BlacKkKlansman, the newest Spike Lee joint, is one of those movies with a plotline that might seem implausible if it weren’t largely based on a true story. It’s about Ron Stallworth (played in the film by John David Washington), an African-American police officer in Colorado Springs who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the 1970s. Stallworth contacted the Klansmen over the telephone, where they couldn’t detect the color of his skin; a friend of his on the police force (Adam Driver) met them in person, wearing a wire to gather information about their activities. In Lee’s version of the story, Stallworth falls in love with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), an student leader who represents the conflict he feels between his duties as a police detective and his sympathy for the black activist movement.

Much of BlacKkKlansman is simply expert entertainment — a tense but often very funny chronicle of an unlikely police operation. But it also makes bold cinematic choices, many of which required a deft touch in the cutting room. As the film depicts Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) lecturing a gathering of black students, it pays as much attention to the faces in the crowd as it does to the man at the lectern, using striking montage techniques to present a beautiful array of portraits that suggest a mood of self-discovery in the room as Ture declares, “You must define beauty for black people.” Later on, in a tour de force, the film cross-cuts vigorously between an elderly character played by Harry Belafonte, recounting a stomach-turning story of the lynching of a young friend of his in 1916, and a Klan initiation ritual complete with splashes of holy water and a screening of D.W. Griffith’s unconscionably racist (yet technically brilliant) 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation. Racial issues are unavoidably at the fore of the story, and BlacKkKlansman draws a straight line from the KKK’s early 20th century resurgence through the black-power movement of the 1970s all the way to last year’s deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. In a final, sorrowful flourish, footage from that event gives the film a harrowing coda.

Film editor Barry Alexander Brown — an Oscar nominee for The War at Home, a 1979 documentary he co-directed with Glenn Silber — cut BlacKkKlansman after working with Lee, on and off, since the early 1980s. Brown just finished cutting an episode for the second season of Lee’s Netflix series, She’s Gotta Have It, and his next project is directing Son of the South, a feature set in 1961, when a young white Southerner in Montgomery, Alabama transitions into the civil rights movement. (“It’s part of the same conversation,” he says.) We asked Brown about his his style as an editor, BlacKkKlansman‘s accelerated post-production schedule, and why, even after editing the twice-Oscar-nominated Do the Right Thing, he suffered from imposter syndrome in the cutting room.

Without taking too deep a dive into ancient history, can you talk a little bit about how you started working with Spike Lee in the first place, and how that relationship has worked, and evolved?

I moved from Montgomery, Alabama to New York and tried to break into the movies. And I just couldn’t get any kind of a job. I was really knocking on doors and doing anything I could possibly do. [But] I wasn’t going to college. I met [Glenn Silber], who was trying to make a movie in Madison, Wisconsin, about the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s. He needed help on that, so I went up to Wisconsin and ended up becoming co-director on the film. That was called The War at Home [1979]. It really was my film school, and it turned me into a filmmaker. It was nominated for an Oscar in 1980.

I went back down south the next summer, in 1981, to research another project. I was living in Atlanta, and I met Spike through a mutual friend. They were mentoring high school students on this sort of magazine show on cable. Right after The War at Home I had helped found First Run Features and a year later, around the time I met Spike, we really needed somebody to check 16mm prints, getting them into shape and ready to send out. I knew Spike was a film student at NYU and our offices were really close, so I called him up and he jumped at the opportunity. Over the course of the next few years, we got to know each other. When he did [his 1986 debut feature film] She’s Gotta Have It, he asked me to do some sound work on it. But even before the sound work started, he would call me up to show me this cut or that cut, and I ended up cutting one scene in She’s Gotta Have It. And then She’s Gotta Have It took off like a rocket, and he asked me to cut School Daze. That was really the first time I thought, wow, somebody wants me to edit for them? He was a pretty good friend of mine by then, but this seemed crazy to me. You get a real budget, and you’re going to hire me to be an editor?

