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My Goal Was To Defend Spike Lee, But I Found Myself Agreeing with Boots Riley

My Response to Boots Riley’s Critique of BlackkKlansman

Spike Lee & Jordan Poole

Earlier today Boots Riley, the force of nature behind the movie “Sorry to Bother You” (and the musical entity know as The Coup), posted a criticism of Spike Lee’s new movie “BlackkKlansman.”

This is my response:

First, respect!

Your movie “Sorry to Bother You” is easily one of my top 5 movies of 2018 (anyone who has not seen it yet should go immediately to the theater and watch it).

Now that we have that out of the way, I appreciate your thoughtful take on Spike Lee’s new movie and for showing your respect for Mr. Lee’s body of work. I also grew up watching Spike Lee movies (so we at least have that in common).

I hope you will excuse my interest in opening this dialog with you, it is not intended, in any way, to be corrective.

I find discussions like this very valuable and informative and my goal is simply to learn from you and have a discussion with you.

I would not be surprised at all if you don’t care or could care less about what I have to say here…I was just explaining my intent.

I have lived in extreme poverty and relative wealth at different times in my life and I am also formerly incarcerated.

Areas of Agreement

I agree that it is problematic that Spike’s team added a dramatic event at the end of the movie to add heroism to Mr. Stallworth’s story.

I am very troubled that the exchange between Kwame Ture and Stallworth might never have occurred, especially since it would have been easy enough to fact-check it with Mr. Ture (especially, I suspect for Mr. Lee).

Also annoying that Flip Zimmer (Mr. Stallworth’s partner) was not Jewish. Pretty ridiculous to invent character motivations (seems lazy at best and dangerous at worst).

I am most upset by Mr. Lee’s protagonist Ron Stallworth being directly involved in COINTELPRO. But this claim, beyond the event with Mr. Ture, seems correlative more than causal?

Even with that said, I believe Spike absolutely owed it to the audience to frame the Ture incident (either before it happened or after) within the context of COINTELPRO.

Finally, because of the frequently deadly consequences of police violence I believe Spike should have erred on the side of extreme caution in how he presented and problematized the police in his film…I think it is fair to agree that he risked (and maybe intended) to romanticize them.

Regardless of if I am right or wrong about EVERYTHING else I write here, this implicit part of your criticism of BlackkKlansman will remain valid.

Areas For Discussion

I do, like you, find it annoying and troubling both that one of Spike’s companies was doing advertising work to promote the NYPD’s efforts at neighborhood policing since 2015 and that Spike has not chosen to disclose his involvement or the payment (reportedly over 200k) However, you seem to imply that BlackkKlansman was directly related or an outgrowth of this arrangement. With respect, that conclusion seems a bit unfair or at least premature at this point.

Your secondary suggestion that Spikes movie <whether intended that way or not> plays as propaganda for the NYPD (in essence, fulfilling his contract with the Police). I find this argument to be more than a little unfair.

Your arguments in favor of this perspective included:

Spike chose to make a cop a hero against racism.

I think this was a movie with several heroes all coming from very different subject positions in relationship to state power including (but not necessarily limited to):

Kwame Ture (and everyone at the rally)

Patrice (Stallworth’s Girlfriend)

The Director’s Perspective/Lens

The Explicit Criticism of American Film History

Ron Stallworth

Flip Zimmer (and whatever the name of Michael Buscemi’s character was)

All of these characters (traditional and non-traditional) had heroic moments and none of these characters was entirely spared from criticism by Lee (except for Mr. Buscemi’s character).

I also think it is a mistake to see Spike’s point here being any, one, or all of the following:

  • Inappropriate police violence is exceptional and limited only to “bad cops”
  • Stallworth’s character is a stand-in for all police
  • Stallworth’s character is a stand-in for good or ideal police

I do, however, obviously agree Mr. Lee sees a category of police violence as occasionally appropriate or maybe as reclaimable.

My point here is that Stallworth, as presented by Mr. Lee, wanted to become a police officer in order to fight racism INSIDE and outside of the department (and to therefore problematize and deconstruct policing).

He is ‘A’ heroic cop, not a statement about all cops being heroic.

I am not saying the real Mr. Stallworth was doing this, I am saying that Mr. Lee constructed a “counterfactual Ron Stallworth” designed to do what everyone HOPED police could do when the force was first integrated (A subject well-covered in James Foreman Jr’s excellent book “Locking Up Our Own”).

And yes, this means I am suggesting that Spike says this is for real for real in order to create a counterfactual idealistic protagonist.

