Not sorry to bother you: the ‘BlacKkKlansman’ rift between Boots Riley and Spike Lee

[Note: minor BlacKkKlansman spoilers ahead.]

When you have your own word for the movies you make, it’s safe to say you’ve cemented yourself as a legendary filmmaker. Spike Lee has been bringing his ‘Joints’ to theaters for more than three decades, and with films like She’s Gotta Have It, Do The Right Thing, and Malcolm X, he has firmly established himself as one of the preeminent directors of black cinema.

This exalted status, however, does not mean he is without critics. Three years ago, Chance The Rapper panned Chi-Raq as “exploitive and problematic” for showing a world in which violence in Chicago could be curbed by black women abstaining from sex. And just a couple of weeks ago, Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley condemned Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansman, for its portrayal of the police.

BlacKkKlansman, based on a memoir by former undercover police officer Ron Stallworth, tells the story of how Stallworth (John David Washington), a black man, infiltrated the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. He did not, of course, do so in person: Stallworth imitated a ‘white voice’ (à la Sorry to Bother You) over the phone in discussions with Klan leaders, and the police sent a white officer named Flip (Adam Driver) to in-person Klan meetings to gather intel.

Riley’s criticism stems from the fact that the narrative presented in BlacKkKlansman is not what happened in real life. In an essay posted on Twitter, Riley contends that the majority of Stallworth’s work as an undercover police officer was actually dedicated to infiltrating black radical organizations. “There was no directive to stop the rise of White Supremacist organizations,” Riley wrote. “The directive was to stop radical organizations. The White Supremacists were infiltrated to be more effective tools of repression by the state.”

Riley insists he is not arguing that films must always be ‘true’; his own film wildly careens into the (hopefully) impossible. But he takes issue with a movie that purports to be ‘based on a true story,’ but whose “false parts...try to make a cop the protagonist in the fight against racial oppression.”

Riley calls out numerous moments in the film that make the police overly sympathetic: making Flip’s character Jewish was “a made up thing to raise the stakes and make it seem like the cops were sacrificing more than they were”; making the black radical Kwame Ture appear more violent than he truly was; having the police remove a racist cop from the force (a particularly unfortunate scene in an abrupt, messy ending).

Riley wraps up his criticism by condemning the violence of the police state and recalling Chance’s criticism of Chi-Raq. “To the extent that people of color deal with actual physical attacks...we deal with it mostly from police on a day to day basis,” Riley wrote. “This new film is a political brother of Chi-Raq...The two films say together: ‘Black folks need to stop worrying about police violence and worry about what they’re doing to each other — plus the police are against racism anyway.’”

Lee, when asked to respond, initially said that he did not want to “dilute the message of my film” by engaging in a back-and-forth with Riley. Pressed on the issue, Lee relented with this:

Look at my films: they’ve been very critical of the police, but on the other hand I’m never going to say all police are corrupt, that all police hate people of color. I’m not going to say that. I mean, we need police. Unfortunately, police in a lot of instances have not upheld the law; they have broken the law. But I’d also like to say, sir, that black people are not a monolithic group. I have had black people say, ‘How can a bourgeois person like Spike Lee do Malcolm X?’

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Lee’s comments are reminiscent of his films: there’s a lot going on, but also a lot he’d rather leave unsaid. Lee has never shied away from controversy; he killed Radio Raheem, after all. But he’s also never been one to provide explicit answers to the questions he raises in his films. “What I feel what I have to do as a filmmaker is present problems, so the discussion can start,” Lee once said in a panel discussion of Do the Right Thing.

Re-watching the Radio Raheem death scene from Do the Right Thing, Riley’s frustration with BlacKkKlansman is understandable. How could a pioneering filmmaker who delivered one of the most memorable, visceral moments of police violence in film history make a movie in which the police fight against racial oppression?

In part, Lee’s ability to make both of these movies stems from the director’s reticence to deliver an interpretation of the issues he raises. Yes, Ron Stallworth works for the police, the same institution that systematically targets black folks. But the clarity with which Riley proclaims that Lee has made these cops ‘heroes’ is questionable. Indeed, one of the central tensions of BlacKkKlansman is whether Stallworth, as a cop, has the capacity to change things at all.

At the end of the film, Stallworth has a discussion with the woman he’s been dating, Patrice (Laura Harrier). Patrice, a radical activist, tells Stallworth she is not ok with his position as a cop. He tells her that he can both serve the police force and be “down for the liberation of black people.” A noise interrupts their conversation, and they go to investigate, guns drawn, together. Riley cites this as evidence that Lee is legitimizing Stallworth’s viewpoint that he can fight against racial oppression as a police officer.

But Lee does not provide a clear answer to the question of whether Stallworth can make a difference. Stallworth convinces the police force to let him investigate the KKK all the way up to Klan leader David Duke. When Duke comes to town for a speaking engagement, though, Stallworth is still forced to serve as his security detail. There is no legal action taken against Duke for running a terrorist organization; his only comeuppance is a phone call akin to a savage @ on Twitter.