Right after we did School Daze, another good friend of mine, Mira Nair, was doing Salaam Bombay, and she said, “Wow, you’re cutting for Spike? Why don’t you cut my first feature, too?” So I cut Salaam Bombay, and that won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 1988, did really well theatrically all around the world, and was nominated for an Oscar that next year. And then Spike did Do the Right Thing. And he said, “I want you to be the editor on Do the Right Thing.” So I did it. And then I got a call from Madonna, who loved Salaam Bombay and asked me if I’d be interested in cutting her tour movie. It turned out to be Truth or Dare. I did that out in L.A. and came back and Spike was doing Malcolm X. In the meantime, he had done Jungle Fever and Mo’ Better Blues with Sam Pollard, and when I came back, he wanted me to do Malcolm X. So I did Malcolm X. But all the way through all those movies, I kept expecting somebody from the studio, or someone else, to come into the editing room and say, “Uh, wait a second — what’s he doing here? You cannot just hire your buddies to cut your movies. You’ve gotta get a real editor.” Even into Malcolm X, I thought, “Someday, someone’s going to figure out that I’m not a film editor, and they’re going to kick me the fuck out of this room!”

Do the Right Thing movie posterEven after Do the Right Thing? I can’t believe you didn’t feel emboldened as a film editor.

No! I still didn’t! You know, when Spike hired me two years before to do School Daze, I had never been in a 35mm editing room. I had cut 16mm, because that’s what I was working on, and that was what Spike did She’s Gotta Have It on. I asked somebody, “Do you know anybody who would let me go in and see the set-up of a 35 room?” I went up to a room in Midtown and said, “Oh, look at that. You do it like this, and you do it like that. You’ve got these boxes, and the box marked with a red Sharpie is sound and the box marked with a black Sharpie is picture. Uh-huh. I see.” And I looked at the Steenbeck, and the whole wind of 35 was completely different from 16. And I said, “Wow, look at that, it goes across the heads completely different, and you have to flip it over to cut it.” And this young woman who was assistant editor says, “You know, I’m sorry — I was under the impression that you were the editor of the movie.” I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I am.” [Laughs.] And the look on her face said, “Oh my god, this movie’s in trouble.”

Were there any hiccups on School Daze? Did you make any mistakes that were really harrowing? Or did you pretty much just push through … ?

No, no, no — it seemed pretty good. The very first time that Spike and I had a test screening, he sat in the middle of a row and I sat all the way at the end of the same row. We didn’t sit together. And in this test screening was actually the most disturbing moment that either one of us, I think, ever had in a screening. There was one scene in School Daze that made the entire audience moan, and I mean moan, like: oooooohhhhh noooooooooooo! Just like that. It was horrible. And I leaned forward and looked to my left and Spike leaned forward and looked to his right, and we just looked at each other like, “Oh, shit.” From that moment on, every screening, we sat together. We didn’t even know that the director and the editor should sit together at those. We were young and we were green is all I can say. It seemed to go smoothly, though.

Just based on the quality of the film, I might have expected that the guy who cut Do the Right Thing was an experienced film editor who helped the director pull all that together, since he was so new. 

I was just as new. We were learning from each other in those days and figuring it out together in many ways. Even later, when someone talked to me about an assembly, I thought, “What are you talking about?” Neither one of us thought about doing some kind of loose assembly of a movie. From the get-go, I would cut a scene as I thought it should be cut. I have a tendency, and Spike does too, to cut fast and cut tight. So, from the very beginning, I just cut tight. Many editors do an assembly, but I never have. Not from the beginning. Probably because I didn’t know that was a thing that anybody even did. I didn’t come up through editing, and I’ve known very few editors ever.

So you’ve never retrofitted your workflow to match a more typical editorial process?

Even now I don’t have the slightest idea what a normal process is. I don’t even know if there is a normal one. People tell me stories about how Walter Murch works. He’s a brilliant editor, but I think, “Oh my go, I could never do that.” I was on a panel once with Thelma Schoonmaker and Sam Pollard and they talked about their process, which was very studious and sort of intellectual, and I’m completely instinctual. They were talking about all the prep they did before even starting the edit of a movie, and I was like, “Oh my god you do all that? You watch all these other movies, and listen to music you think might be appropriate. Wow. That’s incredible.” I don’t know. I still don’t. I’ve actually never been in an editing room and just seen somebody else work.

