Boots Riley on BlackkKlansman

Boots Riley is a filmmaker (Sorry to Bother You), rapper (The Coup), and lifelong activist against oppression and injustice — economic, racial, and otherwise.

He recently posted a critique of Spike Lee’s latest film, BlackkKlansman, on Twitter. He posted images, but some folks would like text. I think it’s a really important critique, so I’m copying out the text here.

The following are not my words. Everything after this line was written by Boots Riley.  I made a few edits based on follow-up posts he made to the original thread (and italicized movie titles), but the rest is verbatim. (And if you’ve never listened to The Coup, check out their second album Genocide and Juice. It’s one of the five best hip-hop albums of all time.)


Here are some thoughts on Blackkklansman.

This contains spoilers, so read no further if you don’t want the film spoiled.

This is not as much an aesthetic critique of the masterful craftwork of this film as it is a political critique of the content of and timing of the film.

I also want to say, as I tweeted last week, that Spike Lee has been a huge influence on me. He’s the reason I went to film school so many years ago. He’s the first person I sent a demo tape of my music to when he had 40 Acres and A Mule Musicworks, and he has inspired me as a cultural critic as well. He never held his tongue about what he thought of Tyler Perry films or any other films that he happened to see and be displeased with. Spike doesn’t hold his tongue. Although I’m gonna lay out my disagreement, I hold him in highest respect as a filmmaker. I should also add that many people who helped make this film are folks who I know personally, and who I think are amazing folks with great intentions, and since they know me, they know I’m not gonna hold my tongue.

First, Blackkklansman is not a true story. A story not being “true” is not necessarily a problem for me — I have no interest in telling them myself at this time — but this is being pushed as a true story and it is precisely its untrue elements that make a cop a hero against racism. When I voiced some criticism before, a few people said “but it’s a true story!” It’s not.

It’s a made up story in which the false parts of it to try to make a cop the protagonist in the fight against racial oppression. It’s being put while Black Lives Matter is a discussion, and this is not coincidental. There is a viewpoint behind it.

Here is what we know:

The real Ron Stallworth infiltrated a Black radical organization for 3 years (not for one event like the movie portrays) where he did what all papers from the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (Cointelpro) that were found through the freedom of information act point to him doing — sabotage a Black radical organization whose intent had to do with at the very least fighting racist oppression. Cointelpro papers show us that these police infiltrators of radical organizations worked to try to disrupt the organizations through things like instigating infighting, acting crazy to make the organizations look bad, getting physical altercations happening, and setting them up to be murdered by the police or others. Ron Stallworth was part of the cointelpro. Cointelpro’s objectives were to destroy radical organizations, especially Black radical organizations.

Cointelpro papers also show us that when White Supremacist organizations were infiltrated by the FBI and the cops, it was not to disrupt them. They weren’t disrupted. It was to use them to threaten and/or physically attack radical organizations. There was no directive to stop the rise of White Supremacist organizations. the directive was to stop radical organizations. The White Supremacists were infiltrated to be more effective tools of repression by the state. In some cases, it was the undercover cops who came up with plans and literally pulled the trigger on assassinations. This happened in church bombings of Civil Rights movement associated Black churches in Birmingham, the assassination of Civil Rights organizer from Detroit in Selma, the Greensboro Massacre of Communist Workers Party members in 1979, and more. This is what Ron Stallworth was helping to do, and he was doing it in that era. The events of the film all take place in 1979 and after.

Stallworth wrote a memoir to put himself in a different light, but let’s look at what else we know.

There was no bombing that Stallworth or the police thwarted. This was not in Stallworth’s memoir. That was made up for the movie to make the police seem like heroes.

