By Auhjanae McGee
In his work, Spike Lee, an African American filmmaker, tries to straddle the line between accurately portraying the black experience and making those experiences palatable for a larger audience. His most recent film, ‘BlacKkKlansman,’ skillfully does both, hitting the viewer over the head with symbolism and real-world allusion to blackness while also appealing to a demographically diverse group of people.
‘BlacKkKlansman’ has an interesting and unique premise: A black detective in 1970s Colorado goes undercover with the help of his white partner to expose potential dangers in a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. John David Washington, the actor who portrays Ron Stallworth, also known as the Black Klansman, calls his local chapter of the Klan and uses his “white voice” to pretend to be a racist white man in order to set up an undercover investigation to expose the wrongdoings of the organization. While the film expertly grapples with ideas of black assimilation in a white America, it is also littered with problematic black stereotypes.
The most prominent issue of ‘BlacKkKlansman’ is the reinforcement of stereotypes that contribute to the exploitation of African Americans in film. The idea that certain races speak in particular dialects and that “white” dialects are the most acceptable permeates throughout the entire film. One could argue that Stallworth pretending to be white over the phone is crucial for him to have gotten his foot in the door with the KKK. But by the ending, when he reveals his “black voice,” it’s clear that his eloquence and diction are supposed to be seen as an act—a white act.
Furthermore, Patrice, a black female activist and president of the Black Student Union at a local college, is an exceptionally flat and static character. Her only role is to stand for “black power” and oppose the police force, perpetuating yet another stereotype: that black people hate all cops. Lee’s exploitation of these assumptions is harmful to black people who see their race being reduced to overly-defined clichés, and simultaneously beneficial to white people who can feel comfortable hanging on to potentially problematic views they may have on the black race.
‘BlacKkKlansman’ does make the effort to depict Stallworth as a sort of mediator between two polarized sides. While that’s much needed in our current political climate, the effort could have been stronger. And the underlying issues hold this film back from realizing the type of true-to-life nuance that other movies that deal with the black identity in America — like Get Out — achieve.
Although Lee is an African American who can be said to be “of the culture,” he does not have a free pass to exploit the black characters whose stories he chooses to represent. The film is great for patronizing white liberals who want to champion the defeat of horrible racists at the hands of people of color. But if black audiences expect to see the trials and dynamics of being an African American cop undercover as a Klansman, they will be sorely disappointed.