Blackkklansman continues the tradition of letting white women off the hook
It's a lost moment to detail the true ideals and behaviors of white women who were a part of Klan culture.
by Josie Pickens
Most Black folks of a certain age, who slowly crept towards adulthood in the nineties, have a soft spot for writer, director, producer and actor Spike Lee. I needed Lee’s movies, and his contemporary representation of Black life.
The film She’s Gotta Have It aided me in understanding who I was becoming as a sexual being. School Daze made me want to attend an HBCU and was my first taste—as a first-generation college student—of what college life might be like for me. I think Malcolm X is as close to perfect as any film could hope to be—from its perfectly tailored and themed costumes to its immaculate acting, to its seemingly flawless set design. It was, in my opinion, owed several Oscar wins. And Crooklyn. Crooklyn is a special kind of love song to Black girls. There is also Do The Right Thing and Mo Betta Blues, and his documentary works 4 Little Girls and When The Levees Broke. I feel comfortable in saying that Spike Lee is one of the great filmmakers of our time.
But, just because I love and appreciate many of Spike Lee’s films, that does not also mean that he is above side-eye or critique. Because: She Hate Me, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, and even the controversial Chi-raq ALL left me asking, “ummm…wtf?” Plus, the filmmaker’s portrayal of Black women in most of his films (even the ones I enjoy) can be especially sexist and problematic.
So, basically, I didn’t know what the hell I was walking into when I bought tickets to see Spike Lee’s latest release Blackkklansman—a true story of a Black police officer (Ron Stallworth) who went undercover to infiltrate the Klu Klux Klan over the phone.
Although there were the usual “Spike” moments in Blackkklansman, and I kept looking around the theater trying to catch white viewers laughing at certain moments in the film they shouldn’t have been, I enjoyed the film. I liked that Ron Stallworth’s story reminded viewers that there were (and are) many police organizations working to survey, infiltrate and disrupt Black Movements. I was happy with Laura Harrier’s performance as Patrice Dumas (the leader of the local college’s Black Student Union). John David Washington was a treat to watch, too. My movie buddy and I went back and forth commenting on his “Denzel” moments. For the most part, I found Blackkklansman interesting enough and entertaining.
While there was an obvious effort in Blackkklansman to show how gutless, how odious, and how inhumane white men committed to white Supremacy and White Power can be, I found the portrayal of white women, who were and continue to be just as vicious and as terrible as white men, leaving much to be desired.
If we are attempting to tell a true story about the straight-up terrorism inflicted upon mostly Black people through the Klu Klux Klan, then why are we continuing to paint a picture of white women serving mostly as their husband’s helpmates (instead of their partners in crime) in terrorizing Black lives?
To me, the character Connie Kendrickson—wife of klansman Felix Kendrickson—was presented as a white woman capable of spewing hate towards Black people, but who did so mostly as a sign of loyalty to her husband and other white men. The character didn’t seem invested in her own words and actions.
Connie was a puppet, who (mostly) wanted to be a supportive house wife. You know, serve a homemade cheese dip at the Klan meetings held in her home, and be coaxed into planting a bomb aimed at killing a Black woman activist—all for the love of her family. One could argue that Spike Lee was commenting, through satire, on how silly hite women can be through her character.
But, really, don’t we always characterize white women as silly, or aloof, or naïve, or obedient and passive in most films produced in Hollywood (and in real life too)?
The characterization of Connie Kendrickson, and even the other white women in the film, is a lost moment to detail the true ideals and behaviors of white women who were a part of Klan culture.
Regarding the roles of white women in the Klan in her piece “No, talking about women’s role in white supremacy is NOT blaming women,” Laren Smith writes:
Despite the pervasiveness of sexism a century ago and the outsize role of men in the KKK, women in the 1920s Klan had power. This wasn’t “soft” power. Women didn’t merely sew Klan robes or bake casseroles for Klan picnics; they wielded actual power that shaped the societies in which they lived. Though they were staunch defenders of traditional domesticity, they were also active in social welfare movements and local and state politics. Under the leadership of Daisy Douglas Barr and several other women, they formed their own autonomous arm of the KKK, the half-million-strong WKKK, which lobbied for the creation of racist immigration quotas, segregation, and anti-miscegenation laws.
In other words, white women established their own branch of the Klan and used their new voting rights to push legislation that would create and perpetuate harm towards anyone not white and Protestant. They called it a social welfare agenda.
I would have liked to see acknowledgement of this in Blackkklansman, where the women of the Klan meet (without men present) to discuss their hatred for non-white folks, and where they also discuss their independent plans to ruin the lives of Black people. Especially since we know such meetings took place.
This is the perfect time, in this moment when we acknowledge that white women were responsible for electing Trump and when they are calling the police on Black people for literally being alive. It is the opportune time to continue acknowledging—even through the avenue of entertainment —that white women are just as capable of harming Black people as white men are, and that they have been and continue to be soldiers against the “rising tide of color.”
Josie Pickens is a professor, cultural critic, writer and griot. Follow her on Twitter at @jonubian.