Spike Lee’s Ode to Integration or “Americans Together Laughing at the KKK”
SUBJECTS — Subjects Here
AGE: 13+; Rated R for language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references;
Comedy; 2018; 2 hrs 15 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
This movie is Spike Lee’s take on the story of Colorado Spring’s first black police detective, Ron Stallworth. In 1979 Stallworth ran an undercover intelligence operation in which he became the only African American to be granted membership in a KKK organization. The first half of the film shows Mr. Stallworth’s hiring and the beginning of the operation, sticking pretty much to the story described in the detective’s memoir. The second half of the movie careens into at times hilarious fiction, but ends with footage from the tragedy of the Charlottesville August 2017 Unite the Right rally, and the martyrdom of a young white woman Heather Heyer. However, all of the fictional elements in the second half of the film, are similar to incidents in history.
BlacKkKlansman is an excellent example of historical fiction in a comedy because it is solidly based on real events, even when it moves away from the specific story of Ron Stallworth.
BlacKkKlansman is fun. It provides a comedic but accurate description of just a few of the evils of white supremacy and the KKK. The film shows blacks and whites working together to combat racism and white supremacy. The career of Ron Stallworth is a good example of integration at work in America. The link to events in Charlottesville in 2017 demonstrates that the threat of violence from white supremacists is still present.
Spike Lee, in his own inimitable style, has seconded Ryan Coogler’s accomplishment in Fruitvale Station by presenting a nuanced portrait of relations between blacks and whites. Stallworth’s white colleagues at the Colorado Springs Police Department have his back and enjoy his company.
Students will analyze and discuss the ramifications of an incident which affirms American values across racial lines with blacks and whites working together to combat racism. They will be motivated to study the KKK, the Black Power Movement, the history and the continuing challenge of racism in the U.S., and important events in the Civil Rights Movement such as the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 and the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally.
Watch the movie with your children. Tell them that what it shows about Ron Stallworth is mostly accurate: he was a young black police detective who ran an intelligence operation against the KKK, speaking several times on the phone to David Duke the “Grand Wizard” of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and receiving an official KKK membership card. Recount for your children some of the highlights that depict real events such as the time Stallworth was assigned to be the body guard for David Duke when Duke visited Colorado Springs and the way the police department would prevent cross burnings by increasing their patrols near locations where the KKK planned to burn a cross. Talk to them and show them pictures of other real events on which other scenes in the movie are based, such as the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 and, for older children, the lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas in 1916. If you can, relate the racism in the movie to an event that your child has witnessed or experienced.
USING IN THE CLASSROOM
Tell the class that many of the events in the movie actually happened and those that were invented by the filmmakers have precedent in the history of the KKK and the Civil Rights Movement. Three characters in the film merit mention.
- In 1972 Ron Stallworth was the first black police detective employed by the Colorado Springs Police Department. After that Mr. Stallworth had a distinguished career in law enforcement for more than 30 years. Not only did he run a brilliant intelligence operation against the KKK, becoming the only black man to become a member in good standing of the organization, but when he changed jobs and worked for the Utah Public Safety Department, he developed several groundbreaking anti-gang techniques.
- Another real person portrayed in the movie is David Duke, Grand Wizard of the KKK from 1974 to 1980. Duke is a revered leader of white supremacists, even to this day. Duke pioneered a new public image of the Klan that falsely claimed to be non-violent.
- Stokely Carmichael, who later changed his name to Kwame Ture, was a riveting speaker, civil rights leader, and one of the originators of the Black Power movement. Becoming disillusioned with the U.S., Carmichael moved to Africa where he changed his name to honor the African leaders who became his mentors, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and SekouTouré of Guinea.
- Other minor characters also represent real people such as the police chief, the Sargent, and various detectives.
After Showing the Movie:
Ask students to describe what they thought of the movie and the events it portrayed. In the discussion, teachers may want to bring up the following points:
- Stallworth actually was assigned to be the bodyguard for David Duke when Duke visited Colorado Springs for a Klan event. Stallworth claims to have tricked Duke into taking a picture with him as shown in the film (although the actual photograph has been lost).
- The scenes in which the police department would prevent cross burnings by increasing their patrols near locations where the KKK planned to burn a cross are accurate.
