How Editor Barry Alexander Brown Cut to the Heart of America in "BLACKkKLANSMAN'
For his latest feature, director Spike Lee enlisted the expertise of longtime collaborator Barry Alexander Brown.
No matter how often they get resoaked, the blood on America's hands have never fully been washed clean, and Spike Lee's BLACKKkLANSMAN, a meta-period piece that proves the horrors of the past indiscreetly seep their way into the national horrors of the present, accentuates this to frighteningly startling effect.
Retelling the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective of Colorado Springs who, along with his Jewish partner Flip Zimmerman, infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in an attempt to squander the plans of the infamous pro-white, pro-Christian hate group, BLACKkKLANSMAN may not be classified outright as a comedy—much of the dialogue is stomach-churning—but there's a breeziness to the way the film moves that provides the viewer with a high that's equally appealing and appalling.
Our identity-conflicted leads (who internally struggle with the concept of "passing" for someone they're not) retain the noble heartbeat of an America that may or may not exist.
While the film is filled with people doing terrible things (by the time the suited-up David Duke makes his first appearance on the other end of a phone call, his mere presence signals a key cog in the humanization of hatred), our identity-conflicted leads (who internally struggle with the concept of "passing" for someone they're not) retain the noble heartbeat of an America that may or may not exist.
The film is by no means a cinematic rah-rah for the men and women of law enforcement, however. As true identities get questioned—Zimmerman, tasked with quickly proving to the KKK that he's worthy of acceptance, does everything but take a lie detector test (and even then...)—racism is exposed as an epidemic running rampant both in and outside of the police force. It's not always easy to identify which boys in blue we should be cheering for, but make no Trumpian mistake about it, it's clear who the bad guys are from the very start.
About that Trump guy for just a second: Although never explicitly mentioned by name, certain scenes and lines of dialogue in the film are meant to evoke the 45th President of the United States' race-baiting modus operandi, prompting the kind of knowing laugh that feels icky even as you're vocalizing your familiarity with the rhetoric. That's very much intentional, as is the film's August 10th domestic release date.
Commemorating the one-year anniversary of the violent Charlottesville protests that resulted in multiple injuries and the murder of 32-year old Heather Heyer, a Charlottesville native who opposed the Unite the Right rally that descended into town, the film debuts in theaters right as memories of Charlottesvilleville envelop the airwaves of media outlets worldwide. Lee's film stands as a testament to, as well as an uncomfortable foreshadowing of, that fateful weekend in Virginia.
To discuss the intricacies of the film's plotting, humor, and tension, No Film School spoke with Lee's longtime editor Barry Alexander Brown about his working relationship with the filmmaker, cross-cutting, canted angles, and invisible cuts. Some spoilers follow below.
No Film School: Although the film wouldn't necessarily be classified as a comedy, right from the start we're confronted with horrific words and imagery contrasted by the inadequacies of the people in the situation. As Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard (Alec Baldwin) pops up to shoot an "educational film" advocating for the separation of white and black communities, the man keeps messing up his lines and grows increasingly frustrated at being unable to nail down the script. He's a bumbling lunatic. How did you work to establish the film's contrasting tone right from the beginning?
Barry Alexander Brown: Well, I think for Spike and I, genres aren't so strict. I don't think they're strict for either one of us. Neither one of us is afraid to throw in comedy and humor into a piece that is, basically, quite serious. I mean, especially by the end of this movie, it's incredibly serious and dramatic.
I can't really speak for other people, but it feels to me that when I see other people's movies, they're uncomfortable with having comic moments [placed] throughout a more serious piece. Personally, I like it. I mean, the very first time I edited the Alec Baldwin scene, it was very straightforward, very, very straightforward.
Spike was the one who said, "No, no, no, I want to show the artifice of this," because this is a character who isn't really speaking from the heart; he's written a script and he can't quite remember it.
The character is a pretty good performer, and so, let's see all of this, let's see the version as his performance. What we used then was Alec Baldwin as an actor getting into the part. For me, when somebody gives that kind of leeway and says, "Go for it," I think, "Yeah, I can make this happen."
"So much of it is just feeling. I just got to feel it."
NFS: Ron Stallworth (John David Washington)'s first undercover assignment is to attend a Kwame Ture speaking event hosted by the local university's black student union. As Ture gives his impassioned speech on stage, we see the attending African-American men and women listening in agreement, their faces angelically lit as if a holy spotlight were being exclusively cast on each individual; it's literally an enlightening moment. They drift into the frame as if viewed through a rotating kaleidoscope. How did you devise a plan to intersperse those reactions throughout Ture's speech?
