Lawanda Pierre-Weston and make-up department head Martha Melendez worked together to ensure there was an organic feel to Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. With Panavision lenses, Lawanda and Martha created the 1970s looks shaping each afro and making up each and every person whether they were a central or background character.
Read our chat below:
How did you both get involved in the film and working with Spike?
Martha: I was actually working out on another film and I got another call from Marcei A. Brown saying that Spike had asked her to give me a call. Of course, right away, I said yes and then I got the script.
LaWanda: I got a call from Spike asking if I could make Afro wigs. He was very secretive about what the project was at first. He tends to do that. He just calls you and asks you random questions and you’ll ask “what is it for?” and he’ll just laugh. A few weeks later I got a call from Marcei explaining what the project was, like Martha, I was on board immediately and then we got the script. We love him and it’s such an honor to work with him.
You can’t say no to Spike though.
LaWanda : I personally can’t.
Authenticity is key with Spike. You had to make these Afros. How did the budget play into your creativity and process?
LaWanda: Personally, the process starts with the research first and trying to pair characters with inspiration looks. Also, talking to the actor and talking to Spike about what’s going to work for the film, look wise. As far as working with lower budgets, I think I’m pretty used to and making things happen with a small budget.
Some of the Afros were wigs that I made. I normally wear Afros so I know what they’re supposed to look like in terms of textures, the colors, and the shapes. I pretty much did the best I could with what I had. You have to use your creativity. You have to know what you want your outcome to be. I measured their heads and spoke to them about looks.
Martha: Like LaWanda, research was the key. We went to look for research material to get a vibe of Colorado in the 70s. We looked at yearbooks and the looks that college students would wear. I called Ron Stallworth to find out about the police station with regards to facial hair and asked him about regulations. He was really helpful.
From the makeup side, we had to get a lot of facial pieces such as sideburns, mustaches. With some actors, we groomed their beards. We got a mustache for David Duke, but everyone else was facial hair and we were fortunate with that. The main thing was to keep people looking like people. We didn’t want people looking like they were playing make believe 1970s, but as if they were living in their skin.
Let’s look at Patrice and who inspired her look?
LaWanda: That was a wig that I made. It was a conscious choice to make her hair big, beautiful and carefree. It wasn’t tamed as say Ron’s Afro which was perfect. We wanted to reflect her character and personality which was very firey. She was very much like an Angela Davis person.
There’s one scene I really loved when they were walking down outside and they’re talking about the Blaxploitation movies and her hair looks like a halo. The sun is coming off of it and you see this beautiful chestnut color on it. It stands out because you see this natural beautiful hair and freedom almost. She loved that wig and so did I.
Martha: We wanted to make her look like Angela Davis who served as our inspiration. Patrice can look very young because Laura can look young. I wanted to ensure she looked like a college student. We wanted to give her that. We brought her cheekbones out. I wanted it to look sweet but strong. I believe we succeeded in that.
You had the advantage of products in 2018 that they didn’t have in the 70s. How did that factor into your choices?
Martha: When doing the makeup, back then, for any woman of color there was nothing. The colors were either very grey. The hues were off for the lipstick. So finding things that were right there in the middle.
I worked with someone who said, “we never duplicate ugly unless we have to.” I wanted her to look like she was bare, but I didn’t want to give her grey skin. We have products that can convey skin.
For lips, we had so much that we could do for the lips to make it look natural.
LaWanda: In contrast, there were a lot of products for Afros in the 70s. You just need a good Afro pick, a good head of hair, maybe some hairspray, and sheen. We were able to make them look really good. It was a time for people to wear their Afros. Back then, it was called naturals. We wanted it to be as big as possible to add the authenticity to the film. That’s what young college kids were doing back then to pat their Afros back into perfection.
Martha: I remember my brother wanting an Afro. He wanted the Jay-Z kind of Afro but he couldn’t get it.
You had a lot of extras and working with those to give them individual looks rather than just crowd blending.
Martha: From the makeup side, those were the challenging days when we had 200 background characters working. I’d convey to my team to, first of all, be aware of tattoos. Back then, we didn’t wear as many tattoos as we do now. We were very conscious of making sure tattoos were covered.
I wanted to make sure you could see a distinction between college students that were in the movement and college students that were coming to an awareness of the movement. They had more color on their faces. Those in the movement were coming to a freedom and their focus was about bringing liberation. I wanted to have a distinction of awareness and variations.
Sometimes you watch period pieces and everyone has on blue eyeshadow. Everyone has red lipstick. I wanted to make sure this was not what we wanted.
LaWanda: We wanted it to look like real people. She textured in different appearances. For afros, I wanted to show different colors, different shapes, different hair textures, different sizes so that everyone didn’t look the same. I watched period pieces where it looked like they used the same afro wig on everyone.
Spike did an open call and a lot of those afros are their own hair. So, we had to pick it out and shape it. One person could throw off the authenticity of the film.
Martha: I wanted to make sure that no one had that Instagram eyebrows and contour.
On the subject of authenticity, let’s talk about Topher Grace and creating that doppelganger look.
LaWanda: He wanted a wig made, so we did one for him. Erwin Kupitz our wigmaker did an amazing job. It was cut and colored to perfection to match David Duke’s hair color. When we put that on, he transformed into this man and it was kind of scary.
I didn’t realize at times I was snarling at him. He would joke, “It’s me Topher.”
Martha: He’s a funny guy and he would make fun of his own character. Topher is so not like David Duke. He did such a great job. Erwin also made the mustache and it was amazing.
LaWanda: From watching the videos and footage. He did such an amazing job portraying him.