of the greater group; or, finally, a determined effort at self-realization and self-development despite environing opinion.”
For Du Bois, Washington represented an unforgivable attitude of submission and his Tuskegeee Movement came to stand for backwater gradualism. This debate between Washington and Du Bois revealed some of the basic oppositions between North and South and urban and rural communities which defined black America at the time. Identifying what Arnold Rampersad has termed “an essential dualism in the black American soul,” Du Bois went on to explore the idea of a double-consciousness - “One ever feels his two-ness - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” This conflict between national and racial identity incorporates both a form of political expression (integrationist/separatist) and a psychological meaning (good/bad black; masked black self/real black self).
In the 1960s, frustration with integration as the primary goal of civil rights began Washington's rehabilitation as an early advocate of black self-sufficiency. His influence is apparent in the work of contemporary writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who grew up in segregated West Baltimore, where his father was a chapter head of the local Black Panther Party. The Panthers considered their emphasis on defending black communities against racist agents of the state like the FBI as revolutionary. Malcolm X (one of Spike Lee's heroes and the subject of possibly his best movie) thought that Du Bois' concept of double consciousness was largely a problem for the black middle class. Even when black people could see themselves for themselves, a lingering question remained about whether the white power structure could ever be reformed, overthrown, or even escaped. According to DH Lawrence, the American soul is essentially hard, isolated, stoic, and a killer. If white supremacy is still at the root of the social order in the US, then so are the temptations of hate, despair, and doubt, as Du Bois framed them. When black students baited Ralph Ellison in the 1960s for his detachment from the protest movement, he responded by insisting that writing the best novel he could was his contribution to the struggle. But, in the words of a popular sixties saying, there is a Malcolm X waiting to emerge from the soul of every black person. By the time George Clinton's Funkadelic started singing “free your mind and your ass will follow” in 1970, only militant black resistance was assumed to be an authentic and valid response to endemic and systematic racism.
Times have changed since then. “As we move into the mainstream, black folks are taking a third road - being themselves,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his most recent publication, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, a collection of eight essays on politics and black history written during Obama's two terms of office and introduced with some new reflections. Its title is taken from a speech that a South Carolina congressman made in 1895 when Reconstruction in the state was terminated by a white supremacist takeover. For Coates, racism has always been the main action and dealing with it just a knee jerk form of reaction, which is why he believes black thinkers and artists should now try to turn things around, to transcend race, and escape from all forms of white jurisdiction.
Coates declares that when Obama first ran for president in 2008, the civil rights generation was “exiting the American stage - not in a haze of nostalgia but in a cloud of gloom troubled by the persistence of racism, the apparent weaknesses of the generation following in its wake, and the seeming indifference of much of the country to black America's fate.” According to Coates, Obama's rise was so rapid because African-Americans were “war-weary. It was not simply the country at large that was tired of the old baby boomer debates. Blacks, too, were sick of talking about affirmative action and school busing. There was a broad sense that integration had failed.”
As a teenager immersed in hip-hop culture, it angered Coates that other black students at his private school had no idea where or when Du Bois died (Ghana, in 1963), but got worked up over the anniversary of the assassination of Biggie Smalls. Indeed, his biography reads much like a hip hop song, infused with all the anger and rage of the projects. In 1995, Coates attended the Million Man March in Washington DC at which the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan urged black men to be better fathers and role models, but he now rejects such assimilation, writing that “The essence of American racism is disrespect.” Having a father around and adhering to middle-class values have “never shielded black people from plunder.” Located somewhere between black people and the outside world, Du Bois had argued, was the unasked question of what it felt like to be a problem. Coates insists that even the best-intentioned liberals still perceive being black as a social handicap. For him, white people themselves are the problem - “Racism was banditry, pure and simple. And the banditry was not incidental to America, it was essential to it.”
In an echo of the earlier Washington/Du Bois debate, the radical Harvard intellectual Cornel West has blasted Coates for his narrow notion of “defiance,” for choosing a “personal commitment to writing with no connection to collective action,” and for losing sight of the tradition of black resistance. In the contemptuous eyes of West, Coates represents the neo-liberal wing of the black freedom struggle, much like Obama himself, and his argument amounts to little more than misguided pessimism. West's attack on Coates has been likened to the scene in Ellison's Invisible Man in which young blindfolded black men are made to fight each other in a ring for the amusement of whites. In his autobiography Black Boy, Richard Wright recounted how he tried to get the other boy he was matched up against to stand with him and refuse to fight. Robin DG Kelly, author of Thelonius Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2009), has tried to mediate between these opposing positions, suggesting that both West and Coates share this sense of fundamental pessimism and that black movements have always exhibited a dual purpose - both survival and ultimate victory.
