Winter 2019

The Past is Present

As recent films by Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins and George Tillman Jr. have shown us, the fissures of the Civil Rights Movement of the '60s continue to spread, providing dramatic fuel for their unique visions

By F.X. Feeney

Spike Lee guides leading man John David Washington on the set of BlacKkKlansman. (Photo: David Lee/Focus Features)

James Baldwin, in his book The Devil Finds Work (1976)—a landmark essay about filmmaking and race—reacts to the acrobatic fantasies of evil in such blockbusters as The Exorcist (1973) by countering that, for an African-American, evil is a much subtler, meaner, everyday reality. "I have seen the devil," he writes, "in you and in me: in the eyes of the cop and the sheriff and the deputy, the landlord, the housewife, the football player: in the eyes of some governors, presidents, wardens, in the eyes of some orphans, and in the eyes of my father, and in my mirror."

Moonlight director Barry Jenkins admits he was already "obsessed with James Baldwin" when a friend recommended he read his 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk. "Baldwin was somebody from the past, present and future. The things he was writing about feel very prescient, because he was speaking the truth. He was writing on the condition of—primarily—black folks in America, but also all of us folks who call ourselves Americans—the truth of America—when we really look at what America truly is."

Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk is part of a wave of current films that deal with racial divisions in America, including Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman and George Tillman Jr.'s The Hate U Give.

Although BlacKkKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk are set in the '70s, the racial injustices depicted in the films don't appear all that distant from today's polarized climate, with its boost in hate crimes and a renewed wave of black activism sweeping the country.

The police shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager in The Hate U Give, based on the bestselling novel by Angie Thomas, was, according to its author, directly inspired by the 2009 shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant that was also the basis for Ryan Coogler's 2013 debut film Fruitvale Station. Tillman was won over by the book's dramatization of "code-switching," in which the young black protagonist, Starr (Amandla Stenberg) must shift her personality in order to fit in at the white, upper-middle-class high school into which she has transferred. "I'd never seen that in a book or film before," Tillman told an audience at a DGA screening of his film.

He had lived this duality himself as a teenager in Milwaukee. "Because I was a class clown, my parents moved me over to a white public school, which was 70 percent white; the rest was Latino and African-Americans," he says. Tillman was especially taken by "the talk" as represented in Thomas' novel—the facts-of-life lecture African-American parents must give their children who live in a white-dominant society. "In most neighborhoods," he says, "'the talk' is about the birds and the bees. In black neighborhoods, it's about staying alive, and how you relate to police officers."

Starr's childhood sweetheart Khalil (Algee Smith) has grown up without a father, and so has not received "the talk." He is shot to death by a panic-stricken white policeman, and Starr, who witnesses this, must find the courage to testify even if it means sacrificing her anonymity. This conflict, between self-preservation in a world of homogeneity by concealing one's roots and political beliefs, and that of speaking out against injustice by rocking the boat, acts as a throughline between the films of Tillman, Lee and Jenkins.

Actor KiKi Layne and Barry Jenkins confer on If Beale Street Could Talk. (Photo: Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures)

Those Who Ignore the Past…

As he did in Malcolm X, which opens with Los Angeles police beating Rodney King, Lee creates with BlacKkKlansman an energetic sense of our present historic context by bookending his film with actual news footage and archival movie clips.

BlacKkKlansman, based on a true story about two detectives—one black, one white—who infiltrate a Colorado chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, opens with Alec Baldwin as a white supremacist spewing venom to like-minded recruits, who are soon treated to D.W. Griffith's 1915 film Birth of a Nation as inspiration. The Klan, which had lain dormant since the 1880s, was catastrophically revived by the picture's blockbuster success. Lynching became commonplace for the next half-century. Griffith's film opened in February of 1915: The following May, a mentally impaired man named Jesse Washington was castrated, dismembered and burned alive as he was hanged. This horror was photographed in detail.

At the film's climax, Harry Belafonte's character shares these images with young students of color during a packed lecture. Lee closes with documentary images from the 2017 riots in Charlottesville, VA, where white supremacists led by the real-life David Duke, played in Lee's film by Topher Grace, rally so violently that Heather Heyer, a young woman who was part of an opposing peace demonstration, is murdered before our eyes.

"Charlottesville happened just before we commenced principal photography," says Lee. "When I saw that stuff, I knew David Duke, neo-Nazis, alt-right and the KKK had written the coda for the movie. People forget I'm also a documentary filmmaker. There are critics who say they wish I had not included Charlottesville, that it was 'over the top,' that I was 'beating a dead horse.' But how, as a man, a black man, with his crew—how can I sit in front of my TV and watch that terrible moment of homegrown, apple-pie terrorism and not comment on it? Look what happened [after the film came out] with this synagogue in Pittsburgh. Look what happened with this guy that sent letter bombs. Charlottesville needed to be the ending. There is no other ending for BlacKkKlansman without ending in Charlottesville."

