Final Oscar voting begins today, and Deadline is providing a last call to consider the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. The hope is that these will remind voters how they felt when they saw these great films, and pull the focus away from the toxic narratives that have marred this long awards season. This started last week with Sean Penn’s impassioned column on Bradley Cooper and A Star Is Born. Next is BlacKkKlansman, nominated for six awards including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Adam Driver), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director for Spike Lee, who would be the first black filmmaker in film history to win the award. What follows is conversation with Harry Belafonte and Lee on how a long relationship led to one of the most chilling and stirring scenes in that or any other 2018 film.
Of all the powerful scenes Best Director nominee Spike Lee captured in Best Picture-nominated BlacKkKlansman, he saved the best for last. That was the final day of shooting, when 91-year old Harry Belafonte interrupted his retirement to deliver a chilling monologue based on the racist murder, castration and mutilation of Jesse Washington, an illiterate teen in Waco, Texas in 1916 who was coerced into confessing to have murdered a white woman, and was then turned over to an angry mob as judges and lawmen did nothing to stop them.
Lee first met the man he calls Mr. B because the singer-activist-actor had a relationship with Lee’s musician/composer father, Bill Lee. “Every time we cross paths, Mr. B would say, do you have to use Ossie Davis in every film? He always said it playfully, but I knew he was serious. Here, all I thought of was Mr. B,” Lee told Deadline. “I called him up, sent him the script and he loved it but his doctor wouldn’t give him permission. I didn’t pressure him, but I did not give up. It was only a one-day shoot, and I pushed that scene until the last day of principal photography, hoping his doctor would change his mind. When he called the Monday before that Friday and said, “I got the doctor’s OK,” I said, “thank you Jesus.” And I said to the crew, “when you come to the set tomorrow, I want you to have a suit on, a tie, wear your Sunday best. If you dress lazy, don’t come to work because we have a very special guest.”
“He walked onto the set, and we were all shook,” Lee said. “We started to shoot the scene and I thought, this film is going to be a hit. I knew in my bones and it was because of who he is. The courage, the weight and the levity of Mr. B brought it home. It’s very much how you finish. Inter-cut between that first-hand account of the mutilation and murder of Jesse Washington, a true story that happened in Waco, where he was castrated, his fingers sold as souvenirs, pictures of the atrocity sold as postcards…that, inter-cut with the Klan initiation and seeing them watch, eating popcorn and enjoying Birth of a Nation, this moment was so important to the film. Mr. B still has a great sense of humor. He shot the scene three times, shook hands and posed for pictures with everyone, gave me a hug and he was out of there. Mr. B is a walking, talking human piece of history. Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte begat Marlon Brando and James Garner, Paul Newman and Peter Lawford. They got those men to not only to write checks for Dr. King, but to actually march. People forget that Brando and Paul Newman were there, and it shows me another example where monumental change comes from people who come together and form a coalition. That is what is needed now, as even Barack said this next election may be the most important in the history of this country.”
DEADLINE: The last time you appeared onscreen in a significant way was the film about Bobby Kennedy in 2006, Bobby. Why this one?
BELAFONTE: It was the only way I could shut him up (laughs).
DEADLINE: When Spike Lee writes this role for you, what is the courtship like?
BELAFONTE: First of all, I am most respectful of many of the films that Spike has done. I always find the choices he makes, are about things that are very substantial and meaningful, especially to his community. The black filmgoer. When he called and said he wanted to do this, I informed him I had long ago retired and didn’t do that work anymore. But he was so insistent, and so persistent, I thought the best way to shut him up was to go do it. And never talk to him again. So far, I have only succeeded in the first part. I can’t stop talking to him.
DEADLINE: He is one of those guys who leave you with a smile on your face when you’ve spoken to him, and makes it hard to stop talking to him. Here, you read the script. You’ve been through so many times in your life that seem far more volatile than the one we’re in now. Why was it important to play that role which vividly reminded us of the historic relationship with racism that has symbolized a KKK that has reared back up?
BELAFONTE: It is my firm belief that the issues of race are a blight on American history, and needs to be told as often as possible. The truth of the matter is, all this racial stuff is not a thing of the past. It is very much a thing of the present. When you start shooting down kids like was done in Florida, and doing what is rampant in the culture of American violence, any chance you get to make a statement and expose it, it’s very important. Nothing could be more evident to the validity of that than what just happened to [Empire star] Jussie Smollett.
