The stealthy campaign of subterfuge undertaken by Stallworth is only one possible stance of resistance. And in adopting such a form of civil disobedience, Stallworth aligns himself with a cultural tradition of black cunning and reinvention, celebrated in literary theory by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and in song by Oscar Brown Jr., of signifying – that is, of signifyin’ – meaning onto normative configurations of white power. Lee doesn’t present black politics as a monolithic configuration here; it, too, is full of its own contradictions, tensions, and irreconcilabilities. His film is, after all, about a black Klansman. The irony is not lost on Lee.
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Early on his debut record, Sin & Soul (1960), Oscar Brown Jr. sings a quirky little song about a mischievous monkey who dupes a foolhardy lion into picking a fight with an elephant. “Hey, there’s a great big elephant down the way,” Brown playfully croons, “goin’ ’round, talkin’, I’m sorry to say, about your mama in a scandalous way. Yes, he’s talkin’ ’bout your mama and your gran’ma too, an’ he don’t show much respect for you.” The lion then confronts the elephant only to get a good ol’ thrashing, whereupon he’s “dragged on off, more dead than alive.” The monkey, relishing his trickery, can’t hold back his mirth. “And you supposed to be the ‘King of the Jungle’ – ain’t that some stuff. You big overgrown pussycat, don’t you roar, or I’ll hop down there and whip you some more!” Brown himself even warns against the monkey’s chicanery. “Stay up in your tree; you are always lyin’ and signifyin’; but you better not monkey with me.” The monkey makes a habit of projecting or, in Brown’s terms, “signifying” intention, meaning, and action onto others that it itself, given certain social constraints, cannot otherwise perform. The song, fittingly titled “The Signifying Monkey,” has long been a staple of black music, with recordings by artists such as Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Rudy Ray Moore, and Johnny Otis. Its deceptively simple story, indeed, has deep roots in black cultural imagination.
The story passes itself down to us from black American slaves, who themselves, as literary theorist Henry Louis Gates Jr. notes, likely absorbed it from Cuban mythology.1 The Signifying Monkey, “ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language,” dwells on the margins of popular discourse from where it wreaks havoc on the established order of things. Though its marginalized position prevents it from capsizing the power structure of its given society, it can, nevertheless, artfully act as a thorn in the side of hegemonic actors. Indeed, the monkey knowingly dupes a lion into defeat, thereby destabilizing the jungle’s hierarchy. “The Monkey speaks figuratively, in a symbolic code; the Lion interprets or ‘reads’ literally and suffers the consequences of his folly.”2 The lion is momentarily dethroned. “And you supposed to be the ‘King of the Jungle,’” the monkey scoffs. The Signifying Monkey thus “determines the actions of the signified – the hapless Lion and the puzzled Elephant.”3 Crucially, however, the monkey acknowledges the lion’s privileged status; he refers to him as “king” – a supposed king. The Signifying Monkey thus borrows a mode of expression from the dominant system of power only to laugh at it, to undermine it, and to anticipate its overthrow. The language of the oppressor is expropriated to weaken the system of oppression. In this way, then, Gates argues that the Signifying Monkey acts as an “archetypal signifier” in black cultural production because of black artists’ cunning ability to “signify upon” white society’s dominant modes of signification, to discombobulate an oppressive white discourse through itself.4 Black artists have a long tradition of reclaiming modes of expression historically denied to them by white society only to disrupt them for their own ends. “Resemblance,” Gates writes of African American literature, “can be evoked cleverly by dissemblance.”5 The figure of the Signifying Monkey is itself “an ironic reversal of a received racist image of the black as simianlike.”6 The insidious caricature of Africans as primates is turned on its head – expropriated – in the tale of the Signifying Monkey to sabotage the very racists who propagate it. The once marginalized is now a maker of meaning.
