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'BlacKkKlansman' and the Art of Code-Switching

Beyond tics in dialect, code-switching often requires a shift in ideology.
Adam Driver and John David Washington in Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman.

Adam Driver and John David Washington in Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman.

With BlacKkKlansman, it seems that Spike Lee has found a late-career return to form. The film shows revitalized flashes of Lee's signature flair for moments of grave seriousness that give way to moments of absurd levity. His failures as a filmmaker tend to be most evident when he loses the balance between these two tones, but in BlacKkKlansman, both get equal volume. Lee also revisits his ability to create powerfully visceral juxtapositions: In one of the film's most memorable scenes, Harry Belafonte tells the story of Jesse Washington's lynching to a circle of young black activists. The story is interspersed with visuals from a fictional KKK initiation ceremony. 

The inclusion of Jesse Washington's story, complete with the horrific images the lynching produced, is representative of Lee's ultimate achievement with the film: to create a portrait of racism across generations that highlights how the execution of racism has changed while the tools and desires behind it have remained the same.

BlacKkKlansman is adapted from the true story of Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), a Colorado Springs police officer who, in the late 1970s, infiltrated his town's chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. It was an elaborate operation, for which Stallworth posed as a white man over the phone to gain the trust of the KKK members in his town, before sending a white narcotics officer to pose as him and infiltrate the Klan in person. In real life, the operation took place over a nine-month period, during which time Stallworth even had phone conversations with then-Grand Wizard of the KKK, David Duke. The infiltration was kept secret until 2006, when Stallworth gave an interview about the case to the Deseret News, and then turned the episode into a book.

BlacKkKlansman is on the nose in a way that only Lee can pull off, but the urgency of the message matches the film's delivery. BlacKkKlansman reminds audiences that white supremacy never really stopped being the norm, even if the latest re-emergence of white nationalism is jarring in its aggressiveness. For those of us who have lived with racism for years, there isn't much surprising in the art being made about it, beyond how daring that art can be in its articulations.

But beneath the film's blunt indictments of this country's failures in race relations, there's a more nuanced portrayal of code-switching. The 2018 film Sorry to Bother You similarly dramatizes the way that black people switch between dialects and other linguistic markers in order to gain access to spaces that might otherwise be denied to them because of their appearance. Code-switching is not limited to race; it also happens across class lines and gender lines. But to consumers of American popular culture, the most familiar brands of code-switching revolve around race, particularly around how black people maneuver the workplace versus how they might behave in their personal time and in the presence of other black people.

Ron Stallworth is a fascinating study in the art of the code-switch. In real life, Stallworth's first assignment as an undercover agent was to stake out a Kwame Ture speech and blend in with the college-aged black activists he found there, to take the pulse of the event and determine whether the police should consider the black power movement a threat. In the movie, Stallworth's infiltration of the black activist scene is a central part of the plot; before long, he falls in love with the president of the black student association. These campus scenes allow the viewer to watch (and hear) Stallworth peppering his sentences with "Sista" and platitudes about black liberation while in the company of his activist muse, right before it cuts to Stallworth posing as an aggrieved white man on the phone with David Duke, discussing his desire to secure a proud and strong white America.

Viewers may note that Stallworth's voice doesn't exactly change a great deal between these two modes. The act of code-switching, when it's not comically exaggerated (think Dave Chappelle playing a white character), is not necessarily a sonic shift. Rather, it's often a simple shift in ideology or in the ideas one is willing to espouse or accept. At a central moment before the start of the Klan mission, Stallworth's white superior tells him that it would be impossible for him to pose as a Klan member over the phone because white people would immediately know the difference between how white people and black people speak. When Stallworth disagrees, the white police chief offers a dismissive "you know what I mean." Deep into his conversations with Duke, Stallworth asks Duke how he can be sure he hasn't been talking to a black poser the entire time. Duke explains that black people and white people pronounce the word "are" totally differently. The sonic qualities of code-switching may seem most important to the white people hearing them, but the ideological shift is most visceral for the code-switcher.

Once we dispense with the simple-minded idea that black people inevitably sound a specific way and white people sound another way, the code switch becomes more and more about endurance. During my high school years, I was briefly accepted into a group of white friends because of how I would sit silent when they wanted to talk about black people in ways that made me uncomfortable. When I got to college and began to speak up during those moments of laughter, I became less easy for white people to hang out with. Over the phone, when my name is all a person has to go from, I am sometimes met with surprise at the sound of my voice from those who expect or assume that I can't speak English. No matter how many books I write or how many times I articulate myself to an audience, there will still be someone—often white—expressing a joyous surprise at how well-spoken I am. The myth of the code switch is that it largely serves the person engaging in the action, but it also serves the comfort of the person who has predetermined their experience with you.

It would be a lie to say that there are not benefits to performing a code switch. For people of color in America, code-switching is mostly about assimilating to an idea of whiteness, and in a country where proximity to whiteness can be a life-saving currency, it is a performance tool that has real value. What I find most valuable, though, is when I can commiserate with my friends and peers about the ways we switch codes, or the reasons we do it. Even if we don't like it, my friends and I sometimes discuss it as though we're getting away with something. The promotion, or the free flight upgrade, or the extended deadline on a past due bill. Code switching is the bad inside joke that we all know but still force ourselves to laugh at, because of what silence would force us to admit about the world through which we move.

I like BlacKkKlansman as an exploration of the code switch first, and as a movie about the infiltration of the Klan second. In the film, Ron Stallworth is living a double life, and there is a thrill in getting over on the Klan, but we see Stallworth reap very little actual reward for it. In his own department, he's still treated relatively poorly, his investigation doesn't bring down the organization, and when his black activist girlfriend finds out what his real job is, she refuses to be with him. The main payoff for code-switching is entry into a world that would not have you—and, in Stallworth's case, entry into a world that would prefer to see you destroyed. His greatest on-screen victory is using his blackness as a cover for fooling racists.

BlacKkKlansman has its flaws. Ultimately, it's another story where righteous police save the day, even as Lee never takes the police to task in any way that feels real. The movie portrays the absurdity of racism and white supremacy, but not the everyday banality of it. Not the idea that a Klan member could be the person checking you out at Whole Foods, or the person in line ahead of you at the airport.

Still, I did find myself surprised at one moment toward the end of the movie, and then surprised at the fact that I had even been surprised. Stallworth, in plain clothes, chases down and tackles a white woman who was tasked with planting a bomb near the home of black activists. He attempts to arrest her, identifying himself as a police officer while she screams for help. Two other police officers arrive, and Stallworth stands up, explaining that he is a police officer, and that he's trying to arrest the woman for a crime. The woman insists that Stallworth tried to rape her, and the police begin assaulting him, hitting him with their batons while attempting to handcuff him. This was the one part in the movie that I didn't see coming, even though (of course) it was coming the entire time. Stallworth's confidence had somehow convinced me that he'd built up so much goodwill among the white people in the police force, or that he'd become so infamous in his pursuit of justice, that there would be no mistaking who he was or the righteousness of his mission. I assumed that he had effectively worked his way out of this particular danger. But of course he hadn't. The message resting underneath the movie was right there: Don't think any of this shit will save you.