Many movies in Spike Lee’s career have tackled racism in ways that were honest, blatant and necessary. In “Do the Right Thing,” he brought up the conflict between the Italian American owners of a pizza place, Korean American convenience store owners and a black community that increasingly felt they were being pushed around in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.
The documentary “When the Levees Broke” tied government negligence to Hurricane Katrina. “Jungle Fever” was about an interracial relationship, “Chi-raq” was about gun violence in Chicago’s South Side. His latest movie, “BlacKkKlansman” continues his examination of race in America with a historical perspective pointed toward current events.
Based on a true story, “BlacKkKlansman” is about the first black officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), as he hatches a plan to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the late ’70s. Since he – as a black cop – can’t go to Klan rallies, he enlists a Jewish but white-passing cop, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to go to in-person meetings with the Klan to find out if they’re planning any violent activity.
Now, the movie raises at least a half-dozen issues over the course of its over two-hour running time, including the relationship between the black and Jewish characters in the film and the use of media as racist propaganda (a topic Lee thoroughly addressed in his film, “Bamboozled”).
Perhaps one of the many issues that won’t get nearly enough attention is embodied by the character of Connie Kendrickson (Ashlie Atkinson), the all-American housewife who wants a bigger part in the Klan’s plan.
Connie is introduced to the story when her husband, Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), hosts a Klan gathering in their suburban home. They have a pro-America sign out front, she greets Flip-posing-as-Ron at the front door with a smile and brings him into the living room where the white supremacists are discussing their next move.
To prove she’s more useful to the Klan than just someone to bring them food, she offers a magazine clipping of a local black student activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier) and suggests to the men that they should shut her up for good. It’s an uncomfortably awkward moment, not only because this is when the movie’s version of the Klan establishes its gender hierarchy but also because she wants so desperately to be in on this boys’ club of violence. It’s not enough to orbit their hatred, she wants to participate in it. Smiling and non-threatening as she looks in her apron, Connie is just as dangerous as they are.
There’s no subtlety in “BlacKkKlansman.” Lee spells out his main message for the audience in big bold letters: The rhetoric we’re hearing now, is rhetoric we’ve heard before and it’s just as dangerous. He sprinkles in modern-day references to emphasize his point. Multiple times in the movie a racist character will use words or phrases from politicians, like when a comically flustered Alec Baldwin plays a racist recording of a hate-filled monologue in front of projected images of the pro-Klan movie, “The Birth of a Nation.” He uses the “rapists, murderers” line from President Trump’s campaign announcement and calls black people “superpredators“ in the same way Hillary Clinton referred to gangs back in the ’90s.
Connie’s character is part of the story for a reason. She’s a stand-in for the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump, who either saw nothing wrong with his racist speeches or agreed with those views. Worries about economic insecurity never enter the conversation in the movie, but the characters’ insecurities about being white and in the minority do.
In what would normally be a tender scene between characters, Connie and Felix are snuggling in bed. Instead of normal pillow talk, they are reveling in their plans for violence against black people. The moment reveals how their deeply rooted hatred actually brought them together and strengthened their relationship, that they’ve found a mutual identity through fear and discrimination. “Thank you for giving me a purpose,” Connie purrs to her husband.
In another scene where Connie is running away from the black Ron Stallworth, she uses her tears and screams at other white cops for help. Chillingly, they oblige. Protecting white femininity is a recurring concern among the white supremacists. During a screening of “The Birth of a Nation,” the white supremacist men and women jeer at the black man committing assault and cheer when the Ku Klux Klan seeks revenge.
The film is a not blanket statement on whiteness (since there are other white characters on the police force who aren’t villains), but of white supremacy – and in Connie’s case, the nefarious mix of gender and racism.
Lee includes several minutes of footage from Charlottesville at the end of the movie. Shots of angry white men with tiki torches fill the screen, as does horrifying footage from the day a car plowed into a crowd of counter-protestors, claiming the life of a young white woman, Heather Heyer.