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‘BlacKkKlansman’ takes us from Colorado Springs and the KKK to the White House

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- Commentary
Press conference by US President Donald Trump at the NATO Summit in Brussels.

I know you didn’t ask, but I have a piece of advice for those out there in Readerland: Turn off the TV, pull yourself away from the latest chapter in the Omarosa Manigault Newman dramedy and go see Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.” I promise Manigault Newman will still be on some station when you get back.

You’ve probably heard about BlacKkKlansman’s absurdist, yet based-on-real-life plot, in which a Colorado Springs cop — the first black cop in the force’s history — somehow infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the ‘70s. It’s funny and it’s searing and it’s Lee at his near-best. And though it’s set in the still-too-recent past, it’s not really about the past at all. It’s more about how we look, but don’t see, and how, if we had been seeing, we should have known that someone, or something, like Donald Trump was coming. To cite Lee: Wake up.

The movie’s release was timed to the one-year anniversary of the very-fine-people-on-both sides white nationalist rally and riot in Charlottesville that left an anti-racist protester dead and the city where I went to college shaken and saddened.

Outside the theater, the story of race in America had turned to Donald Trump and his fired White House aide, Manigault Newman, who rose from reality TV villain to White House aide and loose cannon and is now on a book tour meant to sell books and to terrorize Trump. The draw is that she has the most provocative White House tapes since Nixon in her possession and that she’s playing them all over TV.

The consensus among political types is that Manigault Newman is hardly a credible source, and I don’t doubt that. She’s an Apprentice alumnus who praised Trump mightily — as Trump tweeted, he kept her on because she said GREAT things about him — until she was fired and wrote a book: “Unhinged.” Then comes a series of Trumpian texts, including the infamous one in which he calls her a “dog.”

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But the fascinating question Manigault Newman raises — and now being raised to a higher level still by Trump spokesperson Sarah Sanders — is whether she has, in fact, heard (as she claims) the fabled Trump N-word tape, which, for all we know, is no more real than the Loch Ness Monster or, for that matter, the Michelle Obama “whitey” tape. But when asked whether there’s a tape with Trump using the N-word, Sanders said she “can’t guarantee” that there isn’t. Sanders, who routinely guarantees the validity of Trump lies, couldn’t guarantee this? Manigault Newman does have a tape, after all, from the White House Situation Room, the ultra-secure site where Chief of Staff John Kelly, for some reason, took her to be fired.

An N-word tape would be intriguing, of course. But does it matter? We don’t actually need it to know all about Trump’s impressively wide-ranging use of bigotry to get himself elected and to keep his voters happy. He does the dog whistle that anyone can hear — anyone who listens, that is — and if it offends you (and me), it seems to appeal to his base. Here are numbers for you: In the latest CBS News poll, 58 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of race relations, but 83 percent of Republicans approve.

And yet, there’s a case to be made that actually hearing the N-word uttered is the one word that goes too far, even in Trumpian America. Of course, Trump used the P-word on the Access Hollywood tape, and it apparently had no impact whatsoever.

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The White House has denied that the dog tweet is racist by arguing — this is actually happening – that Trump says obnoxious things about people of all genders and races. And, of course, he does, but the D-word is not just a dog whistle. It’s a symphony of crassness and ugliness and bigotry. As Linda-Susan Bear, director of Africana Studies at Bryn Mawr College, said in the New York Times of Trump’s tweet: “The statement is brilliant in its ability to do double duty: to offer an attack that is simultaneously racialized and gendered.”

In his campaign against Manigault Newman, Trump has called her a “lowlife” and “wacky and deranged” — that seems more misogynistic — and “not smart,” which is his latest go-to move in attacking African-Americans. In just the last couple of weeks, he has denigrated the intelligence of LeBron James, CNN host Don Lemon and Rep. “Very Low IQ” Maxine Waters. In case you’re not keeping score, the Washington Post’sAaron Blake is, and according to his math, 13 of the last 22 people Trump has called “stupid” or “dumb” are black.

Which brings me back to Spike Lee and BlacKkKlansman. During the movie, Ron Stallworth, the black cop — played by Denzel Washington’s son, John David Washington, with the well-known Denzel cool — is talking to his white sergeant about his actual, fo’ real (as Lee puts it) conversation with Klan leader David Duke. At the time, Duke had given up, publicly at least, the title of Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan for “National Director.”

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That a black guy could actually have pretended to be a racist white guy on the phone with Klan members, including Duke, is what drives the movie. Of course, when Stallworth joined the Klan – and the real-life cop still has the membership card – he had a have a white cop play the role of Ron Stallworth, and the movie goes from there.

Anyway, the sergeant explains to Stallworth that Duke is taking his message mainstream — more about immigration and affirmative action than about burning crosses— and wants to move into politics, which, of course, he did, even running for president. Here, Lee goes for the least-subtle-joke possible, as Stallworth says, “America would never elect somebody like David Duke president of the United States.”

The sergeant says, “Why don’t you wake up?”

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You could say the same thing, I guess, about the Omarosa Manigault Newman-Trump story. It’s a joke and it’s not a joke.


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