Interview: Barry Alexander Brown on ‘BlacKkKlansman’ and Spike Lee


Some editors have made a career by winning the trust of talented filmmakers. Thelma Schoonmaker will almost always edit Martin ScorseseMichael Kahn has cut most Steven Spielberg movies. For Barry Alexander Brown, his assocaition with Spike Lee helped to convince him he was an editor. While Barry has directed about a half dozen of his own films, he often helps Spike nail the pacing and tone of his films. He’s also cut for other strong artists, including Mira Nair and Madonna. He sat down with me to talk about his latest work on “BlacKkKlansman” and finding the balance between comedy, tension, and drama.

Awards Circuit/Alan French: How did you first become an editor?

BB: Well I really started on my very first film, which I actually didn’t get credit for as an editor. It was called “The War at Home” and I ended up editing a lot of the film because our editor we had could only really work part-time. He was a professional guy working at the local news, so to keep the film going, I started editing. I’d already done all the film research. But even after “The War at Home,” I didn’t consider myself an editor. I did cut a few more documentaries for myself after that. It wasn’t until Spike (Lee) did “She’s Gotta Have It,” and he had me rework one scene in the film. He was the editor and he edited the film himself. He asked me for help because he was having trouble with this one scene, and we’d already been friends for a few years at that point. I tried something, and he really liked it.

AF: How did you work on his next movies? 

B.B: When he wrote the book about the making of “She’s Gotta Have It,” he wrote this book. He’d kept all these diaries about making the movie, that I actually knew nothing about. When he published his diaries, he wrote in the book “on my next film, Barry’s going to be my editor.” He didn’t even say it, he just gave me a copy of the book and I read it! I was like what? Then another friend of mine, Mira Nair, who became a pretty big director with “Salaam Bombay!,” Monsoon Wedding,” and more recently, “Queen of Katwe,” she said, “Hey! If you’re going to cut for Spike, you’re going to cut for me.” So then I did “School Daze,” then “Salaam Bombay!” and then Spike did “Do the Right Thing.” All the way up until “Malcolm X” I thought someone was going to come in the room and say hey, you’ve got real money, a real budget now! Don’t hire your buddy. Let’s get serious! I expected someone from the studio to kick me. I seriously did.

AF: It’s funny how that happens. In your long collaboration with Spike, what’s your favorite film you’ve worked on with him besides “BlacKkKlansman?”

BB: “Do the Right Thing.” It’s my favorite. My favorite after that would be “25th Hour,” and then after that we’ve got a tie between “He Got Game” and “Inside Man” or maybe “Son of Sam.”

AF: I’m a really big fan of “He Got Game.” It’s really solid. 

BB: Glad to hear! I did some of the 2nd unit directing on the film and I did most of the opening with basketball.

AF: It’s one of the rare movies that actually has good basketball being played. 

BB: Oh yeah, and quite frankly it was one of the most fun movies. There was some kind of a joy in it. Even though it’s a harsh kind of drama about a father and son. You know, Denzel (Washington) and Ray’s (Allen) game was really fun to cut. It got real there for a minute. Denzel really did hit 3 shots and Ray really did say to him “I’m going to shut that lucky shit down now.” That wasn’t part of the script. He was not going to have a 40-year-old movie star make him look bad.

AF: Obviously “BlacKkKlansman is being praised as a return to form for Spike Lee. What was different about “BlacKkKlansman” than your last few collaborations. 

BB: Well the next time I completely worked with him on was “Bad 25,” and documentaries have their own thing. Maybe the last narrative film was “Miracle at St. Anna?” The thing about Spike was that he went to rewrite the film, and I think they found something. I think that’s when it became a real Spike Lee Joint. It was a pretty strong script that was well told. There’s also a lot of humor in this movie, but this humor is more organic than other films.

AF: How difficult it is to edit organic humor when you’re tackling a pretty serious subject? 

BB: I think Spike and I have the same view of this. Humor is a part of life, even when things are dark. We both like to use humor a lot, and we’re drawn to it in even the most dramatic films. I don’t think it’s difficult to cut it that way, as long as you don’t lose the thread. Sometimes you find you have to cut back on the humor. Especially when you’re heading towards the big dramatic moments. There were some funny things that happened, like when Adam Driver is playing Ron and he joins the Klan and Topher Grace is David Duke, there was some humor in there that we actually lost. We were breaking the tension we didn’t want to break, so that was one case where we got sensitive about the humor.

AF: You guys really build a lot of tension there. Especially when you bounce back and forth from the Klan induction and the Black Student Union. Tell me about how you put that scene together. 