It is with this offensive caricature that Spike Lee’s latest feature film, Blackkklansman (2018), tellingly begins. “The Brown decision, forced upon us by the Jewish controlled puppets on the U.S. Supreme Court, compelling white children to go to school with an inferior race,” says Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, a cameo played by Alec Baldwin backdropped by a Confederate flag, in a propaganda video agitating against the increased integration of American society circa 1979 (Fig. 1). “It’s the final nail in a black coffin towards America becoming a mongrel nation.… Do you really want your precious white child going to school with Negros? They’re lying, dirty monkeys.” This promotional piece, intermixed with clips from D.W. Griffith’s silent epic Birth of a Nation (1915), a perversely groundbreaking film that has long inflamed Lee, establishes the parameters of white discourse in Blackkklansman – an admixture of hysteria, hate, nostalgia, and jingoism vying to reclaim America from the “Martin Luther coons of this world.” It is against this tirade that Lee’s black protagonists must respond throughout his film. Rather than beginning in a typical narrative fashion, Blackkklansman first grounds itself in a dominant discourse of American whiteness. Lee draws our attention to the sort of language, tropes, and ideas underpinning the existing system of power in which black lives persist.
The following shot after Lee introduces his film with the intertitle “Dis Joint Is Based Upon Some Fo’ Real, Fo’ Real Sh*T” presents his protagonist, Ron Stallworth, as he approaches an unidentified building. This image filmically restages the power dynamics of Blackkklansman. Stallworth is seen in a high-angle shot dwarfed by what the viewer learns is an institutionally weaponized guarantor of white power: a police station. The historical weight of this institution cinematographically impinges itself on Stallworth here just as it has generations of minority communities before him. Stallworth’s act of priming his perfectly shaped afro is a subtle reaffirmation of his blackness, of his “otherness” in the eyes of white cops, before he enters the belly of the beast to, ironically enough, apply for a job as an officer in Colorado Springs. The contrast in the following shot of Stallworth’s afro and the police station’s banner is an allegory for the political stakes of Lee’s film (Fig. 2). Then, after receiving a job, Stallworth is tasked to work in the records bureau, where he is straightaway accused of having an incorrigible sexual appetite for white women. When he mentions his admiration for Cybill Shepherd, a famous ‘’70s-era actress, a white colleague of his retorts: “Oh c’mon, you know you want some of that.” From the outset, Stallworth does not conform to the expectations of white society, which Dr. Beauregard crudely articulated in his opening video, describing African Americans as “rapists, craving the virgin pure flesh of white women.” Stallworth begins, then, by undermining a pervasive stereotype deployed to denigrate black people. Indeed, he even refuses to say the word “toad,” a derogatory term for African Americans frequently heard in prison. “No toads here,” he informs a white cop asking for a black convict’s file. “I don’t have any toads; I do have human beings.” Stallworth pushes back against the dominant language of white discourse. His strategy of open defiance, however, especially in the confines of police culture, falls short. Stallworth is routinely harassed by his coworkers, denied promotion, and mocked; he comes to recognize the limits of resistance working in the control center of white authority.
Stallworth’s sense of disillusionment is then sharply countered at a rally he attends organized by the Black Student Union of Colorado College in which Kwame Ture, a prominent civil rights activist formerly known as Stokely Carmichael, urges his listeners to “stop running away from being black.” Clearly moved by Ture’s calls to “define beauty for black people,” Stallworth joins in the chorus of chanting “All Power to All the People.” Ture affirms the worth of blackness, and, in doing so, presses Stallworth to contemplate what it means to not just be a cop, but to be a black cop. This scene, indeed, is where Lee’s visual language reaches its poetic height when close-up shots of “thick lips,” “broad noses,” and “nappy hair” – the very attributes Ture hails as beautiful – gracefully come into view (Fig. 3). These dissolve shots lay bare the splendor of blackness; form is content. How, then, to defend black beauty in a deeply racist institution? This becomes a particularly worried question when the President of the Black Student Union, Patrice Dumas, is then sexually assaulted by a police officer on her way to meet Stallworth after Ture’s speech. She arrives completely rattled, only to take to the floor and dance to a 1972 hit by the soul group Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose, “Too Late to Turn Back Now.” This scene reveals a crucial element of what it means to be black in America: being held at gunpoint one minute and grooving under a disco ball the next. The everyday trauma of white violence, Lee suggests, can’t undo the vitality of blackness. The capability of African Americans to find soul amidst the direst of circumstances is a profound expression of black beauty, a beauty that – seen here in bell bottoms, sequins, and gold necklaces – is in and of itself an uncompromising statement of opposition against white power (Fig. 4). Blackness won’t bend to whiteness, however hard it pushes. No wonder Lee dwells on this gorgeous sequence for several minutes. It’s a masterful use of music and montage that affirms the irrepressibility of the black experience; to fall in love while black boys and black girls are being, to borrow Ture’s words, “shot in the backs in these streets right here” is perhaps the most defiant act of all. We’re given an extended sequence of black love in a world overflowing with white hate. Indeed, it is after this episode that Stallworth recalibrates his sense of what it means to be black and a cop. He returns as a newly minted investigative detective and places a call to the Ku Klux Klan.
