Boots Riley, the breakout director of this summers screed against capitalist racism and classism Sorry to Bother You, is not one to hold back. A few weeks ago, he defended his own film against those who accused him of diminishing his single female character to the role of quirky girlfriend, otherwise known as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, by posting a lengthy essay on Twitter. On Friday night, now that Spike Lees BlacKkKlansman has had time to roar through theaters across the country, Riley had something to say about the films treatment of its own history, while also taking the time to express his admiration for Lee as a filmmaker.
BlacKkKlansman is based on former police detective Ron Stallworths memoir of the same name, which tells the story of his efforts to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan during its rise in the 1970s. In the film, Stallworth foils an attempt by the Klan to bomb a civil rights rally, saving his girlfriend and making him a hero on the police force. According to Riley, the movie takes many liberties with Stallworths memoir and softens the reality of what actually happened, painting cops and civil rights leaders as a force united against American racism.
Instead, Riley paints Stallworth as an infiltrator not of the Klan, but of the civil rights movement in his small Colorado town. “The real Ron Stallworth infiltrated a Black radical organization for 3 years. . . where he did what all papers from the FBIs Counter Intelligence Program (Cointelpro) that were found through the freedom of information act tell us he did—sabotage a Black radical organization whose intent had to do with at the very least fighting racist oppression,” Riley wrote.
COINTELPRO was a series of covert operations ordered by the F.B.I. to disrupt a number of political organizations, from anti-Vietnam War organizations to feminist rallies to the Black Power movement. Rileys essay claims that Stallworth was one of these operatives, his plan to stop a bombing and his Jewish police force ally mere fabrications to make the story more palatable. He also takes issue with Lees characterization of civil rights leader Kwame Ture as a violent revolutionary, when, in Rileys experience, Ture was more interested in building a “revolutionary Black intelligentsia.”
“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,” Riley writes. “For Spike to come out with a movie where story points are fabricated in order to make a Black cop and his counterparts look like allies in the fight against racism is really disappointing, to put it very mildly.”
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