Since teaming up with screenwriter Kevin Willmott, director Spike Lee has made stories from the past seem remarkably urgent. Their first movie together, Chi-Raq, transposed Aristophanes' 411 B.C. play Lysistrata to present-day Chicago.
For the next script they've written together, BlacKkKlansman, Willmott and Lee, only go back 40 years to recount how Colorado Springs policeman Ron Stallworth (played by former pro football player John David Washington) successfully infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan by phone. Apparently, then Klan leader David Duke (Topher Grace) and other KKK members had no idea the eager new recruit was either a cop or was black.
While today's caller ID might have alerted people on the other end that Stallworth was calling from an office at the Colorado Springs Police Department, Willmott, speaking from Lawrence, Kan., says neither he nor Lee were interested in telling a history lesson:
"One of the things that Spike said from the very beginning was that he didn't want it to be a period piece. We have a lot of fun in the film with the afros and the language of the '70s and blaxploitation and Soul Train lines and the fashions of the period. The '70s is a really fun place, but he didn't want the audience to kind of think this was back in the old days. The issues of the film happened in the '70s, but they're still happening today. You could argue they're happening even more than what was happening even then."
For example, Duke attended last year's "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Va., which turned violent. James Alex Fields Jr. has been charged with killing counter protester Heather Heyer by running her over with a car. BlacKkKlansman features footage of the events.
Willmott says Lee included footage from the rally turned riots because the same factors that led people into hate groups in 1978 remain.
"Part of what is happening right now, and I think we kind of show the beginnings of that in the film, is that they're always trying to appeal to people's grievances," he says. "They're always trying to appeal to people who don't really know the big picture. If you can narrow this down to the problems people are having at this very moment and disconnect them from any kind of big picture or any bigger set of values, that's the best shot a hate group has of connecting to people.
"(Lee) doesn't want the audience to say, 'I've dealt with it. Now I can go home and go to sleep.' It's an ongoing problem, and it's probably always going to be a problem. The problem with socially relevant films is that they tend to make you feel good about things when you leave the theater."
Willmott also says that he received an unusual recruitment pitch while he was attending the now-defunct Marymount College in Salina, Kan.
"When I was an undergrad -- I was the president of the student body there -- and I got a letter from David Duke and in that letter -- at that time he was the president of the NAAWP, the National Association for the Advancement of White People. This was right before he was starting to run for office in Louisiana. He'd taken off the robe and the hood and put a three-piece suit on and was trying to be a politician. Instead of saying hateful things, he started talking about affirmative action and immigration and all of those kinds of issues," Willmott recalls.
Apparently Duke didn't have a photo of either Stallworth or Willmott.
Oversights like these have led Stallworth to say in interviews and in his 2014 memoir Black Klansman that the Klan members were "complete idiots" or "not the brightest bulbs in the socket."
He's also quick to point out the subjects of his investigation were dangerous. Willmott echoes that point.
"With hate groups, as dumb as most members probably are, there's always a few guys who kind of know what they're doing," he says. "That's what we were trying to capture in the film. It's not honest to depict them as dumb. Clearly there is a lot of stupidity involved in all of this, but as we see the success ... these organizations have had in the last couple of years, especially, they can't all be idiots. You see the values these people have been selling have been more and more mainstream."
HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT
Lee and Willmott also explore how movies have knowingly and unknowingly served as KKK recruiting tools. D.W. Griffith's 1915 silent epic The Birth of a Nation recounts the rise of the Klan in the Reconstruction South and was used to attract new members even in 1978 after sound and color photography had become the norms in cinema.
As professor of film and media studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Willmott has taught and studied Griffith's work and can point out how he and the rest of Hollywood have sometimes painted flattering portraits of the Klan.
"In many ways, Gone With the Wind is just as racist as The Birth of a Nation. It's a great film, just as The Birth of a Nation is on so many technical levels, but it's a pro-Klan movie. One section of the film -- on the DVD, it's called the 'Lumber Mill' -- it's where Scarlet is attacked by these two men, one black and one a dark white man, and they're near the shantytown where all the blacks live after the war. This is during Reconstruction.
"Scarlet is married to the character Kennedy at the time. When he hears that Scarlet has been attacked and almost raped by these two men, he sticks a gun into the front of his pants and says I'm going to a political meeting. The only kind of political meeting he would have gone to would have been a Klan meeting," he explains. "I must have watched Gone With the Wind how many times before I noticed that where the Klan is off-screen?"
Just as Gone With the Wind features a little subterfuge, Lee and Willmott expand a subplot that explains how Stallworth was able to get information on the Klan even though he couldn't personally attend meetings.
In Black Klansman, Stallworth recounts that a fellow cop named "Chuck" actually visited the Klan and that one of his partners in justice was a Jewish officer. Lee and Willmott rename "Chuck" Philip "Flip" Zimmerman (Adam Driver) and have him wrestle with his own identity as he's trying to prevent the Klan from launching attacks in the Colorado Springs area.
After all, the Klan probably hadn't used Gone With the Wind as a recruiting tool because the film's producer and mastermind, David O. Selznick, was a Jew.
"We examine the connection between Adam Driver's character and his Jewish self that he's kind of tried to ignore and the whole issue of 'passing' in the film, where he's been passing as a WASP and during the course of the film he's got to come to terms with his infiltration of the Klan who he really is," Willmott says.
"With the Flip character, we gave him a background that did not exist. Spike and I expanded it and made it a real source of problems. It adds another dimension to the film. The Klan is as anti-Semitic as it is racist. We wanted to get that across."
CONQUERING A NEW WORLD
If Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind knowingly or unknowingly exported white supremacy, BlacKkKlansman has been able to build an audience where some of Lee's recent films have been considered nonstarters.
At this year's Cannes Film Festival, BlacKkKlansman received a nearly 10-minute standing ovation and eventually won the Grand Prix. Apparently, this uniquely American story plays well abroad.
"African-American filmmakers have always known that. It's been a matter of marketing. Spike has talked about this, and the film that has to be credited with this is Black Panther. Black Panther has put that whole wives' tale that 'black films don't do well overseas' to rest."
While the Grand Prix is a formidable honor, Willmott takes special pride in a scene where 91-year-old singer and activist Harry Belafonte describes witnessing a lynching. Having seen the horrors of Jim Crow racism firsthand, Belafonte plays the scene with an authenticity few younger actors would have.
"I grew up with [Belafonte]," Willmott says. "One of my favorite films as a kid, and I teach this film now, is The World, the Flesh and the Devil. It was such an honor for him to read my lines and just to be in the film, period. Spike had said that he'd been trying to get him in a film for some time. It's a great thing that he could perform in the film. You know that Belafonte was with King and he brings that whole history. You know he was there. You know he's experienced the ugliness of the other side of American life, so he brings an authenticity you just can't manufacture."
MovieStyle on 08/10/2018
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