Introducing himself, Stallworth takes a deep breath and launches ahead into a rant strikingly reminiscent of Dr. Beauregard’s. “I hate ni****s. I hate Jews, spics and micks; dagos and chinks. But my mouth to God’s ears, I really hate those ni**** rats – and really anyone else who doesn’t have pure Aaryn blood running through their veins. My sister, Pamela, she was recently accosted by one of those black coons. Every time I think about the black baboon putting his filthy black hands on her purest white as driven snow body … it makes me want to puke.” Stallworth’s language here bursts with clichés; he recycles a litany of ugly stereotypes spun by white society to demean black Americans. This is where, I believe, Gates’s theory of black expropriation as theorized in his essay “The ‘Blackness of Blackness’: A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey” applies to Blackkklansman. Stallworth seizes the language, signifiers, and attitudes of white America to pursue a goal that, given his social constraints imposed by white society, he couldn’t otherwise advance. That is, Stallworth starts knowingly “acting white” to infiltrate a historical epicenter of racist oppression. He repurposes white language for black ends, manipulating a larger system of power from his forcibly marginalized position. Stallworth becomes what Gates calls not simply a “character in a narrative but rather a vehicle for narration itself.”7 The black cop unleashes the dominant codes of white society on itself. “Some of us can speak King’s English,” he says to his boss. “Others speak jive. Ron Stallworth here happens to be fluent in both.” The “multilingualism” of Lee’s protagonist, his seamless ability to switch back and forth between discursive codes contingent upon his audience, squarely situates Stallworth in a larger black cultural tradition as theorized by Gates of enacting dissemblance through faux semblance. Stallworth responds to white power by reclaiming and, thereby, reinventing pieces of it. He signifies on his white oppressors.
The critique of this mode of resistance is, of course, that Stallworth, by reappropriating white discourse, becomes too white himself. This criticism, what one might call a kind of Uncle Tomism, was articulated most forcefully by Boots Riley, a musician-turned-filmmaker who directed this year’s hit Sorry to Bother You (2018), when he posted a wide-ranging critique of Blackkklansman on his Twitter feed. In Riley’s view, Lee makes “a cop a hero against racism.” In celebrating Stallworth’s story, Lee fails to relay a sufficient indictment of police culture; his narrative unspools into a mawkishly redemptive tale of law enforcement. “Blackkklansman,” Riley concludes, “feels like an extension of [an] ad campaign” for the NYPD, whose image Lee was allegedly paid over $200,000 to rehabilitate. Yet Riley’s criticism, not without its merits, fails to appreciate how Lee’s film doesn’t only advocate for Stallworth’s preferred form of insider-style resistance. The tactics Stallworth employs, to parrot white discourse subversively from within, isn’t the only mode of insubordination available to black Americans. The film’s central presence of Dumas, whose afro distinctly recalls Angela Davis, shows that black resistance can take a range of forms. Dumas exhibits zero interest, unlike Stallworth, in ingratiating herself to white society, preferring instead to operate entirely on its periphery. “You can’t change things from the inside,” she even says. “It’s a racist system. We fight for what black people really need: black liberation. The white man won’t give up his position of power without a struggle.” It’s a mistake to assume that Lee doesn’t take Dumas’s position seriously. Indeed, Lee’s landmark film Do the Right Thing (1989), with its closing shots of black protestors being viciously hosed down by firemen, endorses nothing short of an undeviating struggle against white oppression (Fig. 5). In Blackkklansman, Lee doesn’t adjudicate various modes of black resistance so much as he presents an array of positions suitable for defying white supremacy. The film isn’t an either/or presentation of black opposition, but a both/and. The stealthy campaign of subterfuge undertaken by Stallworth is only one possible stance of resistance. And in adopting such a form of civil disobedience, Stallworth aligns himself with a cultural tradition of black cunning and reinvention, celebrated in literary theory by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and in song by Oscar Brown Jr., of signifying – that is, of signifyin’ – meaning onto normative configurations of white power. Lee doesn’t present black politics as a monolithic configuration here; it, too, is full of its own contradictions, tensions, and irreconcilabilities. His film is, after all, about a black Klansman. The irony is not lost on Lee.