Did anything change when you started editing digitally?

Definitely things changed. It used to be, when I was working on a film, you couldn’t talk to me in the process of editing. My editing room was quite large, and I would lay all this film out and about. I’d have part of a roll in my left hand and part of it in my right, and I’d set it down, and my room would be like this with bits and pieces all over the place, as well as things hanging up in the bin, and everything was in my head as to where everything was and how I was putting the cut together for the scene. You literally could not talk to me. If you talked to me, it was a house of cards that could all fall, and I wouldn’t know where anything is. It could be that critical, or fragile. I had a great assistant in those days, Leander Sales. The editing room was glassed in, with partly clear glass, and when he would see people approaching, Leander would put up his hand and have a fierce look on his face, like “No. You’re not opening that door.” I got a reputation for a while of being harsh. I would get angry at somebody who came in just to say good morning. They were trying to do something nice, but it would destroy me.

There were things I did like about cutting on film. I did this one short gig at CBS with a full-blooded American Indian, a guy named Robin who was an editor, and he said, “Did you ever think about your style as an editor?” And I said, “Yeah, sure, like jump cuts?” And he was like, “No. There are people sitting behind you. You’ve gotta create a style.” So I created a style. I really looked impressive. I thought about what I could do so that when people would walk in and see me editing, they’d think, “Shit — he’s good!” And yet it was all based on style rather than editing.

In digital, there’s really no style. It’s a computer. It’s a keyboard. It’s so much simpler. You can talk to me and knock on the door and come in and I’m not going to be mad at you. It’s easy to find stuff — you just hit the match frame button and there you are. I’ve never been really fast on the keyboard. But I find that, on the whole, I cut much faster than many people. I can see a cut before I cut it. That came from all those years of cutting in film, where I would look at it to make it easier on myself to cut the film, imagine the cut and see the cut in my head so it was a matter of physically just doing it. A lot of times, cutting digitally, that’s still the way. I look at it and I can see the cut. But my first cut is never the final cut. It’s in the recutting where you really find the edit, find the movie. The first cut is just, “Let’s get us in the ballpark.”

John David Washington

John David Washington as Ron Stallworth in BlacKkKlansman
Focus Features

Let’s talk about BlacKkKlansman. Were you on or near the set while shooting took place?

They were up in Ossining, New York, so I wasn’t anywhere close. On every movie I go up and spend days on set, so I did go up there, but most of the time I was in Brooklyn and Spike was up in Westchester [County] and we would get together when we could, often times on weekends, and watch dailies. He really wants to watch dailies together before I jump in and cut. To me, it’s really the right thing to do. I get his sense of what he likes and what he doesn’t like. To me, the job of an editor is to deliver a director’s vision.

What happened on BlacKkKlansman was they shot up until a little before Christmas. After a film wraps you usually have days of dailies to catch up on, and I think by then we had four days to catch up on all the dailies, something like 30-some hours of dailies to watch together. We did that, and then there was a tragedy in my wife’s family and I had to go to France as soon as we finished those dailies. I had cut about 50% of the film in New York while we were shooting, and then I had to cut the other 50% over the holidays in Paris, where I set up as an editing space in the apartment we were staying in. I cut every day all the way through Christmas and New Year’s because I had to show Spike the cut on January 8 back in New York. Spike was pretty happy with the very first cut — probably happier with that first cut than he has been since Do the Right Thing. And the first day he watched BlacKkKlansman, he had heard that Terence Blanchard was in New York and invited Terence to watch the film along with him. I think he already had a sense that this could get pulled together fast, and he wanted Terence on board right away. At the end of that first screening, Spike said, “We’re gonna pull this together, get a cut, and I think we can get into Cannes.” So that’s what we did — from January 8 on, we were running toward a fine cut and a final cut. I think by March 19 they were recording the score. That was super-speedy.

Had you ever done a project with him that quickly before?

No. I have never done anything that quickly.

What was your feeling when he said, “We’re gonna show this at Cannes”?