There was no copy that got recorded and/or arrested due to saying things at a bar while drunk about how he’s ok with shooting Black folks. This also was not in Stallworth’s memoir. This was put in the movie to make Ron and the rest of the police look like they were interested in fighting racism, like they don’t all protect whatever racist and abusive cops are in there. This is a scene where the whole police force — chief and all — work together with the fictional Black radical love interest to set the one racist cop up. Never happened. Never would, and someone saying that something vague while drunk wouldn’t be able to be arrested for that. But makes the cops look like they care. His partner that did the physical infiltration of the Klan was not Jewish and did not look Jewish to people. This was a made up thing to raise the stakes and make it seem like the cops were sacrificing more than they were. Add that to the false notion that they were doing it to fight racism and it endears you to the cops more. This means there was no scene where Stallworth had to go throw a rock through the window or whatever.

I’ve met Kwame Ture two or three times, and heard him speak more than that. By the time he was calling himself Kwame Ture, he had formed the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party (AAPRP) and was living in Africa most of the time. The program of the AAPRP for Black folks in the US at the time was to help create a revolutionary Black intelligentsia. They did this through an immensely long reading list and rigorous study groups. He came back to the US and toured colleges to talk to Black folks for this reason. At SF State in 1989/90, I took part in a few of these study groups. If you really went up to Kwame Ture and asked him what we should do right now — as Ron Stallworth does in the film — he would have said what he usually said: “Study!!!” But, it made the Black radical group look more dangerous to have Ture say something that sounded like he was calling for armed insurrection — which they were not calling for in the US at the time. I mean, this movie is trying to make a Cointelpro operative into a hero. It needs every little piece of help it can get.

With these fabricated story notes that Blackkklansman hits upon Ron Stallworth looks like a hero, and so does his partner and the police force. Without the made up stuff and with what we know of the actual history of police infiltration into radical groups, and how they infiltrated and directed White Supremacist organizations to attack those groups, Ron Stallworth is the villain.

Everything else is simply unverifiable stuff that ex-cop Ron Stallworth wrote in his memoir. We don’t know what happened because the “files were destroyed”. We have to trust the word of a cop who infiltrated a Black radical organization for 3 years. This is probably why it was only able to be published by a publisher that specializes in books written by cops.

At the end, the radical girlfriend says that she’s not down with him being a cop, then 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. All the fake stuff we just showed him go through argues his point for him. And then they hear something and go, guns drawn, to investigate. They go down the hall together with the signature Spike Lee dolly — the one that tells us it’s him, the one that took Malcolm down the street, the one that took Dap across campus telling “Wake Up!”. They go forward into the future, side by side, in symmetrical composition, to fight the burning cross of racist terror. Cops and the movement against racist oppression united. This is the penultimate shot before the film goes to news footage of current White Supremacist attacks. Awww hayull no.

Look — we deal with racism not just from physical terror or attitudes of racist people, but in pay scale, housing, health care, and other material quality of life issues. But to the extent that people of color deal with actual physical attacks and terrorizing due to racism and racist doctrines — we deal with it mostly from the police on a day to day basis. And not just from White cops. From Black cops too. So for Spike to come out with a movie where a story points are fabricated in order to make Black cop and his counterparts look like allies in the fight against racism is really disappointing, to put it very mildly.

Much of the call to challenge police brutality and murder brought to light by the Black Lives Matter movement has been met by right wing cries of “But what about Black-On-Black violence?” Some of us, like Spike Lee have bought into that. Two years ago, I wrote an article in The Guardian about the myth of the ride of Black-On-Black violence and prove through statistics exactly how that idea is false, mentions how Spike Lee’s Chiraq plays into that myth, and how that myth is used against movements for social justice. It’s titled “Black culture isn’t the problem — systemic inequality is“. In the context of the political debate happening around the police’s role in racist attacks — this new film is a political brother of Chiraq. The two films say together: “Black folks need to stop worrying about police violence and worry about what they’re doing to each other — plus the police are against racism anyway.”

By now, many folks now know that Spike Lee was paid over $200k by the NYPD to help in an ad campaign that was “aimed at improving relations with minority communities”. Whether it actually is or not, Blackkklansman feels like an extension of that ad campaign.

Follow-up with references in screenshot format

Didactic SynCast #91: Jenkins Belovavich

Let’s kick the new year off right — with a new SynCast! This time we’ve got stuff about South Sudan, fracking, MOOCs, and carnivorous fish. Also: What it means to live a hip-hop life. Enjoy!

