With no movie houses open, a friend and I decided about a month ago to watch a bunch of Spike Lee films in chronological order. For me, most of these viewings were first time events. I’d tried to watch “BlacKkKlansman” shortly after it became available on Netflix, but at that time, I just couldn’t deal with all the horrible names black people were called as Lee set the scene with “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind” moments. Now I’ve watched the whole movie and had a lively discussion with my friend, part of which I want to write about because I think Lee is doing something important about skin color as a major determinant of identity. Ron Stallworth, a black man hired into the overwhelmingly white police force in Colorado Springs, is sent under cover to a speech by Stokely Carmichael just as he was becoming known as Kwame True. Intrigued by some of what he heard, Ron pushes his superior officer to let him investigate the Ku Klux Klan. He will speak by telephone with local Klansmen (and eventually to David Duke, the Grand Wizard) while a white fellow officer, Philip “Flip” Zimmerman, will meet with and become accepted by the group.
One of the first things about this story that draws me is this doubleness. No black man could possibly become a member of the KKK, so Flip is crucial as the public face of this investigation. But the intelligence driving the investigation is a black officer who teachers his white twin how to use negative epithets about black people that will appeal to the Klan: “monkey,” “coon,” “mongrel,” and, foremost, “nigger.” What Flip isn’t ready for, however, once he is in a room with Klan members, is the flood of similarly awful epithets about Jews yelled out at him. Flip is Jewish but has never thought about it, thinking of himself as just another white man. In the movie, it’s when he has to say all the awful words about his tribe that he awakens to being Jewish in a country that lumps his sort in with blacks and gays.
Once accepted into the local chapter, Ron emerges as a future leader since his vicious racist rants over the telephone and in person convince the current head that he’s found a replacement. We then get a serious of fierce and hilarious telephone calls between black Ron and David Duke in which Lee makes a telling point about the role of language in a racial world. “They” surely don’t talk the same as “we” to white supremacists. So Ron goads David who declares that he can tell he’s speaking to a proper white man: Ron asks Duke to give him an example of how he can be so sure and Duke says it’s in how Ron says “are.” White people just say a one-syllable word–ARE–while “coons” say “ARE-UH,” making it a two-syllable word and giving themselves away to people like him and Ron. Lee’s edgy humor at the ridiculousness of this logic lets our black policeman win the day.
As long as the Klansmen can’t SEE “Ron,” all the black twin has to do is mimic speech and emotional disgust. So, when black Ron is sent to guard David Duke who is visiting Colorado Springs to initiate white Ron into the group, Lee’s point about skin color takes center stage. Duke is horrified to have to accept anything from one of “them,” so when black Ron asks white Ron to take a picture of him with “Mr. Duke,” revulsion overtakes the Grand Wizard. He feels physically defiled to have been touched by a member of the racial group he would like to obliterate from the face of the earth. (At one point in the movie, Duke says what they need to do is get someone elected to the White House so things can get settled properly. Surely this comment is not lost on anyone watching the movie in 2020 America.)
Finally, Lee once again, as in several other of his films, presents in clear terms how women are treated by many men. The Klansmen are fiercely homosocial, though we do meet the wife of the head of the chapter. Of course, she has subjugated herself completely to “her man,” fawning over him as he barely acknowledges her presence for most of the movie. Several times, she reminds him that she stands ready to help him/them at any time and in any way. So late in the film, when the Klan decides to put an explosive in the mailbox of black Ron’s home, it is the wife who volunteers. When it is she who gets caught by the police for blowing up a car–she can’t squeeze the explosive into the mailbox and frantically finds a Plan B so she can finally do something for her husband, I credit Lee with showing us that the men may talk loudly about how they hate all blacks, but they don’t do anything the least bit risky, leaving that to the woman they have ignored and erased.
The two actors playing private and pubic Ron Stallworth develop a friendship that is strong and believable. What Lee has done in this movie, in my estimation, is demonstrate that skin color may make all the difference in a radicalized culture, two individual people can work through, around, and out of that confining and destructive box. So Ron and Flip are the huge winners, even if their very white bosses make them drop the investigation and destroy all the evidence of what they’ve found about the odious KKK members in their community.
Recently, a white woman taking part in the increasingly violent demonstrations by progressives in Portland, OR, screamed something like “I’m a single mom and you’ve forced me to leave my child and come stand with these demonstrators.” The “you” in her statement, of course, are the federal troops sent to Portland by the president to quell violence. This single mom seems to me to be establishing herself as a special ally to victims of racial injustice. So her remark is patently about her and not the people of color who live under the yoke of that injustice every day. Her loud assertion also announces that she is “special” and so should be honored and appreciated for all she is giving up to “stand with” individuals whose lives are in constant danger. She and those like her who see themselves as saviors rather than allies may well qualify as a special spin-off of Robin Diangelo’s “fragile” white people.
