'BlacKkKlansman' recounts story of racism in 1970s, remains relevant today


The Charlottesville white supremacist rally took place as the cast and crew of “BlacKkKlansman” prepared to film.

Director Spike Lee saw footage of the rally, and immediately knew he wanted to use it to end “BlacKkKlansman,” said Sean McKittrick, a UCLA alumnus and Oscar-nominated producer of the movie. The film follows the true story of Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer in the 1970s, who works as an undercover detective to infiltrate his town’s Ku Klux Klan chapter. While Stallworth portrays an aspiring Klan member over the phone, his white Jewish coworker, Flip Zimmerman, meets the chapter’s members in person as they work to bring down the affiliation.

“BlacKkKlansman,” which has garnered six Academy Award nominations, is a contemporary period piece: It infuses elements of the 1970s to emphasize Stallworth’s strength in his endeavors, while also highlighting racism’s current prevalence in America, McKittrick said.

“(Stallworth’s) story in the racism he experienced in infiltrating the KKK connects with the racism we’re all experiencing today,” he said. “What is going on in our government and in the Oval Office is just proving what so many people knew – that racism is not dead, it’s alive and well and thriving in this country.”

To authentically portray the time period, Charlie Wachtel, one of the film’s Oscar-nominated screenwriters, said he and the crew would occasionally check out library books detailing the culture of the decade, like fashion trends and slang usage. One such trend, Wachtel said, was that of angel flight jeans, which Stallworth wears in the movie.

“BlacKkKlansman” is the true story of Ron Stallworth, an African American who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan
(Bridgette Baron/Daily Bruin)

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Costume designer Marci Rodgers said the outfits she designed helped focus on Stallworth’s bravery and grace as he infiltrated the Klan. While he is undercover, Stallworth serves as a bodyguard for Klan wizard David Duke. Rodgers said she dressed Stallworth in a working suit made of denim, a prominent fabric during the 1970s, for the scene. Stallworth’s outfit helped him stand out among members of the Klan as he worked Duke’s protective detail, she said. Klan members donned modern business-casual suits, slacks and button-downs, but Stallworth’s look was in line with the prominent styles of the 1970s, conveying that he was not associated with the Klan’s world.

Sonical elements were also used to show Stallworth’s integrity in the movie. Terence Blanchard, the former artistic director at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, said he used open fifth intervals in his compositions, which serve as the root of most musical chords and are often referred to as a perfect fifth. Blanchard, whose work is nominated for best score, said the intervals carry strong tones in the music and resonate powerfully, which he used to convey Stallworth’s internal strength. In the film, the intervals are played in a harmonic progression.

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“I wanted to show the bravery of a guy who decided to take on the Klan,” Blanchard said. “I didn’t think it was a real story at first, and then when I found out that it was, I thought it was the most courageous thing I’d ever heard of.”

The film is deeply rooted in themes from the 1970s, but it resonates with present-day audiences, McKittrick said. The footage from the Charlottesville rally, played as a montage at the end of the film, is the most powerful part of “BlacKkKlansman,” he said. Lee chose to add the montage after getting permission from Heather Heyer’s mother; Heyer was killed during the rally by a car that drove into a crowd of counter-protestors. Even though he has seen the film hundreds of times throughout the production process, McKittrick said the footage evokes feelings of anger and sadness in him every time he watches it. While Stallworth’s infiltration of the Klan took place over 40 years ago, Wachtel said the hatred of that time is still incredibly relevant in today’s world.

“The decline of the KKK is by no means an indication that we as America have overcome racism – it’s here right in front of us,” Wachtel said. “It’s the person that lives next door to you, and they don’t have to hang a flag or wear a white hood for you to realize that.”

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