With almost forty years in the film industry, something has compelled Spike Lee to tell every single story upon which he’s cast his lens. BlacKkKlansman, the astounding tale of now-retired black police officer Ron Stallworth’s infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan is no exception. “For the last thirty years, from She’s Gotta Have It (1986) to BlacKkKlansman (2018), and all the films in between, the documentaries, Michael Jackson videos, Prince videos, short films, all are important to me,” Lee revealed on a Sunday afternoon in late July as we sat in the corner of a swanky New York hotel overlooking Central Park.
Stallworth’s story, of being the first black police officer to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department, came to Lee through another visionary filmmaker — Academy Award winner Jordan Peele. “I had never heard of Mr. Stallworth or his book. So that was the first time,” Lee said, as he placed a vibrantly colored backpack with an image of his character Mars Blackmon on the window ledge next to us. “Even before I read the book, Jordan pitched it to me. I thought they were doing the David Chappelle skit again,” he said, referring to Chappelle’s fictional character Clayton Bigsby the black, white supremacist. “David Chappelle is brilliant, but that was a skit; this is someone’s life. We found things in the past that ring true today, and hopefully, people will make the connection and see that this film is not a period piece, but a contemporary piece. It’s about the word we live in –this crazy, crazy bananas world we live in today.”
Bringing Stallworth’s memories and experiences to the big screen meant that Lee needed the perfect cast. Getting John David Washinton to step back into the ‘70s and become Stallworth was a no-brainer for him. “I always joke that I knew him before he was born,” Lee said thoughtfully. “He has tremendous talent, and he’s a fellow Morehouse man, too. When Jordan approached me about who was going to play the part, in a millisecond, I said, ‘John David Washington.’ He had the qualities, he has the pedigree, and I like Ballers, too. I thought he could do this.”
Washington was just the first piece of the large tapestry that would become BlacKkKlansman. Lee also called on Straight Outta Compton alum Corey Hawkins to play Kwame Ture aka Stokely Carmichael. It was Ture’s speech in the ’70s at the local college in Colorado Springs that would become the catalyst for Stallworth’s work. Though only on the set for two days, Hawkins’ speech as Ture has some of the most arresting dialogue in the entire film. “For me when it comes to playing real people, it’s just about immersing yourself,” Hawkins articulated as he came to sit at our table. “I’ve done it before, but [Dr.] Dre is still alive. He was on set every day, so it was very different. This was more about letting it come. Spike would send books, pictures and research. We’d be always constantly dialoguing about it. It was challenging. I had to pick up on the mannerisms; he was Trinidadian, so it was picking up that cadence, it was those things. There’s something about Kwame that makes you lean in. He’s a person that you could just listen to. I was surprised that [Spike] let me do the whole take. He didn’t cut anything from the movie.”
Though Hawkins’ role is relatively small in the film, a lot was riding on his performance. “The pressure was there,” he emphasized. “The first time we did the speech was the first time all of the extras had heard these words. We live in 2018, but the setting is the ’70s, and everybody was really listening because they hadn’t heard it before. So when you talk about men and women getting shot in the back like dogs in the streets by racist cops, everybody was reacting and speaking up, calling and yelling back to the stage. It just was this energy on the first take. Once we got it, that was it. Then we just rolled. We kept doing it again, getting different angles. That day on set was so magical. You looked out to see nothing but beautiful black faces, hair, skin, melanin; you were proud to be in that room and a part of this.”
Laura Harrier’s introduction to Spike Lee and BlacKkKlansman came through an unexpected phone call while she was vacationing in Greece. “[Spike] told me to get back to New York in like a day, which I did,” she remembers laughing, sliding gracefully into our discussion. “It was crazy. We had this an hour-long audition; it was really intense, and then he called me the next day. He’d seen Spider-Man, and then he saw an audition tape that I did for a completely separate project. That part was very unlike my character in Spider-Man. He saw that and then wanted to meet me.”
Once the Spider-Man: Homecoming alum snagged the role officially, it was about stepping back in time as Patrice Dumas, donning a gloriously large afro, black leather jacket and some coke bottle glasses. “She always had the fro,” Harrier said about her character’s distinct look. “That was super important. I have these texts from Spike that I need to publish. He was like, ‘When you take out your weave, you gotta naturalize!’ I was like, ‘This isn’t a weave.’ Spike had a huge reading list. I watched a bunch of movies, and I only listened to music from the ’70s during the duration of filming. We had the opportunity to speak to Kathleen Cleaver; I read a bunch of Angela Davis’ books, and I watched a lot of interviews with her. I also contacted the BSU at Colorado College and spoke to people who were in the ’70s. It was super helpful to see how these people ended up in Colorado. Why were they there? What was their thinking in starting the BSU? I just tried to get as much information as I could.”
If there was anyone who was uncertain about their role in BlacKkKlansman, it was That ‘70s Show alum Topher Grace. Grace had always wanted to work with Lee, but when the role of David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, landed on his desk, he was extremely hesitant. “I read it; I went, ‘Oh this is weird, but I think I have a take on this character,’ and my people were like, ‘Really?’,” he recalled leaning forward in his chair. ‘I went in and read for him, but the night before I was alone in my office at home reading the sides, and I couldn’t say half the words. I had so much trouble with it. I went and watched a bunch of interviews from Django Unchained and was like, ‘How does anyone do it?’ What is the set etiquette? That actors on that film admitted to being embarrassed about it. I went in the next day — this was my first time meeting Spike, and I worship him as a director. I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is annoying, but I’m really conflicted about using this dialogue.’ This is where he’s such a great director, I could see he immediately went to work on me, making me feel comfortable. He was saying, ‘This scene is terrible and when we shoot it, it will be terrible, but it’s all in service of a message I’m saying, and you’re safe. It helps that he’s the greatest black filmmaker of all time. I was like, ‘Okay’ and then I unleashed it.”
Though he had Lee to guide him through the process, becoming David Duke wasn’t something Grace could easily shake off when he left set each day. In fact, he found the experience to be rather dark and isolating. “I read his autobiography, which is so hard to get a hold of,” he remembered. “It’s overwhelmingly negative, and you feel like just reading the words you’re complicit. Then I watched a lot of film interviews, and he had a radio show, and I do the radio show in the movie, so I listened to that. It was just the worst month of my life doing that research. He was on Donahue a lot in the early ’80s also. The most interesting facet of his personality is that the audience hated him. Donahue’s audience was not pro-David Duke. He’d say he won them over, but it’s not a shock that he went into politics, because he knew how to speak to the audience in a way. They booed, but then they’d kind of listen.”
Grace pauses, sits back in his chair and takes a sip of water. “Watching it, you go, ‘Oh, that’s why this guy is so believable.’ It has its roots in what’s happening today,” he says quietly. “On Donahue in 1983, Duke says two phrases a lot. He says ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘America First.'”
Spike Lee’s ’70s-set BlacKkKlansman is now playing in theaters.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.