On some college/university campuses lately, progressive students who adhere to a “cancel culture” approach to people who disagree with their politics or who argue for having thoughtful conversations among people of differing persuasions often assert that such remarks “threaten my safety.” When I read this, I flashed to the white supremacy card cops play when under investigation for killing yet another black person: “I felt my life was in danger.” Juries seem to collapse once they hear this, abandoning any serious attempts to determine guilt or innocence. Surely the progressives who feel their safety “threatened” by words others utter about their views mimic the defense hauled out by the very police they putatively despise and protest against.
When Women’s Studies was just beginning to become part of college and university curricula (the 1960s and ’70s), I attended national conferences of feminist faculty, overwhelmingly white at the time, and listened to colleagues who were intent on creating what they called “safe classrooms” for their students, especially students of color. This seemed like a romantic dream that smacked of arrogance and “saviorhood,” and once again to be about the white faculty person rather than a student who might feel hyper visible because of subject matter that mirrored their lives. Sometimes I offered my skepticism at our being able to do that, since such students had no reason to “trust” me just because I declared on opening day that I was building a protective bubble for the 50 minutes of our class. Those remarks were not received positively; I was seen as a pessimist, as someone unwilling to embrace the new aura created by feminist pedagogy.
It is very hard to resist feeling “special” if I, as a white person who could make an “A” on lots of tests intended to measure racist attitudes and behaviors. I want to step in, take over, recommend, get credit, stand apart from the “real” racists currently emboldened by a mean-spirited egomaniac with lots of power. What many black thinkers and activists say I need to do is keep my mouth shut and listen or read what life is like trying to survive and flourish in America if your skin color isn’t “white.” When I do that, my specialness evaporates because I understand that I still harbor and sometimes express or act on deeply embedded attitudes and beliefs taught me from infancy. I am anything but singular–at best, I’m just one more white person trying to lay aside those embedded attitudes and beliefs so that I am able to ACT in new ways that might one day allow me to say I am anti-racist today, anti-racist tomorrow, anti-racist forever.
In late March, the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, my church, closed to live worship and began streaming various services. I tried listening/watching my Sunday 9:30 mass. First of all, I felt sad for the celebrant, alone at the altar, even though I grant he felt the presence of his God. Then I felt sad not to be in my regular pew with my pew mate and amidst a little clutch of us who came early to chat before the service began. After a couple more attempts at watching the streamed service, I gave up because I realized that “church” for me is more than the words. I wanted the gorgeous stained glass windows whose blues and reds change depending on whether the sun is shining or not. I wanted the heavy incense that I know is hard for folks with breathing problems or scent issues. I wanted the candles at the altar, all around the choir loft, in all the side chapels one of which was where I always lighted a five-day candle into which I’d put names of friendscopoing with difficult moments. I wanted the eighty-person choir singing their hearts out, often in Latin or another language, always moving me to tears even as their sounds took me out of my self. So sitting in my living room in front of a little computer screen just didn’t do it for me. I began spending the time I wanted to be in church out in my back yard watching cardinals or gold finches or just sitting quietly and praying for my world that seemed to be becoming more and more uncertain.
Now it’s late July and the Basilica has just begun having weekday masses at noon. One registers on line and, if accepted, arrives at a little blue tent outside one side entryway to be checked off a list, have one’s temperature taken, and answer a few questions about how we are feeling and if we have been around anyone with covid symptoms. After a lot of serious discernment, I decided to apply, since the church can seat 1,200 people and my contact there said the first week of masses had between five and fifteen people. The staff advised anyone over 65 or having a prior condition not to attend. I am well over that age and have a cow membrane in my chest replacing a badly damaged aorta. But the accumulated months of not being in that special space has taken its toll on me, so I decided to risk it. A good friend who is super cautious around covid said “You’re safer at the Basilica than at your hardware store where you keep going.” But I did add a sentence to my health care directive stipulating that were I to be hospitalized with the virus, I did not want a ventilator for obvious reasons.
So yesterday I dressed for church, arrived fifteen minutes early, passed the tests under the blue tent, and was ushered to my seat. No one was anywhere remotely near me and there were thirteen of us in that cavernous space. Just sitting there was healing, as I’d hoped it might be. There were only two tiny candles at either end of the altar, but someone had put a small vase of white flowers at a powerful sculpture of Jesus on the cross with his mother and John looking up at him dolorously. One young woman sang the psalm and led us at a couple of points in the eucharistic preparation section of the mass. Since we were both few and far between each other and speaking through masks, I couldn’t hear anyone but myself, but I knew the others were saying what I was saying and there was comfort in that.
