The best joke Spike Lee plays in the film is when Ron Stallworth, the undercover black cop in the Colorado Springs Police Department, is assigned as chief of security for David Duke, the grand national wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, when Duke travels to Colorado to meet a local chapter of the KKK. The look on Duke’s face when he sees Stallworth is priceless, the whole logic of his white power delusions compromised by the absurdity of being protected from harm by a black man. But of course Duke is too thick to get the joke, as it takes intelligence to know and appreciate irony and paradox.
Although Spike Lee might be wise not to analyse racism directly in the film, I wish to do so now. First of all, race is a delusion, a cultural concept, a myth. The human genome has been decoded. No genes for race were found because none exist. So what’s all the fuss and suffering about? It comes from pre-scientific ignorance and superstition, tribal fear and distrust of the so-called other based on appearances and other differences. It isn’t rational, it’s emotional — unhealthy and destructive emotion. It creates problems and trouble where none exist. It’s fear and delusion in the minds of ignorant and intolerant people.
But the consequences of such ignorance and intolerance are all too real, especially for those on the receiving end of hatred and bigotry. It seems incredible that the problem of racism should still exist in the 21st century, a scientific age. But this illustrates the cultural limitations of science as an educational tool. Even though the evidence, knowledge and truth are there, people go on believing in this virulent myth, basing their belief on faith, which is always a flimsy foundation. Nietzsche said this about that:
“Faith is not wanting to know what is true.”
So I think it comes down to that, the true believers in this case thinking whiteness confers some sort of special meaning and privilege to them. They don’t know why skin pigmentation exists, oblivious to evolutionary contingencies and adaptive traits needed for survival. They can’t conceive that all their earliest ancestors were black and that their genetic line can be traced back to Africa. They oppose the truth of it with guns and ignorance.
Many of the whites in the film, needless to say, don’t come out looking very good. Even in his own police department Stallworth has to deal with at least one bigot. Bigoted policemen are hardly different than KKK members. Same mentality, different uniform.
Stallworth also has to prove to his superiors that he’s a serious undercover cop. He’s professional, or wants to be, given a chance. One of his first assignments is to infiltrate a black power meeting on the campus of a local university. Stokely Carmichael, a charismatic black leader, will be speaking there. Stallworth wears a wire and attends the meeting in his Jimi Hendrix afro and black beard. He fits right in, nobody suspecting otherwise. Is he snooping? Yes and no. Professionally as a cop he’s there to ferret out any dangerous subversive activities. But as a private black man he’s there to find out what’s going on culturally, what the people are thinking and saying. Are they non-violent, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was and preached in the 1960s? It’s now the early ‘70s and what are these new black leaders (like Carmichael) thinking and saying? He wants to know for his own good.
The private Stallworth (not the cop) is also attracted to an intelligent, beautiful young black woman. She is politicised and articulate, fully aware of the tortured history of the U.S. She wants justice and equality, things that all decent people want for those in society irrespective of colour. Her intelligence and beauty will complicate things for Stallworth, but they will not compromise him and his investigation. So he’s like an acrobat with several balancing acts to maintain. And, because he’s skilful and determined, he’s adept at it.
His great coup comes when he passes himself off as a white racist over the telephone with the head of the local chapter of the KKK. In fact he’s so good at imitating the diction and cadences of white people over the phone that he cons David Duke into thinking he’s a clan member. No one in the clan of course ever sees Stallworth, or when they do they don’t know he’s Stallworth. The KKK Stallworth in the flesh is Stallworth’s white colleague cop Flip Zimmerman, who is a secular Jew. That’s serious trouble too if the KKK discovers the truth about Flip. It isn’t only blacks whom they despise. They kick them around because they can, because the casual lazy racism that underlies American society tacitly approves of it. But the insidious Jew is something different. He’s scheming and invisible. He’s divisive and exclusive. He’s rotten and eroding the fabric of society. He’s everywhere and nowhere and hard to pin down. But his evil work goes on. Zimmerman, then, walks into the lion’s den. If it’s demanding for Ron Stallworth to impersonate the voice of a white man over the phone, it’s far worse for Flip Zimmerman, the secular Jew, to infiltrate the KKK by playacting at being a virulent racist. His performance is harrowing, breathtaking, heroic. What could be worse than being in the company of gun-toting, hate-spewing white trash? Yet there he is using the N-word repeatedly and casually castigating the virulent Jews to prove his ‘moral’ worth to his fellow racists.
So the film is really about two main journeys — Stallworth’s to initially con the KKK and Zimmerman’s to infiltrate it to defuse the bomb violence the group is planning. Both journeys work splendidly, and the acting by John David Washington as Stallworth and Adam Driver as Zimmerman are superb, wholly convincing. I wondered why the film was up for several Academy Awards but now I wonder no more. Great to see Spike Lee honoured too. If he isn’t the conscience of America, he should be. Excellent of him also to use actual footage from Charlottesville 2017 at the end of the film. Preachy? Not really. Appropriate, I think, in showing that racism in America in the early ‘70s did not die out then. It carried right on through to this century and persists. What could be more relevant than to say so?
The film is an honest work of educational art. When or if America grows up, it should give Spike Lee the Congressional Medal of Honor, not that Congress is anything to boast about in patriotic terms these days, being the last refuge for plenty of scoundrels, most of them Republicans.