Spike Lee “Does the Right Thing”

By: Bill Whaley
12 August, 2018

In a review of the movie, the NYT’s A.O. Scott’s piece is headlined: “Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman’ Journeys Into White America’s Heart of Darkness.” Black and white racial issues, which seemed personal and particular in Lee’s brilliant 1989 film, “Do the Right Thing” with Danny Aiello, become epic and historic in his newest film, BlacKkKlansman (winner of Cannes Grand Prix). Just as they were suckered by a true-life black Colorado Springs detective, Ron Stallworth, on whom the late 70s story is based, so David Duke and the Klannies will want to rush to see how they are portrayed as dangerous but representative caricatures. Who can resist Hollywood’s silver screens?

The Klannies, in fact, are presented as one-dimensional human beings, reminiscent of Jean Paul Sartre’s character in “Portrait of an Anti-Semite” wherein pitiful individuals blame the “other” for their own short-comings but hold on to their identity because they can say, “At least I’m not black or a Jew.” Lee’s film adds resonance to the cinematic tale about race in America by including clips that focus on the devastating effects: Gone with the Wind, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, outtakes from the T.V. coverage of the White Supremacist march at Charlottesville as well as contemporary comments from today’s salutary representatives, Donald Trump and David Duke.

My favorite cinema allusions in Lee’s movie include the “Blaxploitation” films so popular in the 70s: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Shaft, Super Fly, Coffy, Foxy Brown, Blacula, Black Mama, White Mama, Mandingo. (Full disclosure: I liked the style and the irony of resistance in blaxploitation but, in addition, the films were cheap to exhibit and my clientele at the Plaza Theatre loved these movies.)

Only last week, Fox News’s Laura Ingraham lamented illegal immigration, code words for racism, saying: “In major parts of the country, it does seem that the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people and they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like.” In fact, we voted for these changes beginning in 1776 right through the New Deal and President’s Johnson “great society” in the 60s. Course New Mexico itself missed Ingraham’s notion of “white nativism” since the indigenous and native New Mexicans preceded by centuries “white flight” that turned into “white fight” aka “Manifest Destiny” in the west.

Spike’s history lesson is a horror story gone full circle: Freddie keeps coming back: Nixon’s “southern strategy,” Reagan’s “welfare queen,” George Bush’s “Willie Horton” and now Trump’s “good people” marching as Nazis in Charlottesville buttressed by David Duke’s praise for the president for his racial politics.

And Spike typically integrates the music, dance, and cinematography which underscores the “Black is Beautiful” power movement in the mold of the James Brown anthem: “I’m black and I’m Proud.” The cast of John David Washington, Denzel’s son, Adam Driver as buddy cop, Flip Zimmerman, Topher Grace as David Duke, and Laura Harrier, as Patrice (tribute to Angela Davis) as well as the stooges playing Klannies make for a welcome ensemble of actors and actresses in both comic and tragic tones.

In terms of literature and film, the Joseph Conrad novella, Heart of Darkness, alluded to by Scott above, presents the archetypal journey of white Europeans into Black Africa, echoed by Francis Ford Coppola’s story of American invasion of Vietnam per “Apocalypse Now,” famously portrayed at the dark end with Kurtz (Brando) and the newspaperman (Hopper), which can be summarized by “the horror, the horror.” Despite the comedy and celebration of spiritual resistance, the contemporary American race and culture war takes on the ominous tone of tragedy in BlacKkKlansman, borne of more than 350 years of racism on this continent.

The harrowing clip, bodies portrayed row on row in the scene from Gone with the Wind, suggests the mortal results if we vote for Trump like Laura Ingraham to allow a repeat of history. Spike did the right thing here in glowing technicolor to warn us about the hoodies, the white sheets, and the cross burnings. I am personally reminded of John Belushi in The Blues Brothers when Jake and Elwood approach the white supremacists in Skokie and says: “I hate …Nazis.” Then they run the bastards off the bridge.

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