In The Hate U Give, Khalil's tragic death—while rooted in the shooting of Oscar Grant—grew to mirror an even more recent tragedy. The police killing of Philando Castile took place while the scene was being planned in preproduction. Castile, pulled over for an ID check at 9 p.m. on July 6, 2016, was with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her 4-year-old daughter when patrolman Jeronimo Yanez panicked and—firing five times—shot Castile dead while he was reaching for his driver's license. Reynolds recorded the incident with her cellphone.

"You see it all on YouTube," says Tillman. "It's live; it's in the moment, it's not dramatized." When he was directing The Hate U Give, "It influenced us on an emotional level, but also on a visual level. But, try to maintain that! We shot eight, nine hours straight. For Amandla, to maintain such a raw emotional level for two days was very tough. Also, for the riot at the very end—that section where she stands on top of the car. We rehearsed it, like, five times very early in preproduction. After that, we never did it any more. I really let the movie, in the scenes—to let that build up over a period of time—so by the time we got there, Amandla was in that moment."

George Tillman Jr. calls the shots on The Hate U Give. (Photo: Erika Doss)

Source Material

The issue of racial identity affected the makers of The Hate U Give during the film's formative stages. Audrey Wells—who with Stenberg helped develop the project—adapted the Thomas novel. (She died of cancer the day before the film opened.) After Tillman came aboard, she expressed reservations to him about her taking on the writing assignment, which he helped her work through. He recalls: "'This book is written by an African-American,' she told me. 'It's your experience. Given that I'm a white woman, do you feel I should walk away?' I told her: 'You have the book, you have me, you have actors. We can work on that.'" Her husband Brian Larky adds: "Audrey felt passionately that we must all be able to tell one another's stories. The moment we can't is when communication, empathy and compassion ends."

Wells, herself a director (Guinevere, Under the Tuscan Sun), came through with a first draft Tillman found not just good, but camera-ready. "I was excited," says Tillman. "We have a movie." The film's climax, when the little boy Sekani innocently picks up a loaded gun, visualizing the motto at the movie's heart—Tupac Shakur's THUG LIFE acronym The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody—was not in the book. "I give that to Audrey," says Tillman.

For his part, Lee says he was unfamiliar with Ron Stallworth's memoir Black Klansman before the filmmaker Jordan Peele (Get Out), who produced, brought it to his attention. "I did not know anything about his story," says Lee. "I did not know who he was. I had not read his book. So when Jordan Peele called me, out of the blue, that's where it started."

Spike Lee goes over the BlacKkKlansman script with Topher Grace and Adam Driver. (Photo: David Lee/Focus Features)

Achieving the Proper Tonality and Freedom

In realizing their vision, the look was key for all three directors, influencing their differing approaches to cinematography. Tillman wanted a palette that would express the contrast between the predominantly white school that Starr attends and that of her own neighborhood. "The hallways were wider; the behavior was completely different," he says. "The school that I came from was overcrowded. I wanted to change the perspectives. (Cinematographer) Mihai (Malaimare Jr.) was able to do that for me, because he was also the operator." Tillman had appreciated what Malaimare had accomplished with wide-screen anamorphic on Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. "We got two Ben Hur lenses from the 1950s—the only two of those lenses left. The last person to use them was Quentin (Tarantino) on The Hateful Eight. I was like, 'Cool! Let's go for it!'"

BlacKkKlansman was "shot on film," says Spike Lee. "Not digital." As he told the press at Cannes, where the film won the Palme d'Or, his "go to" cinematographers—Matthew Libatique and Ellen Kuras—were not available, so he chose Chayse Irvin, as he admired his work for video artist Kahlil Joseph filming Beyoncé's Lemonade. Lee and Irvin filmed in 35mm, using vintage lenses, trusting together that grain and imperfections would only add energy: "We wanted the look of '70s films. You see a lot of split screens: that's from the '70s. I had not shot film in so many years, so I forgot: It's a little nuisance when the [magazine] runs out—and waitin' for the mags to be changed. But for as long as I can, I'm going to go back to shooting film."

In his work with cinematographer James Laxton, a creative partner since film school, says Beale Street's Jenkins, "We shot on the Alexa 65, using the Prime DNA—the same lenses that Greig Fraser used on Mary Magdalene, Bradford Young used on Solo. Our main visual reference for the film was still photography. Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava were the photographers working in Harlem in the years the film was set." Jenkins and Laxton wanted a wide "informational frame," but were wary of "anamorphic, because there's too much aberration at the edge of the frames. We wanted everything to be sharp and in focus." As Laxton told IndieWire, "The Prime DNA lenses gave us shallow depth of field where we could put the audience in the specific place in the frame we wanted, and also a vintage feeling that gave us a taste of the 1970s while still bringing the novel to the psyche of today."

Beyond this, Jenkins' visual process involves relentless shot lists. "We don't do storyboards," he says, "because I used to work in advertising. I always feel that when you have a board you get locked in too early—that's not fair to the production designer, or the actors or the audience."