DEADLINE: I think of some of the courageous things that you did during the civil rights struggle, down to bailing out Dr. Martin Luther King Jr from jail in Birmingham. When you compare how it was then to now, where we saw that clash in Charlottesville, where alt-right protesters were defended by President Donald Trump, how far have we come?
BELAFONTE: I think that is a question that has to be asked primarily of white folks. The violence that black people are experiencing, is not being perpetrated by an abstract. Some of their fellow citizens in this country delight in what Trump has unleashed with this conservative right hell-bent on war and destruction. I think what he’s unleashed in America is a clear sign that this country is not well. That it still harbors a lingering relationship to race that I think is going to become its demise. I don’t think America will ever be cured of racism. It will have to suffer the consequences of this perpetual issue, of race. Spike, in doing this film, has brought to the contemporary culture, to contemporary thinking, this thing that has plagued us from the beginning of slavery. A consistent act of turbulence within the black community. The more we get a chance to expose that fact, to tell the truth about it, the more we are able to exercise the ability to convince America that it is not as healthy as it thinks it is.
DEADLINE: Your scene is juxtaposed with scenes of a KKK initiation and the showing of the racist D.W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation, with its terrible depiction of blacks and heroic depiction of the KKK. When you were coming up as a young actor, was that movie always viewed with a spirit of condemnation that it got here?
BELAFONTE: That picture was viewed as a barometer of how evil this nation could be. I think that putting it out there, again, helps to exercise the memory of how long we’ve been trying to endure this indignity. What Spike has done is put a very contemporary spin on the fact that something exists. America would like to cover it up, but it can’t, because it’s too blatant. Artists like Spike Lee, who step in and bring a certain magical touch and artistic invention to the telling of the tale, does us all a great service.
DEADLINE: What was your day on the set like? That was a very emotional speech you gave, about the atrocities perpetrated on that young man. And you haven’t done this in a long while. Can you still nail it in one take?
BELAFONTE: Well, you have no choice with Spike than to nail it in one take (laughs). When you are working for no money, you want to make it as much money as you can get, by getting done quickly and taking bupkus. Honestly, I just like Spike, I like his spirit and what he tries to do. And while he’s not quite at the level of Charlie Chaplin, I like the way he flirts with the social message and what he tries to say. And I think he’s worth the support of all of us who can help him tell the stories he tells.
DEADLINE: You make an indelible mark here in BlacKkKlansman. Looking at the other Best Picture nominees, the signature line Freddie Mercury line in Bohemian Rhapsody is “Day-o,” borrowed from you, and the “Banana Boat Song.”
BELAFONTE: Yes, that’s true.
DEADLINE: And then the film Vice, about Dick Cheney and staging the Iraq War. Back in that moment, you made a controversial statement about Colin Powell and his role in selling that war. You evoked Malcolm X’s speech about how the slaves that got to stay in the master’s house were the ones who did exactly as they were told. Powell and Condoleezza Rice condemned your analogy, but it plays out exactly as you framed it in Adam McKay’s Vice. You are remarkably relevant in this Best Picture race. Are you sure about this retirement thing?
BELAFONTE: Well, I’ll tell you. I didn’t do this movie to bring an enlightened point of view to the American public as much as to shut up that young man and get Spike off my case. Oh!
DEADLINE: So we can’t put you back in circulation for more film roles? You want to go and relax?
BELAFONTE: That’s exactly it. I’m flattered and it feels nice that filmmakers and people actively involved in the arts still see value in my presence, in things they do. That’s very nourishing. But I also think I have an obligation. I have a platform, I have a constituency and I have a world that pays attention when I say something. They don’t necessarily have to agree with me, but they will certainly pay attention to what I am saying. If you have that kind of platform, why not exploit it for the things that you believe in? And Spike was doing something I believed in, and so I supported him. But I also needed to shut him up.
DEADLINE: If Spike were to win Best Director, he would be the first black filmmaker to win that Oscar. What do you make of the idea that it has taken this long to have someone viable in the race like he is?
BELAFONTE: I think it’s America, beginning to come of age and understanding more about itself. That Spike Lee has become a major black director and one of the first and so on and so forth, that is a statement to the delinquency of the profession, of the art form. Movies don’t exist, outside of American culture. All the stories we tell, we tell about the plight of our nation and the state of our union. Spike did a good job of putting a contemporary view on racism in America to the screen. I think he did it quite adroitly.
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