10 Sep Stokely Carmichael featured in Lee’s BlacKKKlansman
I was pleasantly surprised while checking out Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman a few weeks after its theatrical premier. One of my heroes and inspirations, Stokely Carmichael aka Kwame Ture was featured prominently in the early part of the film. He was skillfully played by actor Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton) who captured one of Stokely’s trademark speeches to students of the University of Colorado Springs. Speeches like this inspired countless young people of African descent globally to adapt and embrace a sense of African identity and pride in the face of crippling systemic racism and inequality. The period that Lee attempted to capture appeared to be the early 1970s, after Carmichael was driven out of the US due to repeated pervasive attacks by the FBI via their COINTELPRO program. He returned under the new moniker, Kwame Ture.
It was just outside the venue of Ture’s speech that the main character, Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington) met his love interest, Patrice Dumas (played by Laura Harrier). Stallworth was an undercover Colorado Springs police officer that was initially sent to survey Carmichael and his movement; Dumas was the president of the student organization that hosted Carmichael at the university she attended. Their relationship was an uneasy one at best that culminated in a pretty obvious clash of values.
I found it particularly interesting that artistically the film appeared to contrast Stallworth’s agency directed infiltrating and monitoring of the black liberation movement to his poorly supported self-driven surveillance and research on the KKK. It was almost as if Lee was attempting to display the two clearly distinguishable movements as two sides of the same coin.
There was enough indication in the movie that black liberation rhetoric was perceived by Stallworth’s police peers as dangerous and threatening, and that similar or worse sentiments from White Klansmen were deemed harmless. We also saw examples of police corruption, as well as harassment and brutality directed disproportionately to people of African descent. But the strangest artistic portrayal in the movie for me was the idea of Stallworth being a hero, when it is widely known that the real Ron Stallworth was frequently and almost exclusively deployed into covert roles to infiltrate black nationalist organizations. Why would Lee conveniently omit this important piece of history and reality?
Pardon me for nitpicking, but I guess I take the cinematic arts a bit more seriously than most because I am aware of the effects of movies and television on the subconscious mind. I did enjoy the early portions of the movie that introduced the diverse set of characters and highlighted one of the fathers of the black power movement. I was then left confused when I saw Stallworth being styled as a hero for bringing down an arm of an organization that still exists (and thrives) today, while prominent black liberation movements of that era have been all but destroyed. Surely there were other viewers that saw the irony in this? I could not celebrate with Stallworth and his police colleagues at the conclusion of the film, knowing the harsh reality that they had not even placed a dent in systemic racism. This is because destroying racism isn’t about taking down or changing the minds of the racists who dominate, but about empowering those who are oppressed by it.
Show your support for Stokely Carmichael and other vanguards of equality and black liberation by purchasing a “Say it Like Stokely Carmichael” shirt. The “Say It,” refers to his alleged coining and repeated exclamation of the phrase “Black Power!”