The Problem of Racism in Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman

Written by melindacarmen on 23. February 2023 19:10 o'clock


Americans are proud to live in a democratic country where the rights of all individuals are equal and racist attitudes are left in the past. However, many current events reveal that racism gains more and more supporters. The current President of the United States, Donald Trump, does not hide his racist beliefs, and the number of cases of police officers killing the unarmed African Americans continues to grow. One of the most influential Black directors who engages in the problems of racism, stereotypes, and Black identity, Spike Lee, directed a film that discusses the issue of racist attitudes in America. It is believed that civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s has contributed to the significant positive change of the American society, making White people stop perceiving Blacks as inferior and helping them forget all racial stereotypes and bias. However, in BlacKkKlansman, Lee shows that the struggle between the White racists and those who believed that people of all races are equal is still happening. The director uses a big number of references to films created during the 20th century and prominent historical events to demonstrate that racism has strong roots in the consciousness of Americans. The racist American past, which included slavery, segregation, exploitation, and public lynching of the Blacks, continues influencing people even today. Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman offers a historical perspective on the problem of racism and shows that racism is a reoccurring phenomenon in the American society that needs to be resolved now to avoid its reemergence in the future. BlacKkKlansman is a remarkable example of the film that analyzes what factors, events, and people influenced the emergence and development of racism in the United States. Read more articles on
Research Question: How does the film of Spike Lee help to understand the problem of racism in the United States?
The events of BlacKkKlansman take place in Colorado during the 1970s (Lee 4:48). The main character, young African American Ron Stallworth, applies for work at the police department. Due to past rampant racism and discrimination of colored people in America, he is perceived as the sign of positive changes within the society since previously, Blacks were not allowed to work as police officers. He receives the position in the police archive and after a number of episodes of racist behavior towards him from one of his colleagues, Stallwarth decides that he needs to take a complicated case in order to receive promotion and gain the respect of his fellow policemen. As a result, he contacts the leader of the local Ku Klux Klan group and claims that he wishes to join them. By working undercover, he hopes to find evidence that KKK continues its violent activities against the local African Americans. However, since he is Black, he asks his Jewish colleague, Flip Zimmerman, to assist him in this case and to attend KKK meetings instead of him. At the same time, in Colorado, an activist group that supports the rights of Blacks, the Black Power, organizes various events and meetings to empower the local Black population, which irritates one of the members of KKK who attempts to stop the activists by killing them during one of their meetings by planting a bomb.
The film explores the problem of racism and shows how discrimination looked during the second half of the 20th century in order to demonstrate that the contemporary racism has identical attributes. Lee uses jump cut for the opening of the film: at first, the audience sees the episode from Gone with the Wind, and then the shot quickly changes to a pseudo-documentary video, where White Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard addresses American people by claiming that Black people started having too much power in the United States (Lee 2:08). Here, the director uses continuity editing and montage as the shots of Beauregard's speech are interrupted by images or historical photos and videos of Black activists, common African Americans. To show the hatred and rage of Beauregard, the director uses a combination of different shots. At first, he applies medium long shot to show Beauregard who stands in front of the screen where The Birth of Nation is broadcast, and then the close-up is used to focus on his face as he speaks to all people who hate the Blacks and wish to stop their rights movements. The film loses its coloring and the shots become white and red, with shallow depth of field technique being used to focus on Beauregard's face and blurring the background. This way, Lee portrays the hatred, anger, and loathing that White racists experience, transforming them into actions directed against the Blacks.
The film's plot begins with the high-angle shot of the protagonist who approaches the sign that says that minorities are encouraged to apply for work in the local police department (Lee 4:47). This type of shot demonstrates that people usually disregard Black people and particularly the main character. The sign itself is also racist because on the one hand, the officials try showing that they are ready to adopt the social changes and move away from the racist past. On the other hand, the police hire minorities in order to show their positive attitude while racism remains vibrant among the officers since their attitudes have remained the same. Lee also shows how racism and hatred towards people of color are supported among the racist groups. In one of the scenes, the members of KKK together with Flip Zimmerman practice shooting (Lee 1:00:52). After they have finished and left, Stallwarth comes to take some pictures of the place. The tracking shot shows the close-up of the targets from behind and Stallwarth who approaches them. The reverse angle establishing shot shows that the targets were made in the form of Black men who are running away (Lee 1:02:32). Thus, Lee shows how common objects may be used to increase the hatred towards specific individuals.
