Laura Harrier had been unwinding in Greece last summer when a number she didnt recognize lit up her phone: This is Spike Lee, a voice on the other end announced. The auteur had just caught her blockbuster debut as Peter Parkers brainy love interest in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and wanted her to audition for a role in his new film. The hitch: The audition would be in New York. Like, the next day.
I didnt really believe it was him at first, Harrier says, looking only faintly harrowed by the waking stress dream she relives next. In the span of a day, shed had to get off this island somehow, fly back to New York, and square off with Spike, performing scenes and improv for an hour with the director himself, whom she evidently impressed. He offered her the part the next day. She relays it all with an unblinking matter-of-factness, the kind she frequently deploys as Patrice Dumas, the black student activist whose fight for liberation makes her a target of white supremacist hatred in Lees searing new film, BlacKkKlansman.
Equipped with the Afro and scholarly appetite for revolution of a young Angela Davis, Patrice becomes the films uncompromising (and unwitting) moral backbone. The undercover cop Ron Stallworth (the real-life black detective who used a phone, vocal code-switching, and a white stand-in to infiltrate the KKK in 1978, here played by John David Washington) feels drawn to Patrice, even as her convictions cast his identity at odds with his chosen professions capacity to exploit and oppress.
Where she is fearless, he hasnt the guts to even tell her hes a cop. And where Stallworth and his white Jewish colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) struggle to reckon with their self-constructed identities reliance on compartmentalization, Patrice seems to know exactly who she is, and isnt.
BlacKkKlansman debuts one year after the white-supremacist group Unite the Right rallied in Charlottesville, Va., where a counter-protester named Heather Heyer suffered fatal injuries and former KKK leader David Duke vowed to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. The films coda draws a direct parallel to the violence of that day, including stark footage of the chaos that claimed Heyers life and Trumps bilious both sides acquittal of the neo-Nazis who rallied in his name. It played in theaters across the country as a handful of white supremacists gathered again in Washington D.C., this time rapidly slinking away in defeat, escorted by police.
Harrier calls the film, by far the most political project of her five-year screen career, a warning against normalization of the ever-balder racism of the Trump era. Shes frank about her own convictions both as an actress and as a 28-year-old biracial black woman; shes frank about the privileges she enjoys, too. Read on for our conversation below.
In five years, youve gone from co-starring in Hulus One Life to Live reboot to your second major summer film. Im curious how you think starting out on a work-intensive soap opera may have prepared youso many decorated actors have started out in the genre.
I definitely learned a lot. It was kind of like boot camp. It was not enjoyable but it was worthwhile I guess. (Laughs) I mean, you had to memorize like 30 pages a day, it was very intense. So yeah, no, it prepared me and gave me a very strong work ethic, I think. But I wouldnt say I have fond memories of it, to be completely honest.
Fast-forward to BlackKklansman: The story takes place in the 70s but obviously resonates today with the resurgence of white supremacist rhetoric in mainstream politics and beyond. Have certain parts of the story stuck with you after filming?
So many aspects of it, honestly. It is a period piece but the issues that were talking about are right now. Thematically, its just completely about our current political situation. But I mean, I think what really struck me were definitely the police brutality aspects. Theres a scene where my character gets assaulted by a police officer and, you know, I was just thinking about Sandra Bland the whole time. It was really difficult and emotionally really hard, but much harder in thinking of all the people who get pulled over for routine traffic stops and are assaulted or far worse, or lose their lives. Those things really kind of hit home in the film. I dont know, I think its important to portray them on the screen though and talk about them, as difficult as it is to make and to watch.
The film also dramatizes David Dukes efforts to normalize the violence of white supremacy by making it appear more palatablethe rationale for wearing three-piece suits instead of a white hood in public. A line about how that strategy will someday land a white supremacist in the White House plays like the most surreal punchline.
I know! Its funny but then youre like, Wait. Wait a second. (Laughs) Yeah I mean, thats real. Thats exactly where were at now. And Spike really drives that home at the end of the film when you see footage from Charlottesville. The president, you know, he had an opportunity to show the rest of the world that our country doesnt stand for that type of bigotry and hatred and white supremacy and instead he defended those people. But Im really proud of this movie and Im excited about it because I think its kind of the first film to take on this presidency and administration.
The movies release comes almost a year to the day since the clashes in Charlottesville. What kind of weight does the movies timing carry for you?
I mean, it feels like it was forever ago because so many things have happened but I hope people dont start to normalize everything thats going on. I think thats the big fear, is to feel so overwhelmed by all the scary, kind of awful things that are happening and just be like, Oh that happened before and we just cant even pay attention to it now. I hope this sparks conversations between people and that people see that all of this is completely relevant and we cant start to become complacent and normalize this type of behavior, otherwise its just going to continue to happen. That happened, and a woman was murdered, you know? Its really devastating to me.
