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Spike Lee Owes a Debt to Joseph Conrad


Spike Lee’s prizewinning screenplay for BlacKkKlansman owes just as much to Joseph Conrad as it does to Ron Stallworth, the Denver detective.

Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent, from 1907 and set in London, gives Lee a big part of the plot’s structure. In both stories, the bomb is delivered by an unwitting dupe, given the job by a craven master. In both, there is a problem with the bomb placement, and the deliverer dies at the scene.

Both deal with secret organizations, the law enforcement agencies that track them and the shadowy malefactors that work behind veils to disrupt society.

Stallworth’s story didn’t include any bomb, but it did inject the humorous aspect of botched endeavor that humanizes the players.

Conrad’s story is much darker, but it is a great psychological study of all its characters.

In a curious reflection of one current public debate, the bomb attack in Conrad’s book is described as an attack on science itself. The bomb target is the astronomical observatory at Greenwich that is the standard timeline for the whole globe. The perpetrators seek disruption for its own sake.

Today’s attacks on science itself come from opponents of climate change activism, who sometimes look as desperate as Conrad’s fin de siècle anarchists in their efforts to roadblock the steady march of reason.

Hopefully, they won’t throw anything worse than verbal bombs.

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