And at the end of BlacKkKlansman, Stallworth is forced to shut down the investigation of the Klan and destroy all evidence of the investigation’s existence, for unexplained reasons. Ultimately, Lee leaves the question of whether Stallworth made a difference fairly ambiguous.

This is not to say that Riley doesn’t have a point. When it comes to an institution built on violence by the state against people of color, Riley might argue, ambiguity simply does not go far enough. It’s a distinction that’s telling of the difference in the focus between the two filmmakers overall. In Sorry to Bother You, the struggle is explicitly structural. Cassius’s (Lakeith Stanfield) financial insecurity stems from a corrupt capitalist system founded on the oppression of the poor. Cassius’s blackness is systematically devalued and tokenized. His labor is devoted to inflating the wealth of a white billionaire Chad named Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), the epitome of the corporate structure the film is calling out.

Lee isn’t unaware of structural inequities, per se. In a recent interview with Time, the director said quite clearly that “The United States of America’s foundation is genocide of native people and slavery!...That’s the foundation—the very fiber.” As a filmmaker, though, he has always been more interested in the choices that individual people make. In nearly all of his movies, Lee has characters directly address the camera. It’s a tactic that deliberately prevents the viewer from taking in the film as a piece of entertainment removed from the real world; the audience is directly implicated in what’s happening on screen.

Lee's aim is right there in the title of his most celebrated work: to tell someone to do the right thing is to make a plea to an individual. The direct appeal is an inventive narrative device, and one that makes Lee’s movies seem so timeless and personal. Conversely, the lack of this individual focus is what made Sorry to Bother You feel so radical and essential: Riley was able to take a look at issues in a structural way to an extent that Lee never really has.

There are, undeniably, big differences in Riley and Lee’s beliefs about how to tell a political story and the extent to which sympathy can be extended to an institution like the police. The irony of this rift, however, is in how similar Lee and Riley’s goals are with their films. Riley opens his BlacKkKlansman critique with praise for Lee: “Spike Lee has been a huge influence on me,” Riley wrote. “I hold him in highest respect as a filmmaker.”

The influence shows. Both filmmakers are interested in making aesthetically provocative pieces of mass entertainment that double as coalition-building calls to action. Sorry to Bother You unites workers of various races, genders, and ages in a common fight for labor rights. BlacKkKlansman unites Ron and Flip in a mission, not just to stop a white supremacist organization, but to come to terms with their own oppression. Lee reportedly made BlacKkKlansman after learning about the project from Jordan Peele, a producer on the film, and the Get Out director’s influence shows on Stallworth’s character: a black man brought into a purportedly accepting white culture, only to discover it’s not what it seems. Lee described this phenomenon in the Time interview: “People become delusional and think they’re not black anymore because they are accepted—it’s the okey-doke,” Lee said. “You can say that now, but they still think you’s a n*****.”

Stallworth’s partner, Flip, also arrives at a greater understanding of his marginalization. "I'm Jewish, yes, but I wasn't raised to be,” Flip tells Ron after Ron stresses the personal importance of the operation. “I was just another white kid. And now I'm in some basement denying it out loud. I never thought much about it, now I'm thinking about it all the time.”

That quote sums up Lee’s hope for his films: to take something that we’re not thinking about and make us start thinking about it. And, with the film’s ending, he pulls no punches in emphasizing just how important it is that we think about taking action to counter white supremacy right now.

BlacKkKlansman closes with footage from last year’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the violence that ensued, and the moral equivocation the President of the United States offered up. It’s a deeply unsettling conclusion, an ending that aims to make us uncomfortable about the normalization of white supremacy since the time of Ron Stallworth. Earlier in the movie, two characters discuss how “America would never elect somebody like David Duke President.” On August 22, two days before I saw the film, Duke took to Twitter to praise Trump for promoting a white supremacist conspiracy theory about South Africa.

By transitioning the end of the film from the narrative of BlacKkKlansman to real-life footage, Lee makes a direct appeal to the importance that cinema has in shaping our thoughts on race. BlacKkKlansman is not immediately recognizable as a Spike Lee Joint, because it opens with a shot from Gone with the Wind which glorifies a tattered Confederate flag over the Civil War battlefield aftermath. Later, the Klansmen revel in the overt racism of The Birth of a Nation, a film President Woodrow Wilson praised as “like writing history with lightning.” Lee is transparent in his belief that movies matter because they affect how we think, and that’s exactly what he is attempting with BlacKkKlansman.

There is a certain paradox, then, in the disagreement between Lee and Riley. By ending with bracing footage of the prevalence of white supremacy today, Spike Lee is trying to bother us. And by grounding his bonkers, anti-capitalist debut in specific political remedies, Riley is telling us to do the right thing.

At the end of Do the Right Thing, Lee leaves the audience with competing quotes, one from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. about the pointlessness of violence to achieve liberation and one from Malcolm X about the need to use any means necessary. Lee then shows a photo of the two leaders shaking hands.

Like these men, Riley and Lee’s philosophies are sometimes at odds, but they also act in a peculiar symbiosis. I’m not sure if I prefer one method, to the other; I’m glad both filmmakers exist. But at least now I’m thinking about the issues they've raised.

BlacKkKlansman: 3.5 stars