The oldest clichés suggest that opportunity knocks when it wants your attention. But sometimes it calls you directly on the phone. While you’re on vacation. In Greece. This is how Laura Harrier begins a conversation with me when we sit down together on a Sunday afternoon. She recalls how cutting a getaway short ultimately landed her a pivotal role in Spike Lee’s upcoming movie, BlacKkKlansman.
Though it won’t officially arrive in theaters until August 10, the project is already a success. The provocative film feels pointedly contemporary despite the indistinguishable ’70s aesthetics. And through its ability to connect the past with the present, shining a light on social injustices and violence that continue to plague our world, it’s also already earned the Cannes Grand Prix. That’s also where Harrier, the 28-year-old actress and fashion industry darling, took her first steps on the red carpet in the South of France. “I knew it was going to be intense, but it was far more than I could’ve thought,” she confirms.
“Nicolas made me this incredible custom Vuitton dress,” she tells us, referencing by first name Nicolas Ghesquière, creative director of Louis Vuitton, who designed a sorbet-hued gown for BlacKkKlansman’s Cannes premiere. “That was my dream dress.” Ghesquière is just one member of the fashion elite who’s already placed his bet that Harrier is the next fresh face and strong voice to know in Hollywood. And while fans might be able to track her appearances from the CFDA Awards to the folds of glossy magazines to stylist Danielle Nachmani’s Instagram feed, in her BlacKkKlansman role, the Chicago native enters a new phase in her career—one that’s more grown-up than her depiction of high schooler Liz Allan in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and one that sparks a deeper conversation around race, activism, and police/civilian relationships.
BlacKkKlansman follows the true story of how Ron Stallworth, the first black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department, infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1970s. However, Harrier’s character, Patrice Dumas, is fictitious. When we meet Dumas on screen, she is the president of the Black Student Union at Colorado College, the host to Black Panther Party leader Stokely Carmichael (who had just adopted the name of Kwame Ture), and the love interest to an undercover Stallworth, played by John David Washington. As Harrier tells us, she committed herself to every aspect of this made-up but far-from-unreal character.
“Speaking to Kathleen Cleaver, it really struck me how young she was when she was a pivotal member of the Black Panther Party and how she didn’t set out to be this huge famous figure,” she tells me. Cleaver, along with activist Angela Davis and other “non-famous woman of the Black Power Movement,” including members of Harrier’s own family, all served as inspiration for Dumas. It was also Cleaver and her husband, Eldridge, a Black Panther Party leader, who helped Harrier fully realize a character we don’t often see on scene, “especially a woman of color,” she adds. “She was able to be this strong, badass, revolutionary woman while being in love with a man and having a relationship. I feel like it’s either a girl is all about the man or she’s this asexual militant woman who also isn’t relatable at all. I really wanted to bring this to Patrice.”
Style also played a major part in her transformation, and it served as a way to further break from unrealistic female character stereotypes she mentions. “I looked at so many reference images of the women of the Black Panthers. They all just looked cool and super sexy but strong and badass, and I wanted to create that.” For Harrier’s Dumas, this translated to lots of black clothing—mod turtleneck silhouettes and sleek leather coats—as well as signature accessories, including round wire eyeglasses, black power pins, and statement jewelry, specifically a special hair pick necklace. “You feel powerful and strong, and I think you can be feminine and be a revolutionary too,” she tells us about the physical makeover she underwent for BlacKkKlansman. “These things don’t have to be exclusive.”
Back in 2018, over the small table where Harrier and I sit, it seems kind of crazy to assume that “feminine” and “strong” would be anything but synonymous, and yet films like this one often remind us how much power we each possess. “Using your voice can create a platform for speaking out against injustices,” Harrier cites as the main lesson she’s learned from bringing Dumas to the screen. “I’m not a revolutionary leader, but I think we can all take something from that. Look at what’s going on around the world and figure out how can we talk to people in our communities and create change, even though it can be scary.”
For all of us—as with Harrier and like the women who inspired her performance—the opportunity to call out injustices, adjust our actions, and instigate change is ever present. Just keep in mind that it might not present itself as clearly as a direct phone call. We suggest you don't wait for the ring.
BlacKkKlansman debuts in movie theaters this Friday, August 10.