- David Duke was elected to the Louisiana House of Representatives serving from 1989–1992. In 2002, Duke pled guilty to mail fraud for raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from his supporters with false claims that he was in financial difficulties when, in fact, he was financially secure and spent much of the money he collected on gambling.
- The white detective who served as Stallworth’s stand-in when face-to-face meetings Klansmen were necessary was not Jewish. That is a touch added by director Spike Lee. However, in his investigation, Ron Stallworth did work with Jewish members of the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith, receiving inquiries from them and providing information to them.
- Whenever Duke or one of the other Klansmen told Stallworth about an impending Klan action in another city, Stallworth would call the police officials in the city that was the target and alert them.
- The scenes of the white officers collapsing with laughter at overhearing the conversations with Duke are reported by Stallworth in his memoir. They did occur.
- Stallworth did get a membership card to the KKK as well as a Certificate of “Citizenship.”
- The characters of the local Klansmen are fictional.
- There was no bomb plot in Colorado Springs. However, members of various KKK factions have carried out many bombings and murders. The worst was the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama, which killed four little girls. The bomb plot in the movie is intended to represent these acts of terror by the KKK.
- The Black Power Movement, which at its most radical conducted a series of bombings and murders in the 1970s and 1980s, never played a major role in U.S. politics. While there have been efforts to create a movement motivated by the slogan “Black Power” since that time, none have gained traction. As the Stallworth character told his chief, the masses of African Americans have never been moved to violence.
- The lie detector incident is fictional.
- There was a young woman who Stallworth mentions in his memoir but the relationship was not nearly as advanced as in the movie. The incident in which this young lady and Kwame Ture are stopped by police did not happen. There is nothing in the memoir about a police officer putting his hands on her nor about a sting in which a racist cop is caught on tape and arrested.
- The gruesome lynching described Belafonte to a group of college students by the old black man played by singer/actor Harry Belafonte really did happen. The man murdered was Jesse Washington who was accused of raping a white woman. The lynching took place in Waco, Texas in 1916. Ten thousand whites gathered to watch and cheer.
- One of the tangible results of Stallworth’s investigation was the banishment to a distant posting for two NORAD officers who were Klan members. This incident happened
- The final comment that teachers can make to a class is about the history of the KKK. When the South lost the Civil War, veterans of the defeated Confederate armies created the KKK. They intimidated freed slaves and resisted Reconstruction. The KKK was effectively broken by President U.S. Grant in the early 1870s.
- The Klan’s second and largest incarnation began in 1915 and peaked in the 1920s. It was a major political factor electing governors, majorities in some state legislators, and even U.S. Senators. Cross-burnings, not a part of the original Klan, were developed in this era. The Klan’s influence waned in the late 1920s and it dissolved in 1940.
- A third KKK arose in the 1950s in reaction to the Civil Rights Movement. During this period there were many KKK organizations, some national in scope but there were also many local groups. At times they aligned with neo-Nazi and white supremacist organizations. The newest version of the KKK has engaged in murder and bombings. In the 1970s several KKK groups attempted to become more mainstream and claimed to be nonviolent. The third incarnation of the KKK has had negligible political influence.
- In 2017 there were 72 active KKK groups in the U.S.
An ode is a hymn of praise. The film, while it expresses a romantic feeling for “Black Power,” shows a black man, integrating into the larger society, and doing something good for all Americans by infiltrating the KKK. This incident shows that the KKK is ridiculous but also dangerous.
2. There are two radical groups depicted in this story, the KKK and the Black Power movement. What is this movie telling us about them?
That neither is right and that the only way ahead for America is integration.
3. [Ask for volunteers from the class to give one response to this question. Tell students that reasonable people may disagree and that if they disagree with what one of their classmates has to say or have anything to add, to raise their hand and they’ll be given a chance to contribute. Here is the suggested question:] “Farce is a type of comedy which uses exaggeration, buffoonery, and ludicrously improbable situations to evoke laughter or to amuse its audience. Great comedy also contains an element of truth. Name a scene in BlacKkKlansman that is farcical but also contains a kernel of truth. Describe the scene the truth that it refers to..” [Teachers: you may have to prod a little by asking more than once, “What is the truth here?”]
