Last week, I saw the movie BlacKkKlansman. At sundown today, I’ll be in synagogue for Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year). Given the state of my country, the film is extremely timely. In contrast, this particular new year is the strangest-timed Rosh Hashanah I’ve known — strange because this year, the High Holy Days will take place during a period in my country that’s anything but holy.
BlacKkKlansman, directed by Spike Lee, tells the story of a black police officer, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), and a white police officer, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. Officer Stallworth initiates contact by phone, but when a meeting is arranged, he needs a white man to join his team.
Officer Zimmerman, a Caucasian Jew, steps in as the face for Officer Stallworth’s voice. Stallworth and Zimmerman need to perform the equivalent of a Vulcan Mind Meld for the operation to succeed and as the story unfolds, two-people-disguised-as-one-person turns out to be essential for their survival. At one point, Zimmerman, circumcised, is ordered at gunpoint to drop his pants by a member of the KKK who suspects him of being a Jew; Stallworth throws a rock through the window, causes a distraction, and rescues Zimmerman. In another scene, Stallworth (not wearing his uniform) is attacked by other officers (all white), after he tackles a white female suspect (a KKK wife) trying to blow up a house full of people (all black). The officers leap in, no hesitation, and beat their fellow officer until Zimmerman arrives and intervenes. BlacKkKlansman is a Spike-Lee-film, which means it contains layers of messages. But this one is front and center: without each other’s support, neither Stallworth nor Zimmerman can survive racism.
Jumping forward several decades, the film concludes with White Supremacists marching and Heather Heyer’s death as she protests racism in Charlottesville, Virginia, 2017. Spike Lee’s choice to end with Heather Heyer sends a clear message that racism is not gathering cobwebs in the archives, but is here and now and deadly. No matter what color your skin, no matter your income, you can’t afford to distance yourself from fighting racism. The price is too high. For any Caucasian person who says it’s not my problem — ask Heather Heyer.
This evening, the sun will set and Rosh Hashanah will begin. As I celebrate, I’m sharply aware of how many in my homeland are suffering. Still, my Jewish ancestors have celebrated their traditions through good times, through imprisonment in concentration camps, in sickness and in health, in comfort and in pain. The High Holy Days will stand long after all of us, including our current administration, have fallen.
If it seems like a stretch to write about BlacKkKlansman and Rosh Hashanah in the same essay — it’s actually not. Spike Lee (director) and the team of screenwriters (Spike Lee, Kevin Willmott, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel) included in their script a quote from Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”
To all people, all racial heritages, all genders, all religions — I wish you a happy new year.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, deals with homophobic bullying in high school, racial and economic diversity, and the power of friendship. Her second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor working to guide the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. Amy collaborates with educators who include her books and essays in their classrooms.
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