Another scene proving that racial stereotypes are present in the consciousness of police officers happens shortly afterward. When Stallworth attacks Connie, the wife of the radical KKK member, as she is trying to place the bomb to kill the Black Power leader, Patrice Dumas, and her friend, the police arrive and see that a Black man is attacking a White middle-class woman (Lee 1:54:11). Their first reaction is to grab the Black man. Even though Stallworth tells them that he works for the police, they do not listen to him and start beating him as Connie tells them that he was trying to rape her. As the shot changes, it is possible to hear the radio broadcast of some show, where the host tells that 80% of American population constitute White people. This way, Lee shows how the domination of the White race in America is constructed and how it sustains racism. Finally, Lee challenges the stereotypes that constitute the identity of the Blacks in the minds of the White population. In one of the episodes, Stallwarth calls the leader of KKK, David Duke, and asks him whether he would be able to distinguish a Black man from the White man by the manner of speaking. Duke confirms that Blacks talk differently, by using slang and specific words and intonations, and that these people would never manage to talk like Whites (Lee 1:18:40). These stereotypes exist even in the contemporary American culture. Lee criticizes the limited image that White people have of African Americans.
Nevertheless, the director also emphasizes the positive changes in the society. In one of the scenes, Patrice Dumas visits library to do some research. The establishing shot applied from the high angle shows the library and how Dumas enters it, taking a place at the table (Lee 1:15:11). The camera switches the angle to show how a White librarian approaches Dumas and tells her that she has found the documents she requested. The camera changes the distance as the director uses the tracking shot to approach the two women. When the White librarian leaves the shot, the camera continues approaching and then switches to the close-up of the documents Dumas is reading. Here, Lee shows that the Blacks have managed to achieve acknowledgment as the White librarian serves the Black visitor and a White character is not leading the scene. This moment shows that Blacks can be perceived as equal.
The film of Spike Lee is full of references to the variety of other films that dealt with the problems of racism and discrimination, as well as related historical events and personalities. Before the events of the film begin to unfold, the audience is shown an episode from the iconic scene from Gone with the Wind in which Scarlett O'Hara walks among the dead and dying soldiers of the South. The camera pulls back to show how many men died to support the Southern worldview and values. Through this reference, the director makes the message of the film clear, demonstrating that it is unwise to try to fight for such values as racism, discrimination of people according to the color of their skin, and inequality, which have no value at all. This way, Lee connects the history of racism in America from the Civil War, to the civil rights movement of the 1960s-1970s, and to the contemporary situation in the country, with the President openly expressing his racist attitudes (Leonhardt and Philbrick). The reference to this episode from Gone with the Wind emphasizes that regardless of how strong the racism might be, it will not last and eventually, its supporters will be defeated and their system of values will be destroyed.
Another reference to the different film, David Griffith's Birth of Nation, appears two times, once in the opening scene after the episode from Gone with the Wind and the second time closer to the climax. Even though this film of 1915 is perceived as one of the greatest film in the history of cinema because it included a variety of original techniques and methods of narration and presentation, it is also one of the most racist films ever directed. It depicts the events that occur mainly in South Carolina during and after the Civil War. Slavery for Griffith is a positive phenomenon that has an appropriate place in the society. The film shows Blacks as inferior creatures that are good only for labor and that due to their uncontrolled animal instincts and drives, they are ready to sexually abuse or rape White women. Many civil rights organizations criticized this film because it was effective in starting violence against African Americans in many US cities (Brody). The reference to this film shows how the same means of conveying of the ideas and telling the stories can serve for distinct purposes. Thus, through his film, Lee metaphorically argues with one of the founders of American cinema, and a respected and talented US director, and tries to show that he was wrong and that he used his skills and talent to promote and support false values.
The third important reference is the reference to the event that occurred a year after The Birth of Nation was released and which was likely to have been influenced by this film. Closer to the climax of Lee's picture, when the members of KKK are watching the above-mentioned Griffith's film, in the other part of the city, the members of the Black Power and other civil rights activists listen to an old man who recalls the episode of lynching of his friend. This friend was a real person, Jesse Washington, who was accused of rape and murder of his White employer's wife. The mob dragged him out of the court and lynched him in front of the city hall. The event gathered nearly 15.000 people, including city officials and police officers. The mood of the mob was cheerful and celebratory. One of the most striking and troubling features of the lynching was that no one intervened in what was happening (Smith). Lee's film discusses the activities of the civil rights movement and by referencing the lynching of Jesse Washington, the director shows the horrors that human indifference leads to. Lee used crosscutting to show the cruelty of the members of KKK and simply all people who judge others by the color of the skin. When the old man tells the story of Jesse Washington, at the same time, the shots from the ceremony of ordination to KKK takes place. The White members are shown as decent individuals who are proud to continue the traditions of KKK. The shots of the old black narrator contrasts the seeming nobleness of the KKK members, exposing their true identity and explaining what they actually do. This episode is one the strongest anti-racist messages of Lee's film.
Still, Lee uses not only films and events that negatively affected African Americans and supported racism. During one of the scenes, when the protagonist walks with Patrice Dumas, they discuss distinct blaxploitation films and actors, including Pam Grier, one of the most prominent stars of this film genre known for such movies as Coffy and Foxy Brown. She was typically perceived as the Queen of blaxploitation (Potier). One of the most important features of her career is that she not only popularized Blackness, but also forced Hollywood to redefine its presentation of women and specifically Black women. Dumas and Stallwarth argue about the role of these films in the success of the civil rights movement. Blaxploitation is the specific film genre that emerged during the 1970s and was represented by stereotypical Black characters. Even though the identity of African Americans in these movies was created based on a variety of racial bias and stereotypes, still, it was one of the first opportunities to rethink racial relations in the United States.
Another important topic discussed in Lee's film is the racist attitudes of police officers. First, the whole plot is based on the idea that a Black man tries to implement some positive changes through his work in the police department. In one of the episodes, the leader of Black Power drives the car with other African Americans and is stopped by the local police even though they did not do anything illegal. Moreover, one of the police officers starts sexually abusing Patrice Dumas, asserting that if she fights back, all of them will be arrested. The problem of the inappropriate attitude of police officers towards African Americans remains relevant today and sexual abuse is not its only characteristic. The Post calculated that starting from 2014, 225 Black people were killed by police officers (Nichols). All victims were unarmed and thus killed for no reason. The first event that initiated the count was the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. The unarmed young man was shot by the police officer as he assumed that the Black man was reaching for the gun (Nichols). Similar cases took place in Missouri, Baltimore, South Carolina, and North Charleston. One of the most recent incidents is the killing of Stephon Clark in the backyard of his grandparents' house in March 2018 (Nichols). The police officer shot Clark 20 times since he believed that the young man was walking towards him with a gun (Nichols). Eventually, it was established that Clark was holding a cell phone. This way, Lee connects the past and the present of racism in the American police. Many officers still possess racial stereotypes regarding Black males. Therefore, even though the civil rights movement forced the government to acknowledge that Blacks deserve equal rights, the heritage of the racist past is still present among the American citizens, especially police officers.
BlacKkKlansman is one of the most important films of the last decade. The problem of racism remains unresolved in the contemporary American society. Cinema is a powerful tool that can either spark or eliminate racism, prejudice, and discrimination. The film of Spike Lee is an attempt to analyze how the attitudes of Americans towards racism, segregation, slavery, and racial inequality was shaped by the cinema. The director emphasizes the role of the Birth of Nation in an increased hatred towards African Americans. One of the main problems of this film is that it was created by the White male for White Americans. Similarly, Lee shows that other films can help promote and popularize Black culture. This way, BlacKkKlansman engages in the collection of references to historical events and films that have shaped the racial attitudes of contemporary Americans. Lee's film offers a historical analysis of the problem of racism and discrimination. He connects the historical line of struggle for the rights of Blacks by linking it to the Civil War, the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and the contemporary American racism. The conclusion of the director is rather pessimistic as the events that occurred previously continue to reappear. Racial bias was not eradicated and stereotypes continue shaping the attitudes of the White people towards the Blacks. With his film, Lee urges to address the problem of racism as many people continue to support it as well as the groups that promote racist attitudes and bias. If racism is not stopped today, the achievements of the civil rights movement might be lost.


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