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‘BlacKkKlansman:’ A 1970s ‘Fo Real’ Story Told for Today

Spike Lee "has made his most involving and accessible joint in ages: a riotous undercover-cop period piece that's really a manifesto on our tumultuous American now."

Spike Lee’s film BlackKlansman, explains Zach Baron, “tells the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first black member of the Colorado Springs police department, who successfully infiltrated a local Ku Klux Klan chapter—by telephone—in the late 1970s. Stallworth is played by John David Washington, son of longtime Lee collaborator Denzel Washington. Adam Driver plays a white cop Stallworth enlists to meet with the Klan in person. 

“Lee’s Colorado Springs is overflowing with college protests, corrupt cops, gun-wielding racists, and languid creekside debates about blaxploitation flicks.

“The film is at once a comedy and a tragedy, half satire, half thriller, larger than life and yet deeply grounded in real events. In that sense, it’s a Spike Lee film—his best in a long time, and maybe the single most effective piece of art about our current political moment anybody has made.” To read the full article, click here.

“My films are not one thing,” Lee tells Nicolas Rapold. “They have many different elements, mixed into subject matter, style, music… It’s a Spike Lee joint. It’s not just one thing.”

“As the tagline appearing onscreen early in [the film] exclaims (in capital letters, punctuated with an expletive), BlacKkKlansman is “Based on Some Fo’ Real, Fo’ Real” material,” reports Salamishah Tillet. “But instead of opening with his truth-is-crazier-than-fiction story… Mr. Lee features scenes from films that he has revisited before: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and the Oscar-winning Gone With the Wind

“Mr. Lee’s return to these two cinematic classics is neither happenstance nor hagiographic; he uses them to once again pursue a theme threaded throughout his work, to tell the story of American racial terrorism.

“The juxtaposition is vintage Lee: a blend of satire, realism and in-your-face political commentary.” To read the full article, click here.

“The climax involves a screening of The Birth of a Nation, the 1915 D.W. Griffith epic that simultaneously spurred the rise of the Second Ku Klux Klan and of cinema as an art form,” says A.O. Scott

“In a sly and stunning tour de force of film-geek dialectics, Mr. Lee uses one of Griffith’s signature innovations—parallel editing (also known as crosscutting)—to unravel the deep ugliness of Griffith’s hymn to the heroes of white supremacy. As the modern Colorado Klansmen hoot and holler and eat popcorn, reveling in the exploits of their predecessors, a group of black students and activists gather in another part of town to hear the testimony of an old man (Harry Belafonte) who witnessed the lynching of his best friend in Texas around the time The Birth of a Nation was playing in theaters. 

“The juxtaposition is chilling and revelatory. The righteous rhetoric of racism is conveyed with the scale and glamour of motion-picture technology, while its grisly truth is communicated by means of still photographs and simple words.” To read the full article, click here.

Read more: BlacKkKlansman: How Spike Lee and Cinematographer Chayse Irvin Mixed Formats and Filming Technologies to Create a More Experimental, More Contemporary Feel

“The shocks,” writes Anthony Lane, “are startling, and are frequently bound up with other films. After an opening clip from Gone with the Wind, in which the camera cranes high over Scarlett as she walks among the Confederate wounded and dead, we get Alec Baldwin as a white supremacist, rehearsing—and fluffing—his litany of loathings against a backdrop of news footage. (He is never seen again.) There’s a sudden montage of blaxploitation-movie posters, including Cleopatra Jones and Coffy, both from 1973, plus the courtly spectacle of Harry Belafonte, no less, holding a room in his thrall as he commemorates a racial atrocity from 1916. Weirdest of all is a party of happy Klansmen, watching Birth of a Nation (1915) and leaping up to laud the scenes in which their forerunners, robed in spotless white, ride to the rescue of a pure America. To read the full article, click here.

“One thing Spike does in the film is that he presents it as art,” the film’s co-writer Kevin Willmott tells Kyle Buchanan. “The reality of things is bouncing off people right now. People seem to be becoming numb about the whole thing, and art is the only response you have for this sometimes. You’ve got to inspire people to take action.

“Lee has made his most involving and accessible joint in ages: a riotous undercover-cop period piece that’s really a manifesto on our tumultuous American now,” notes AV Club, “plus a big middle finger to racist sh**heads of all eras.”