Shot lists being more fluid and conceptual, Jenkins develops them in detail and then tears them apart at the moment of shooting. A vivid nightmare sequence set in a subway station—where Fonny grips a stairway barrier as if shaking the bars of his prison cell—was a last-minute inspiration at the end of a long day, but a moment of particular power in the final result. "But because we've got a shorthand and have honed those setups times 20, we can do those things," says Jenkins.

Another inspired touch is the director's use of close-ups in which characters, particularly Tish, look straight into the camera. Jenkins says, "All these direct-to-camera moments, they are all in moments of repose, of very intense emotions, not a lot of verbiage—yet it may be the first time someone who is not black or not a person of color has looked someone who is black or a person of color directly in the eye, for a sustained moment of eye contact.

"I've never designed those shots to function for that gaze," Jenkins adds. "For me, a person of color, it's a person of color. [But for the immersive experience], you're inside the interior of the character, you have to understand what they feel. That's what we're trying to do, at least these last two films. Whether we'll continue to do that later on, I don't know. But it's been a function of the stories I tell."

Leads Stephan James and KiKi Layne flank Barry Jenkins on If Beale Street Could Talk. (Photo: Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures)

Casting for Truth

For The Hate U Give, Tillman auditioned Russell Hornsby, who plays Starr's father Mav, several times. "A lot of that was just introducing him to the studio, to the producers," says Tillman, who was familiar with Hornsby's work alongside Denzel Washington in Fences. "Even though I knew who he was, he's not one of those guys that you think of right off the bat. The first time he came in with a monologue from an August Wilson play; the second time, wearing the braids. Most of the time, you see a guy with braids and tattoos, you think: 'He's a bad guy.'"

In most films dealing with African-Americans up to now, especially in city settings, says Tillman, "there's not even a father present. When I grew up in Milwaukee, there was always a father around. Russell and I talked about breaking down stereotypes. We talked about reversing all these things. We wanted Mav to have this edge, but also be a father. We had rehearsals for two weeks with the family—them hanging out with each other. Going out to dinner together."

Tillman rehearsed intensively with Stenberg, "getting her to be in the moment of being—of not 'acting.' She's in every scene. The hardest thing for her to do was the killing of Khalil. That was filmed over two days, in the second week of our schedule."

In Beale Street, the contemporary enslavement dramatized in the novel centers on Fonny (Stephan James), a young man falsely incarcerated for a crime he didn't commit. He is trapped in jail without hope of a speedy trial, much less justice. His lover, and his witness, is the woman bearing his child, Tish (KiKi Layne).

"Our rehearsal process was not very long," says Jenkins. "We didn't have any rehearsals on Moonlight, either." Although Jenkins closely rehearsed the family scenes for a full day—conversations and arguments over Tish's pregnancy required precise timing—he preferred to let the "interiority" of the novel, which every cast member read, and his directions in the moment guide his actors' intuitions. "KiKi is a brand-new actress, so on the set, you get to watch Regina King, Colman Domingo and Teyonah Parris, all more experienced actors, take her under their wing—nurture her, show her how to navigate this process—while on film, we watch them, as her family, showing Tish how to navigate this life."

For his part, Lee says before he even finished his script, he sent his lead actor, John David Washington—who played a young student in Lee's Malcolm X (1992)—Stallworth's book because he had already settled on him to play the central role.

"The thing about clichés, they're based on truth," Lee told the audience at a DGA screening of BlacKkKlansman. "And the cliché, 'the fruit doesn't fall far from the tree,' [that applies to] John David. There's something about his DNA, his upbringing—not just his father Denzel, there's plenty of his mom Pauletta Washington, but he's a born actor. And Denzel didn't get him this part, he got it himself."

George Tillman Jr. with Hate U Give players Russell Hornsby, Regina Hall, Common and Amandla Stenberg. (Photo: Erika Doss)

Temporary Trend of Future Forecast?

Despite the bitter turbulence these films embody—our times have been reasonably described as "cold civil war"—more people of color are taking the director's chair. Filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, Steve McQueen and Ryan Coogler have gone from arthouse success into the mainstream without compromising the qualities that made them standout in the first place. Coogler's Black Panther (2018) stands as the highest-grossing film ever directed by an African-American.

"I'm very happy about that," says Lee. "I think Black Panther is groundbreaking." Yet he is wary about the current progress. "I'm encouraged," he says, "but I'm not turning somersaults."

Lee says he's seen it before, as far back as the '70s. "Some films are made. Everybody's sayinghow Hollywood has rediscovered black filmmakers—then there's another 10-year drought.

"I don't care what your politics are, but it's just good business sense to have your workforce reflect the diversity of the world we live in."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

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The latest DGA Quarterly includes The DGA Interview featuring Alejandro G. Iñárritu, a look into motion smoothing technology on television sets, stories featuring directors Nora Gerard, Robert Aldrich, Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins, George Tillman Jr., Elma Garcia and more!