There’s nothing in cinema quite like a Spike Lee movie. Even the director himself refers to his work in a different way: “A Spike Lee Joint.” His latest film, BlacKkKlansman, is no exception, having garnered acclaim and awards — including multiple Oscar nominations — for its take on a true story about a black detective in the 1970s Colorado Springs Police Department who led an undercover operation to infiltrate the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan. With the film up for for Best Editing at the Academy Awards, we spoke with editor and longtime Spike Lee collaborator Barry Alexander Brown about his approach toward BlacKkKlansman.
Getting Rid of “The Business”
Among other things, Spike Lee films have always stood out for their pacing. They feel fast, lean, and alive with momentum. “Oftentimes, there isn’t a frame of open space,” says Brown — who, as Lee’s editor of 30 years, is a big reason for that. He calls it getting rid of “the business.”
To explain, he uses the example of a scene in BlacKkKlansman where undercover officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) lights a cigarette for KKK member Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold). In most cases, an editor would show every step of that action: taking out a lighter, flicking on the flame, reaching it over, holding it beneath the cigarette, waiting for it to light. The individual steps needed to complete the action, as well as the mundane act itself, are what Brown means by “the business.” “I just don’t find it interesting to watch that sort of stuff,” he says. “I think, ‘Come on, I am not interested in this cigarette and you lighting it.’”
The magic of cinema allows him to do something about it. “There’s real-life time and then there’s movie time. For me, they’re very different,” Brown says. So in BlacKkKlansman he used a jump cut to get rid of “the business” and fast forward through the action without sacrificing the audience’s ability to understand what’s happening.
Don’t confuse his approach for impatience, however. He’s still keeping efficient storytelling in mind. “The scene in that bar is really about getting to know these guys, and it’s about Zimmerman playing his undercover role,” Brown explains. Jump cutting through that cigarette lighting gets the scene to its purpose efficiently and quickly, and it’s a philosophy that lends the film a good amount of its pace.
Editor Barry Alexander Brown
Deciding When to Slow Down
For all the pace that Brown cultivates, and “the business” he gets rid of, there’s still a place and time to slow down. “There are times where the business really has something intrinsic in it — something that we need to know about somebody and something that’s meaningful to it,” he says. “There are times to force yourself to breathe and say, ‘Wait a second. We just need a moment here.” Recognizing those times yields compelling moments in BlacKkKlansman, such as when Zimmerman talks to Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) about his Jewish faith.
Despite knowing Brown’s anti-business stance, Lee always shoots what he feels in the moment as a director, which yields more than enough footage to play it fast or slow. And because of their long collaboration, Lee trusts Brown to identify what is and isn’t needed in the cutting room. “He knows me well. He knows, ‘Okay, if I don’t like it, Barry’s going to get rid of that business.’” But the collaboration goes both ways, with Lee also helping identify where to slow down. “Spike is better at gauging that than me, because I get really into it,” Brown says.
Adam Driver and John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman
“There are times when Spike will come in and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s great. I liked that.’ Then there are other times he’ll look at me with a grin and say, ‘Nah, don’t do that.’ I’ll know what he’s talking about and say, ‘Okay, I’ll put it back together.’”
Thinking Outside the (Footage) Box
Lee’s instinctive “I’m here in this moment” shooting yielded other “additional” footage that informs notable sequences in BlacKkKlansman. One happens not far into the film, when Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) gives a nearly ten-minute speech to a group of civil-rights activists. While filming, Lee decided to set up another room where he could capture portrait-style footage of the faces of the actors portraying the audience. He didn’t know exactly how it would be used, just that it could be used.
When the time came to edit the sequence and Brown cut the speech together, they realized ten minutes is a long time to ask an audience to stay in one place, listening to one person – even if they were cutting to crowd shots and Stallworth’s face. Lee asked Brown to add in the portraits in an almost superimposed style that makes them seem as if they’re floating in space. It marks one of the film’s most visually unique moments. “It was the kind of thing that could really ruin a sequence, says Brown, “But it elevated it and made it slightly otherworldly, yet very effective and personal.”
Corey Hawkins (second from right) as Kwame Ture in BlacKkKlansman
Another example is the opening of BlacKkKlansman, where Alec Baldwin plays Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, a white supremacist shooting a propaganda film for the KKK organization. It’s a sequence that, in Brown’s words, is “bizarre and upsetting,” largely due to what he’s saying as a mouthpiece, but also due to how he’s stumbling along words, fumbling lines, or forgetting them entirely. “He’s not speaking from the heart. He’s trying to get the right word that has the right cue to the other white supremacists. He’s a manipulator and he’s a performer,” he says.
The scene didn’t initially play like that. It came about because of a suggestion from Lee requesting “extra” footage. Spike recalled that Baldwin, as an actor, was doing vocal exercises while shooting, repeating lines, and talking to the script supervisor. They had all that footage. “I want to use all that,” Spike told his editor. “I thought, ‘Wow. Great. The reins are off me. I can go,’” Brown says. It perfectly reflected the artifice of the moment, and would end up being Brown’s favorite scene to work on.
Spike Lee on the set of BlacKkKlansman
Intercutting Two Very Different Scenes
One of the most praised moments in BlacKkKlansman is another sequence that runs for over ten minutes and cuts between a chilling retelling of the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, and a KKK initiation ceremony, complete with Birth of a Nation screening. The result, as Brown puts it, is that “these two very different events become one event.” The account of the lynching (as told by Harry Belafonte) may be about an event that happened 50 years before the events of BlacKkKlansman, but the juxtaposition makes it suddenly contemporary to the film’s time. “You’re feeling that the Klan inductees and David Duke and basically the other Colorado Klans are really standing for the white people from Waco Texas,” says Brown. And while, at times, the portrayal of the Klan in the film can verge on buffoonery, in that moment, their real threat becomes clear.
Topher Grace as David Duke in BlacKkKlansman
The sequence was conceptualized as being intercut, but not quite the way Brown eventually put it together. “It was written so that it could work — not that the script has such an intricate way of weaving the scenes in and out of each other,” he explains. That job fell to him in the cutting room. “I’m able to create an interweaving that’s more intricate and delicate. The chance to cut together such opposite scenes is rare,” he continues. “As an editor, when you get a chance to do that, it’s such a thrill. You just don’t get this opportunity very often, because most of the time, it can’t work.”
For Brown, that’s the joy of working with Spike Lee. Even after 30 years of collaboration, there are fresh and exciting opportunities in the editing room, and the chance to make creative decisions that result in something as accomplished as BlacKkKlansman. “He definitely keeps you on your toes,” Brown says of Lee. “He’s great with the curveball, man. You don’t expect it. It just keeps coming.”
Top: Laura Harrier and John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman. All images from BlacKkKlansman courtesy of Focus Features.