BlacKkKlansman is a painful film to watch. It is funny and sharp. It is a police film the way Get Out is a horror film, adopting genre conventions to think through a particular set of problems about blackness. Though the film is set in Colorado around 1972, it urgently wants to be of the moment. There is a comic exchange wherein one character insists it is unimaginable that we could ever have a president who shares the values of Klan leader David Duke; another character guarantees this will come to pass. Miserably knowing laughs in the audience. This is only one of many gestures toward the present, the most dramatic of which is the film’s ending with footage from the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally of 2017, including the beating of DeAndre Harris and the car attack that killed Heather Heyer.
En route to this grim finale that pointedly chilled any laughter remaining in the theater, the film offers up bad cops aplenty, corrupt and dumb and especially racist, including in the end the chief and, we understand, the higher-ups. Some will take this as a critique. It is, rather, a genre convention. It is requisite to show us the bad apples so as to produce the good apple, a false objectivity designed to make it possible to see the world at once naturally and from the police standpoint. In BlacKkKlansman, the decent black cop goes undercover and goes to war against the Klan. He wants the same thing as the Black Power organization that provides the film’s other counterforce to racism. There is, natch, a romance between the good cop and Black Power leader until very late in the film he admits his position and she renounces him. This makes sense, if one has ever listened to the many Black Power chants whose premise is “Off the pigs!”
What a fine film it would be if she offed him then and there. Instead, in a lightning reversal, they end up not in antagonism but alliance, first heading down a hallway, pistols pointed in unison, in search of a disturbance that turns out to be a cross-burning, and then teaming up to bust a racist cop. That’s how cop movies work. The good cop is redeemed, redeemed by his not being the bad cop, redeemed by the validation of whichever character bears the burden of cool. Boots Riley, director of Sorry to Bother You, tweeted “Fuck the police. #quickfilmreview” the day after BlacKkKlansman opened.
It is not a point I would care to argue. We have had enough cop films that if we forsook them for a century there would be nary a loss to civilization. But the movie seems to offer an argument beyond further naturalizing the police standpoint. Its persistent gestures toward the present ask us to suppose that, even if we accept there is no shortage of racist cops, we will nonetheless need the broadest possible alliance to defeat the new wave of white nationalists, neo-Klansmen, proud ethnostate boys, and other assorted racists who gathered in Charlottesville last year. We will need an antiracist popular front, with most of us in the middle and including at its far reaches both black power and the police.
It is an idea that will feel intuitive to some. I am trying not to use the L word. It will feel intuitive to the many people sympathetic to the Movement for Black Lives who have also come to discover a wealth of fondness for what they take to be the better parts of the security-state apparatus, and find in this no contradiction. You know these people, you hear them in bars, you see them on cable. There was director Spike Lee, right there on CNN, a prayer blazoned on his chest: GOD, PROTECT ROBERT MUELLER. There it is, the dream of the good cop. Every allegory ends in a T-shirt.
The thing of it is, the murderous racists of Unite the Right endeavored to reunite this month, in Portland, in Berkeley, in front of the White House. It did not go so well for them. Their capacity to gather in public, to naturalize white nationalism and recruit new members, has been by their own testimony gravely unmade by direct opposition. “Antifa is winning,” Richard Spencer conceded earlier this year. This August the alt-right were vastly outnumbered by antiracist coalitions of community groups, antifa, clergy, Black Lives Matter adherents, and more. There were barely enough racists to make a march; it was more like, make way for fucklings. They would have been swept off the street instantly but for massive police cordons extending their full protective services.
This is only an irony if you take the argument of BlacKkKlansman seriously. Its idea of cops as an antiracist force is both dangerous and risible. But despite the pitiful marches of August, the idea that there is not a rising white nationalist movement would be a grave error. The movement must be recognized for what it is and how it operates. Against the film’s fantasy, the obvious reality is that the police as a phenomenon, as an institution, as an aspect of the social order, exist in collaboration not with black power but with white power. They are one fist, as the saying goes; each constitutes the other, and they make a whole. The idea that the fight against racism is something other than a fight against the police would be baffling to anyone involved in the Black Power movement in 1972 and, one hopes, now.
It would also be baffling to the young Spike Lee. In Do the Right Thing, the police kill a black man and then people have to figure out what to do, how to be. This proved both honest and prescient. The drumbeat of black death at the hands of police has not relented. Looking back at the cop choking out Radio Raheem until he can’t breathe, it is difficult, in the sense of too painful, to imagine what Eric Garner’s family will think of BlacKkKlansman.