Perhaps still smarting from the Election Night booing he received for his critical comments of President Trump during the Israeli Film Festival, BlacKkKlansman producer Jason Blum, in a tone of barely controlled ire, briefly summarized how he characterized the message of Spike Lee’s acclaimed film about an African-American police officer’s infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan.
“To me, the message of BlacKkKlansman, which I tell people when they’ve asked me, is very simple: Racism is stupid,” started Blum, “and people who are racist are stupid, and people in the KKK are stupid racists, period. That’s what the movie is about.”
Taking up Blum’s mantle during the “Producing Masterclass II” panel at the Producers Guild of America’s Produced By: New York conference, the film’s co-screenwriter, Kevin Willmott, added, “You would think we wouldn’t have to say that!”
The session, led by Oscar-winning producer Bruce Cohen (American Beauty, Silver Linings Playbook), had veered from a discussion about the collaborative visions that led to some of this year’s top films to one asking why these films were so necessary in a divided America. Gabriela Rodriguez and Yalitza Aparicio, producer and star of Roma, addressed the timely themes of Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical film of life in Mexico City in the early 1970s. “Our movie speaks to class diversity and ethnic diversity and strong women characters lead the story,” Rodriguez said while Blum and Willmott focused the conversation squarely on the president’s influence, and why Lee chose to close his film with footage from the 2017 white supremacist riot in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“It’s a really historic time we’re living in,” said Willmott. “People will look back and say, wow that’s when it happened, that’s when it was either going to go to hell or come back….We have a nationalist as the leader of the United States; he’s demonized whole groups of people every day. This is not normal and it’s a scary time.”
With Blum having offered his admiration for the film’s ability to balance humor with terror, Willmott, who said he calls President Trump “King Tang” (“Think about it,” he said with a smile), explained, “We tried to…make something humorous that’s not funny. With hate, you have to get as close to the hate as you can and by doing that, you reveal the absurdity and that’s where the humor lies.” Willmott added that the hatred promoted by KKK leader David Duke in the film is also, “what’s happening now. That kind of hate has become part of the mainstream and it’s in the White House. It’s bizarre—if we had tried to write this, people would have said you can’t expect us to buy this crap. And yet it’s happened.”
Striking a more hopeful note in a panel that also featured an inspired tale from Crazy Rich Asians producer John Penotti, and hilarious commentary from costar Ronny Chieng (“It’s about time we had a movie about rich people,” Chieng declared), Mary Poppins Returns star Emily Blunt said, “What I love about [Mary] is she’s a woman who can get things done and brings order to chaos. She mends the cracks in people so they can rediscover something about themselves, and in the world now, where people are becoming more self-serving and not allowing the idea of community and we feel the divide, here’s a movie that can be a great unifier—at Christmas.”
Admitting that the current strain of anger in the country “is the reason for the film,” Mary Poppins Returns producer/director Rob Marshall said, “This move tells you how to look at life from a different point of view. [It] returns to this kind of light in a dark world.”