Brown: For me, even as an editor, it's the same thing. I'm very instinctual. Spike said he wanted to do [the portraits] and at first, I cut the Kwame Ture speech in a pretty straightforward manner. And then, at the point when Spike came into the edit room, he goes, "Okay. I like this, I like this. Now we've got to start adding the portraits." He didn't tell me anything along the lines of "I want one here, I want one here, and I want one here." The ideas behind what the portraits would do were very, even in his mind at first, open. Spike was open to something and he couldn't completely see it. I couldn't either, at first.
I just started on it and I think at one point, Spike said, "You know, there could be individual [portraits on-screen], but I think that I'd like to marry some of these images together because they're all solid individuals." And so, once it was like, "let's marry these things together," I thought, "Okay, wow, what do we do?" The ideas don't really come to me until I'm within that moment and I'm cutting.
I chose one person [to begin with] and thought, "I'm going to start here with this person, now where am I going to go?" I then looked through the portraits and thought, "This is going to work well here, with this person and I like this person's face or that person's face. I like this movement with that movement. I like...," and that's really how it goes. So much of it is just feeling. I just got to feel it.
NFS: A number of scenes feature Stallworth on the phone with a member of the Klan, most notably David Duke. Those phone calls between Stallworth and Duke first show Stallworth toward the lefthand side of the screen, cut with Duke in a slightly canted angle sitting in his office to the righthand side of the screen. You then use elaborate split-screens to further emphasize the physical symmetry of the conversation. Was this a choice that came organically in the edit?
Brown: Pretty much. I think the very first time I used split-screen, I was feeling like, "Wow. We can't hold these phone calls," and I felt like the first phone call, the first couple of phone calls really, don't need anything visually striking. The first call is when Stallworth calls the Klan, or when the Klan calls him back, really, and they want to meet him. The second call is when he calls about his membership card and he's talking to David Duke.
But then after that, I thought, "Wow, I think we have to add something. We have to add something here." Since it's set in the early 1970s, television from that period would use split-screens, I think, a little bit more often in those days than they do now. I thought, "Let me try a split-screen and see how it works," and Spike really dug it and said, "Alright, alright, alright, let's go here. Let's try here."
It was then a matter of how do we make these split-screens a little unique so that we're not repeating the same thing? That could include whether or not it was a moving split-screen, where somebody comes and just slides in, or whether or not we have that slice [inbetween the two characters], a diagonal slice. The first time we used it is between Ron Stallworth and David Duke, and you're right, Stallworth is on the upper left and David Duke is in the lower right, but, I wanted to make a cut for the end because I wanted to transition to a different take and a different performance.
I just thought, "I'm going to flip them and hope that's okay." Is it going to be shocking? Is it going to be like, "What the hell is that?" but as soon as we did it, it was like, "Wow," and you find this as being continuous, completely continuous, and it doesn't bother you that they flip. I thought, "Holy Moses. Wow. That's fascinating." Believe me, I didn't know it until I tried it and I was really thinking, "I don't think this is going to work.". Then when I did it, it worked so beautifully and I thought, "Wow, this is great," and actually, there are many split-screens, invisible split-screens, throughout the film.
"It's the kind of thing that just drives me crazy, this business of, 'I'm gonna light a cigarette,' and I'm thinking, 'We're not waiting around for him to really light the cigarette. We're jumping through this.'
NFS: Oh really? I will have to look for those dividers the next time I see the film.
Brown: Well, you won't know them! Can I tell you one?
NFS: Please do!
Brown: Okay, it's the scene by the waterfall, you know, where Ron Stallworth is meeting with the F.B.I. guy? The way it was originally shot was when the F.B.I agent decides, "I'm going to give this cop this file," that he has in the car, right? The way it was shot is, Ron delivers the line and then the F.B.I. agent turns around, reaches into the car, picks up the folder, looks at Ron, and says, "Here, you should know about this."
I looked at that and thought, "Oh my Lord. I'm sorry but, these things can be happening simultaneously," Ron can be delivering his line and the F.B.I. agent can be turning around to get the folder, so that by the time Ron finishes his line, the F.B.I. agent hands him the folder. I'm like, "We're not going to do this thing where we're just waiting for this business to take place. So, give him the folder."
I decided, "Well listen, there is plenty of room between them. There's this waterfall that's just continuous. I can just split it in two and have the agent do the action while Ron delivers the line and you'll never, ever see it." You'll never see the split-screen, but it's there.
NFS: I never would've guessed that.
Brown: No, you'd never, and there are a few other split-screens in the film where I just decided, "Oh no, we're not waiting for all this business to happen. We're moving along here." Personally, I don't like it when we're just waiting for business to get completed. Personally, as an editor, I don't like it. I don't like business to get in the way.
