Spike Lee's latest — and Cannes Grand Prix winning — directorial effort, "BlacKkKlansman," tells the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first African American detective to join the Colorado Springs Police Department in the '70s. Based on his book, "Black Klansman: A Memoir," the near-incredible tale follows Stallworth (played by John David Washington) infiltrating and becoming a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan.
While set in the '70s, the film's political commentary, exploration of social injustice, police brutality and portrayal of racial terrorism specific to the U.S.A. feels very 2018 — and that's the point. "The biggest thing we wanted was to put stuff in the script, very strategically, so it would not be a period piece," the legendary director told reporters at Cannes in May, via the Los Angeles Times. (True to Lee's talents and vision, the movie is also a thrilling — and, at times, bitingly and satirically funny — detective adventure.)
But the production itself, including the rich palette of costumes by Marci Rodgers, stayed meticulously authentic to the time period, including Ron's first undercover assignment attending a speech by Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael and played by Corey Hawkins). On his way into the gathering, Ron meets and is understandably impressed by Colorado College Black Student Union leader Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). The moving speech was inspired by real life talks given by the civil rights activist and former Black Panther leader (and beautifully shot by cinematographer Chayse Irvin, who also worked on part of Beyoncé's "Lemonade").
Quickly promoted to the detective squad, on a whim, Ron answers a KKK ad in the newspaper and ends up conversing on the phone with the local chapter head using his "white voice" and — again, true story — his real name. Of course, going undercover in person would be a bit tricky, so Ron teams up with Flip Zimmermann (Adam Driver), a white detective of Jewish heritage, who poses in person as the fake Ron Stallworth to infiltrate the "Organization," as the KKK apparently prefers to be called.
"I did a lot of historical research," says Rodgers, over the phone, while multitasking a fitting for the second season of Lee's Netflix update of "She's Gotta Have It." She dove deep into the archives at the Library of Congress and visited her alma mater Howard University, where Ture also received his Bachelor's Degree in 1964. To dress the members of the Colorado State Black Student Union in a mix of prints, earth tones and metallics, textures and magnificent wide collars, Rodgers combed through '70s-era ads in vintage issues of Essence, Jet and Hustler magazines.
Lee based the fictional Patrice on brave and inspiring women leaders in the Black Power Movement, namely former Black Panther member and current senior lecturer at Emory University School of Law Kathleen Cleaver, as well as political activist, feminist and now humanities professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz Angela Davis.
"[Patrice] wears black because that was her uniform, if you will," says Rodgers, who pored over '70s images of the two civil rights activists, who both did wear long, sleek jackets over dark turtlenecks, knee-high boots and their natural hair proudly in gorgeous, sculptural afros, like Patrice. The longline leather jacket Patrice wears when she first meets Ron is vintage, while other pieces were built, like her A-line mini-dresses and a leather paneled coat. "I used different types of black fabric to give her dimension," adds Rodgers, about designing Patrice's monochromatic, but always striking coat and dress ensembles.
For Ron, the costume designer may have had the best research material: Stallworth himself, "Obviously, we had his book as a reference," says Rodgers. "But I was able, thankfully, to have a conversation with him about what he felt made him, you know, jazzy when he went undercover."
She looked again to her extensive historical research to create his wardrobe of lush colors, truly jazzy prints and textures you could almost feel through the screen. A jewel-toned velvet shirt, a silky button-down, a shearling-trimmed rust suede jacket worn on a stakeout and a particularly memorable red knit turtleneck layered under a rainbow patchwork suede vest all stand out amongst the '70s earth tones (and Flip's slouchy, muted plaids) in the squad room.
"I mean, obviously, he's the star of the show and in my thought process, I wanted him to have the most stylized costumes," says Rodgers, who has also assisted celebrated costume designers Paul Tazewell ("Jesus Christ Superstar Live!," "Hamilton") and Ruth Carter ("Black Panther" and multiple Spike Lee joints). Ron's notable costumes helped "distinguish" him from the rest of the detective squad, while, on the flip side, allowed him to effortlessly blend in with the college students who were making trends.
Over the phone, Ron strikes up a one-sided rapport with Klan Grand Wizard and later-Republican Louisiana State Representative David Duke (Topher Grace). But, in person, he's assigned to security detail for the white supremacist for an initiation ceremony and gathering. Instead of wearing a stiff suit and tie, Ron sports a coordinated denim shirt and pants ensemble, which makes him stand out even more in the room full of Klan members and their spouses, adding to the tense scene.
"When I read the script, I came up with the idea of not having him in a suit because I knew — just based off of research — that during initiations, the 'Organization' had their own dress code, which was their version of Sunday's Best," explains Rodgers, who watched extensive YouTube documentaries to authentically dress the KKK members in their plaids, military-inspired looks and Klan regalia.
"So artistically, I just stuck to that and added Ron's version of his suit, a walking suit —which was obviously a trend for men in the '70s — and insert that into that world," she continued. "Therefore, there was a stark line of how he walked in and what he looked like [compared to] what the banquet attendees looked like."
To outfit the principals and background players in true-to-the-period looks, Rodgers sourced vintage stores and costume rental houses "all over:" Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Lee's hometown of New York City, where the movie filmed. Her hard work paid off, especially with the star of the movie.
"I asked him last night [at the premiere]," says Rodgers, of the real Stallworth's reaction to seeing Washington in costumes that help tell his incredible story on the big screen. "He was happy."
Top and homepage photo: David Lee/Focus Features
Follow Marci Rodgers on Instagram @marcialagio.