Guest Commentary | 'BlacKkKlansman's Jews

Guest Commentary | 'BlacKkKlansman's Jews


In "BlacKkKlansman," Spike Lee's 2018 Oscar winner for best adapted screenplay, the Ku Klux Klan gets humiliated. Underground black activist Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture is partially redeemed.

And rabbinic sage Hillel, 110 BCE to 10 CE, is catapulted into the 21st century, reaching the largest congregation of his life: "If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am for myself alone, who am I? If not now, when?"

"BlacKkKlansman," however, doesn't acknowledge Hillel, even within the long list of credits.

The semi-comical film, based on the memoir, "Black Klansman," shows 1970s black police officer Ron Stallworth joining the Ku Klux Klan by telephone.

Since Stallworth obviously can't attend Klan meetings, his white partner, Flip Zimmerman, goes instead. Recognizing opportunity, Lee makes Zimmerman Jewish.

So undercover officer — and Jewishly oblivious — Zimmerman is tasked to pretend he's Stallworth, while undercover officer Stallworth is tasked with infiltrating Carmichael's lecture at Colorado College's Black Student Union. Stallworth learns Carmichael changed his name to Ture, lovingly played by actor Corey Hawkins, who begins: "It is time for you to stop running away from being black."

He describes Tarzan movies: "White Tarzan used to beat us, the black natives. I would sit there yelling: 'Kill The Beasts!' 'Kill The Savages!' 'Kill 'em. Kill 'em!' ... But what I was saying was: 'Kill me!' It was as if a young Jewish boy saw Nazis taking Jews off to concentration camps and cheered them on."

He finishes with Hillel: "If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am for myself alone, who am I? If not now, when?" Lee added: "And if not you, who?"

Hillel's prime expression of identity doesn't say what to do. It's a plea: Figure out what it means being Jewish among other people.

Be a me. Acknowledge others. Do it now.

Hillel's lines are straight out of Mishnah, the ancient Jewish text, Ethics of the Fathers. For two millennia, these exact words have, arguably, carried the beating heart of Judaism.

Surely, Lee understood leaving Hillel's phrases unattributed may trigger accusations. Additionally, since Ture expressed notoriously anti-Semitic language when alive, was this mockery? What was Lee doing?

By channeling Hillel's sophistication, Ture's own history is rewritten, ironically, using Jewish history.

"BlacKkKlansman" tells a simple anti-Klan story. Hillel's voice adds acuity, sanitizing Ture, born Stokely Carmichael.

Carmichael (1941-1998), pre-Ture, from Trinidad, raised by his grandmother, joined his parents in Harlem in 1952. Attending the Bronx High School of Science, according to Wikipedia, "he participated in a boycott of a local White Castle restaurant that did not hire blacks."

Carmichael attended Howard University, where he popularized the phrase "Black Power." Part of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, in 1961 he participated in the Freedom Rides aimed at desegregating buses, in marches organized by Martin Luther King Jr., and was arrested attempting to integrate a whites-only cafeteria in Jackson, Miss.

Carmichael pivoted, in 1969 leaving for Guinea, Africa, becoming Kwame Ture. Invited back by universities, he didn't speak as portrayed in "BlacKkKlansman."

In a 1970 live interview, as Carmichael, the New York Times reported journalist David Frost asking: who was "the white man and the black man you most admire in the world." Carmichael answered: "If you ... ask me who I think was the greatest white man ... I would think Adolph Hitler."

The Times reported: "gasps, booing and jeering from the studio audience interrupted."

Carmichael continued, "When you talk about greatness, you don't put ethical judgments or moral judgments on them. .... Adolph Hitler — I'm not putting a judgment on what he did — if you asked me for my judgment morally, I would say it was bad, what he did was wrong, was evil, etc. But I would say he was a genius, nevertheless."

Did Carmichael/Ture truly believe Hitler the great white genius? Unlikely. But he learned the oration skills, how hyperbole manipulates, whipping people up. He learned connecting Zionists, violence, demons, Hitler and Jews always got him maximum attention.

Ture gained fame by lobbing anti-Semitism into student crowds. Universities offered money and a stage, including the UIUC's Foellinger auditorium, where he railed against demon Zionists, advocating violent overthrow of the U.S. and Israel.

Ture had unapologetic Trinidadian-American-African spirit. Hillel became known as a spiritual leader of the Jewish people in Jerusalem during the time of King Herod and the Roman emperor Augustus.

Hillel and his colleagues were preserved in the writings of the Mishnah, synthesizing and documenting the oral tradition of rabbinic/Jewish consciousness and identity.

"BlacKkKlansman" provided Hillel a modern audience. Using once anti-Semitic orator Ture as Hillel's agent was inspirational. Hillel deserves the recognition.

Robert Silverman has a behavioral health counseling practice in Champaign and is a former executive director of the Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation.