In the essay, tweeted out on Friday, Riley calls the film “a made up story in which the false parts of it try to make a cop the protagonist in the fight against racist oppression.”
“It’s being put while Black Lives Matter is a discussion, and this is not coincidental. There is a viewpoint behind it,” he continues, alleging the film is nothing more than cop propaganda.
Lee’s movie is “based” on the life of a real dude named Ron Stallworth and his 2014 memoir Black Klansman. Stallworth (John David Washington) infiltrates the KKK with the help of his partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). But that’s not how Riley claims it went down.
Instead, he says Stallworth worked primarily to spy on black liberation groups in the late ‘70s. “The real Ron Stallworth infiltrated a Black radical organization for 3 years..where he did what all papers from the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (Cointelpro) that were found through the freedom of information act tell us he did—sabotage a Black radical organization whose intent had to do with at the very least fighting racist oppression,” he wrote.
Cointelpro is responsible for countless disruptions of radical movements in the ‘60s, including the assassinations of several Black Panther leaders such as Fred Hampton. They worked to undermine socialist, feminist, anti-Vietnam, and other groups, but are most infamous for terrorizing black radicals.
“Without the made up stuff and with what we know of the actual history of police infiltration into radical groups, and how they infiltrated and directed White Supremacist organizations to attack those groups, Ron Stallworth is the villain,” Riley writes. “For Spike to come out with a movie where story points are fabricated in order to make a Black cop and his counterparts look like allies in the fight against racism is really disappointing, to put it very mildly.”
Riley also makes points about Zimmerman’s alleged Jewish heritage, a bombing scene in the movie, and the film's portrayal of famous activist and scholar Kwame Ture.
He ends his essay pointing to some recent news that Lee and his company were paid by the NYPD in 2016 to “improve” relationships between minorities and police, according to the New York Post. “By now, many folks know that Spike Lee was paid over $200k to help in an ad campaign that was ‘aimed at improving relations with minority communities,’” Riley writes. “Whether it actually is or not, Blackkklansman feels like an extension of that ad campaign.”
Riley’s criticism certainly puts into question the legitimacy of Lee’s inspiration and motive behind the film. However, it’s worth noting that the Sorry to Bother You director also faced a bit of criticism last week over Tessa Thompson’s character in his film, and responded in a less than ideal way with a few inaccuracies of his own.
Some criticized Thompson's character Detroit for being too symbolic and pointed out that the film did not pass the Bechdel test, a measure for evaluating the presence of women in a film. Instead of listening to the criticism, Riley revealed that he doesn't seem to know what the Bechdel test is, claiming Detroit is superior to other women in films that do pass the test, because she doesn’t spend all her time talking about men. But the test explicitly evaluates the conversations women have, meaning his defense is wrong, because a film that passes the Bechdel test couldn’t feature women who only talk about their romantic relationships, as Riley suggests.
You can read the rest of Riley’s essay on BlacKkKlansman below, but anyone looking to verify the truth behind Stallworth’s life should definitely put in their own bit of research.
Lee has yet to comment to Riley’s letter.