Amidst the cultural events on the UMF campus, the New Commons Project has been off to a radical start this spring. Beginning with lectures on hip hop and Kendrick Lamar’s latest album Damn to most recently with a screening of BlacKkKlansman this past Friday, February 8. Focusing on cultural events having to do with race and racial equality, the New Commons Project followed the BlacKkKlansman screening on Friday night with a symposium day of lectures on Saturday, February 9.
Directed by Spike Lee, the BlacKkKlansman came out in 2018 and is based off of a true story which was originally a memoir written by Ronell Eugene Stallworth that was published in 2014. Stallworth wrote this memoir based on his experience working as a cop for the Colorado Springs Police department in the 1970s.
Lincoln Auditorium in the Roberts Learning Center was packed on Friday night with only a handful of empty seats. The main character in the film, Ron Stallworth, is a young African American that joins the Colorado Springs Police Department to infiltrate the local KKK chapter. In the film, Stallworth’s actions and interactions with the KKK chapter are a wonderful paradox. First, Stallworth calls the chapter on the phone to pretend to be interested in becoming a member and then is partnered with a fellow cop, who is white to be the white Stallworth that interacts with the KKK in person. It isn’t until the end of the film that David Duke, the KKK leader, learns that Ron Stallworth is in fact African American. No one knew that he was black because of his white partner — Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver — and all of the KKK members began to accept him and eventually nominated him to be one of their leaders.
Ron Stallworth’s two-part character presents us with the ultimate racial duality or double consciousness. Firstly, Stallworth’s character is an African American in a mostly caucasian police department. Secondly, Stallworth risks his life and his partner’s life (character, Flip Zimmerman) by pretending to join the KKK in order to learn more about the violent and racist organization.
The film screening was followed with a panel discussion with several professors from UMF and our partner University of Le Mans, France. UMF faculty Sarah Maline, Associate Professor of Art History; Andre Siamundele, Assistant Professor of French; and Michael Schoeppner, Assistant Professor of History were led in discussion by UMF’s Libra Scholar Delphine Letort. Professor Letort is visiting UMF from Le Mans University. The panel members shared their thoughts on the film. Professor Letort commented on how Spike Lee reversed the message of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation of white people being afraid of black people to the reality that it is black people that are more rightfully afraid of white people. UMF’s Professor Schoeppner was really taken aback by the film and shared with the audience his observation that “history doesn’t repeat itself, it echoes.”
This idea of history echoing itself was brought up again in Saturday’s symposium. Audience members of students and faculty talked about how violence against race keeps on happening, why it keeps happening, and what we can do about it. It was agreed by many that there is no immediate or sole solution, that there is no one film or work of art that can change the world, no matter how moving it may be. The change is with the people and the people — us, me, and you — need to keep the conversation going. Talking about racial injustice issues in academics and in our everyday lives will help to keep replacing ignorance and fear with education and open-mindedness.