Laura Harrier had been unwinding in Greece last summer when a number she didn’t 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 Parker’s 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 didn’t 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, she’d 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 Lee’s searing new film, BlacKkKlansman.
Equipped with the Afro and scholarly appetite for revolution of a young Angela Davis, Patrice becomes the film’s 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 profession’s capacity to exploit and oppress.
Where she is fearless, he hasn’t the guts to even tell her he’s 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 isn’t.
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 film’s coda draws a direct parallel to the violence of that day, including stark footage of the chaos that claimed Heyer’s life and Trump’s 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. She’s frank about her own convictions both as an actress and as a 28-year-old biracial black woman; she’s frank about the privileges she enjoys, too. Read on for our conversation below.
In five years, you’ve gone from co-starring in Hulu’s One Life to Live reboot to your second major summer film. I’m curious how you think starting out on a work-intensive soap opera may have prepared you—so 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 wouldn’t 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 we’re talking about are right now. Thematically, it’s just completely about our current political situation. But I mean, I think what really struck me were definitely the police brutality aspects. There’s 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 don’t know, I think it’s 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 Duke’s efforts to normalize the violence of white supremacy by making it appear more palatable—the 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! It’s funny but then you’re like, “Wait. Wait a second.” (Laughs) Yeah I mean, that’s real. That’s exactly where we’re 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 doesn’t stand for that type of bigotry and hatred and white supremacy and instead he defended those people. But I’m really proud of this movie and I’m excited about it because I think it’s kind of the first film to take on this presidency and administration.
The movie’s release comes almost a year to the day since the clashes in Charlottesville. What kind of weight does the movie’s timing carry for you?
I mean, it feels like it was forever ago because so many things have happened but I hope people don’t start to normalize everything that’s going on. I think that’s 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 can’t 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 can’t start to become complacent and normalize this type of behavior, otherwise it’s just going to continue to happen. That happened, and a woman was murdered, you know? It’s really devastating to me.
There’s 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, it’s huge, how the media depicts minorities and how those images affect people’s 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 that’s what people start to believe and that’s why I think it’s so important that films like this one get made. That’s 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 they’re all different and they all have their own agency and they are all fully-rounded, multi-dimensional and are just people. That’s 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 didn’t get to see growing up as a young black girl? I didn’t 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 it’s 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 it’s 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 Hollywood’s acceptable version of a black girl and that has to change.”
No, yeah, I think it’s incredibly important. The depictions that we’re now seeing of black women in media and film, it’s a very narrow swath of the black experience. My experience as a black woman is very different than a lot of others’. Everyone’s path is unique. I think it’s really important that we’re 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 there’s a lot more people who need to be seen and represented. So yeah, it’s definitely something that I’m 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, I’ve been afforded a lot of privileges because of the color of my skin and my background and everything and not everyone has that, so it’s 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 inescapable—suddenly realizing that what you’d always considered just one aspect of your identity is all other people see.
Yeah, it’s kind of when other people define you as that that you have to confront it. For us, it’s just we don’t even have to think about it, we’re just a person. It’s when society forces you to confront yourself about it.
Exactly, I imagine especially so when you’re adjusting to life in the public eye.
Yeah, I think for me it was more like growing up, not that I didn’t think about it, but it was just like being black and also being biracial, it was and it wasn’t 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, it’s 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 don’t want to constantly have to talk about what it’s like to be a black woman. Like, I don’t know, it’s my experience and that’s my life that I live in and that’s all that I know so, you know, it’d be nice to reach a point where it wasn’t a groundbreaking thing to be a black woman in America. I don’t know. It’s sometimes... I just never know what to really say because my experience is all that I know. You know?
Right, you’re in a position to speak for an underrepresented community but at the same time it’s not all you have to say.
It’s fine and I recognize the importance of it but it would be so cool to get to a point where that wasn’t 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 people’s mindsets as I could get.
What sort of picture did all their experiences combine to make?
Everyone’s experience was different, like obviously Kathleen Cleaver’s experience was different than my mom’s. But I think it’s interesting when you’re doing a period piece of a time you weren’t 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 Davis’s 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 what’s next for you after this?
I’ve been able to do things that I’m really excited about and that I really believe in. I want to keep that up so I’m being a little selective.