Read more: Editor Barry Alexander Brown Cuts to the Heart of America in BlackKkKlansman

“Lee sees Stallworth’s story as a depressingly appropriate way to take a temperature read on the racial identity of present-day America,” says Sam C. Mac, “tracing the lineage of the Black Power movement and the white supremacist hate groups of the 1970s to their contemporary counterparts: Black Lives Matter and the alt-right. 

“We wanted was to put stuff in the script, very strategically, so it would not be a period piece,” Lee explains.

“Lee’s film registers an awareness for the narcotic qualities of cinema, particularly films that address matters of race, and as BlackKklansman distractedly flits between set pieces that catch Klansman in their comic crosshairs and fiery speeches of protest among Black Power activists, it takes care to lay charges along these fault lines, slow-burning to a potentially seismic collision of two discrete worlds. To read the full article, click here.

Cinematographer Chayse Irvin tells Chris O’ Falt that he and Lee  wanted “not necessarily to exactly emulate an aesthetic that would match or mimic the period, more try to find a way to infuse certain techniques that they used back then, but also come at it with the POV that we have now. I think it’s actually a bit of a metaphor for what the film is seeking to do.” To read the full article, click here.

When developing certain shots or sequences, both Lee and Irvin embraced a spirit of improvisation—mixing formats and approaches to create a more experimental, more contemporary feel. Irvin and Lee married 35mm film with Super 16 video, GoPro and other formats.

“I never want the director or myself or the actors to feel really boxed in by a particular idea,” Irvin says. “We were kind of feeling things out. We started reacting to things as they were developing, especially off the actors, feeding off that energy.”

“The film grew from within itself; the decision to shoot on 35mm film happened in the process of testing,” Irvin tells Madelyn Most. “Panavision has a plethora of different options, so I tested the Alexa XT, an Alexa Mini, the RED, the Dragon, ARRICAM LT and Panavision’s XL II. I tested anamorphic and spherical lenses. Panavision had some vintage Ultra speeds from the 70s. We tested different film stocks and I experimented with pre-flashing the negative and looked at the images in the DI suite. The final package was four cameras: two Panavision Millennium XLII cameras from Panavision NY, my own Arricam LT, andan Aaton Penelope that was shipped in from Sweden. Nothing can rival the Penelope for handholding inside cars because it’s so compact and well designed. Panavision NY adapted my own Arricam LT so I could shoot both Panavision and Zeiss lenses, and we used the older lenses that were challenging for the assistants. 

“In pre-production, I was testing different formats, but I hadn’t really thought shooting on film was feasible but then, all this serendipity happened. The cameras were right, the lenses looked right, Kodak Lab had just opened in NY and they loved the project and wanted to support it. It was one of their first productions and they did a fantastic job.

“I like mixing formats and aspect ratios, experimenting with different things and messing up the image—like skat jazz, which is random notes, energy, all mixed up,” Irwin continues. “The opening scene with Alec Baldwin starts off as a 16mm black & white sequence, then switches to 35mm Ektachrome for the The Birth of a Nation sequence. MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, send us a tinted print copy of the movie, The Birth of a Nation which I then photographed on Ektachrome stock that someone found in a garage. The colors came out in strange and interesting intense hues of red and blue.” To read the full interview, click here.

Lee, explains producer Raymond Mansfield, “has made his career confronting these issues publicly and on a worldwide scale. I don’t think there are many people out there who have the experience, the persona, the personal character to command a set like that. It was a remarkable set to be on every day. He’s not walking on eggshells. He’s taking all his activism, everything he’s learned, and putting it on the screen.”

“[The film] finds that exhilarating space between comedy and horror,” says Baron. “Lee names Dr. Strangelove, Network, and even Stalag 17 as tonal reference points: ‘It’s been done before. It’s not new. It’s hard to do.’) But it’s also meant to be an answer of sorts to what’s come before: history written in lightning.” To read the full article, click here.

Considering where Lee sees America headed, the director advises, “Wake up. Be alert. Don’t fall asleep. Don’t go for the okey-doke. Don’t go for the shenanigans, subterfuge and skullduggery. Don’t go for it. Let’s make the best of the time we have on this earth, and not get into this hate and all this other bulls**t.” To read the full interview with Jamil Smith, click here.