[Note: This article discusses plot points from BlacKkKlansman.]
BlacKkKlansman is Spike Lee’s best and most talked-about movie in years, an enjoyably tense police thriller that also manages to be a scathing look at racism in America, as told through the eyes of a black cop who managed to infiltrate his way into a high position in the KKK. Not everyone is enjoying the movie equally, though, including musician and director Boots Riley—whose own film, Sorry To Bother You, has its own, even crazier critiques of America’s institutional failures. Riley vented his spleen on BlacKkKlansman last night, in the form of a three-page essay on Twitter, which opens by referencing Lee’s own critiques of directors like Tyler Perry when he thinks they’ve stepped out of line.
Riley’s critique of Lee’s film is eye-catching for a couple of reasons, not least of which because (non-Lee) Hollywood directors usually don’t publicly criticize each others’ movies while they’re both still in theaters. (It’s bad for business, not that Riley seems to care.) There are also the surface similarities between the two men’s films, both about black men turning themselves into chameleons to infiltrate a white power structure. And then there’s Riley’s clear admiration for Lee—he calls the film “a masterful craftwork”—combined with his obvious disappointment in its political messaging.
The bulk of Riley’s essay is presented as criticism of the film’s depiction of its main character, Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington). Countering the film’s opening claims of being based on “some fo real, fo real shit,” Riley asserts that Stallworth and his colleagues in the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Office spent far more time trying to bring down black radical groups than they ever did screwing with the KKK. (In a follow-up tweet, he cited instances in which the Bureau—although not Stallworth specifically— went so far as to allegedly, tacitly participate in and support certain actions by white supremacist groups.) He also points to a number of fabricated characters and situations that Lee invented for the film, labeling them as efforts to make its various cops and agents more sympathetic to his audiences. (We noted several of these—including a fictitious terrorist bombing—in our Page To Screen feature on the film, although they were mostly attributed to Lee’s efforts to wring some thrills out of Stallworth’s surprisingly boring memoir.)
It’s a damning assessment on the whole, going so far as to end on a note in which Riley draws links between Lee’s film and a paid advertising campaign he did for the NYPD a few years back. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Lee declined to comment on Riley’s vision of his movie.