I think Spike is making an argument about what should have been and what could be, not about what was.

Could be totally wrong, but there were some heavy hints that this was not an uncritical look at the Colorado police department (more on that in a second).

No Cop Got Arrested at the Bar. And, there is no way the chief and the rest of the department would work with a fictional black radical love interest to set up a racist cop. Never happened. Never Would.

Exactly. See above. This was the point. Right after that scene (if I remember correctly), Stallworth was forced to erase the tapes and a clear hint was dropped that police, maybe even important police, were present at the cross burning before the classic Spike dolly scene.

If Spike’s point was that the police are good “qua police” why did he leave the question of why the tapes were erased unexplained?

Why did he follow that up with a cross burning scene (I actually think there was a suggestion that the eye in the hood was the chief’s eye)?

Why did he focus in on all of that right after the police had the moment at the bar?

In this sense, Stallworth was like (as I mentioned to you about a week ago) a Black Serpico. Serpico might be heroic, Stallworth might be heroic, but neither vindicates “Police” as heroic (which is the argument you are making).

In my mind, the question the movie asks is if you can use the Master’s tools to bring down the Master’s house (as opposed to an attempt to show us how cool the Master’s house really is once you get rid of all the racists living inside).

That is why I asked you, when I started asking about your original response, if Serpico was heroic and why I think it is ‘wrong’ to say that Spike was trying to make a “cop a hero against racism (at least not in the sense that you mean it).”

Now, I believe Spike thinks the answer to can the police be reformed and sanitized to become saviors is YES(which is problematic). But I don’t think Spike is saying that the police now — as they relate to communities of color — are (but for a few bad apples) heroic.

Unfortunately, Spike’s point then seems to move from “this police officer was heroic” all the way to “we need structures of violence to police poor neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color. This was, not coincidentally, exactly the criticism Mr. Riley leveled against Spike Lee after Chiraq came out a few years ago.

I can’t speak for Mr. Riley, but I believe police can be part of solutions…and reform of police is certainly a part of any meaningful solutions. But the idea that all that is needed, for meaningful solutions, is a more “woke” police force who are willing to work with activists seems more than a little naïve (and maybe even irresponsible).

Also, it blunts Spike’s criticism too.

Where are the videos of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, or Michael Brown in Spike’s histories? I am all for remembering Heather Heyer but her death was part of this same continuum.

Ron Stallworth is the villain. Stallworth, the guy who we’ve been following and made to care about and who is falsely shown to have risked his life to fight racism, says that he’s for the liberation of his people at the same time as being a cop.

In masking the “for Real for Real” Ron Stallworth vis-à-vis COINTELPRO you could be right here.

You are certainly right that the problem is systemic and that the answer is NOT a newly reconstituted, racism-purged and sanitized, kicking-more-ass to “clean up the streets” police force.

The entirety of the problem with police is NOT ONLY that they need to purged of their racism. They do need to be purged of their racism for sure, but what we need (and I do live in a economically challenged neighborhood) is:

  • Less policing
  • Less War on Drugs
  • Less militarization of police
  • More diversion
  • Better public education
  • More economic empowerment and investment
  • Better reentry and employment opportunities (and far less criminal justice debt) for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people
  • NO more Cash Bail
  • A lot less nonsense like sanitizing police violence or encouraging sex strikes (Chiraq).

What is wrong here is that Spike seems to believe that policing “qua” policing is an answer to ingrained social problems in poor neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color.

In other words, it is possible — maybe even probable — that Spike thinks if Stallworth deconstructs policing, policing — in general — can be a force for progressive politics in the hood and that what the hood needs is a new, less racist, police force.

I think Spike was right to ask questions about the larger question of if policing can be improved by race-conscious and anti-racist black officers (certainly has not always been very successful a Mr. Foreman’s aforementioned book documents).

I agree with you that the very last scene of the movie goes way too far in romanticizing a “new police” as an answer to “problems” in the inner-city.

I am not sure that I agree that Ron Stallworth — as depicted in the movie — is the “villain” <in fact, I think you might really be saying that Spike — by sanitizing Ron’s story — is the villain> but I do believe the suppression of elements of his true story, the hiding of Spike’s financial interests, and suggesting that social justice movements in alliance with a reformulated police force are a solution to community issues is sad and perhaps villainous.

Last but not least, thanks for the shout-out referencing Dap from School Daze (Wake Up!).

Josh is the co-host of the Decarceration Nation podcast and is a blogger and freelance writer who writes about criminal justice reform, television, movies, music, politics, race, ethics, and more.