BB: Well it was written to go back and forth, but you can’t completely work that out on the page. Once you’ve got it completely shot, all the stuff from Klan and all the stuff with Harry Belafonte and the Student Union, then you begin to explore. There’s a lot of stuff that you’re not sure if it works because the visuals haven’t been there. For me, I have a huge advantage because now I have all the footage. I can play with things more.

So like when Harry Belafonte is talking about how he had to hide, and go up above the shoe shine parlor and there was a window there where he can look out and see everything. Now I have Ron Stallworth go up to a window upstairs and he can look out and see the induction. I can connect those things so that at times I’m playing with Ron being the character of Harry Belafonte as a young man watching this horror. You also have to play with the emotion. You don’t want to lose the emotion of Harry Belafonte’s story about Waco, Texas, but you also can’t lose the drama of the Klan watching “Birth of a Nation.” It’s a manner of keeping a lot of things in mind.

AF: One of the things I found very interesting about “BlacKkKlansman” is how you use archival footage of other movies so you can show how powerful the medium can be in shaping minds. How did you approach using “Gone with the Wind” and “Birth of a Nation” in this movie?

BB: Well “Gone with the Wind” was right in the script. All I had to do was get the shot and put it in. The next scene was a bit more difficult in terms of “Birth of a Nation” being projected over Alec Baldwin’s face as he’s reciting this diatribe. That was a way of trying to use footage and takes where Spike and I like Alec’s dialogue. We also used takes because we liked the look. Especially that end shot of Baldwin when what’s projected over him is a shot that Spike colored red from “Birth of a Nation” and you see this cross that comes across his face that’s handed from one hand to another as he just stares into the camera.

Later on, when the Klan is watching “Birth of a Nation,” it’s really just bringing us down. We want to get a sense of what the Klan is watching, and how they view it. So the beginning they’re like “oh no, oh no, the black people are taking over,” and then the Klan comes back and they’re chanting “white power, white power,” which is what we ended with. We wanted that whole arc there, and you can’t stay with the movie within a movie for too long. At least we didn’t want to. You’re trying to get all those beats and get through them quickly without leaving us with the feeling, shit that was fast.

AF: When you were editing together the Kwame Ture speech at the Black Student Union, what were you guys looking to accomplish? It’s a beautiful scene. 

BB: Well going into it, I looked at the script and thought, this is going to be an 8-minute speech. We’re going to be 10, maybe 15 minutes into the movie and we’re going to put an 8-minute speech? Delivered by a character that doesn’t reappear in the movie? I had my doubts it would hold up. Spike just thought, let’s cut it, and we’ll do the best we can. If we have to cut it down, we will.

For both of us, it made us feel like we were back in “Malcolm X.” We felt like we were back in that moment. I think we both had the same emotion towards it. Spike had that idea of portraits, and I think that helps carry it through. But Corey. Corey delivers such a great speech. We kept trying to make it impactful on Ron so that it does have a real place and real meaning besides being a great speech. Finally, when we got it done, it held up. I think we both felt, shit, we don’t have to cut anything. This is amazing! I would have bet you anything it would have been 3 or 4 minutes, and it holds up. It doesn’t take you out of the movie, and in theory, it should.

AF: It’s one of the standout scenes of the whole movie. How early did you guys know you were going to use the footage from Charlottesville? 

BB: You know, Spike started talking to me about it pretty early on in the course of the project. He may have thought about it much earlier than that, but he didn’t officially tell me about it until I came on the film. Somewhere in the midst of production, he told me we’re going to get all the footage from Charlottesville and we needed to use it. We really didn’t edit anything until I had the very first cut put together. He didn’t want me to think about it until I had my first editor’s cut. After that, it was full steam ahead. That was like in January.

AF: What scene in the movie do you think is the best to look at your work on the film? 

BB: You know, probably the scene we talked about earlier when we cut back and forth between the induction of the Klan and the story of Waco, Texas. I think that if anybody wants to learn something about what I do as an editor, look at that sequence. Even though you have two disparate scenes, they don’t feel like it. They feel very much connected as one thing that’s happening at the same time. I think in terms of understanding who I am as an editor, it’s one of the better things to look at.

AF: Well thank you Barry! The movie is excellent, and the editing is a big reason for that. Thank you so much for making time to talk to me. 

What do you think of Barry’s work in “BlacKkKlansman?” Did you enjoy “BlacKkKlansman?” Let us know your thoughts in the comments below! 

“BlacKkKlansman” is currently in theaters. Focus Features handled distribution.