Tuesday, August 23, 2018

White Women As A Throughline In "BlacKkKlansman"

Scarlett O'Hara, played by Vivien Leigh, in Victor Fleming's "Gone With The Wind". MGM 


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Thursday, August 23, 2018


This is the first in a series of essays on "BlacKkKlansman".

The first scene: a white woman wanders through the detritus of dead and dying bodies as far as the eye can see.  A southern U.S. city (Atlanta) has been destroyed in Civil War battle.  The South has LOST.  A torn Confederate Battle Flag waves.  Gone With The Wind. 

Three other white women will be featured prominently enough during in Spike Lee's excellent "BlacKkKlansman".  One is a cover story actress of whom the title character is told by a white male cop: "you know you want some of that!"  Another is a racist white woman, with a deadly agenda, a would-be member of the all-white Daughters Of The Revolution 1930s-cum-1970s.  (DAR didn't allow Black women members for many years and is still struggling with its racist issues and problems.)  A third is a white woman in memoriam amidst a swarm of bodies in another southern city.  The juxtaposition of three of these women appear to be a full-circle arrangement: white southern womanhood, white woman on a pedestal (magazine cover) white woman who kills, white woman who is killed.

White women are a discreet and major presence in "BlacKkKlansman", ironically via their very sidelining.  This sidelining isn't Mr. Lee's by design but rather isin  the way American history (as written by white men) has marginalized or underestimated the impact white women have had specifically as agents of racist behavior in bringing about the deaths of Black men and women.  This has been done by lying to white men about Black men, who would be lynched.  (Emmett Till is one of many.) 

Harry Belafonte, who was rejected membership/attendance by DAR in the 1950s, tells a real-life tale of a 14-year-old mentally challenged Black boy named Jesse Washington, accused of raping a white woman.  He didn't rape the woman but was lynched then tortured after a four-minute jury deliberation.  If, as the Bible says, "death and life are in the power of the tongue", then history shows that many Black men and women have been killed by white female tongues in America, particularly in the South. 

Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), a homemaker, a smiling matronly presence, epitomizes 1950s American suburban comfort and contentment.  A marginalized (maybe abused?) figure by her racist husband Klan member Felix, Connie may be caught up in the patriarchy, and, like more than a few American white women in 2016 and beyond, voted for the misogynist and racist candidate (Donald, in the here and now maybe) either because she believed in the racist dogma on her own terms or because her husband intimidated her into doing so.  "One day you're going to need me, and I'll be right in here," Connie says to her exasperated and mildly humiliated husband. 

Connie, who has a fleeting second thought about her purpose in the Klan's racist mission, is largely ignored, untrusted by Felix.  Hidden away like a secret toy Connie wants to prove herself -- at the expense of Black people -- and not on any personal merits divorced of racial hatred.  Connie's functional role is to elevate her own racist ways to gain any semblance of currency with and approval of white men (who often marginalize white women in "BlacKkKlansmen" and in real life.) 

Chief among Connie's goals is weaponizing patriarchy while shattering any image or stereotype of mythical "genteel" white femininity.  This is done by exercising a surrogate patriarchy power in service of that end, while not affirmatively exercising any female independence.  Connie's raison d'etre is as supplemental role player not affirmative go-getter.  Her proactivity and independence is never welcomed.  Connie is eventually asked by cowardly white hateful men to do something seemingly straightforward logistically, but do you expect the white men including her husband to save or rescue her whether or not the plan succeeds?

Like the literal unmasking of white male Klan members and infiltrators "BlacKkKlansman" unmasks white women on the big screen in a way dramatic American films rarely do, and seriously.  The white women are presented in their societal and cultural molds, molds long the cornerstone of Americana, stereotypes of the American Dream -- but here those molds are broken. 

Scarlett O'Hara (as played by Vivien Leigh) in "Gone With The Wind" -- an idealized and much celebrated character in cinematic lore -- is shown to be selfish and ruthless in the scene Mr. Lee utilizes at the start of "BlacKkKlansman".  Ron (John David Washington), the only Black person on the Colorado Springs police force, calmly rejects any racist stereotypical notion or assumption that as a supposedly (at least in white minds) "oversexed" Black man he had the "hots" for Cybill Shepherd, the white actress splashed across the front cover of what looks like LIFE magazine.

"BlacKkKlansman" trades on the notion of absurdity as its core proposition and that hate kills, is recycled, repackaged and ever-present.  The film also posits that hate is inhuman, irrational and absurd.  Mr. Lee shows us sloppy, incompetent thinkers and doers in the ranks of hate and bitter racists.  While some of the clumsiness may provoke laughs, the Klan characters and their facilitators display an ignorance that is extremely dangerous. 

When we see Connie, ill-composed, walking awkwardly and later struggling to stuff explosives into a mailbox there may be a temptation among some to laugh at this faux pas moment.  Yet the moment is one of pure anger and dead seriousness owing to the ridicule and spectacle Connie is based on her sheer existence, further proof that hate and anything furthering its objectives is irrational, even deadly.

While the men direct or comment on the white women in "BlacKkKlansmen" it is the very first and very last white women who speak for themselves in Mr. Lee's film, one fictional, the other deceased.  Scarlett O'Hara has a glimmer of independence in her own ambition and opportunity, somewhat rare for many women in the days of the Civil War, specifically in 1864.  Her freedom is tied to her whiteness and allyship with white men.  She seems a stronger character than Connie because she speaks her mind more freely, and is more protected.

The other white woman is Heather Heyer, killed on August 12, 2017 in a terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Ms. Heyer was not famous but she was an activist, fighting the good fight for justice and against hate and racism, one that Scarlett and Connie would most certainly shy away from.  Mr. Lee's tribute to Ms. Heyer is heartfelt, and her image envelopes a large portion of the center of the big screen.  Perhaps Mr. Lee sees Ms. Heyer as a saintly, corrective presence as a reframer of white women of consequence in the Civil Rights and human rights movements in the 21st century.  The late Ms. Heyer is a rejoinder to the other white female characters in "BlacKkKlansman".  She is the brutal reality who punctures the fantasy and stereotypical white female characters who appear in too many American movies.

Ashlie Atkingson as Connie, in Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman". David Lee/Focus Features

"BlacKkKlansman" opens in the UK on Friday.  Spike Lee's film continues its expansion across the U.S. and Canada.

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