Oscars: 10 Things to Know About Best Picture Nominee 'BlacKkKlansman'

6:28 PM 2/22/2019

by Katherine Schaffstall

The film is nominated for six awards at the ceremony.

BlacKkKlansman Still 1- Adam Driver and John David Washington Publicity-H 2018
David Lee/Focus Features

Driver and Washington team up.

BlacKkKlansman is heading to the 91st Academy Awards with six nominations.

The Spike Lee-directed film is up for best picture; best director (Lee's first nomination in the category); best supporting actor (Adam Driver); best adapted screenplay (Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee); best original score (Terence Blanchard); and best film editing (Barry Alexander Brown).

The film follows real-life African-American police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) as he infiltrates a local Ku Klux Klan branch with the help of Jewish surrogate Flip Zimmerman (Driver).

The movie, which is set in the '70s but features echoes of modern day racial tensions as well as footage from the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, had a quick production process but in-depth research.

Here's 10 behind-the-scenes facts that the cast and crew have shared with The Hollywood Reporter about the acclaimed film.

  • The Film Had a Quick Production Process

    "It was a fast preproduction, a fast production, and a fast postproduction," producer Raymond Mansfield — who began developing the film in 2015 with his partner at QC Entertainment, Sean McKittrick — told The Hollywood Reporter. "We wrapped in December and we premiered in Cannes [in May]. Everything on this project really moved quick."

    "I attribute a lot of that to Spike's decisiveness and decisions, his hard work ethic. He's up before you every morning, and he's working after you every night. He knows exactly what he wants, and he's not waiting around," he continued. "Everybody just has to keep up, from the PAs to the actors and everyone in between. He knew what he wanted, and I don't think you could achieve the timeline goals that we achieved without that."

  • The Trump Administration Made the Film "More Urgent"

    While development for BlacKkKlansman began in 2015, Mansfield said that the Trump administration made the project take on a new meaning.

    "It's sad, but it makes these projects all the more urgent. Tying the past to the present was a stroke of genius by Spike and Kevin Willmott. They surgically would pick these specific points within the body of the film to guide the audience toward tying it all together," he said. "They deserve the credit for really getting at the significance of our place in history, right now."

    The producer added that he had a similar experience when he produced 2017's Get Out. "Hillary [Clinton] could have won or [Donald] Trump could have won [the 2016 presidential election]," he said. "Would that movie be the same thing based on that outcome? This film has had a similar trajectory."

  • Lee Earned His First Directing Oscar Nod for the Film

    Lee earned his first Oscar nomination in 1990 in the best original screenplay category for Do the Right Thing. He was later nominated in the best documentary feature category for 4 Little Girls in 1998, though he has yet to win an Oscar.

    Despite his long career, Lee's nomination for BlacKkKlansman is his first in the best director category.

    Lee spoke to THR following the announcement of this year's Oscars nominations and shared that he learned that the film scored six nods when he was with his family. "I was with my wife Tonya, my daughter Satchel, my son Jackson and our dog Ginger. We watched ABC Channel 7, and we were all in the bed together — we were jumping up and down," he said.

    The director added that he reached out to many members of the cast and crew directly after learning about the nominations. While they celebrated at a "little shindig" in Brooklyn, Lee added that the government shutdown at the time put the nominations into perspective.

    "Today is filled with love, but at the same time, watching the news this morning, I just can't help but think about the 800,000 Americans who are now living in a desperate time [due to the government shutdown]," he said. "This film deals directly with that and all the other crazy shit that's happened in this country since Agent Orange [Donald Trump] got into the White House. I travel a lot, and when I go to the airport, I make it a point to thank every TSA person. Because they have a very important job and are not getting paid, and if they decide to strike, the whole motherfucker's shutting down. But again, this film is connected to all this stuff."

  • Driver Said Feeling "Uncomfortable" Was "Lost" When He Was in Character

    Driver played Detective Philip "Flip" Zimmerman, who posed as Stallworth for in-person meetings with the KKK.

    The actor said the most memorable moment on set was when the characters were "cheering on scenes of lynching in Birth of a Nation."

    "Everyone felt uncomfortable, but that gets lost in the minutiae of working on something. You are working on your character, so you can't think about how it feels," he told THR. "It is not your job to feel anything, it's your job to tell the story."

    "Putting on a KKK hood, you feel like you understand what that is, but then when you are wearing it, what it represents is so far from everything I believe in that it doesn't feel right," he added.

  • Lee's Directing Style Is "Fast"

    When asked what Lee's directing style was like on set of the film, Driver told THR, "He loves to work fast and is a big believer in momentum."

    "In those two weeks of rehearsal, we hash out everything we want to say and then on the day of shooting he just wants to go," he explained. "He wants to work fast, and if you have impulses, he wants you to follow them even though you think they may not make logical sense."

    Driver added that he is a fan of Lee's other films for that very reason. "That is what I love about his movies — they are so unpredictable because of that," he said.