What’s particularly interesting about Stallworth’s strategy of reclaiming aspects of white oppression only to undercut them is precisely the way in which Lee himself takes up such a project in Blackkklansman. A series of scenes from Griffith’s highly problematic Birth of a Nation intrude onto the screen toward the end of Lee’s film. Shots of marauding black criminals, raucous black onlookers, dead black bodies, and terrorized black children spotlighted from Griffith’s epic variously elicit shrieks of condemnation and admiration from Lee’s white-hooded audience members, who gather together in a basement to rewatch Griffith’s film (Fig. 6). “The inspiration!” cries Connie Kendrickson, the doting wife of a particularly rabid Klansman. Like Stallworth, Blackkklansman itself here repurposes the codes of white discourse to subvert it from within. Lee’s film redeploys Griffith’s seminal work of white cinema, still suspiciously defended on aesthetic grounds, to make spectators shudder at the horrors of what white discourse has sanctioned in the name of itself. Retooled by Lee, Griffith’s film ends up discrediting itself; Lee reinvents an American classic for twenty-first-century filmgoers, exposing it for what it has always been. The grotesque depictions of black Americans in Griffith’s film are, indeed, mirrored by Lee’s hysterical crowd of white spectators in Blackkklansman, gratuitously screaming “string ’em up!” Lee rebirths iconic images from Birth of a Nation to subvert them in the context of cinema just as Stallworth retools a Klansman’s speech to undermine the Klan.
Indeed, Blackkklansman consciously invokes blaxploitation films: George Armitage’s Hit Man (1972), Jack Starrett’s Cleopatra Jones (1973), and Jack Hill’s Coffy (1973). This genre of film, while arguably fueling certain white-inspired stereotypes, became popular among filmgoers for its refusal to relegate black people to sidekicks and victims in popular cinema. Black characters could finally be the subjects – not objects – of thrillers, dramas, and adventure stories onscreen. In this regard, then, Blackkklansman can be viewed less as a realistic biopic of Ron Stallworth than as a blaxploitation film in the age of Trump. After the film concludes with Lee’s trademark dolly shot, it cuts to a chilling montage of present-day events in Charlottesville (see ABC News report above). Centering on a white nationalist rally held in 2017 that left multiple dead, Lee’s epilogue lays bare not only the racist underpinnings of our society but also their persistence. A clip of a slobbering President Trump then defending neo-Nazi protestors exposes the timeless bottomlessness of white American rage. These images cast a long shadow over Lee’s film. All its “blackly” comic moments notwithstanding, Blackkklansman is a deadly serious work. Its concluding episode rattles our faith in Martin Luther King Jr.’s axiom, habitually cited by President Obama, that the “arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice.” In Blackkklansman, Lee shows how black Americans, then and now, from within and from without the strictures of white society, have been on the frontlines grappling with the violence currently branded as Trumpism – an ugly form of racial angst that has long preceded our fabulist-in-chief. Lee’s latest feature is a blaxploitation indictment of the state. Yet seeing the images of Charlottesville’s bloodied streets, hearing crowds of white angry men chanting “blood and soil,” one can’t help but wonder how it is that we haven’t escaped these dark places.
