Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman declares right off the bat that it’s all about the “fo real, fo real shit,” following Colorado Springs detective Ron Stallworth’s (John David Washington) bold infiltration of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter in the late 1970s. But there’s at least one character who’s pure invention: Laura Harrier’s Patrice Dumas, the fierce black activist whom Stallworth meets while he’s undercover at a lecture by Black Panther Party leader Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins).
Harrier, 28, was on a European beach vacation when Lee called and told her to get to New York City, telling her little else about the film that went on to win the Grand Prix Award at Cannes in May. At that point, she didn’t know if he’d seen her as Peter Parker’s super-smart love interest Liz Allan in Spider-Man: Homecoming, or spotted her in a Louis Vuitton ad. But when they met, he put her through her paces before giving her the role of the self-assured student leader who stirs Stallworth’s heart — and raises his social consciousness.
Ahead of the film’s opening, Vulture spoke to Harrier about immersing herself in the ’70s Black Power movement, improvising her “nerve-racking” Soul Train line dance, Stallworth’s recent phone call from David Duke, and the celebratory way in which the crew honored living legend Harry Belafonte on the last day of filming.
I read you were on a Greek isle when Spike called and said your holiday was over and to get to New York. Did he tell you why he wanted to see you? Had he seen you in Spider-Man? It sounds like he didn’t say anything about the film.
No, he just said he had a new project, and he wanted to meet me, and to get to New York, the next day [laughs]. But I think he had seen Spider-Man, and I think he also saw a completely separate audition tape that I’d made that was passed on to him by his casting director [Kim Coleman].
It sounds like he then put you through your paces — having you attend one of his NYU film school classes, and doing a nearly hour-long taped improvisation — before giving you the part. How nervous were you — and did you know what you were auditioning for at that point?
I was terrified [laughs]. He told me a bit about the character, but not really. He was like, “You’re a strong ‘soul sista,’ [who’s an] activist,” and he gave me the context of the scene. But I didn’t read the script; he wouldn’t release it. I don’t think I [even] knew that it was a period piece, just that she was a leader, and that it was about Black Power.
I read that you and the cast met and talked to Kathleen Cleaver at Spike’s house. Is that who the writers primarily based Patrice on?
You would have to ask them. I know what influences I drew from, which were Kathleen, and Angela Davis, obviously. But also various people that I spoke to who were in the Black Student Union at Colorado College. I watched a ton of interviews and documentaries, and Spike gave me a big reading list. He really guided me into finding this character. He had me write an entire autobiography of Patrice’s life before we started filming to figure out who this person was, so I could create a fully rounded character.
Did the Black Student Union really have a female president in the ’70s?
No, they didn’t. That was the writers’ creation.
You said Patrice’s big Afro, leather jackets, and aviator frames helped you find the character. How would you describe her?
I would describe her as intelligent and very driven, very ready to take on the responsibility that she sees to uplift her community. But I also think she’s vulnerable and feminine, and really has feelings for Ron. It was important for me to show her humanity, and not just be this figurehead of this movement. In speaking to Kathleen, [I realized] it’s really easy to look at figures from the Black Panthers and Black Power movement and see them outside of themselves. She was really young when she did all of these things, and had a relationship with this guy [Eldridge Cleaver]. She was just trying to figure it out as she went along, like most of us are [laughs].
Patrice would like to slug the racist cop (Frederick Weller) who touches her during the traffic stop with Kwame Ture.
Yeah, she was sexually assaulted, so of course she was really upset. But it’s a situation where people lose their lives all the time, so you can’t really [react] — it’s a powerless position to be in. Spike does such a brilliant job of juxtaposing that with the [previous scene’s] rally celebrating Black Power: putting these characters into a situation where all of a sudden that’s taken away from them due to racism.
I read that John David did his karate moves between takes to relieve the stress of doing scenes filled with hate speech, and that’s how they wound up in the film. Were there things you improvised or created for Patrice?
I’m sure there were some lines. But the biggest thing was my Soul Train dance. We had a choreographer, but only for the chorus [of “Too Late to Turn Back Now”]. To go down the Soul Train line — which is very nerve-racking, by the way — Spike was like, ‘Just go — dance.’ At first, I was totally nervous to be dancing onscreen and singing, because that’s not what I do. But it was really fun. It was probably one of my favorite days on set.