Afro-pessimism and its equation of withdrawal with transcendence is no less accetable to white supremacists than Washington's strategic retreat into self-help. Harold Cruse, in his vehement work of black nationalism The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), said flat out that Washington was right and Du Bois had ended up on the wrong side of history, that Marxism was just white people (i.e. Jews) telling black people what to think. Writing well before Frantz Fanon's ground-breaking investigation into the de-colonised mind was translated into English, Cruse was largely regraded as a crank at the time, but his view of black history in America as a rigged game is becoming increasingly widely shared. Afro-pessimism may derive in large part from Fanon's bleak vision of the future, but maybe it is just another name for something that has existed in black culture for a long time. It seems that Fanon's work, with its wholesale rejection of universal neo-liberalism, is being rediscovered and celebrated everywhere these days, in much the same way that posters of Malcolm X and Che Guevara used to adorn the walls of so many college residence halls in the 1970s. So where exactly does that leave contemporary black artists, caught up in this confusing maelstrom of conflicting opinion and argument?
Part of the second wave of US film school graduates to work his way into the cinematic mainstream, Spike Lee is indisputably America's pre-eminent black moviemaker. While Francis Ford Coppola attended UCLA and Steven Spielberg went to USC, Lee followed in the illustrious footsteps of Martin Scorsese, graduating from NYU film school in the early 1980s. Courageously outspoken, uncompromising, and well-versed in film history, he has directed a variety of feature films and documentaries that reveal him to be fully capable not only of producing commercial hits when necessary, but also of articulating a radical critique of American society's endemic racism. Eschewing the surface glitz and glamour of Hollywood, he has remained close to New York's Brooklyn/Fort Greene area, relishing the relative independence his successful track record deserves.
Lee's production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, first burst onto the silver screen in 1986 with She's Gotta Have It (recently re-booted as a Netflix TV series), and has since released such ground-breaking films as Do the Right Thing (1989), Mo' Better Blues (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), Clockers (1995), The Original Kings of Comedy (2000), 25th Hour (2002), Inside Man (2006), and Chi-Raq (2015). He has won numerous accolades, including two nominations, a Student Award, and an Honorary Award for his contributions to film from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as well as two Emmys, two Peabodys, an honorary BAFTA Award, an Honorary César, the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, and a Grand Prix Award.
With a budget of only $175,000, She's Gotta Have It was shot in just two weeks and grossed over $7 million at the US box office alone.Do the Right Thing was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1989, with many critics believing it also deserved a nomination (Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture). In a 2006 New York magazine interview, Lee said the other film's success was based on safe stereotypes that may have hurt his chances more than if his film had not been nominated. In 1991, Lee taught a film-making class at Harvard and two years later starting teaching in the Graduate Film Program at NYU, where he was appointed Artistic Director in 2002. His 1997 documentary4 Little Girls, about the children killed in the 1963 Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary. In 2007, the San Francisco International Film Festival honoured him with a Directing Award, in 2008 he received the Wexner Prize, and in 2013 he won the Gish Prize, one of the richest prizes in the American arts, worth $300,000.
A prodigious director of advertising commercials and music videos, Lee has consistently focused his unflinching cinematic lens on race relations, the black community, interracial relationships, the role of media in contemporary life, urban crime and poverty, and many other social and political issues. His films are notable for their unique stylistic elements, such as their innovative use of soundtrack music and zooming dolly shots that portray actors as though they were floating through their surroundings. They are typically referred to as 'Spike Lee Joints,' with the closing credits ending with the phrases 'By Any Means Necessary,' 'Ya Dig,' and 'Sho Nuff.' Only his 2013 film,Oldboy, used the traditional 'A Spike Lee Film' credit after producers heavily re-edited it.
Highly opinionated and often cantankerous, Lee is no stranger to controversy. After the release of Mo' Better Blues, he was accused of antisemitism by the Anti-Defamation League which criticized the depiction of club owners Josh and Moe Flatbush, who were described as 'Shylocks.' Lee refuted the charge, explaining that he invented the characters in order to depict how black artists have always had to struggle against cultural exploitation. Lee said that Lew Wasserman, Sidney Sheinberg, or Tom Pollock, the Jewish heads of MCA and Universal Studios, were unlikely to allow antisemitic content in any films they produced. He said it was not possible for him to make an antisemitic film because Jews run Hollywood - and "that's a fact."
In 1999, the New York Post reported that Lee made an inflammatory comment about NRA President Charlton Heston while speaking to reporters at the Cannes Film Festival. He was quoted as saying the NRA should be disbanded and that someone should shoot Heston “with a .44 Bull Dog,” which Lee claimed was intended as a joke in response to questions about whether violence in Hollywood films was responsible for school shootings. "The problem is guns," he said. Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armery condemned Lee as having "nothing to offer the debate on school violence except more violence and more hate."
In October 2005, Lee responded to a question on CNN as to whether the government intentionally ignored the plight of black Americans during Hurricane Katrina by saying, "It's not too far-fetched. I don't put anything past the United States government. I don't find it too far-fetched that they tried to displace all the black people out of New Orleans," citing earlier government involvement in the notorious Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.