I thought, “Oh, OK.” All of a sudden the entire schedule got accelerated by two or three months. And, of course, you don’t know if you’re going to get into Cannes, even if you show them in March. But by the end of April, you have to hand over a finished movie. No matter whether you get into Cannes or not, you’ve got to work as if that’s what’s going to happen. We locked the film, Terence finalized the score, they record the score at the same time Phil Stockton leads the sound team in doing the mix and all the sound editing and all of the visual effects necessary as well as conform the film in order to do the final picture. And all the while, it’s, “Well, I hope we get in!” That’s what you have to do.

Focus Features could have thrown a real wrench into things when they saw it. I think they saw it in the seventh week of the director’s cut, which is really early. the director doesn’t have to show the film until after the 10th week. We showed it to Focus at the beginning of the seventh week and they were pretty cool about things. They understood we were running to try and get it into Cannes, and they decided, “We like this movie; this movie is solid,” and we didn’t do a single preview screening with an audience. The biggest audience was for Focus Features in the screening room in the Universal lot. I had two screenings with them, and the first screening was probably the biggest screening we had before Cannes.  I’d guess it was somewhere around 18 people. Jordan Peele saw it. And Spike wasn’t even at that screening. I took the film there to screen it.

I didn’t know how well the film had gone over with Focus. At the end of the screening, people got up and just walked out, and I thought, “This is not good.” That’s usually a bad sign, when the studio doesn’t say anything to you. Jordan came over and shook my hand and said, “Nice work.” But was that just polite? Usually that reaction means, “We hate this movie, and now we’re going to go off and figure out what to say about it.” But finally they gave us a handful of notes — which were pretty damn good — and Spike had me do about half of them. It was such an unusual experience, an unusually fast schedule, and the approval process was so painless.

Obviously you don’t want to be pushed around by a studio, but is it a double-edged sword not to do test screenings? It seems like the confidence level gained by showing it to audiences so that you know you’re on the right track would be helpful. 

On the whole, I feel that preview screenings are very helpful. But we were feeling good about the film. And then Jordan Peele saw it and Focus saw it and some people from Universal saw it, and they were all feeling really good about it. So from that point, it’s like “Hey, we’ve got a strong movie here. We’ve gotta go with it.” It’s a rare thing, but once in a while it happens.

One scene that’s often noted as unusual is the Kwame Ture lecture, which you turned into an exercise in portraiture, where you’re lingering on faces in the crowd. Was that something that came together in the fine edit?

Most of that really came together after Spike saw it for the very first time. They had shot all that stuff during that moment when they were shooting Corey Hawkins doing Kwame Ture, and they had a second unit set up in the next room over, and Spike would pick people out to go next door and be shot in very different ways. So we had dozens of shots of people. And then Spike said, “OK, we’re going to try portraits.” He said, it could be singles, or we could marry them together. Because every one of those shots is separate. they’re all individuals. It was a matter of me going in and trying different things, starting in the place he wanted and going where I thought was appropriate. As I did these things, he would respond. “I need another person here.” “Don’t use her, but I still want a woman there.” “I like that move. We could do that again over here.” It was back and forth over the course of about a week while doing other things as well. We really found how to use these portraits. We already had a cut that was working pretty well, and then it worked that much better.

I really had thought that [VFX supervisor] Randy Balsmeyer, this great VFX artist who does a lot of credit sequences on Spike’s movies but also works on almost every movie on some level, might do something completely different and take it someplace better, but when we showed that sequence to Randy and he started coming up with ideas, Spike said “No. What you see before you is not a suggestion. I want it done exactly as you see it. I just want these portraits married together in a smoother way.” There’s only so much you can do on an Avid in terms of how you marry images together. A lot of times you see the border, how it’s been done, so it was a matter of smoothing it out. That was surprising to me too, that Spike saw this as almost finished.

Do you do that elsewhere in the movie, as far as split screens or retiming conversations?