  • Footage From Charlottesville's "Unite the Right" Rally Is Included in the Film

    Mansfield said that the decision to include the footage from the 2017 Charlottesville's "Unite the Right" rally was made during preproduction.

    "We got a revised draft of the script one day in prep and I'm looking through the script, looking through the script, and I'm going, "Where's the revisions?" And the last two sentences of the screenplay had written in essentially, 'Footage from Charlottesville will play here,'" he recalled. "I remember Sean McKittrick and I both read that right around the same time and both of us were like: This is such a risky thing to do and it's going to be so impactful."

    "[It] really feels like the thing that ties this entire movie together in a way that elevates it to something that's more than a movie and that we should really fight for this. It was obviously a lot of hand-wringing through production and, in particular, through our legal department," he continued. "The first cut, the director's cut, had [the footage] in there exactly as it plays. I credit Spike and [editor] Barry Brown. You could not watch that without being moved to tears. You just couldn't. We really felt that it was going to be an important element that helped elevate the movie to a higher conversation and a higher experience for the audience."

    Lee also spoke about the decision to use the footage following a screening of BlacKkKlansman in Washington D.C. in February.

    “It’s very traumatic to me, seeing that Charlottesville footage," Lee said. "And to me it was nothing but homegrown, red-white-and-blue, hot-dog-and-apple-pie terrorism."

  • 'Birth of a Nation' Inspired the Editing for the KKK Initiation Scene

    When Flip attends an initiation ceremony to become a member of the KKK, the scene is cross-cut with civil rights icon Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) telling student activists about the lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, in 1916.

    Editor Barry Alexander Brown, who earned his first Oscar nomination as an editor for the film, told THR that D.W. Griffith's 1915 Birth of a Nation impacted the editing of the scene.

    During the initiation, the KKK members were seen watching the 1915 film and cheering. "You see the Klan going crazy [watching the film] in the '70s and Harry Belafonte is talking about how well it was received when it came out and how it energized the Klan," he said about the contrasting scenes.

    "In the script, these scenes were going to be somehow intercut," Brown explained. "When I started to look at the footage and cut the sequence, there were things that jumped out at me right away. I could marry these things in a way that they really become one."

    Brown added that there is a scene "where Harry Belafonte talks about running and hiding and watching this horrible event." During the Klan scenes, Stallworth is shown looking through a window that gave him a view into the KKK ceremony.

    "Now they become one. Now there's a witness. What happened in Texas in 1916 and what's happening there in the early '70s — those two events become married," said Brown. "I was able to do more intercutting — sometimes using voiceover from Harry Belafonte over the KKK initiation. That intercutting becomes smoother because emotionally they become so entwined. When Belafonte talks about 'All you can do is look and watch,' and there's a moment when Adam Driver looks up at David Duke, Flip Zimmerman becomes part of the connection."

  • Lee Tried to "Balance" the Film With Humor

    While BlacKkKlansman explores troubling issues, Lee believed that finding the right tone for the film was a balancing act.

    "We had to balance it because, I don’t like to use the word 'comedy,' but there’s humor in, which comes from the premise of the film, which is a black man infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. That’s absurd," the filmmaker told THR's director roundtable. “The absurdity, that’s where the humor comes from. From the premise, and so, in the editing room, we had to get the right balance."

    Lee credited Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove as an example of another film that used humor to tell a serious story. "My go-to is Dr. Strangelove with [Stanley] Kubrick. … It’s still about the possible extinction of humankind to a nuclear holocaust, so, it’s trying to find the right balance," he explained. 

  • Topher Grace Studied David Duke to Play the Former Grand Wizard of the KKK

    Grace portrayed the KKK's former grand wizard David Duke in the film.

    The actor told THR that he first took on the role because Duke was "a terrible man, but it's a really juicy, great role." He soon realized that playing Duke would lead to "the worst month of my life."

    In order to prepare for the role, Grace read Duke's autobiography and checked out his appearances on The Phil Donahue Show to get his mannerisms down. "I watched a lot of filmed interviews from the '70s. I listened to his radio show. It was just so overwhelmingly depressing," he said.

  • The Costume Designer Worked to Perfect the Black Power Look

    Designer Marci Rodgers studied old Essence and Jet magazines, as well as Sears and J.C. Penney catalogs, while she created the costumes for BlacKkKlansman.

    "I did have the opportunity to speak to Ron Stallworth and ask him what he wore when he was undercover," she told THR. He wore a cross necklace as a lucky charm, which she layered with flashy rings and bracelets. She also said that she used sharp jackets to help define the character. "I tried to find ones that were as stylized as possible. John David's favorite was the leather with the fur collar."

    BlacKkKlansman producer Jason Blum added that the costumes play a large role in the storytelling. "The eye-popping fashion offers the perfect counterpoint to the wildly relevant horror of this chapter of American history," he said.