The answer, perhaps, lies in an unsettling sequence halfway thru Blackkklansman during a meeting of the Black Student League in which an aged victim of white terror, Jerome Turner (played by Harry Belafonte), recounts the lynching of his friend Jesse Washington in brutal detail. In Waco, Texas, in the throes of the Klan’s early-twentieth-century revival, Washington was falsely accused of raping a white woman, whereupon he was convicted, dragged out of the courtroom, variously dismembered, and burned alive to the thrill of over 10,000 spectators in 1916. “They stabbed him, beat him,” Turner recalls, “and finally, in a bloody heap, they held him down in the street and cut off his testicles.” Lee intercuts this speech, which Belafonte delivers through direct address, with shots of a Klan induction ceremony (Fig. 7). The camera pans across several faces of unmasked Klansmen as it’s backdropped by Belafonte’s somber recollections. Lee impels his viewers here to grapple with how these otherwise ordinary, unremarkable-looking white men could avail themselves to such heinous acts of violence. What behind their placid eyes festers such hate? Where does their moral imagination bottom out? Toni Morrison, in her arresting study of white literary imagination, Playing in the Dark, hazards a guess. Morrison argues that the flight of white American colonists from old Europe to the New World heralded a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not only to be born again but to be born again in new clothes,” a “flight from oppression and limitation to freedom and possibility.”8 This radical promise of a liberating self-reinvention, however, beyond philosophic abstraction, could only be defined negatively, that is, by what freedom was not. The newly resettled emancipated Americans thus turned to the black “Other” to concretize – to colorize – their notion of freedom. “The slave population,” Morrison writes, “offered itself up as surrogate selves for meditation on problems of human freedom, its lure and its elusiveness.”9 The construction of a free American whiteness, in turn, gradually necessitated an enslaved, marginalized American blackness. “Nothing highlighted freedom – if it did not in fact create it – like slavery,” Morrison concludes.10 Whiteness, then, became articulated primarily through racial difference; it couldn’t evolve without blackness. This conflation of white emancipation with black subjugation is precisely why Mark Twain, in concluding Huckleberry Finn, refused to free Jim. “To let Jim go … would be to abandon the whole premise of the book. Neither Huck nor Mark Twain can tolerate, in imaginative terms, Jim freed … because freedom has no meaning to Huck or to the text without the specter of enslavement, the anodyne to individualism; the yardstick of absolute power over the life of another…”11 Oppressed blackness lies at the core of American whiteness. The absence of freedom, its blackening out, is what allowed white colonists to construct an American identity.
The freeing of blackness, then, promises a wholesale disruption of white America of historic proportions. Black liberation demands a radically more capacious, self-reflective notion of what it means to be an American citizen, to occupy a national identity, in other words, no longer predicated on white hegemony. An unbound blackness forces whites to define what white is, a far more unsettling question given white America’s unconscionable history. Hence, in Blackkklansman, that otherwise ordinary white people can be so easily mobilized into racial violence signals a deeply self-serving aspiration to recoup their identity, to reassert their false claim to privilege in a changing world, to make America great again. Driven by a profound sense of self-loathing, Klansmen are so monstrous precisely because they have such a vacuous understanding of their own identity; they need blackness to define their odious whiteness. Lee’s Klansmen, like Huck and Twain, can’t begin to comprehend black freedom because they can’t bear to comprehend white oppression. It’s not a coincidence that Trump’s America is both the site of racial animosity and a teeming crisis of white identity. In Blackkklansman, Lee reveals how, whenever whiteness is disrupted, its staunchest defenders will turn to lynchings, church bombings, and firehoses. A core message of Lee’s film, then, is to remind viewers not only of America’s century-old roots of white power, but how those fixtures of privilege won’t be uprooted without an explosive crisis of white identity – a crisis that, to be resolved fully, can no longer be waged, negotiated, or foisted on the backs of black Americans. The protagonists of Blackkklansman, like Lee himself, are all the braver for doing what they can to expedite that crisis, a storm through which black Americans will unjustly suffer the most. To paraphrase Morrison, America, the film says, can no longer be but a “playground of imagination” for white ideologues.12
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Written with the support and insight of Erika Robinson – a teacher, sage, and friend
All images are screenshots from Blackkklansman and Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.
- Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “The ‘Blackness of Blackness’: A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey,” Critical Inquiry 9, no. 4 (June 1983): 688. [↩]
- Ibid, 691. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid, 687, 691. [↩]
- Ibid, 694. [↩]
- Ibid, 686. [↩]
- Ibid, 688. [↩]
- Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 34. [↩]
- Ibid, 37. [↩]
- Ibid, 38. [↩]
- Ibid, 56. [↩]
- Ibid, 38. [↩]