Spike first captivated our cultural consciousness in 1986 with his debut film, She’s Gotta Have It, a story about a sexually empowered woman in Brooklyn and her three lovers, told in black and white (but for a whimsical dance scene). She’s Gotta Have It was startling, not just because of its provocative subject matter, but also because it was made by a Black director telling compelling stories about Black people.
Such films were few and far between in Hollywood, and for an underserved audience starved for greater representation, Spike’s movies were manna—and intentional. Spike named his production company 40 Acres and A Mule Filmworks, a reference to land reparations to be given (but eventually revoked) to freed Black families along the South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coast during the Civil War.
Spike’s most recent project, BlacKkKlansman, is the true story of a Black man named Ron Stallworth (played by Denzel Washington’s son, John David Washington) who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1970s. The film is based on Stallworth’s 2014 memoir, Black Klansman, which recounts his experience as the first African-American detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Spike navigates the world of white supremacists and police officers in a tour de force that’s masterfully crafted--and politically controversial, in just how real it feels.
BlacKkKlansman was nominated for six Academy Awards, four Golden Globe Awards, including Best Motion Picture, and won the Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival.
1. Do the research. Then internalize it.
Spike believes that research is a fundamental part of the screenwriter’s job. His approach is to immerse himself in the time period—he listens to the music of the time, reads books and magazine articles, and watches documentaries.
When Spike embarked on BlacKkKlansman, he and his co-screenwriter Kevin Willmott immersed themselves in the 1970s—the Vietnam War, the Black Power movement, the Civil Rights movement—making sure that they knew their material front to back.
2. Pick a reliable partner. Then divide and conquer.
If you work with a writing partner, make sure you share the same sensibilities and that your skills complement each other. If you’re strong in dialogue, someone who is strong in structure could make a great partner.
On BlacKkKlansman, Spike and Kevin tackled the rewriting of the script by dividing and conquering. They divvied up the material between them, and then exchanged scenes to get feedback from the other. Working remotely over email can work, especially if you have a longstanding relationship with your writing partner. Make sure you’re both committed to the project over your egos—and always meet your deadlines.
3. Take your time with casting. But trust your gut, too.
Choosing the right cast for your film is critical and should not be rushed or taken lightly. Taking time on the front end to audition actors can save precious time and money on the back end, as it can be difficult and costly to fire an actor or edit out a bad performance. Do not be afraid to ask an actor to audition more than once. It is through this process you can witness the actor’s approach over time and ultimately trust them with the role.
Spike cast Topher Grace as white supremacist leader David Duke in BlacKkKlansman at the urging of his longtime agent. Even though Spike was skeptical at first, Grace proved himself to be a great fit for the role. Spike encourages you to be open to letting the actors make what you wrote better—take your ego out of it and give them at least one take to try it their way. Finally, when you have a strong instinct about someone being right for the role—like Spike did with John David Washington—follow your gut. Even if it’s risky.
4. Use the opening sequence to set the mood and state your theme.
If you know anything about a Spike Lee Joint, you know he takes his opening title sequence seriously. He knows well the importance of a film’s first moments where the audience is fully present, mentally preparing for the journey upon which they are about to embark. An opening title sequence, also known as opening credits, helps set the mood you want your film to achieve. Elements such as music, color, graphics, animation, and photography offer you an opportunity to be a bit more creative and take a few more chances while foreshadowing what’s to come.
For the opening of BlacKkKlansman, Spike went beyond title sequences to capture his audience’s attention and set up the context and tone of the film. First, the film opens with the opening scene of Gone With the Wind—a scene that was personally impactful to Spike and his film education, and a scene that represents the heart of racism in America. This opening nod to the slave-holding South’s loss of the Civil War immediately lets the audience know where they’re about to go: on a tour of white supremacism.
The second scene in the film’s opening is a fictional televised “PSA” by a racist public figure (played by Alec Baldwin), which lets the audience know that there will be humor along the way—that the film will make a mockery of the white supremacism it depicts.
5. Create balance in the edit between big ideas and subtle subplots.
If writing is rewriting, then editing is surely a crucial component in shaping the story of a film. Think of it like putting together the pieces of a puzzle or chipping away at a sculpture until the true shape of the work emerges.
Spike’s movies are layered and never about one single thing, what he calls a “mixtape.” A good editor can ensure your main story remains the main story and doesn’t get too overwhelmed by subplots.
In BlacKkKlansman, Spike intercut between three seemingly unconnected scenes to create a stark contrast between love and hate. In one scene, a Black professor recounts the story of a lynching to a group of Black students. The other two scenes show the Klan: one shows an initiation and the other shows a group of Klansmen watch The Birth of a Nation. Spike ties the two worlds together by including a voyeur in each—characters looking on with horror at both the lynching and the Klan screening. But it’s not enough to shoot all of these scenes. You have to work with your editor to bring it all together to tell the story you want to tell.