There's a moment in that redneck bar where one of the Klan guys takes out a cigarette and Flip (Adam Driver) lights it. If you really look at that, there is an enormous jump between the time that Flip grabs his lighter out of his pocket and the moment (a fraction of a second later) that he's got the lighter up and he's lighting the cigarette. It's really a jump. Because it's the kind of thing that just drives me crazy, this business of, "I'm gonna light a cigarette," and I'm thinking, "We're not waiting around for him to really light the cigarette. We're jumping through this," and for some odd reason, you buy it. You accept it. It's not jarring. It's not, but nonetheless, it's a jump of a couple of seconds.
"When I'm in the editing room, I have the luxury of saying, "I can see all this," and sometimes it's just an emotional [response] in terms of how they connect (and they have to constantly connect)."
NFS: I wanted to ask about the White Power versus Black Power sequence, where you cross-cut between David Duke's initiating of new Klan members and the black student union's learning of the Jesse Washington lynching. Were those two scenes originally interconnected? How did you determine which specific beats of those two sequences to toggle between? Were you looking for thematic overlapping, such as The Birth of a Nation sequence?
Brown: In the script, certainly right away the idea was to have these things be intercut. At the script stage, however, you don't really have the luxury of having the footage to look at and say, "Okay, this cut would be nice here." You have much bigger blocks of material. In the Waco, Texas story being told by Harry Belafonte's character, that could be a really big block and then there could be another big block of the Klan induction. You would then go back and you get another big block. It can't be that way! It has to become one sequence.
As you say, it's a sequence of White Power versus Black Power, which I've never heard anybody put quite that way, but you're right. That's exactly the way it is. When I'm in the editing room, I have the luxury of saying, "I can see all this," and sometimes it's just an emotional [response] in terms of how they connect (and they have to constantly connect). There's has to be a flow and you can't feel that if you're, "Uh oh, we're back here, and uh oh, now we're back there." You can't feel like that. It just has to flow.
"Although Spike knew he wanted to do it, the Charlottesville sequence wasn't in the script."
Brown: You then see moments where you think, "Okay, I can take advantage of this." For example, the students coming out of the African-American Student Union's Freedom House...When coming out of the Freedom House, finally at the end, when we're not going to go back inside, the students are chanting "Black Power," and so we cut to the Klan banquet. When they shot David Duke's toast [speech], well, Topher did great during David Duke's toast, but I saw in this one take that there was an inordinate amount of time before Topher starts to toast. I thought, "Oh yeah, I can use that," and usually it's the kind of thing you cut and then throw away and get right into the toast. But we had the "Black Power" chant that we wanted to keep going, and so I just brought the chant over [transitioning into the Klan scene], using that long, long pause before Topher begins to toast, and it was great to do that.
The other thing was where when Harry Belafonte's character is talking about how he had to hide, saying "I went out above the shoe shine parlor, where I worked, and there was a window up there where I looked out," and I saw that they had shot this footage of Ron Stallworth walking through this attic to a window, where he too looks out [at the Klan initiation]. I said, "Oh, beautiful. This gives me that moment to really tie these two people together and emotionally make them one." Belafonte's talking about witnessing the horror of the murder of his friend and Ron Stallworth is looking out on the horror of The Birth of a Nation and the horror of the Klan induction process.
NFS: The film concludes with archival coverage of the Charlottesville protests, riots, and murder of Heather Heyer, as well as Trump's infamous claim that there were bad people on "both sides." Was that ending written into the script? How much freedom did you have assembling that material?
Brown: Although Spike knew he wanted to do it, the Charlottesville sequence wasn't in the script. When I came onto the film, Spike said that "we're going to do this," but we didn't really concentrate on Charlottesville until we had a cut of the rest of the movie that we pretty much liked. Spike then said, "Okay, we have to get that Charlottesville footage now."
Right from the beginning, Spike had a pretty clear vision of the beats in Charlottesville that he wanted to convey. He knew he wanted to include the TIKI torch march from that Friday night and then the fight at that park the next day. He also wanted to have Trump jump in there with that infamous statement of his about there being good people on both sides and then ending with the car crash and the murder of Heather Heyer. Right from the beginning, Spike really knew that those were the beats.
I think we both knew that we had to get through it fairly fast. It couldn't be a whole long, drawn-out sequence at the end of the movie. It had to be impactful but it also had to be quick. The footage that neither one of us was aware of was David Duke's appearance in Charlottesville, where he delivered a speech, an impromptu speech, at McIntire Park. Our researcher, brought it to our attention, asking, "Aren't you interested in David Duke?" and we both asked, "David Duke? What?" And then we saw his speech from Charlottesville and it was like, "Oh, this is amazing for the film...."
NFS: He even mentions Trump in the speech.
Brown: He does and you really do feel, I mean, Topher Grace had done such a great job playing the character that when you see the real David Duke [at the end of the film], you think, "I feel I could see [that performance] turning into this man 45 years later."
NFS: Absolutely. That's totally how it comes across.
Brown: Yeah, it's incredible.