At the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Lee (who was in the process of making Miracle at St. Anna about an all-black US division fighting in Italy during WWII) criticized Clint Eastwood for not depicting black marines in Flags of Our Fathers. Citing historical accuracy, Eastwood responded that his film was specifically about the Marines who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima. Eastwood pointed out that, while black Marines did indeed fight at Iwo Jima, the US military was racially segregated during WWII, and none of the men who raised the flag were black. He angrily said that Lee should "shut his face." Lee responded that Eastwood was acting like an "angry old man,” arguing that, despite making two films about Iwo Jima back to back, "there was not one black soldier in both of those films," and adding that he and Eastwood were "not on a plantation." Lee later claimed that the media exaggerated their exchange and that he and Eastwood had effected a reconciliation through their mutual friend Steven Spielberg, which culminated in him sending a print ofMiracle at St. Anna to Eastwood.
After the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012, Lee circulated a message on used Twitter including the home address of the shooter George Zimmerman. The address turned out to be incorrect, forcing the real occupants, Elaine and David McClain, to stay at a hotel due to numerous death threats. Lee later issued an apology and reached an agreement that reportedly included financial compensation, with their attorney stating "The McClains’ claim is fully resolved". Nevertheless, the next year the McClains filed a negligence lawsuit that accused Lee of "encouraging a dangerous mob mentality among his Twitter followers, as well as the public-at-large." The lawsuit, which a court filing reportedly valued at $1.2 million, alleged that the couple suffered "injuries and damages" that continued up until Zimmerman's acquittal in 2013, but the judge dismissed it, agreeing with Lee that the issue had already been settled.
Given today's overheated political climate, it is easy to understand why this year's Cannes Film Festival jury decided to make a political point by awarding BlacKkKlansman the Grand Prix and gave Lee a six-minute standing ovation. A standard police procedural, Lee's usual cinematic exuberance is only really evident in Alec Baldwin's provocative opening prologue, which is neatly bookended by horrific footage from last year's Charlottesville alt right rally and Trump's disgusting response. For the rest of its two hour and fifteen minute running time, BlacKkKlansman remains a measured, even sedate exercise in classic narrative movie-making. Tonally, however, the film is a post-modern melange of dramatic and action scenes, alternating with episodes of grim humour and ironic foreshadowing, and intentionally reminding audiences that the struggle against racism in the US is far from a done deal. Lee and his co-writers moved the story back seven years from when it actually took place in 1979 to 1972, which allowed them to refer both to blaxploitation movies and Nixon's re-election campaign, which the Klan actively supported.
John David Washington (Denzel's son) and Adam Driver put in stellar performances in the lead roles, while singer and long-time civil rights activist Harry Belafonte provides a stirring cameo that is drenched in authenticity. Washington has revealed that, just before the gun shooting scene was filmed, Lee told him the metal “running nigger” targets were not props, but legally purchased on the internet. As in many of his previous outings, Lee's longtime collaborators (especially editor Barry Alexander Brown and jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard) provide delicate, nuanced, and unobtrusive touches. There are not too many cinematographers who know how to light black actors successfully, but Chayse Irvin does a highly impressive job. This is Lee's first film since Oldboy to be shot on 35mm film and it shows in the rich grain and texture of his imagery. Both Marci Rodgers' wardrobe selections and Cathy T Marshall's set dressing precisely evoke the period setting, and Lee's musical ear remains as true as ever, particularly during a club scene that perfectly captures the joyful sense of freedom and release that can only be found on the dance floor. The end credits are accompanied by a previously unreleased live rehearsal recording of Prince singing Mary, Don't You Weep.
It has been over fifty years since Malcolm X first decried brainwashed negroes bragging about their blackness. More than half a century has passed since he described the widespread feeling of cultural grief and depression among blacks as a form of self-hatred. As the British father of a bi-racial and West Indian African-American who spent much of my working life toiling deep inside the putrid entrails of Tinseltown, I certainly have some personal “skin in the game,” to cite just one ironic line from Lee's deftly astute screenplay. I must confess to finding the contortions and contradictions in these recent debates among black intellectuals about how best to combat institutional racism and white supremacism somewhat baffling - and perhaps that's simply as it should be.
I can only observe, with some degree of paternal pride, that my gay son seems to have matured into a remarkably successful and well-adjusted individual. In large part, his self-confidence, assurance, and surprising sense of ambition is due to the support and engagement of several influential mentors, both black and white, for which I will always be profoundly appreciative. It may be a truism, but it seems to me that our only hope for progress in so many problematic social and political arenas these days lies in the inspiring clarity and vision of our youth. In this terrifying age of impending environmental catastrophe, with a mendacious and racist misogynist in possession of the nuclear codes, we must trust in the sanity and sincerity of our children to de-escalate the discussion and at least try to maintain the conversation on a courteous, civil, and mutually respectful basis. In the end, what other hope do we have?
Howard Davis
Scoop Arts Editor
Educated at Cambridge and UCLA; worked on several major Hollywood feature films and as a Kundalini Yoga instructor in Los Angeles; currently enjoying life in Wellington.
Contact Howard Davis

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