When Ron meets Patrice, he tells her he works in construction, and it’s not until later, when he warns her about the planned KKK attack, that she finds out he’s a cop. Was there a real KKK plot to attack protesters?
Yes there was, and Ron stopped it. Here’s really a hero, and he saved a lot of people’s lives.
But he was undercover at that point, so he couldn’t go to the scene?
Yeah, I think he was undercover, so the other detectives had to go — the white cops who were working with him.
Patrice’s activism has a big impact on Ron, but meanwhile he’s lying to her, pretending to be someone he’s not — and reporting back to the police. Did you talk about that relationship dynamic?
Yes, John David and I talked about it quite a bit. We tried to figure out how to make their dynamic seem believable and real. We had that conversation of how does she not know what he does for a living? What does she think, and what are the lies that he’s telling her — trying to figure out the history between them. I think that she starts to get some red flags, of course. But she also wants to believe in this person whom she really cares for. It’s obviously a huge betrayal when she finds out that he’s not who he says he is. So even though he saved her life, her morals won’t let her stay with someone who does something [for a living] that she doesn’t believe in.
Harry Belafonte’s scene as Jerome Turner, telling the student union about witnessing Jesse Washington’s lynching and burning by a white mob was chilling. Belafonte did his scene on the last day of filming, and Spike had the crew wear tuxedos in his honor. Did Spike wear one too, and what was the mood on set that day with the civil-rights icon recounting that harrowing true story?
Yeah, Spike wore a suit. Everyone was really grateful that this huge icon of the civil-rights movement — and of American history in general — was there. The mood was intense because of the story he was telling, which I didn’t know. And the fact that they took those pictures to sell as souvenirs. I don’t know how you could do that. That it’s a true story is so horrifying and shocking — made all the much more so by hearing it from Mr. Belafonte. It really lent weight to the message. But at the same time, it was the last day, and we were celebrating wrapping the film, and the fact that Harry Belafonte was there with us. It was incredible. There was lots of Champagne at the end.
You grew up in Evanston, and you’ve said your parents never talked about the fact that your father’s black and your mother’s white. What was it like growing up there?
Evanston is a really liberal and diverse place. My high school was pretty much 50 percent black and 50 percent white. I had friends of every color.
You don’t shy away from activism on Instagram, advocating for trans rights, gun control, and gender equality. You’ve also said you’ve witnessed racial discrimination firsthand. Can you talk about that?
I think it’s just an unfortunate fact of being a person of color. I don’t think I know anyone who hasn’t experienced some form of racism. I don’t have a big racist story. It’s more just like smaller everyday things, like being in these spaces where you’re clearly not welcome: being followed in a store, or being questioned when you’re going to a nice restaurant to have dinner. Everyday racism is a reality in America, unfortunately.
BlacKkKlansman is being released on the anniversary of the Charlottesville white-supremacist rally, and the death of Heather Heyer — footage of which is in the film. Have you seen Laura Ingraham’s latest anti-immigrant rant that got David Duke’s seal of approval on Twitter?
No, I didn’t see that; that’s so gross and creepy. I saw that David Duke called Ron Stallworth.
Called him recently? Did Ron say what the conversation was about?
Yeah, he called the other day. Ron talked about it in an interview with Lester Holt. He said that Duke wanted to know how he was going to be portrayed in the film. He was concerned about looking bad. He’s got a lot more to be concerned about [than that].
I read that Ron showed the cast his actual KKK membership card.
Yes, he did during our first read-through of the script, which is when we all met him. He keeps it in his wallet, and it’s signed by David Duke. He told his story, and spoke for, I don’t know, maybe half an hour. This is all very real. It really happened.
You said you hope the movie has an impact. What would you like to see happen?
I just hope it starts a conversation. That it gets people talking and reflecting on the current situation in this country, so maybe they’ll handle things a little differently. I don’t want to tell anyone what to think because everyone will take away something different. But I do hope it gets people talking.
You’ve said you’re drawn to films and scripts with female directors and writers. So whom would you like to work with, and what’s your dream role?
I’d love to work with Lena Waithe, with Melina Matsoukas, Sofia Coppola. I would love to portray people that I didn’t really get to see growing up onscreen. There were so few characters that I identified with, so I’d like to be a part of changing that. There weren’t many girls that looked like me [laughs] until very recently. There wasn’t a love interest in a big superhero movie who was black until it was literally me. So just being able to, hopefully, be part of changing what movies look like.
This interview has been edited and condensed.