Theres a scene in the movie where Patrice talks to Ron about how harmful media depictions can be, and how far there is to go in terms of representation. Is that something you think about as an actress?
Yeah, its huge, how the media depicts minorities and how those images affect peoples minds. I mean, I think especially like those people in Charlottesville, probably most of them had never met a black person before. But you see these really negative depictions in media and thats what people start to believe and thats why I think its so important that films like this one get made. Thats why Black Panther was so important and Get Out and all of these movies that, you know, show black people as being real people. You can have a movie with a bunch of black people and theyre all different and they all have their own agency and they are all fully-rounded, multi-dimensional and are just people. Thats hugely important. I definitely think about that as an actress: what are the types of images that I want to reflect and support? And what are the things that I didnt get to see growing up as a young black girl? I didnt see myself reflected or see that many characters that I identified with. And so yeah, I want to try and change that and contribute to a more positive narrative of us.
Often its the case that when you did see yourself reflected back then, it was through bit parts or stereotypes.
Completely, yeah. It was always like this super one-dimensional stereotype. And, you know, there are amazing filmmakers, obviously someone like Spike, who have from the beginning not been doing that. But its important to continue having filmmakers who are changing that.
One facet of that conversation concerns colorism and why darker-skinned actors seem to get fewer leading roles. Zendaya, your Spider-Man co-star, brought attention to it when she said, I am Hollywoods acceptable version of a black girl and that has to change.
No, yeah, I think its incredibly important. The depictions that were now seeing of black women in media and film, its a very narrow swath of the black experience. My experience as a black woman is very different than a lot of others. Everyones path is unique. I think its really important that were representative of all women of color. And, you know, it is disappointing when you look at the actresses of my generation right now. Most of us are light-skinned and biracial and theres a lot more people who need to be seen and represented. So yeah, its definitely something that Im aware of. I think most of us are aware of that and can hopefully speak out about it and start to change things as well.
And not be the only ones talking about it as well.
Yeah, definitely not. And also, you know, Ive been afforded a lot of privileges because of the color of my skin and my background and everything and not everyone has that, so its really important to see other people as well.
I wanted to talk about Flip for a second, the white cop who doubles as Ron when meeting with Klan members. He explains to Ron that before he faced people who hate him for his heritage, he never really had to think much about being Jewish. That feels like what lots of minorities often have to navigate, especially when bigotry becomes inescapablesuddenly realizing that what youd always considered just one aspect of your identity is all other people see.
Yeah, its kind of when other people define you as that that you have to confront it. For us, its just we dont even have to think about it, were just a person. Its when society forces you to confront yourself about it.
Exactly, I imagine especially so when youre adjusting to life in the public eye.
Yeah, I think for me it was more like growing up, not that I didnt think about it, but it was just like being black and also being biracial, it was and it wasnt a big deal. And then coming into adulthood and also then into the public eye where people always want to bring that up and talk about it, its like, yeah, I guess it forced me to think about my identity in a much deeper way than I maybe would have before. But also, you know, sometimes I dont want to constantly have to talk about what its like to be a black woman. Like, I dont know, its my experience and thats my life that I live in and thats all that I know so, you know, itd be nice to reach a point where it wasnt a groundbreaking thing to be a black woman in America. I dont know. Its sometimes… I just never know what to really say because my experience is all that I know. You know?
Right, youre in a position to speak for an underrepresented community but at the same time its not all you have to say.
Its fine and I recognize the importance of it but it would be so cool to get to a point where that wasnt groundbreaking.
Were there real-life figures you looked to for inspiration for Patrice? Angela Davis is the obvious one.
Yeah, Angela Davis, also Spike introduced me to Kathleen Cleaver, who was like a big figure in the Black Panthers. She was really instrumental in helping to create the character and told me a lot about her life and her relationship with Aldridge Cleaver, who was her husband and one of the founders of the Black Panthers, but she was like this strong, badass woman in her own right and really did a lot for the community. So these more famous figures, but also people who were in the Black Student Union in Colorado College in the early 70s. I talked to some of them through contacting the alumni association there.
You did that on your own?
Yeah, I just called them up. (Laughs) I just called them and a bunch of people called me back and I got some really interesting interviews. And then yeah, I just tried to piece together as broad a picture of that time and of peoples mindsets as I could get.
What sort of picture did all their experiences combine to make?
Everyones experience was different, like obviously Kathleen Cleavers experience was different than my moms. But I think its interesting when youre doing a period piece of a time you werent alive in, because you have to do a lot of research and I really enjoyed that. Watching documentaries was super helpful and I read a lot of Angela Daviss books.
Your mom helped out, too?
Yeah no, both of my parents, they were kind of around that age, maybe a little younger. But still, they were definitely aware and in different ways kind of involved in various student movements.
And whats next for you after this?
Ive been able to do things that Im really excited about and that I really believe in. I want to keep that up so Im being a little selective.