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Responses to Hatred in the ‘BlackKKlansman’ and ‘Years and Years’: Who’s to blame?


“I guess they're trying to move away from their history of selling hate... no one wants to be called a bigot anymore…”

Sergeant Trapp, BlackKKlansman


“Wait for the next one. Get rid of one monster. It means the next one’s waking up inside its cave.”

Edith Lyons, Years and Years

 


On the surface, Spike Lee’s 2018 film BlackKKlansman and Russel T. Davies’ recent TV series Years and Years don’t seem to have much in common. BlackKKlansman is set in the 70s and tells the (true-ish*) story of Ron Stallworth, the first Afro-American detective in the city’s Police department, who sets out to infiltrate the Klu Klux clan. Whilst Years and Years is a thoroughly dystopian show, mostly taking place in the future (2025-29) as it imagines the lives of a British family over a period of political chaos and technological advancement.


One may be a historical depiction, and the other, a futuristic fiction, but the parallels with the present day are made so blindingly obvious that they might be more accurately labelled as contemporary dramas. And that of course is the point.


BlackKKlansman and Years and Years critique the current populist nationalist movements in the US and the UK, serving as hard-hitting parodies of contemporary politics. Subtlety does not seem to be the aim here. If we had miraculously managed to bury our head in the sand through the recent political turmoil, both Lee and Davies yank us into the real world to see the political sandstorm raging around us.


After watching two episodes of Years and Years, I have to admit that I took a break from it for a few weeks. (I’m a little hypersensitive...) The frenzied music as each episode reaches its terrifying, near-apocalyptic climax set my heart racing and I came away thinking that perhaps “The whole world” really “is on fire” as Viv Rook declares in episode 4. I felt similarly overwhelmed by the end of BlackKKlansman, which closes with footage of the 2017 Charlottesville riots, where peaceful counter-protestor, Heather Heyer, was killed in a car attack.


TV and film that wakes us up from our popcorn-induced stupor and forces us to take a long hard look at the current state of our world can surely only be a good thing. Both BlackKKlansman and Years and Years also offer their audience an empowering message; they show us that ordinary people really can make a difference on a national and even international scale. The world could do with more Stallworths and Lyons who will bravely make sacrifices to fight for equality and justice.


And yet as I’ve been reflecting on these two different kinds of political drama, it seems to me that we need more than just a spotlight on current political attitudes if we are to find a way of responding to the bigotry, division, hatred, and mob hysteria that we witness onscreen (and offscreen). The roots of these issues are deep and require of us some serious soul-searching (and a lot of pondering.) Years and Years goes much further in this regard than BlackKKlansman, as it explores the warped nature of all human hearts, not simply those of ‘monstrous’ political figures.


When I actually managed to bring myself to watch the rest of the episodes, I found myself feeling strangely hopeful despite the traumatic events of the story, because Davies doesn’t just show us that the world is messed up; he also goes some way in suggesting how we ourselves, ordinary people like the Lyons family, might act upon this realisation. The Lyons are relatable characters and their failings act as a mirror to our own. This is where I think BlackKKlansman falls short, because it presents us with only a caricature of human failure. Yes, Spike Lee clearly depicts the ugliness of hate, but he doesn’t seem to be concerned about holding his audience accountable. Alissa Wilkinson sums up the issue perfectly in her review:


“But if the movie aims to make complacent white people feel uncomfortable about their role in the current American turmoil, it fails spectacularly. The KKK members are…obviously terrible people, but they’re also just really pathetic. They say “circumstanced” when they mean “circumcised.” They tell extremely dumb jokes. They harbor delusions of grandeur that are in painfully comical contrast to their reality. They’re misogynistic and pompous and stupid. So naturally, nobody in the audience is going to identify with these men, or the white women around them…”


The comedic nature of villainy in this film isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. There may be some wisdom in this recognition of the ridiculous folly of evil. Even God responds with laughter when he sees the evils of humanity in the Old Testament: “The Lord laughs at the wicked, for he knows their day is coming.” (Psalm 37:13)


So laughter doesn’t necessarily negate or undermine the seriousness of the problem. From a Christian perspective, it is a response that is possible because of the firm hope and knowledge that goodness will win in the end.


However, the trouble with BlackKKlansman is that whilst it acknowledges the horrendous consequences of evil, it does not fully recognise the breadth or the whereabouts of the problem. Hatred isn’t just something that takes up residency in the hearts of ‘bigots’ like David Duke and Felix Kendrickson. As author and historian, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes,


“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either - but right through every human heart -and through all human hearts.”

