Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman’ Mines the Past to Explain Our Racist Present

The film references 70s blaxploitation to tell the true story of a black cop who infiltrated the KKK.

Set in the 1970s, Spike Lee’s new film BlacKkKlansman tells the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first black detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. To make his mark on the department, Stallworth decides to infiltrate the local Klu Klux Klan chapter and bring their plans to light.

To tell his story, Lee employs a number of visual callbacks to the blaxploitation film era. For a brief time in the 70s, there was a proliferation of black representation in lead roles—roles that certainly would have gone to white counterparts under regular circumstances. The films played up black stereotypes, but they also cast us as the heroes of our own stories, an exception in Hollywood, arguably both then and now.

Lee’s film about Stallworth hits audiences with a dual historical reckoning: the state of race relations in the 70s (which feel, unsurprisingly, familiar) and the history of black representation in Hollywood. BlacKkKlansman and other recent films like BlindspottingSorry to Bother You, and The Hate U Give all seem to be doing something similar: representing the black experience in ways akin to blaxploitation films in the 70s. But are we in a redux of that era or experiencing something new that expands upon the foundation laid by black filmmakers over 40 years ago?

At the New York premiere of BlacKkKlansman, Lee told VICE that he wasn’t sure whether the new film would be considered a reaction to the current political climate or a catalyst for something greater. But he does see the film as a conversation starter: “Just talk. Let’s be alert, wake up—I’ve been saying this since 1988, School Daze: ‘Wake up.’”

With all this in mind, considering the ways black filmmakers have conveyed segments of the black experience, I called up Awam Amkpa, a documentary filmmaker, writer, and professor at New York University who is also one of Lee’s colleagues. We discussed the current state of black cinema and whereBlacKkKlansman fits into the historical narrative of black film.

VICE: How would you define blaxploitation?
Awam Amkpa: It’s part of the economic history of American movies, in that Hollywood knew there were black audiences—especially in cities—but it didn’t know how to tell the story of black people, despite people like Oscar Micheaux who opened a pathway for black stories, especially about the Great Migration, or issues of being biracial, or being conscious of the whiteness in one’s blackness, and so on.

If you fast forward, it would be the likes of Melvin Van Peebles that opened Hollywood to the idea of blaxploitation. His Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was really about the inner-city, about the hustle of living in the city, and what it means to be a black subject in a neighborhood that’s economically circumscribed. Van Peebles’s film was attracting a lot of people, but Hollywood was not tapping into that, and it was the birth of what would become blaxploitation.

Who was really behind blaxploitation? Was it like BlacKkKlansman, which sees Jordan Peele producing, is directed by a black person, and has a black main character?
Blaxploitation was not necessarily produced by black people, although it was acted by black people and in some cases directed by black people—very few cases, that is. But in general, it was a space opened up in the economy of Hollywood to allow for black representation. It’s a very paradoxical idea, blaxploitation, because on one hand it exposes the racism of the American movie industry and its economy, but on the other hand it was also a space where African-Americans could insert their own stories.

So where would a film like BlacKkKlansman fit into the historical context of blaxploitation?
The idea of blackness becomes like a counter narrative of American nationalism. It’s counter in the sense that it never fully belongs, and it has to create its own space. We’re all these years after slavery, and blackness is still seen and codified—both judicially and culturally—as a crime: either crime happening or crime waiting to happen.

It’s that counter narrative that feeds into all the films you’ve been watching recently. And this current one by Spike, case-in-point, shows what happens when the black body is toxic in mainstream America. The historical arc shows that what’s going on is not just new but it’s carried over: it’s a continuation of a history which our educational system, our culture, even our politics sees as a bad time but is replaying itself uncontrollably.

That’s why going back to this story of the Klu Klux Klan and this undercover detective who infiltrates the organization is really interesting. When you get somebody who’s a black cop, upholding the legal structures of the system, going into that group, it becomes this play on inclusion and exclusion: how can African Americans be included in the American narrative when their bodies are always criminalized and demonized?

You would think after eight years of Obama the comfort of black bodies in leadership positions would have arrived. Instead, we see it thrown back into another, earlier kind of society where things never changed. This film is situated in history, but it’s two histories: the history of American cinema but also the history of American nationalism.

The original article and full conversation can be found here on VICE.

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