DS#91: Jenkins Belovavich

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War, Peace, and Christmas

Merry Christmas, everybody! I hope you’re enjoying some downtime with loved ones. As a zen pantheist Altinist all-of-the-abovism devotee, I hold Christmas to be just as holy as every other day. Still, I got exactly what I wanted this holiday season – time. I’ve finally got some time to relax, play video games, and write. (Pounded out a new story yesterday, in which I took a crack at the horror genre.)

CARE and Terror

Alas, the news this morning is not all joyous. In fact, I’m focused right now on two really horrible stories, one from a while back and one happening as we speak.

Recently Diane and I watched The Narrow Path, a documentary about the peace activist and Jesuit priest John Dear. (It’s good, but the director goes nuts with the sepia filter.) At one point he mentions Margaret Hassan, who was a medical relief worker for many years in Iraq with CARE International, before she was abducted and murdered there. This sort of thing is especially horrifying to me, the idea that someone could devote themselves to doing good work in a place, only to be repaid with such horrible violence. (Like those women in Zanzibar.)

Desperate to know more, I went to Hassan’s Wikipedia page and read about her ordeal. It turns out no one knows, to this day, who exactly killed her. Some group of fanatical scumbags. What I found truly remarkable, however, is that some members of the Iraqi insurgency — and even Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — called for her release.

As horrifying as the whole ordeal is, this last bit gives me hope, in a weird way. I am comforted by the fact that an atrocious person like al-Zarqawi, who was responsible for so much suffering and violence, was willing to stand up for an aid worker. It helps me feel like religious extremists aren’t a totally alien species, beyond all human connection. It’s a small thing, I know, but it really hit me.

War in Southern Sudan

For weeks we’ve been hearing about fighting in South Sudan, and this morning brings headlines about mass graves and ethnic bloodshed. This makes me very sad, and I’m trying hard to resist the standard American mindset of “War in Africa? What else is new?” I’m trying to stay connected with the pain and horror we all felt on 9/11, and keep myself linked to the reality that thousands of people are experiencing that right now in South Sudan — women, men, boys and girls. (I’m always amused and saddened when people only mention women and children, as if men can’t (or don’t) experience pain, loss, and suffering in these situations. Granted, 99% of the time it’s men who initiate and perpetuate them, but other men are of course caught in the crossfire.)

Meanwhile, reports of other atrocities are coming out of Central African Republic. Alas, there’s nothing we regular folks can do at the moment. The UN is sending in 6,000 more peacekeepers (around 12k total) to try to quell the fighting.

What struck me about this story is how blasé we can be about civil war, while simultaneously filling our lungs with indignant outrage when we hear about mass killing. What is war but mass killing carried out by two sides? It’s all so very sad. (This article about corruption in East Timor hasn’t been helping my spirits either.)

So what do we do? First of all, we pay attention. Indifference is the greatest sin, and while of course we shouldn’t fixate on the horrors of reality, neither should we hide from them. Secondly, we allow ourselves to feel the empathy so natural for humans (and so rare in our modern society, alas). Third, if and when some sort of action is possible (via Amnesty International for example), we take it.

No apathy! No sleepwalking!

A Word About the Photo

The news is filled today with images of South Sudan soldiers, emaciated refugees, and terrified children. But it seems like those are the only images we ever see from Africa. (cf. How to Write About Africa by Binyavanga Wainaina.) So I chose an image from the 2011 South Sudan independence celebrations. Let’s not forget there are many awesome people in that country working hard to bring peace back.

RIP Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe died today at the age of 82. He was a great writer; probably the most important African writer of the 20th century.

To learn more, please read the Wikipedia Featured Article about Mr. Achebe. It is remarkably well-written.

Didactic SynCast #63: Coded Language

Seems like the only thing I post here lately is the SynCast. Hopefully during the summer I’ll have more additional text and stuff to post. Anyway, enjoy this week’s show!

DS #63: Coded Language

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Saul Williams: Coded Language