Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Birth of a Nation, Charlottesville, Spike Lee, and Murfin Verse

Counter protesters confronted White Racists in Charlottesville last year.

Sunday was the first anniversary of the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina that erupted into confrontations with thousands of outraged local residents and activists which resulted in multiple arrests, scores of injuries, and the murder by auto of anti-fascist activist Heather Heyer.  I covered Charlottesville, the background to the action, players on both sides, and the implications of the events in a three part series on this blog that you can read here, here, and here.

Anti-fascist martyr Heather Heyer commemorated in a Charlottesville mural.

Blocked from returning to the scene of the crime, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and Alt-Right strutters opted to march this year in Washington, D.C. to rally in Lafayette Park across from the White House.  The man that they recognize as wink-and-nod supporter and inspiration was conveniently playing golf and Twitter raging—but not at them—at his New Jersey resort.

They managed to turn out a pathetic corporal’s guard—maybe a couple of dozen—instead of the hundreds touted to the media in advance.  They were protected by a sizable army of Metropolitan Police and personnel from other Federal law enforcement agencies.  They needed the protraction—thousands turned out to oppose them and there were multiple rallies and vigils in other parts of the Capital.  Although the protests were raucous, no violence beyond some minor push-back against police lines was reported and there were no arrests.

In Charlottesville, where the Confederate monuments that were at the heart of last year’s confrontations still stand despite the city’s efforts to remove them because they are now protected under a hastily passed state law,  thousands more turned out against fascism and racism in marches and rallies.  Things got more heated there and there was more serious scuffling with police.  Four were arrested.

Just a day earlier my wife Kathy Brady-Murfin and I took in a rare Saturday matinee to see Spike Lee’s new joint, BlacKkKlansman.  The movie was based on a real undercover investigation of the Ku Klux Klan by Colorado Springs detective Ron Stallworth, the first Black Officer on the force.  The film stars John David Washington as Stallworth, Adam Driver as his White partner Flip Zimmerman, Laura Harrier as Black student activist Patrice Dumas, Topher Grace as Imperial Wizard David Duke, and Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen as the nearly psychotic Klansman Felix Kendrickson.

Lee’s strongest effort in years typically plays homage to diverse cinema genres.  It is by turns a buddy cop flick, meet-cute romcom, police procedural, suspenseful thriller, and a send-up of ‘80’s Blaxploitation films.  It follows the actual details of the real investigation pretty closely until it adopts a cinematic race-against-time bomb plot standard to action movies.  Yet it all hung together resulting in near unanimous audience approval, critical acclaim, and international film festival laurels.

Ku Klux Klan terrorism was celebrated and romanticized powerfully in D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation. 

But it is how Lee framed his film that raised it to a whole other level.  It begins with footage from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, an epic homage to the origins of the original Ku Klux Klan and then cuts to Dr. Kennebrew Beaureguard—a cameo by Alex Baldwin—making a film of a pseudo-scientific argument for White Supremacy.  The film is punctuated with a lengthy verbatim speech by Kwame Ture/Stokely Carmichael and the casual racist rants of the Klansmen.  As tension builds Lees cuts between a Klan initiation where Birth of a Nation is shown as the bomb plot unfolds and Harry Bellefonte as an elderly witness to a horrific real-life lynching by burning conducted by the revived Klan which was energized by the Griffith's picture.  At the end of the narrative to meant-to-be happy reunion of star crossed lovers Ron Stallworth and Patrice Dumas is interrupted by a burning cross on a near-by hillside.  

But it is the epilogue that frankly exposes the poisonous connections between deeply engrained American White racism, the power of the media and propaganda, and the rise of demagoguery and Donald Trump.  In less than five minutes a montage of clips covered the last 30 years climaxing with footage of the Charlottesville events and then ends in a close-up portrait of Heather Heyer with the simple inscription Rest in Power.”

No one leaves the theater unmoved.

A year ago the Social Justice Team of Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry took part in a national response to Charlottesville by organizing a rally and candlelight vigil on its grounds and along Bull Valley Road.  Well over 100 people turned out for a moving event organized in just two days by the power of social media.  Our gathering was reverent and reflective.  But I was struggling with the violence in Charlottesville, and the sometimes clashing themes of assertive and active anti-fascism and the traditional values of non-violence.  I read the following poem composed the day after the deadly struggle.

The Old Man in the gloaming at the Tree of Life candle light vigil for Charlottesville last year.  Photo by Gregory Shaver from the Northwest Herald.

Munich and Charlottesville

August 13, 2017

So is this how it felt on the streets of Munich

            when the strutting Brown Shirts

            in their polished jackboots,

            Sam Browne belts, and scarlet arm bands

            faced the scruffy Commies

            in their cloth caps

            and shirtsleeves rolled up

            and battled in the beerhalls,

            parks and streets.

All of the good people, the nice people

            cowered behind closed doors

            and wished it would go away—

                        all of the liberals, the Catholics,

                        the new-bred pacifists of the Great War,

                        the professors and doctors,

                        editors and intellectuals,

                        the Social Democrats,

                        even—my God!—the Jews

                        who had not gone Red—

            a pox on both your houses they solemnly intoned.

Hey, buddy, in retrospect those damn Bolshi’s

            look pretty good,

            like heroes even.


Things look a little different in Charlottesville,

            in brilliant color not grainy black and white

            and the Fascists can’t agree on a

            Boy Scout uniform and array themselves

            golf shirts and khakis, rainbow Klan hoods,

            biker black and studs and strutting camo.

But the smell, you know, that stench,

            is just the same.

The question is—do you dare be a Red today

            or will you close your doors

            and go back to your game consoles

            and cat videos.

Which will it be, buddy?

—Patrick Murfin

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