Yeah, there might be as many as a dozen places where you won’t know it’s happened where I’ve cut split screens. Sometimes there’s something happening on the left I like and then later on there’s something happening on the right I like, and I want them to happen at the same time. So we split the screen and marry them together. You’ll never know. You look at the movie and it’s one shot. That’s a great thing with you’re dealing with digital. I can do stuff like that now that I could never have done in film. I wouldn’t even think of it. But now, I can take this thing on the right and marry it with a thing on the left and it will feel so much better. As an example, there’s this profile shot of Topher Grace as David Duke on the left side and on the right side is Adam Driver with a hood over his head, being inducted. There was so much space between the Topher’s lines and Adam’s responses. I just decided, man, Adam’s gonna respond a whole lot faster. They’re both going to respond a whole lot faster to each other. It’s a static shot with just a wall behind them. I can move up all of Adam’s lines and keep that shot and not have to cut in order to speed a scene up. I was able to do that in a few other places. It’s very satisfying to me.

John David Washington and Laura Harrier

John David Washington and Laura Harrier in <BlacKkKlansman
Focus Features

There’s a long scene right after the lecture set in a dance club where Ron and Patrice dance to “Too Late to Turn Back Now.” I enjoy it personally when I realize, “Oh, this song is going to play out. We’re going to spend some time chilling out and watching these characters.” Is there a conscious decision — does Spike say, “Let’s just stop and watch these guys …”

He’s a musical guy, and he really likes music to play out, and he likes music to play loud in his films and to really be able to hear the music. That’s a spot where he thought, “Yeah, I can make space for music.” And it helped establish the time and the place. That’s so much of what that scene was, but also a certain shorthand happens there, which is the development of a romance between Ron and Patrice. By the end of that song you feel that these people like each other. Really like each other. We know he likes her, but by the end it’s clear that she likes him. You can feel it, right?

I wanted to ask about the overall tone of the film. This is such a serious subject — and I do want to ask you about the Charlottesville stuff at the end — but the movie’s easy to watch. It’s light in places, and I think part of that is because Ron Stallworth comes off as a bit of a prankster. What he’s doing is serious business, but he’s also thumbing his nose at the racists. Was tone something you thought about while cutting, in terms of is the movie going to go too dark, or too light?

Donald O'Connor

Donald O’Connor in Singin in the Rain
© Warmer Bros / GIF by frockflicks.com

So much of that was in the script and in the performance to begin with. Someone said to me recently, they referred to it as a comedy. And I said, “This movie is not a comedy.” I’m sorry. It’s not. For both Spike and myself, this idea of genre is too limiting. I don’t think either one of us likes the idea of living in a genre. “This is a drama so we can’t …” or, “This is a comedy so we can’t ….” This is just a movie. It’s what the movie is. and Spike likes to use humor. When we first got to know each other, the one thing that really drew us together was our love for entertainment. Just entertainment. In that world of early 1980s New York independent filmmaking, the idea that entertainment, on its own, was something you should respect and admire was not very popular. He was the only person I knew who felt this way, and I felt that way.  I remember somewhere many years later somebody was saying something like, “It’s just entertainment. Who cares?” And I said, “OK, shut up and watch this.” And I showed them Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” from Singin in the Rain. “Are you going to walk away and tell me that’s not a masterpiece? That isn’t brilliant?” In making whatever movies we make, there’s always this element, this sense of entertainment. Even if the film is very serious and has a big message, we’re not going to do it in a dire, drab, dark way. If it’s dark, it’s going to be entertaining dark. If you look at, especially, the films Spike and I have done together, we’re trying to deliver a movie, and also to deliver a cinematic experience. If it makes you laugh even in a moment you would never think you would laugh in, if we can make you laugh but not lose you, we’re going to do it.

There were funnier things in BlacKkKlansman towards the end of the movie, before the explosion. All the way through Harry Belafonte’s speech talking about Waco and the induction and the banquet and the Ku Klux Klan and the screening of The Birth of a Nation there were funnier things that we cut back on. We thought, we can’t have a laugh here. It’s funny, but we can’t have laughs now. We’ve really gotta dial this back. So we lost some jokes there during that period leading up to the explosion. It felt like we couldn’t make you laugh and then pull you back in.

Topher Grace

Topher Grace (right) as David Duke with KKK initiates in BlacKkKlansman
Focus Features

That sequence where you cross-cut between Harry Belafonte speaking about the brutal lynching in Waco and the Klan meeting, complete with a screening of The Birth of a Nation, is really fantastic.

