Spike Lee, 'BlacKkKlansman' Screenwriters on the Scary Relevance of their KKK Narative
February 25, 2019
|Photo courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter|
At the 91st annual Academy Awards® on Sunday, screenwriters Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee took home the award for best adapted screenplay for writing BlacKkKlansman. For Lee, the award was a long time coming.
In his excitement for winning the award, Lee jumped into the arms of the man presenting it to him, Samuel L. Jackson, and delivered passionate rhetoric about what this film and win means for people of color. He referenced Black History Month and spoke of his family’s personal history with slavery.
“From 1619 to 2019, 400 years, 400 years that our ancestors were stolen from mother Africa and brought to Jamestown, Virginia, enslaved. Our ancestors worked the land, can’t see the morning, can’t see at night,” he said.
The film follows the true story of Ron Stallworth as the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. He teams up with his Jewish colleague to embark on a dangerous mission: infiltrate and expose the horrors of the Ku Klux Klan.
Lee and his co-writers answered questions from press backstage, and the conversation quickly became a discussion about the film’s relevance and inclusivity at the award show.
“Without April Reign, #OscarsSoWhite, and the former president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, I wouldn’t be here tonight,” he said.
“They opened up the academy to make the academy look more like America. It’s more diverse. So that’s why three black women, if I’m counting correctly, won Oscars®. As my brother Jay-Z says, ‘facts.’”
One of the film’s co-writers, Kevin Willmott, echoed Lee’s statement. He said, “It’s a real breakthrough that any film about race gets to win anything. When I first started in the industry, it was really bad. We have come a long way since then. Tonight is a huge step forward in many different ways. And it’s still frustrating at times, but it’s great to see progress being made.”
Lee spoke passionately about why BlacKkKlansman, though set in the 1970s, is acutely timely to today.
“Heather Heyer, her murder was an American terrorist act. When that car drove down that crowded street in Charleston … the President of the United States did not refute; did not denounce the Klan, the alt-right, and neo-Nazis,” he said.
“And this film, whether we won best picture or not, this film will stand the test of time being on the right side of history.”
But long before Lee came on board, two writers, David Rabinowitz and Charlie Wachtel, stumbled upon the memoir by Ron Stallworth they would then adapt into a screenplay.
It was 2015 and after reading the book, the writing team knew it would make a compelling and relevant film. From there, they contacted the publisher, got in touch with Ron, and gained his permission to adapt it into a script.
“We worked with Ron to write the early drafts,” Rabinowitz says.
“We sent him every draft, and we got notes on every single draft; and then we went from there. We ended up getting it to a producer by the name Shaun Redick. Shaun was in early pre-production on Get Out. He gave it to Jordan Peele, and Jordan became our producer … then Jordan brought it to Spike Lee, and Spike Lee brought Kevin on.”
Kevin Willmott, though thrilled to join the team, found a challenge in making a true story that seemed wildly unbelievable believable. So the writers took some liberties in altering the film’s third act to make sense for their vision.
In the real version of events, as Willmott explains, the KKK planned to, “blow up a gay nightclub. We changed it to the black student union in the film. We tried to stay within the spirit of the real events that happened, but we had to create a whole new climax. We added the elements of Harry Belafonte coming in and talking about lynching. We wanted to show … what the Klan does; not just that they are domestic, homegrown terrorists, but that this is what they do.”
Willmott explains that this is why they utilized the example of the lynching in Waco, Texas in the film’s narrative.
“Harry Belafonte’s character is a witness to that lynching, so that gave us what was at stake at the end of the film, and then we were able to tie all the endings up to give it a real climax.”
Necessary adjustments aside, the script and completed film presents a compelling and timely vision of intolerance that is as important as it is entertaining. And the academy surely agrees.
Written by: Anna KlassenAnna Klassen is a screenwriter and journalist living in Los Angeles. She can be found on twitter and Instagram at @annajklassen.