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Black August, BlacKkKlansman, and 9 Must-See Movies about Law Enforcement and Black Liberation

It’s August 12, and the KKK is holding its own bastardized version of the “march on Washington” across the street from the White House. One year after White Power/Alt-Right supporters descended on Charlottesville, Va., bringing turmoil and death in their wake. Two years and eleven days after police officers outside Baltimore, Md., gunned down Korryn Gaines who was going live on Facebook at the time. Four years and three days after a police officer killed Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo., sparking five days of intense protests.

And it’s Black August, a cultural observance that is not known to or practiced by most black folks, although like Black Love Day and Maafa, it should be. The well-known Movement for Black Lives focuses on the unjust and unpunished murders of black people by law enforcement. Black August focuses on the millions of black men, women and children who survive their encounters with police but end up in jail, prisons and penitentiaries.

Inside, they may be subjected to physical violence, solitary confinement, sexual assault, racial hostility, and other inhuman conditions far worse than the crimes they were convicted of committing. Meanwhile, the criminal justice system profits off their presence big time, from the construction and staffing of private and public prisons to the numerous corporations that gain access to dirt cheap prison labor.

Black August originated with uprisings in California’s prisons during the 1960’s. Today it is an opportunity to remember the revolutionaries, political prisoners, and freedom fighters who resisted mass incarceration, and to study and commit to continuing their work.

In true social media fashion, there’s even a Black August Photo Challenge that invites participants to “fast, study, train, fight” and raise awareness by sharing a photo a day with their networks.

Spike Lee couldn’t have picked a better time to release his new movie, BlacKkKlansman.

The film is based on the memoirs of Ron Stallworth (played by Denzel Washington’s son John David Washington), the first black police officer and detective in Colorado Springs. In 1979, he accepted the unlikely task of infiltrating the local Ku Klux Klan chapter. Using a white Jewish police officer as the in-person face of his operation, Stallworth cleverly gained the trust of local and national Klan leaders, including Louisiana’s infamous ex-state representative David Duke, who was the Grand Wizard of the Klan at the time of Stallworth’s investigation.

Although a white hate group is the target of police in BlacKkKlansman, history has numerous examples of police officers, judges, lawyers, and other members of the criminal justice industry joining the Klan, not as infiltrators but as true believers. Stallworth’s real-life investigation even exposed Klansmen who were also military officers, working in highly classified environments and having access to nuclear weapon codes. More recently, several officers have been fired after it came out that they had ties to the Klan. How many others are still on the force because they are better at keeping their affiliations a secret?

It’s no wonder that Federal and local law enforcement organizations were used to undermine the Black Panthers and other liberation organizations in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. In fact, one of Stallworth’s early assignments was to go undercover at a speech made by Stokely Carmichael aka Kwame Ture, the man who is credited with first using the phrase “Black Power.” He was also investigating a progressive labor organization at the same time that he was pretending to be a Klansman.

I haven’t seen the movie yet, so no need to worry about spoilers (besides what’s already been said on countless websites). We should all go see it and support Spike, John David, and Stallworth himself.

Actor John David Washington (L) with the real-life Ron Stallworth, subject of the movie BlacKkKlansman

In the meantime, here are several other movies that explore the relationship between racist organizations, law enforcement, and undercover investigations. You can find many of them online at YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc.

  • The Spook Who Sat By the Door. Based on the novel by Sam Greenlee, this movie follows a very intelligent, athletic, and cool-headed brother who becomes the first recruit to the CIA, and passes on his new knowledge to a group of community-based activists and revolutionaries.
  • Black August. The story of George Jackson, a Black Panther, co-founder of the Black Guerilla Family, and Angela Davis’ lover. His incarceration led to a political awakening that had major consequences in California prisons and far beyond.
  • Free Angela and All Political Prisoners. This documentary explores Angela Davis’ alleged role in the attempt to free George Jackson and his co-defendants. She was arrested and also went into hiding as a result.
  • Civil Brand. Mos Def, Lisa Raye, and Da Brat star in this movie about a prison guard who pokes his nose into the unethical and illegal activities his coworkers are engaged in at a women’s correctional facility.
  • Life. If you haven’t seen this, I don’t know where you’ve been! No judgment, but you need to fix that fast. Starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence as a couple of city boys who get caught up in the pre-civil rights era brand of criminal justice in the deep south.
  • Bastards of the Party. This documentary traces the rise of Los Angeles’ notorious Crips and Bloods street gangs from their origins in the Black Panther Party. Along the way, it shows how racist officers from the deep south were recruited by California cities at the the same time that blacks were migrating west in record numbers.
  • Honeydripper. This movie is not really about the criminal justice system per se, but it contains a subplot that reveals how the police, judges, and landowners worked hand in hand to use the law to enrich themselves and oppress black people at the same time. Danny Glover and Charles S. Dutton co-star
  • The Murder of Fred Hampton. The charismatic young chairman of the Chicago Black Panthers was gunned down during a coordinated raid by local and Federal law enforcement. The raid was successful because of a black police informant who had infiltrated the Black Panthers. I won’t give away the rest of the movie, but it is one of my personal favorites!
  • Mississippi Burning. This movie stars Gene Hackman (aka the 1980’s Lex Luthor of the Superman franchise) as a federal officer sent to Mississippi to investigate the widely publicized disappearance of three civil rights workers – an actual tragedy from the mid 1960’s. Along the way, we get to see the extreme resistance of local law enforcement to justice for black residents and the level of coordination between hate groups and the criminal justice system.

Deidre R. Gantt is the former Associate Editor of Face2Face Africa. Prior to that, she served the Greater New Orleans community as a Program Associate with Foundation for Louisiana, where she managed leadership programs, grant opportunities and communications support to drive civic engagement and policy change. Her communications background includes a lengthy freelance career as a writer and editor, grant writer, and college writing instructor. Between 2007 and 2010, Deidre covered the rebirth of the cultural arts community in her hometown, Washington, DC, for the Ward 7 Arts Collaborative. Her professional writing career began in the 1990s as a contributing editor for Rolling Out urban style weekly. Deidre is also an accomplished poet and performer who has appeared on stages throughout the United States as well as in Tanzania and Ghana. Deidre holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from Emerson College and a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Southern California.

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