Thank you.

I don’t want to accuse you of doing something you didn’t do, but you go to film school and you have to study The Birth of a Nation — even though it’s a nakedly racist film — because Griffith was a master of cross-cutting. And in your film, you’re cross-cutting with perfect montage techniques to make a point about what’s going on in these two different worlds. It’s kind of an amazing takedown. Was there anything deliberate there? Did anyone say, “We’re going to use Griffith’s techniques against him?”

No, I don’t think so. There really wasn’t anything conscious. Just the storytelling technique of how to marry these two things together — this story that happened in 1915 in Waco, Texas, and this induction of the very people who would have led a horror like that. So it wasn’t thinking, “Well, Griffith did it and we’re going to do it.” In the script it was already laid out that these two sequences were going to get cut together. They were in much bigger blocks than what you see in the final. Once they had shot everything, I had the luxury of looking at it and saying, “Oh, I could do this and this and marry that and I can have this voiceover from Harry Belafonte while David Duke is walking down the line with this holy water. And I’ll go back to Harry for a moment, and then we’re back with Adam Driver. I could marry the emotions in a way that you can’t figure out on a blank page. Even if you think you can, you really can’t.

It’s tight and intense and perfectly clear — surprising but very clear in what it’s communicating.

Thank you. You want to talk about Charlottesville?

Yeah. That’s an intense way to finish the film. I knew it was coming because of things I’d read, and I had seen most of the footage before. But somehow the thing that really got me was that last shot where the American flag comes up…

Upside-down.

Yeah, upside-down, and then it fades to black and white.

That’s all Spike. That’s not me at all. That’s 100% him.

How did you work together on it? Was it scripted? Was it in your original edit?

No, it wasn’t scripted and it wasn’t in my original cut. But also, Spike had told me in the course of the production that’s what he wanted to do. But also, he kept saying, “We’re not going to concentrate on that right now.” But once he saw it on January 8, he said, “OK, we’ve got to start getting this Charlottesville footage.” And we were working to get a cut for Cannes, which meant we gotta get this footage in and we gotta get this footage in tomorrow. [Laughs.] Spike would come in almost every day and say, “Where’s the rest of that footage? Why don’t we have it?” I’d say, “We’re gathering it.” “Well, we don’t have have time to gather it! It’s gotta be here!” “OK!”

He had a sense of the beats. He said, “I want that tiki torch march from Friday night. I want to cut to the next day where there’s that brouhaha and that big fight between those two groups, and I want Trump in there responding to that and lining up with the white supremacists, and then the car that crashes into all those people and kills Heather Heyer. And that will be it. Then we will be out.” We didn’t know there was footage of David Duke. I don’t think either one of us even knew that David Duke had been there. But our great film researcher, Judy Aley, she called up one day and said, “Do you want the David Duke speech he delivered?” We said, “David Duke? Yes!” She sent over these two pieces. and the thing we really liked was the speech he gave at McIntyre Park in which he ties Trump right into the white supremacist message. It was so great, and Topher Grace had done such an amazing job of playing him from 45 years later that I just think you make that jump — this is the same guy.

Topher Grace

Topher Grace as David Duke in BlacKkKlansman
Focus Features

I wonder how Topher Grace felt when he saw that.

I think Topher loves the movie, but at the same time when he talks about it, it’s disturbing for him to have played David Duke, even though I think he went out to get this part. He was unnerved at doing such a great job playing this guy.

Have you seen the film with a full audience? 

I’ve only seen it twice with an audience — at the premiere here in New York and at Cannes.

Was it dead quiet at the end?

Yeah. It was silent, silent until Spike’s credit came up. And then there was big applause. They say the standing ovation [at Cannes] was six to 10 minutes. It was a long standing ovation. What was amazing to me was there were certain jokes that I thought were too American — that they weren’t going to get those jokes. But, man, people laughed in all the right places. They got it all the way through. And also, this film is taking place in the early 1970s, and some of the references are really from that period, but they were with it. It was very satisfying.