It may be hard to believe, but "BlacKkKlansman" represents Spike Lee's first Oscar nomination for directing.
He had previously received nominations for writing ("Do the Right Thing," 1989) and documentary ("4 Little Girls," 1997), and an honorary Oscar in 2015. It's also the first editing nomination for longtime collaborator Barry Alexander Brown (whose 1979 documentary, "The War at Home," had been nominated). Brown has cut most of Lee's features since "School Daze" in 1988. Times columnist Mary McNamara sat down with Lee and Brown for a Q&A following an Envelope Live screening of "BlacKkKlansman" last week at the Montalbán in Hollywood. The filmmakers talked about their long collaboration and their latest work, which is nominated for six awards.
"My job is to deliver his vision. Even in the delivery of the vision, I get the freedom to do other things," said Brown. "For both of us, it's in the recut most of the time that you find the movie."
An example, he said, was a scene in which protagonist Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is being roughed up by police as Ku Klux Klan members arrive nearby. Lee didn't buy that the Klansmen wouldn't have noticed this and recognized Stallworth — the jig then being up. The editor got the idea to have the Klansmen listening to their leader, David Duke, on the car's sound system, so they were distracted. Lee loved it so much, he started seeding it in other scenes.
" 'Every time they're in a car, I want them to be hearing that,' " Brown said Lee told him, the director nodding. "'They're being indoctrinated all the time. Constant, constant indoctrination.' Like if you only watch Fox TV — constant indoctrination … I didn't think about that as being a motif for the film. But once Spike sees it … 'This can be one of the threads that wasn't originally there.' "
FILM SCHOOL DUO
The duo met while Lee was still in film school. A few months later, Brown hired him to work part-time at the film-distribution company he'd started, and they became friends. Brown cut a scene for Lee's debut feature, "She's Gotta Have It" (1986). Later, Lee published a book about the making of that film, "Spike Lee's Gotta Have It: Inside Guerrilla Filmmaking" (1987). Brown says he picked it up and read in it:
" 'Barry's gonna cut my next film.' And I thought, 'I am?' … And that's how I found out I was supposed to cut Spike's next film," said the editor.
"BlacKkKlansman" is based on a real investigation in which two Colorado Springs police officers, one black and one white, worked together to infiltrate the Klan in the 1970s. It's harrowing, yet somehow the film may be Lee's funniest.
The director and co-writer said, "I think it's very important that people understand that Kevin Wilmott and I — my co-writer — we're not writing jokes. This is not a funny subject matter. And the humor comes from the absurdity of the premise, of the six-word pitch: 'Black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan.' "
When asked about balancing that inherent humor with the hideousness of the real situation, Lee said, "That's why my main man is sitting to my left. His nickname is 'The Cut Creator.' "
Brown said, "Spike sees humor in a lot of places where a lot of other people don't. As an editor —"
"As a great editor," interjected Lee.
"— I try not to ruin a moment, you know?"
Lee said the film's intended ending was to be an image of the Klan burning a cross. Instead, that scene is followed by a powerful montage of the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in a Virginia town that led to the murder of a peaceful counter-protester.
"Before we started shooting, Charlottesville happened," he said. "I knew that was the ending. But I still needed to get the blessing of Susan Bro; it was her daughter, Heather Heyer, who was murdered. And she gave me the blessing, and that was the end of the movie."
He adds. "Everything has to go right for a film to click, and a lot of that is timing," said Lee, as Brown agreed. "That's why I think when historians, many years from now, when they want to choose a piece of art that could describe the crazy time we live in today, one of the things they'll go back to is 'BlacKkKlansman.' Especially with that Charlottesville coda."
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