Jason Blum minted his reputation as a Hollywood producer with wildly lucrative genre franchises including Paranormal Activity, The Purge and Insidious, so it feels unexpected to find him in the thick of things this awards season with a legitimate contender. But, really, how unexpected can something be if it keeps happening?
A Blumhouse production has been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar twice in the past four years (Whiplash in 2015, Get Out in 2018) and a third title will likely be added to that honor roll when the nominations for the 91st Academy Awards are announced Tuesday. With writer-director Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman, Blum has a contender that he hopes Hollywood voters will view as their chance to make history — and fix it at the same time.
This summer will mark the 30th anniversary of Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which famously was snubbed in the Best Picture and Best Director categories at the Oscars. Driving Miss Daisy was named the year’s best film, a scalding affront to many observers who still cite it as evidence of Hollywood’s entrenched attitudes toward race and inclusion.
“Spike doesn’t really talk about this, but it would be important to me to see this movie lead to the kind of recognition he is so deserving of,” Blum said. “He is one of the great filmmakers of his generation, and the fact that this project has led to his first DGA nomination is something that I’m very proud of. But, really, it should be his fifth.”
Five black directors have been nominated for an Oscar in the Best Director category, but none has won the coveted prize. Lee has been nominated for two Oscars (his Do the Right Thing script earned him a nomination for Original Screenplay, the other nod was for the 1998 documentary 4 Little Girls). In 2015, he was presented with an Academy Honorary Award for his contributions to filmmaking, but he’s never won an Oscar in a competitive category.
“These are things I would like to see happen, and I think it’s Spike Lee’s time,” Blum said “One of my roles as the producer of this film is to do what I can to support that happening, even if he’s too modest to seek it out himself. He hasn’t gotten enough attention from the Academy, and I’m hoping he will now. As I said: This is Spike Lee’s time.”
Perhaps, although there is a chance the Academy could double down on its spurning of Spike Lee. With Green Book in the mix, there’s even an eerie opportunity for another Southern chauffeur tale to follow in the treadmarks of Driving Miss Daisy by giving Hollywood voters a race-relations vehicle that might feel less threatening.
The Golden Globes never has given its director’s award to a black filmmaker, and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association had a ripe opportunity to change that this year. But nominee Lee’s name was not inside the final envelope.
Still, Lee’s BlackKklansman is a sturdy entry and his best-reviewed film in years. The movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and won the Grand Prix, making it the first Lee project to do so.
“It’s definitely one of the films I’m most proud of, for sure,” Blum said Thursday of BlackKklansman, a lean $15 million production that went on to gross $89 million worldwide. “It was a chance to work with one of the most talented, most gifted and most experienced directors out there.”
Blum said the movie’s most compelling facet is the fact that it’s a high-concept project that goes undercover as a drama.
“What was very unusual about the project is that it was kind of a high-concept idea in a dramatic movie,” Blum said. “Usually, if you think about it, you get high-concept comedies or high-concept action movies or a superhero or genre movie or a movie with more overtly commercial aspirations than this movie had initially. In my experience it’s unusual to find a dramatic movie with a high-concept story, but that’s exactly what BlackKklansman was for us.”
Blum’s maverick spirit, unpretentious lifestyle and strident budgetary discipline have allowed him to defy conventional Hollywood thinking with success again and again over the past decade. It’s a trail he blazed with the ludicrously successful Paranormal Activity, the low-fi $15 million horror film that piled up $193 million in worldwide grosses and reaches its 10th anniversary in September.
In the decade before Paranormal Activity, Blum’s goal was to make independent films that cut through in a striking way, movies like the ones that Lee made when he burst onto the scene in the 1980s.
“He was definitely one of my heroes when I was young and trying to break into the movie business,” Blum said. “He was my biggest hero, probably, of the people who were working at the time I was starting out. He was one of the only directors whose movies I would go see the first [weekend] in theaters.”
Blum’s first producer credit was Kicking & Screaming in 2005, and he prepared a prospectus to secure financing for it. He recalled Thursday that the document prominently cited Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986) as “proof” that the indie film marketplace was a sound investment.
“The prospectus failed — we ended up getting the money a different way,” Blum said. “But, clearly, Lee and his work looked large in my mind. When his name came up for this [BlackKklansman] project, it was unanimous that all the producers wanted to go to him. The first meeting with him was just a dream come true, and working with him was a dream come true.”
The film is based on the memoir Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a Boulder, CO, police detective who in the 1970s presented himself as a rabid white racist in a undercover gambit that improbably led to his accepted membership in the Ku Klux Klan. A white colleague (Adam Driver) assists Stallworth with the ruse, but the film is savagely effective in its portrayal of the KKK braintrust — which, it turns out, was neither brainy nor anything close to trustworthy. The cast also includes Laura Harrier, Alec Baldwin, Harry Belafonte and Topher Grace as David Duke.
“It shows how stupid and ignorant the Klan could be and that was one of my favorite things about the story, the script and the movie,” Blum said. “It showed all of that in a very simple way. The crucial facts and big points that are in the real story were depicted in the movie. Now the thread that holds those big points together? Clearly that is not exactly as events transpired but it is a narrative movie. I was very comfortable with the way Spike toed that line.”
The film came together fairly quickly. The idea was brought to Blum while Get Out was filming in early 2016 and it immediately seized his attention. Again, it was that high-concept disguised as drama. “An African-American cop goes undercover as a member of the Ku Klux Klan — that just stuck in my brain.”
Jordan Peele, the Get Out mastermind, and his Monkeypaw Productions co-produced the project with Blumhouse. The project seemed to gain momentum at every stage and, by Hollywood expectations, was about as smooth as it gets.
“There’s no movie that doesn’t take work so we definitely had a bunch of challenges,” Blum said, “but as production experiences go it was definitely smoother than most. Spike Lee has so much experience and he was a producer on the film and he’s worked on 20-plus films, so he’s got a real machine.”
These are incendiary times for race issues, and BlackKklansman jumped squarely into the fray for that very reason. “It was definitely a motivation,” the producer said. “To bring light to terrible things — racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism — all of those are top-of-mind for me, and there’s no way I can do what I do without that having an effect on the movies we choose to make. And the types of television shows, too. We’re making a TV show about Roger Ailes right now.”
Asked if BlackKklansman was a challenge to export due to its uniquely American story and racial themes, Blum dismissed the idea as a false perception that lingers in Hollywood but doesn’t hold up in the world beyond.
“Yeah, definitely, BlackKklansman is a very American story and I’m a big non-believer in the old Hollywood belief [that] African-American movies don’t travel,” Blum said. “We’ve had the opposite experience with that. Get Out did incredibly well overseas. We saw something similar with this movie, so that shows me you can put that notion squarely in the category of myth, which is what it is. The whole thing is just silly.”