Producing the Social Conscious
Producer and Department of Radio-Television-Film alumnus Ray Mansfield’s drama “BlacKkKlansman” was honored with six Oscar nominations for best picture, best director, adapted screenplay, actor in a supporting role, film editing and original score.
Mansfield, who graduated in 2000, also earned acclaim during last year’s awards circuit. He executive produced “Get Out,” which was nominated for four Oscars and won for best original screenplay.
In January, “BlacKkKlansman” was in the running for four Golden Globes: best motion picture drama, director (Spike Lee), performance by an actor and performance by an actor in a supporting role. The film won the 2018 Grand Prix at Cannes and for best adapted screenplay at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards (BAFTA).
The film focuses on Ron Stallworth, an African American police officer from Colorado Springs, Colo., who successfully manages to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan with the aid of another undercover officer between 1978 and 1979. The film is loosely based on actual events from Stallworth’s memoir, which he published in 2014.
The 91st Academy Awards ceremonies will broadcast on the ABC network on Sunday, Feb. 24 at 7 p.m. CST.
What specifically about this story made you want to be a part of this film?
My QC Entertainment partner Sean McKittrick and I were introduced to the idea at a very early stage. Two young writers approached us with a link to an article online highlighting Ron Stallworth’s life story and the period in which he infiltrated the KKK. We were immediately hooked by the idea. The premise alone was infinitely intriguing. “It’s the-1970s and an African American detective infiltrates the KKK.” We and everyone we subsequently spoke to had the same reaction - “What?!” After reading the article we learned that Ron had self-published his autobiography. We immediately got a copy of that. And the book delivered on the promise of the article. It’s very rare that a Hollywood “high concept” comes around that’s based on someone’s life story. Add to that a story that deals with urgently relevant social issues that speak equally to the period in which the story takes place and to our current everyday society. And on top of it all, it’s as engaging and entertaining as can be. It was the whole package. We wanted to be a part of it for all of those reasons.
Did you meet Ron Stallworth?
Yes, we met Ron Stallworth. After many months of negotiations over the phone and email we were getting to the point of the deal closing for his book and life rights. Ron flew himself to Los Angeles to meet us face-to-face. He said after many decades as an undercover detective he knew that nothing is more telling than looking a person in the eye. Ron had heard many horror stories about Hollywood and was understandably reluctant to turn his life rights over to just anyone. He flew in and looked us in the eye. Thankfully, we passed the “eye contact” test and he signed the contracts right then and there. After that, we sat for several hours and just listened to him tell us incredible stories about his life and time on the force. He has a natural gift for storytelling and a sharp wit. In that meeting we really got a new sense of what Ron has been through and what he had accomplished, as well as a better understanding of his personality.
There is much of the film that’s dramatized. Did the dramatization of the storyline bother any of the real-life individuals such as Stallworth?
We developed a very open and transparent dialogue with Ron early and have kept it that way from then until now. This was important for everyone at every stage of production and through distribution. During development, Ron was always consulted on script choices and dramatization decisions. He understood the need to “adapt” his story for film. Nothing was modified that Ron didn’t get a chance to meaningfully consult on. He has seen the film more than 25 times now, sitting through all of the various Q&As and experiencing the film with audience after audience. He loves the film. That validation, from the person who trusted you with their life story and legacy, is about as satisfying and rewarding as it gets.
There's a scene towards the end of the movie where an elderly man is describing the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas. The photos and description serve as reminder of cruelty and mob mentality. What was the intent of placing that specific incident into the movie?
From my perspective, the intent was to cross-cut the cold, calculating KKK initiation ceremony with a story that shows the harsh reality of what happens when that hateful, fearful mentality is nurtured and matures into violence. And to make it personal. By using a true story, the audience understands this is a real person and there are real consequences. Here we are watching the origin ceremony for how people are groomed to hate and choose sides and abandon compassion and humanity. To become, in essence, inhuman. Harry Belafonte’s harrowing and powerful telling of that story juxtaposed with Duke’s initiation shows where the KKK’s road leads and provides compassion for the victims on the other end of the discrimination and hate. The editing technique to cut between the two scenes (with DW Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation”) is a nod to Griffith and that film itself, as “Birth of a Nation” is often recognized as the first major film to use cross-cutting, which evolved cinema language. The irony being that it was first used in such a hateful way and is now being used as a critique of—and way to combat—that mindset.
While this is a serious film, it’s littered with dark comedy throughout and even elicits bursts of laughter. Is there a reason why this was told in the genre of dark comedy mixed with drama?
From the beginning of the development process we knew the film had to have humor. First of all, Ron has a great sense of humor. Very sharp. We saw that in his book and in our conversations. So, it was natural to the story that humor and satire were ingredients that were organic. Secondly, we knew there needed to be a tension release valve for the audience. When the audience gets a release you can build the tension back up again and go even further with it than you could if you weren’t giving the cathartic releases. So you can continually raise the stakes throughout the film, leading to the most impactful finale. Thirdly, it was important to the entire filmmaking team to make the movie entertaining so it would appeal to a wide audience. For us, getting the message out—especially messages that spark conversations—is everything.
Stallworth stated that perhaps the biggest impact he had in the investigation was preventing the burning of crosses designed to instill fear in gay, African American and Jewish communities in Colorado Springs. While there is a cross burning towards the end of the film, the final scenes focus on the violent protests in Charlottesville, Va. What discussions did the filmmakers have that led to that decision?
That was all Spike (Lee). The past and present touchstones in the film mainly came from Spike and his writing partner Kevin Willmott. They did a phenomenal job of tying the past to the present. They went back a century to find when slogans like “America First” started to gain popularity. Kevin is a university professor and really did his research. Initially, the ending was the dolly shot down the hallway with Ron and Patrice and the cross burning in the distance. While we were in pre-production (August 2017), Charlottesville happened. Shortly after, Spike sent around a revised script. At the very end of the script was the only revision. It was the last paragraph and basically said there would be footage from the rally. It was a call to action. We really felt its inclusion would elevate the film to something more than a movie, something more like a wakeup call. How can you sit through that and not be moved? How can you not be challenged to think about how we got here as a society? I have seen the film many, many times now and I haven’t made it through the end once without being emotionally affected.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
It’s beyond my expectations to go from being an RTF college student going to see a lecture by Spike Lee put on by the department, to being a collaborator. To see Spike speak on campus 20 years ago and wonder if my career could ever possibly achieve half the height of his felt insurmountable. To find myself here now feels full-circle. It’s proof that hard work, dedication to craft, trust in yourself and sincerity can pay off in the long run. We just had the exciting experience of winning the Best Adapted Screenplay Award in London at the BAFTAs. It’s a well-deserved honor, and I don’t say that because I’m involved with the film. I hope the academy also recognizes and honors Spike and this film. It’s the film with its finger on the pulse of where we are at culturally and politically. It’s the voice of a large portion of our population that don’t often get the same screen time. And it’s Spike’s time. He has battled his way upstream for more than three decades challenging, entertaining, enlightening and never straying from his messages even when they were not popular. Is there anything more we can ask from our artists? We all owe Spike for his contributions to film history and the evolution of our cultural conversation.
For more on Mansfield, check out his interview with Associate Professor Alisa Perren when he visited her Media Industry Conversations class.