Note: This article contains plot points of BlacKkKlansman.
Fifty-two percent of white women voted for Donald Trump. It’s a statistic that often makes left-leaning white women like myself uncomfortable, because it speaks to an uncomfortable truth: Protest sexism all you want—and there’s plenty to protest—but you’re still white. You still have white privilege, and can reap the benefits of white supremacy. White supremacist groups, from the Ku Klux Klan to the mayonnaise mishmash of polo-shirt clad racists who came together last summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, have fetishized white women as vessels of sacred racial purity, and used them as a pretense for acts of unforgivable violence. And white women have supported them. Respectable, middle-class housewives fought against school integration in the 1960s and ’70s, and their daughters voted for a proud serial groper because he said all the right (white) things.
The white-supremacist ideal of the pure white woman, and the dark history of violence and complicity it invokes, is one of many themes explored in Spike Lee’s brilliant pop-political comedy BlacKkKlansman, which opened in theaters this weekend. Black cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who talks his way into the Colorado KKK through some savvy over-the-phone code switching, claims the rape of his “purest white-driven-snow” sister by a black man as his primary motivation for joining the Klan, a claim repeated by Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), Stallworth’s white colleague, when he meets the local chapter in the flesh for the first time. He’s met with a nod and a knowing smile. “A lot of us” come to “the organization” this way, he’s told.
It also hangs over one of the film’s heaviest and most moving scenes, an interlude intercutting a pseudo-occult Klan initiation ceremony with a scene of elderly civil rights activist Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) recounting the lynching of a family friend he witnessed back in 1914. Turner says The Birth Of A Nation, D.W. Griffith’s silent blockbuster that glorified Ku Klux Klan members “defending the honor” of blond, delicate Lillian Gish against a menacing “mulatto,” fueled the murder we see in horrible, graphic photos held by members of the film’s Black Student Alliance. It was a murder fueled by a white woman’s lie, he says, like many before and after it. Cut to the Klan wives, lipsticked and beaming on their husband’s laps, delighting in a screening of Griffith’s film.
That ideal becomes flesh in the form of Klan wife Connie Kendrickson (Ashlie Atkinson), a motherly woman in an apron and an updo who’s also one of the most vicious racists in the film. When we first see her, Connie is serving refreshments to her husband, Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), and his KKK buddies; she’s cheerful and smiling as she passes out drinks and snacks, and the men patronize and condescend to her, telling her to scoot on out of the room so they can talk business. Taken out of context, she might even be rather sympathetic, an eager and intelligent woman consigned to the kitchen because of her sex.
But there is no separating the rigid gender roles in the Kendrickson household from the couple’s equally noxious racial worldview. Before she leaves the room, Connie butts in to let the men know that she heard about an upcoming gathering of the Colorado College Black Student Union led by Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), Connie’s opposite in every way but her sex and a fascinating character in her own right. There’s a delight in Connie’s eyes as she reports information she knows could get people killed, and the tone of her voice spouting racial epithets is the same as when she offers “Ron” cookies.
You can’t write Connie off as brainwashed or a poor, manipulated victim, either. She clearly wants to be on the front lines of the coming race war, and she and Felix engage in dark conversation about the inferiority of other races as a form of pillow talk. And she gets her opportunity: A few scenes later, we see Connie, Felix, and another KKK member in the Kendricksons’ garage, plotting to bomb the march Connie told the men about with an explosive device hidden in her purse. He told her someday she’d be called up to help the cause, Felix says—implying that Connie has long been vying for a more active (i.e., violent) role in the KKK—and now that time has come. For Connie, achieving equality means killing black people alongside her husband and his friends, an extreme version of the dynamics that take place every day when white women celebrate other white women achieving positions of power in oppressive organizations. And Connie’s blinkered worldview backfires in ironically comedic fashion in the film’s climax, further driving home Lee’s point that in throwing black women under the bus (to put it extremely mildly: Connie plans to murder Patrice and her roommates) to impress white men, Connie has made a fatally wrongheaded choice.
Aside from a handful of extras, the only non-Klan-affiliated white woman featured in BlacKkKlansman is Heather Heyer, the activist who was murdered one year ago last week when the suspect accused of killing her, self-proclaimed neo-Nazi James Fields Jr., drove his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville. Lee dedicates the film to Heyer, whose face hovers on the screen as Prince’s rendition of the spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep” swells on the soundtrack. Lee is unambiguous about affirming Heyer’s allyship in an interview with our sister site The Root, saying, “White people have died for justice. So it was not a matter of saying, ‘I can’t put Heather Heyer at the end of the film because she’s not black’ ... Right is right and Heather Heyer is a martyr.”
With its satirical roadmap charting the path from The Birth Of A Nation through the turbulent 1970s all the way to the racists currently occupying the White House, BlacKkKlansman’s historical and political scope is much wider than simply a statement on intersectional feminism. But, as was mentioned up top, the role white women have played in all of these events cannot be ignored. In this sense, the film offers white women a challenge, and an opportunity to look within themselves. Will you make yourself a victim, or will you confront your privilege honestly and work to unravel it? Will you be a Connie Kendrickson, or will you be a Heather Heyer?