As Blackkklansman opens in cinemas this week, prepare for it to strike hard and become a prominent touchstone — not just throughout the current awards season, but for years to come. Director Spike Lee examines American race relations like no one else can. His latest tells the true story of Colorado Police Officer Ron Stallworth, who infiltrated the KKK. A remarkable story in its own right, but it’s Lee’s vision that brings it home with unique resonance, tracing the history of the Klan and white supremacy right up to today in Trump’s America. He doesn’t beat about the bush.
QC Entertainment were early champions of adapting Ron Stallworth’s incredible story and were first to board the project when they acquired the rights to the book. As they were with Get Out, QC was involved in every step along the way, a guiding presence on set every day. Following the hugely successful partnership with Get Out, Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw joined QC’s McKittrick and Mansfield to produce the film. All immediately agreed the singular voice of Spike Lee was the one to bring Stallworth’s story to the screen. Blackkklansman is incredibly timely and urgently important. I caught up with producer Ray Mansfield to talk about the fast-tracking of Blackkklansman and how Peele pitched the film to Lee.
As you can tell from the accent, I’m not originally from here, but this was a “wow” awakening in so many ways because if ever there seems to be a rise of nationalism, it’s now.
It’s interesting because people want to classify this movie as an American issue, but you’re really seeing this wave of nationalism and polarizing cultures and agendas crossing all over the world right now. I do think, where often times American based stories can be deemed heavily domestic and where it will play the most and the best, as you’ve experienced and we are experiencing, these things are a worldwide issue and it is something that a lot more people are starting to become aware of and in tune with. Therefore, a lot of these movies are playing a lot more internationally than they used to. I think Get Out even broke barriers for people’s small-minded thinking in that African-American stories don’t travel. What we’re realizing as an industry is that good stories do travel, particularly if it’s saying something universal about the human experience. I think it’d be wrong to classify it as an American issue.
You’re hitting it right on the head when you say, “Coming from England…” I remember sitting in the airport coming home from Cannes and reading stories about how immigration was becoming the divisive issue in England. I watched that entire progression go to Brexit. It’s essentially at the core of everything going on here.
I’m living in LA and not been anywhere other than the major cities really, but if I went deeper, I would surely feel more of that, get it first hand. England was the same. Living in London, we all wanted to stay in the E.U, but when I left the city, it was a different tone completely. “All the immigrants are taking our jobs and homes.” The rise of Nationalism is scary.
Get Out transcends and so does this film. Is that what attracts you to a project and speaks to you?
We didn’t set out to create a brand. We’ve always just responded to the things that we’ve responded to. The things we ask ourselves if we’re going to get involved in a project when we decide if we’re going to get involved in a project because it’s time away from your family and it’s years of your life and personal money on the time, it’s a really big bet. We ask, “Have we seen this movie before?” Even if it’s a really wonderful version of a movie that we’ve seen time and time again, we just aren’t that interested in that movie. Something else we ask, “Does it need to be told now? Is there an urgency to it?” The urgency to storytelling in cinema can lead to better talent getting attached because if it feels very relevant and now, you can get better writers and better directors attached. You get the studio interest, and you get better actors. If everyone feels it’s of the moment and speaking something that people are dealing with, finding an urgency in the storytelling has been exciting to us.
It just naturally made it onto our slate and into production. The other thing we look at is how are we competing with the studios? How are we competing with Marvel and superhero movies and the spectacle they create? The thing we have to rely on is ingenuity of storytelling and emotionally satisfying an audience and intellectually satisfying an audience to the point where they have to tell someone about the thing they just saw because it impacted them in such a way that they weren’t expecting. That word of mouth is the secret ingredient for us. We’re not going to compete with money, we’re going to compete with those tools. We’re always looking for that stuff.
We’re just interested in current events, society and the human experience and the human condition that those things just resonate with us on a fundamental level that we get excited about.
What has to be on top of all of that is a really entertaining story so that you feel like you did something recreational. We don’t want people feeling like they got lectured when they go and see something we created, we want them to feel they had a recreational experience and at the core of it, there was some nutrition there too and something people take with them and pass along with others. We’re not going to compete with money, we’re going to compete with those tools.
I certainly found it as entertaining as I did profound. That’s the kind of film it was.
That was something we really brought to the forefront at the beginning of developing the project further. We can’t strip the humor and we have to layer it into the extent it organically fits. If it was too heavy it wasn’t going to be enjoyable. The idea that you lull the audience into this humorous satirical story and pull the carpet out from under them with the Charlottesville footage and saying, “No, this actually isn’t funny.” I think that’s why people are gutted by that message. I’ve sat in this screening with many audiences and there’s silence at that ending.
I didn’t read the story before going in but I’d heard about it. What was your intro to the story of Ron?
There were two writers. David Rabinowitz and Charlie Wachtel, they saw an article about Ron’s story and they contacted Ron to pitch writing the script for him. He wanted producers with pedigree attached as they hadn’t been produced writers at the time. They had been introduced to Shaun Redick of Impossible Dream. He had a first look deal to bring projects in and it was Shaun who introduced Sean McKittrick and myself to Charlie, David and Ron. We had Ron’s self- published book and the article they had read. This was in 2015 and we absolutely loved it. We loved that there were all the elements we just talked about and on top of that, there was this high-concept Hollywood hook that normally does not come with true stories.
This was in the process of developing Get Out and we started talking to Jordan Peele as something else that we should be working on together. Jordan thought it was really interesting. While we were making Get Out, QC went out to options Roy’s life rights and paid Charlie and David to start writing the script. They did a couple of drafts and Jordan started developing it with us with an eye to direct. Through that process Get Out finished and was what it was and Jordan very clearly said, “I think I want to do an original social thriller next. I’m not sure I want to do an adaptation.” It was good for him because he was launching Monkeypaw and wanted a big producing career. We put a list of filmmakers and at the top of the list was Spike. We thought Spike is the trailblazer. This project is undeniably attractive to the whole world, with Ron’s story, Spike, and Jordan, that’s about as good as it gets for cinema right now.
We sent the project to Spike’s reps and Jordan called Spike directly. Jordan pitched him one sentence: Black police officer infiltrates the KKK. Spike said, “Is it true?” Jordan said, “It’s true.” Spike was in and that’s how quickly it happened. Cut to less than a year later, we really fast-tracked it to get it ready in time for Cannes. It was a fast prep, fast production, and fast post-production. A lot of that was by design and a lot of that is because Spike worked so fast. He is a runaway train. You’ll hear a lot of the actors say it too. John David will say in his interviews, “I asked Spike for another take and spike would say, “We got it. Moving on.” He’ll say he had to learn really fast this new way of working with someone who works so assuredly, so quickly and so confidently. Spike was that way through the entire process and that really put us in a position to have the movie in ready in time to premiere at Cannes.