It all felt like a scene in miniature: only one lesson rather than the usual two, and that one was shorter than usual; the gospel was also short though it felt like a special gift to me because yesterday is the Feast of Mary Magdalene who has been named by Pope Francis “the Apostle to the Apostles.” Our pastor spoke for maybe four minutes as his homily, again focusing on Mary’s contribution to Christianity. The little tiny tasteless wafer was not given at the usual place but rather after all the preparatory words had been spoken and we had said the final “Thanks be to God.” Then we left our pews and went to the central aisle where there were lovely circles pasted on the floor at six-foot intervals. On each was the logo for the Basilica found on many of its publications, so that felt not quite so medicinal. Someone on the staff clearly had thought about how they could make the marks for where we were to stand not just be an “X.” I said a little “thank you.” We sanitized our hands just as we got to the person distributing the wafers, and then stood distant from her with fully extended arms to receive the host. Once we had it, we were to step to the side, lower or remove our masks long enough to place the little sliver on our tongues. They we were to leave.
Outside near that exit is a beautiful sculpture of the Virgin Mary surrounded by a small, well-kept garden, so I went over onto the grass and stood looking at her as I let the moment sink in. Then I got in my car and came home, not listening to MPR but letting myself feel how it was to have just done what I’d just done. As I said, it felt like church in miniature and certainly did not have components like those listed earlier as part of what makes going there most meaningful for me. But it was a profound gift to my lagging spirit. A long time ago, Marshal McLuhan coined a motto a lot of us spouted often: “The medium is the message.” Well, he and it came to me as I drove up Hennepin Avenue to my house. A building cannot be everything, but some spaces do carry meaning by their very existence. For me at this point in the pandemic, that big marble edifice at the edge of downtown Minneapolis carries meaning in and of itself. So I will focus on what I did get from my twenty-seven minutes there and let that be enough for now.
I recently watched six seasons of an American detective drama, each season having ten episodes. The series is called “Bosch” because our star detective is one Hieronymous Bosch, called “Harry” by his colleagues and friends. And yes, his name does invite us to recall what we know about the painter with the same name. Or to learn something about him and his art. And, in one episode, a famous Bosch painting by figures in solving the crime. The man playing Bosch is intense, taciturn, slow to express or exhibit the emotions, and fiendishly clever in figuring out who the “bad guys” are. Divorced from his wife, he stays in touch because they both love their late adolescent daughter who moves into her early twenties before the series ends. Bosch plays it close to the chest at work and in his personal relationships, though we know he feels things deeply.
Though Bosch is white as is his lesbian captain, many characters are played by black actors, especially male ones. Bosch’s fellow detectives, street cops, the Chief of Police governing a huge force– all played by black actors. So, however, are some of the criminals, suspects, PIs, ex-cons and general bad guys. When I found myself having a problem “telling them apart,” I first named this confusion for what it is: I was drifting dangerously close to “they all look alike” about the black faces on my screen, surely a racialized response if I ever saw one. So I stopped watching the episodes, took stock of my knee-jerk responses, and began to think about the other cop shows I watch.
Truth be told, I’ve spent a lot of late afternoons looking at re-runs of American police dramas–“Blue Bloods,” “NCIS New Orleans,” “Law and Order,” “Law and Order: SVU,” CSI Miami”–and I won’t keep listing. Before I started watching “Bosch,” I’d begun to be uncomfortable with how often the plot centered around white police, assisted by a token black or female or Latinx helper. I was growing even more uncomfortable with how often the offending criminal was black and was not always treated nicely by law-enforcement officers.
So what my streaming of “Bosch” has caused me to think about it this: The director seems to have decided to flood the screen with black faces playing all possible kinds of roles in the unfolding story of crime detection and personal vulnerabilities. By doing that, he not only caused me to face up to my own racial response to actors’ faces but, importantly, to have to see that black characters come in all different packages. So they mimic us white people who do the same, of course.
The added and unexpected bonus of watching all the ins and outs of Bosch’s maneuverings to solve the latest crime wrinkle has pretty much “spoiled” my late afternoon escapist TV watching since now I notice even more quickly and painfully just how much most such programs reinforce white ideas of what black people–especially black men– are like. If I am forced to find another way to end my afternoons, that will be a step in the right direction as I continue to unearth and face the deeply embedded racism in my own psyche and brain.