3 Stars – Troubling
The true story of the 1978 undercover investigation of the KKK in Colorado Springs is based on the memoirs of Ron Stallworth. As the first Black police officer on the force, Stallworth (John David Washington) was relegated to the records room until Police Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) moved him to intelligence. It is from that place as a rookie detective that Stallworth decided to infiltrate the KKK. The only problem was he was black.
Though this sounds like the beginning of comedy, Director Spike Lee had a very different vision. This is a film exploring the very nature and dehumanizing hatred of racism in both the 1970’s and current day America. There are humorous stereotypical moments but the racism steals the laughter. Having directed eighty-two films, this may be Lee’s most significant work and certainly a film all should view and discuss.
In many ways Stallworth is a naïve person to be thrown into the middle of the struggle. Having been born on Chicago’s South Side, his mother moved him to El Paso where he came of age. Moving to Colorado Springs he fulfilled his dream of being a policeman and detective. He explains in his book: “The civil rights movement for me was not something in my backyard, it was a TV show.”
We won’t spoil the intrigue of the case or the disappointments both during and after the successful investigation when authorities told him to destroy the evidence against the KKK, something he did not do. The story is filled with danger and romance as well as racist labeling and debasing profanity. However, there are powerful moments we want to note. Two of those are the speeches of leading black activists and one is the filming of a fictional white supremacist, Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin). The Beauregard diatribe is a visual masterpiece of filmmaking as his white face blends into the scenes projected onto him, while his inability to say his lines undermines his racist superiority rhetoric. This is a very difficult speech to hear and has laden within it references to current beliefs and racial divisions. Some in our audience found the similarities to today humorous, we did not.
The two black activists are Kwame Ture, born as Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) and Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte). The speech Ture gave in 1977 was the first moment of undercover work by the rookie Detective Stallworth. The speech is classic encouragement that beauty is not defined by the white culture nor is freedom controlled by them. But it moves quickly to a call to action because the police are killing their young men with immunity. The call to revolution was both Ture’s calling card and the reason he was feared and investigated by the police and FBI. The second activist is fictional. Turner is given a moment to instruct a packed house filled with black students on the lynching of innocent young black men during the years following the Civil War but hit its peak in the early 20th Century. This lesson is one all of us need to hear and about which we should grieve.
As Christians, the most difficult part of the film was the perverse form of our faith practiced by the Klan. The initiatory “baptism” rite, the claim of God-given racial superiority to whites, the combining of Jesus with an America First rhetoric. There is no denying that down through history many demonic acts have been done in the name of religion and of Christianity. That it is not the faith Jesus taught is clear to all of us who know him and study his words, but such differences are not made clear in this film. That is troubling at many levels.
- James Cone wrote a book: The Cross and the Lynching Tree, to show that evil will destroy innocence when given the chance. Evil killed Jesus and the young black Americans. That Jesus calls us to love and care for every person from every nation, language and tribe is undeniable. Why do you think some have misunderstood this? Is it deliberate evil or are we being deceived by evil, or is there some other reason?
- Black Power and White Power are now seen as battle cries across a great racial and cultural divide. What words do you use to bring us together? If you are white how can we confess oppression and find repentance from our present course? If you are a person of color how can we find Justice and change racial systems?
- The oppression of women by the Klansmen was obviously offensive. Why do you think that racism and sexism often go hand in hand?.
- It is the nature of film to create a narrative and bring all words and actions into service of that story. It is also true of a culture to remove all who do not fit their understanding of what and who is included in our national identity. What story is large enough to bring us all together into its fulfillment across all nations? By what narrative are you living your life?