- The entire situation of a black police detective becoming a member of the KKK is ludicrously improbable. The truth is, it really happened. Another truth that this incident tells us is that racists cannot recognize the “inferiority” of blacks by anything other than the mere color of a person’s skin, which, of course, tells us nothing about who a person really is.
- Felix Hendrikson, the Klansman who was suspicion of Stallworth’s stand-in, has healthy doses of farce in his characterization, especially in the fictional scene with the lie detector. There are several levels of truth here. First, there are some people whose hatred and absorption with a cause is this intense. Second, he was right, the stand-in was a police officer.
- The characterization of Connie Hendrikson, a woman obsessed with proving herself to be valuable to the Klan, is also farcical. As for truth, we don’t know if such characters exist, but they probably do. Some people are so desperate to ingratiate themselves to others that they will take really stupid, sometimes criminal actions.
- The stupid drunken Klansman is farcical. The kernel of truth here is that while some of the Klansmen have more polish, such as the Klan leaders, underneath they are all very much like the drunken oaf embodied in this character.
- The character of David Duke is true to life, but this shows how farcical he really is. He is a leader of the Klan which is based on the belief that black people are “inferior” but can still be conned by a black person. He cannot tell that he is dealing with an “inferior” until he sees the color of the black man’s skin, which means that the skin color tells us nothing about the real person inside.
- The ceremonies of the Klan are ridiculous. The truth here is that the real Klan engages in similarly ridiculous rituals. You can find videos of them on the Internet.
- The positions taken by “Kwame Ture” and the attitude of the student leader, the character Patrice Dumas, both have elements of farce because they do little except express the justified anger of Black Americans about how they have been treated. Who in this film actually benefits African Americans? The answer is Ron Stallworth, by working with his fellow white officers to infiltrate and neutralize the KKK.
4. What are the strengths of this film?
There is no one correct response. A strong response will be that it is funny and the humor has strong elements of truth.
5. What are the weaknesses of this film?
There is no one correct response. A strong response will be that there are a few weird scenes that make little sense like the walk up the hall by Stallworth and Dumas, which is a scene apparently repeated in most of Spike Lee’s films.
6. Whose actions in this film actually benefit African Americans and, actually, all Americans? Is it the KKK, the Black Power people like Kwame Ture, the black student leader Patrice Dumas, or Ron Stallworth? Defend your answer.
Ron Stallworth and his fellow officers are the only people who actually help society by infiltrating and neutralizing the local branch of the KKK.
7. What is the role of irony in this story?
The concept of a black man becoming a member of the KKK is ironic. The fact that David Duke the Grand Wizard of the KKK had heartfelt telephone conversations with a black man is ironic.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
1. Read Mr. Stallworth’s memoir, Black Klansman, and write a detailed comparison of what is reported in the book and what is shown in the film.
2. Write a persuasive essay entitled, “Director Spike Lee invites all Americans to laugh at white supremacists and the KKK. However, is white supremacy a laughing matter?” Argue for or against the tactic of using humor to discredit racism and white supremacy.
3. Write an expository essay on the history and influence of the KKK.
4. Write an expository essay on the history and influence of the Black Power Movement.
5. Write a persuasive taking a position on how much progress America has made in riding society of racism.
6. Write an expository essay on important events in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
7. Write an expository essay on protections for slavery written into the U.S. Constitution and how they have affected modern American history.
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
- History by Hollywood article on BlacKkKlansman; contains good facts and
photos of Klan card and Klan membership certificate;
- Interview with Ron Stallworth an hour long; sometimes boring but really interesting on his approach to gangs and rap music;
- Interview with Ron Stallworth and John David Washington Aug 24, 2018
- Interview of Ron Stallworth by Meghan Kelley
- What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in BlacKkKlansman by Jasmine Sanders, August 10, 2018
- Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman draws a ham-fisted line from white supremacy’s past to its present — And it lets white audiences off the hook. by Alissa Wilkinson
- Review in the Hollywood Reporter
- Review: Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman’ Journeys Into White America’s Heart of Darkness N.Y. Times Review by A. O. Scott;