For Spike Lee’s first-time nominated, go-to editor, Barry Alexander Brown, the toughest part about cutting “BlacKkklansman” was balancing comedy and drama in telling the true-life story of rookie African-American cop Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) infiltrating the Klan in Colorado Springs in the early ’70s.
“On the whole, it’s a matter of making the jokes work when they’re supposed to be there,” said Brown, who starts shooting his directorial debut next month, “Son of the South,” based on the true life story of a Klansman pulled into the civil rights movement (executive produced by Lee).
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“What we discovered towards the end of this edit was we had jokes coming up to the bombing where the Klan ends up blowing themselves up,” Brown added. “And it was just wrong. There was some good stuff, but there was a point in the movie where we just couldn’t keep the tension. So Spike said pull back.”
The humorous prologue with Alec Baldwin as Klan leader, Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard, sets the tone from the outset as a historical bridge of hate. But in a moment of inspiration, the editor decided to keep the actor asking the script supervisor for the right lines. “All that stuff where he’s clearing his throat and doing the lines over and over and over, it’s Baldwin as an actor,” Brown said.
“But Spike liked the idea of this guy, Beauregard, as a performer himself. This is not speaking from the heart, he’s trying to get the right words, he’s trying to get the right inflections.”
Lee and Baldwin had wanted to work together for years and it finally happened on “BlacKkklansman.” “He had forgotten some lines and we included that in the cut because it’s very natural,” said Lee, who’s looking to become the first African-American director to win the Oscar.
And the scene was heightened by D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” projected onto Beauregard’s face with the dye-printed blue and red. ” It’s all the artifice,” said Brown. “He’s trying to get the pitch to work, with ‘Birth of a Nation’ playing on him with that blood red.”
Brown used the ’70s technique of the split-screen to great effect when bridging the hilarious phone conversations between Stallworth and Klan leader David Duke (Topher Grace), which were shot simultaneously. “There’s something you get from that, these guys are really on the phone together, which is why I wanted to do the split-screen,” Brown said. “Especially at the end when Stallworth goes off on him with those [attacks], and Duke realizes who he’s been talking to the whole time.”
But the hardest yet most fulfilling opportunity was cross-cutting two chilling sequences: Duke’s Klan initiation in Colorado Springs with Harry Belafonte (playing a fictional activist named Jerome Turner) describing a historical lynching in Waco, Texas, in 1916.
“In the script, there were big blocks of the Waco story and then the Klan induction and then going back and telling other parts of the Waco story,” Brown said. “I thought it had to be really interwoven in a way that we wouldn’t know for sure until we had the footage. And once we had the footage, I could go back and forth between Belafonte telling how he ran away from this out of control mob, and Stallworth going into the attic space to look at the Klan initiation through the window. So they both become witnesses. and I thought this is where these two stories become one.”
The cross-cutting is like a bridge of hate between past and present. “And sometimes the past is 1915, and sometimes the past is the early ’70s, and then we’re in the present day with Charlottesville,” added Brown.
“We’re on the right side of history,” said Lee, who only later realized a further connection to “The Birth of a Nation” when reading A.O. Scott’s review in The New York Times. “He mentioned Griffith as the so-called father of cinema, who came up with this cross-cutting,” the director added. “I had been taught that at NYU but had forgotten how ironic it was that it was a technique developed by him.”