Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman, And The Double Consciousness Of Black Folk

Warning – Mild Blackkklansman spoilers below

Double consciousness is a term describing the internal conflict experienced by subordinated groups in an oppressive society. It was coined by W. E. B. Du Bois with reference to African American “double consciousness,” including his own, and published in the autoethnographic work, The Souls of Black Folk. The term originally referred to the psychological challenge of “always looking at one’s self through the eyes” of a racist white society, and “measuring oneself by the means of a nation that looked back in contempt”.

Spike Lee is aware of his double consciousness. 

He knows hes a Black man. Hes aware of this fact, just like he needs air to breathe. He also knows he’s a celebrity, and a beacon in modern day Black activism. His latest movie, BlacKkKlansman which will be released to national audience this week and is built on this concept. So when we spoke to Spike at a press brunch in New York City to understand the process behind Klansman, his frenetic energy, and answers to reporters’ questions, matched the movie’s multiple themes . 

In the film, Ron Stallworth, played by Ballers actor John David Washington, is a Black police officer for Colorado Springs Police Department in the late 70s, who goes undercover to infiltrate the Klu Klux Klan, in real life. For much of the 2 hours and 15 minutes film Stallworth balances his duality of being Black man, in an era where cops targeting Black activists was the norm. Its a tight rope that allows hims to alter his voice to find common ground during a phone call while sharing racist sentiments against Blacks with KKK grand wizard, David Duke, played by That 70s Show alum Topher Grace with ease. 

The struggle manifests when Stallworth has to provide security for Duke, surrounded by KKK members. A professional obligation eroding his personal core beliefs, is a reality Lee knows has permeated sports. Athletes must feel that too, especially NFL players, because theyre trying to put the hammer on them. The owners, and the commissioner, Lee said with his trademark frank stoicism. 

Washington will almost certainly gain a new fan base once BlacKkKlansman hits theaters on August 10th. These issues that seem to be ageless, we do see evolution in the resistance through forms of hashtags and taking a knee. Thats started by barbaric football players taking the peaceful approach, Washington said. 

The struggle Washingtons character Ron Stallworth exhibits in the film as a Black cop harkens back to the idea of two warring ideals in one dark body Dubois wrote about in his 1903 book The Soul of Black Folk. A reality Lee feels is prevalent in todays police forces. Cops must feel that. If youre a Black cop, and youre in Baltimore, or any place where Black folk are getting killed by the cops, Lee said.

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Washington shares the same sentiment, highlighting the double consciousness that good cops in America must experience as they navigate through a growing public perception of police officers as the enemy. He even goes as far as saying that cops can also be woke, an idea that seems almost fantastical in a country where cops that speak out against injustices are ostracized as snitches by their fellow officers. 

I didnt know a lot of Black officers until I did my research. They got a tremendous amount of pressure to do their jobs, because its a thankless job, Washington states. So, the ones that are actually doing it the right way, they dont get a lot of credit for it. Theyre about the cause. Theyre very woke. It doesnt make them less woke, just because theyre on the side of the law. In fact, it makes them a little more courageous because theyre trying to do it by the law and still protect and serve people in the community equally.

The plight of athlete activists and woke cops are valid, but Lee attests there are issues that have caused longer lasting chasms in America that need to be addressed where we shouldnt even be talking about football. One being the fact since Agent Orange got in office, he has gutted everything Obama has done, he said referring to our orange-tinted commander in chief. Another being the internal war America has between its insidious past and the idealistic view of itself.

Its hard to come up in the educational system in the United States of America when it was built on lies. They start you in kindergarten with George Washington and the cherry tree. That was a lie. Its all lies. The truth is that this country was built on the genocide of Native Americans and slaves. If we dont start there, I dont know what to say,” Lee proclaimed.

In probably the most harrowing scene of the film, Duke initiates a new class of KKK members by jovially watching the landmark, and extremely racist 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. For many, itll be an emotionally charged moment, with the hatred so visceral you have to look away, but for Lee, it was a partial flashback to his time in the American educational system.

It bothered me when I saw [The Birth of a Nation] at my first year at NYU graduate film school. What bothered me was not that they showed the film, but there was no historical, social, political context or discussion of the film. We only talked about the great technological and cinematic inventions. No one talked about, at the time the film came out, that the KKK was dormant. It was dead. That film brought about a resurgence, a rebirth of the Klan.

Spike Lee will always know hes Black. Spike Lee will always know he’s more than a Black man. And after watching BlacKkKlansman, hopefully people will come to this realization about themselves and the divided world they live in.

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