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I WASN’T sure what to expect from Spike Lee’s new film set in the late 1970s based on the memoir of ex-undercover police officer Ron Stallworth.
All I knew was that it included an intimate relationship between the protagonist cop and a black female activist and that it had provoked some online debate about Lee’s representation of racism in the police.
Like Peter Moffat’s undercover police drama for the BBC last year, Lee’s film explores the dilemmas faced by officers employed in these duplicitous roles. And like Moffat’s hero, his undercover policeman is black.
Those of us affected in real life by the actions of undercover police in Britain are wholly aware that such deployments raise profound questions about an individual’s identity.
I have spent too many hours wondering who Mark Jenner — the police officer who spied on me as my boyfriend for five years — really was. I’ve wondered what motivated him to do what he did and how much of his real personality did I ever know?
I understand, therefore, why writers, dramatists and filmmakers find undercover police so fascinating. They offer ways in to explore concepts of identity, particularly, it would seem, when it comes to questions of race.
Stallworth’s first assignment as a rooky undercover cop for the Colorado Springs Police Department (CPDS) is to infiltrate a radical black student organisation where he immediately strikes up a relationship with its beautiful president, Patrice.
He attends a student meeting where the charismatic guest speaker Black Panther Kwame Ture inspires his audience to take pride in their black heritage and calls for power to all the people.
After a scene where Patrice and Kwame are violently harassed by racist police on their way back from the meeting, she meets up with Stallworth in a club.
She tells him about the police harassment and he asks whether she’d noted the officers’ numbers. She hadn’t and we witness this missed opportunity for our hero to nail his racist colleagues.
They dance to music about falling in love and although we see him stay involved in the group as the film progresses, it’s made clear that his interest is personal not professional.
When he later confesses to being a police officer, Stallworth explains to Patrice that he was only undercover at this first meeting as his main focus, together with his partner — white officer Flip Zimmerman — is to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. According to this article, however, Stallworth in fact infiltrated this group for three years and had no such relationship with a female activist.
The representation of the intimate relationship with Patrice is highly problematic. Why has Lee chosen to include this fictionalised storyline? When Stallworth confesses to Patrice that he is an undercover cop, she’s angry but there is no sense of her having been violated or traumatised by his behaviour.
Eventually she says she can’t continue being with him knowing what he does for a living but this is short lived and towards the end when he saves her life from a bomb attack by the KKK (another fictionalised element that enhances the hero’s bravery and renders the heroine even more passive), she welcomes him (and his CSPD mates) back into her life without a second thought.
The penultimate scene in which she is seen drinking and laughing with her police boyfriend and his friends was both uncomfortable and unconvincing.
Another fictionalised element of the story is Lee’s choice to portray Stallworth’s partner, Flip Zimmerman, as Jewish – thus creating further tension by giving Zimmerman “skin in the game” of exposing and sabotaging the Klan’s racism. Confronted by the reality of the Klan’s vicious anti-semitism, Zimmerman explains “I never thought much about it [being Jewish]…now I’m thinking about it all the time.” His words foreground one of the film’s central themes: identity, heritage and rituals.
As “Alison” I haven’t written before about my own Jewish identity. It’s the reason I became involved in the anti-fascist, anti-racist politics that led to me being infiltrated by the Metropolitan Police. In recent months I’ve been deeply depressed about the vicious arguments surrounding anti-semitism on the left.
I have opinions on this which I’ve kept to myself and shared only with friends. Perhaps some of the most difficult aspects of the current discourse around this subject has been the creation of divisions between different minority groups who I have always considered to have a common enemy in the far right.
Spike Lee highlights this brilliantly. The conspiracy theories of Jewish people controlling the banks, the courts and world politics have no place on the left.
They are the property of the fascist right and whilst I don’t buy the “good cops” line being spun by Lee, I very much liked the way he positioned anti-semitism alongside white supremacist racism as one and the same thing.
The discussions between Ron and Patrice as to whether or not black and minority ethnic police officers can affect change from within are not new. Patrice’s attitude towards her lover changes as the story progresses and she comes to see that his identity as a proud black man is of more significance than his policing role. The upbeat ending in which Patrice and Stallworth’s colleagues work together to stitch up and expose the racism of one of their team oddly takes the film into the realms of utopian fantasy.
The experience of being black or Jewish dominates the narrative to such an extent that the oppression faced by women is virtually non-existent. There are no scenes with Patrice discussing with another woman (or anyone in fact) the impact of being spied on by someone she thought cared for her. The relationship is nothing more than a device used to explore race politics and Stallworth’s development as a character. I’ve read several reviews of the film and none have commented on this problematic storyline.
To Lee’s credit, there are a couple of nods to suggest these sorts of relationships are wrong. Stallworth’s chief warns him not to go “under the covers” with his new friend, and his partner Zimmerman warns against the relationship with Patrice. But essentially, the treatment of this aspect of the film is simplistic and superficial.
There should be no hierarchies of oppression. Things can be differently bad. But it would seem that in terms of subjects to take seriously, for both Spike Lee and Peter Moffat, racism trumps sexism.
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