Where BlackKKlansman encourages us to laugh at the bad guys, Years and Years recognises that dismissive laughter can lead to apathy at times when action or activism is most needed. “Beware those men, the jokers, and the tricksters, and the clowns. They will laugh us into hell” says Muriel in one of the final scenes. And that isn't the only great line she has; there are plenty to choose from. Her speech in the last episode is probably the most-watched clip of the whole show with over 89 000 shares on Facebook. In this brutal tirade, she accurately diagnoses a diseased society. "It's our fault. This is the world we built". In her example of the irresistible £1 t-shirt, she reminds us how each of us is responsible for perpetuating and buying into the unjust systems of the world in which we live.


Responsibility is a key question at the heart of this show. The narrative repeatedly returns us to the question: “Who is to blame?”, not just on a political level, but also (and more importantly) on a highly personal one. Each character struggles in their own way to respond to the ugly truth that he/she is responsible, at least in part, for their difficulties and family fallouts.


Stephen is perhaps the ultimate example of the destruction caused by the vicious cycle of blame. He blames his father for leaving his family for another woman and he blames Viktor (who has an affair with Danny) for Danny’s death at sea, but of course, the irony of Stephen’s plight is that he too ends up having an affair, which then leads to the breakdown of his own family. The final episode presents us with the tragic spectacle of Stephen’s emotional implosion, as he crumbles under the weight of the blame and self-contempt he feels, turning the gun on himself.


The show doesn’t finish with his suicide however. (I imagine I’m not the only one who breathed a massive sigh of relief when Stephen put the gun down.) Instead the Lyons family are reconciled in the final scene, brought together by their grief and hope. Davies reveals how hatred functions on a local, interpersonal level, driving families apart, but he also suggests to us that there is room for forgiveness and redemption even in the middle of “a terrible, terrible world.”


And yet, whilst Years and Years may provide a more nuanced depiction of humanity than BlackKKlansman, there are still moments where the drama relies on the typical “goodies versus baddies” narrative. “What happens next is absolutely my fault” says Rosie before she crashes through the security gates in her van. Here she finally assumes some responsibility for the dire state of her society, but the weight of the blame is lessened by the consolation that she can still point the finger at someone worse than herself. She’s cheered on by the crowds as she yells at the Head of Security, “Go on then! Arrest me!..You’re gonna look pathetic?” Similarly, when Edith and Viktor break out of the Erstwhile camp, the blame falls on the guards, “They let us die. Look at them!” Heroism is much easier than humility it seems. We’d all rather admit it’s our fault on our own terms, either when we’re looking our best or when someone else is looking their worst.


That’s not to say that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy the dramatic climax of both BlackKKlansman and Years and Years, but in reality, most of us will never save the day by infiltrating concentration camps like Edith Lyons, nor will we risk our lives as undercover spies like Stallworth. And that is why for me, the best moments of Years and Years are those poignant scenes of family reconciliation, not the grand finale at the end of the series.


The primary battleground in the war between love and hate is that of our daily lives. It’s a mundane sort of battle most of the time, and it frequently involves making small, boring decisions. It involves taking responsibility for the mess that we’ve made both individually and collectively, “through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault” as it says in one of the Anglican prayers of confession.


And prayer is perhaps the best place to end this post. When the horrors of history seem to be repeating themselves and a dystopian future is becoming an increasingly present reality, it is easy to feel powerless. However, for all my mixed feelings about these two dramas, I am glad that they have stirred me again to pray; to pray in anger at political injustice and societal inequalities; to pray through the grief of the atrocities we see in the news; to pray with openness and a readiness to be confronted with some hard truths about our own hearts. But also to pray with laughter and hope, fearless of the future*, because even in the midst of evil we can say, “It is finished.”

 

* The film is based on Stallworth’s memoir, but I say ‘trueish’ because there are few details that have been changed. http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/blackkklansman/


* Proverbs 31: 25

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1 Comment


Edward Cheung
Edward Cheung
Aug 04, 2020

I have had the fortune of watching BlackKKlansman on Netflix yesterday and I just wanted to respond to what you had wrote in your blog about this film.


I don't believe it's a film that was written to make complacent white people feel uncomfortable, although I can understand that this film may appear to do that. I am reminded that there are people who can make a joke to build friendship, while unintentionally offending the ones that they are trying to friend. I think that the target audience are actually the blacks and jews, as they are the protagonists in this film.


It looks to me like Spike Lee was lamenting over the situation that is going on today. He…


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