If the visual gut-punch that comes at the end of Spike Lee’s latest movie, “BlacKkKlansman,” is not enough, listen to the music.
A recently discovered 1983 rehearsal recording of Prince singing the Negro spiritual “Mary, Don’t You Weep” plays over the end credits of the movie about a black police officer who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. It opens nationwide on Friday.
The song plays over footage from the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, particularly the moments leading up to when a car plowed through the crowd, killing activist Heather Heyer, 32.
James Alex Fields Jr., 21, faces 30 federal charges and also is charged under Virginia law with murder and other crimes. He faces trial later this year.
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“When Charlottesville happened, I knew that was going to be the ending (of the film),” Lee told Rolling Stone magazine. “I first needed to ask Ms. Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, for permission. This is someone whose daughter has been murdered in an American act of terrorism — homegrown, apple-pie, hot-dog, baseball, cotton-candy Americana. Mrs. Bro no longer has a daughter because an American terrorist drove that car down that crowded street. Even people who know that thing is coming, when they see it, it’s like, very quiet. People sit there and listen to Prince singing a Negro spiritual, ‘Mary, Don’t You Weep.’”
“Mary, Don’t You Weep,” Prince 1983
Prince, who died in 2016, wanted it that way, Lee said.
The two had a long professional relationship and personal friendship.
Prince was one of several prominent African-Americans who made silent financial contributions to save Lee’s “Malcolm X,” from studio intervention when it ran over. Lee went on to direct on several Prince videos, including “Money Don’t Matter 2Night,” and 1996 “Girl 6,” was built solely on the music of Prince.
The evening Prince died, Lee threw an impromptu block party in Brooklyn for him, only to follow that up by using “Raspberry Beret,” in the climatic scene at the end of season 1 of “She’s Gotta Have It.”
“Prince wanted me to have that song, I don’t care what nobody says,” Lee said. “My brother Prince wanted me to have that song. For this film. There’s no other explanation to me. This cassette is in the back of the vaults. In Paisley Park. And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, it’s discovered? Nah-ah. That ain’t an accident!”
“Mary, Don’t You Weep,” Fisk Jubilee Singers 1915
Long available in scratchy form in the vast Prince bootleg community, the artist’s estate streamed a clean version of the song to celebrate his June 7 birthday. The song will be part of a posthumous album “Piano & a Microphone 1983,” due out on Sept. 26.
“I knew that I needed an end-credits song,” Lee told Rolling Stone. “I’ve become very close with (Prince estate advisor) Troy Carter. So I invited Troy to a private screening. And after, he said, ‘Spike, I got the song.’ And that was ‘Mary Don’t You Weep,’ which had been recorded on cassette in the mid-‘80s.
While “BlacKkKlansman” is a period piece from the late 1970s, the song dates back to before the Civil War and is classified as a “slave song,” containing coded messages of hope and resistance.
The first known recording of the song was in 1915 – the same year the KKK was resurrected -- by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. It tells the story of how Mary of Bethany begged Jesus to raise her brother Lazarus from the dead.
“Mary, Don’t You Weep,” Gospel Caravans with Inez Andrews live. Originally recorded 1959
Gospel groups like The Caravans, The Swan Silvertones and Take 6 have each interpreted the song. In 1972, the year the main character in the movie Ron Stallworth joined the Colorado Springs Police Department as its first black officer, Aretha Franklin recorded a live version of the song for her massive “Amazing Grace,” album.
Franklin’s version, with her full band, is in the tradition of the black church, with spontaneous claps and call and response from the congregation.
“He got up walking like a natural man,” Franklin says of Lazarus after Jesus resurrected him.
“Mary, Don’t You Weep,” Aretha Franklin 1972
Prince’s version, featuring just him on a piano, is plaintive and stark.
Prince never mentions Lazarus in the song, instead focusing on his sisters Mary and Martha, who Jesus tells not to “weep” and “moan,” because “He’ll be home soon.”
But the second half the song appears less hopeful – particularly after the last voice in the film is President Donald Trump defending the white supremacist demonstrators who killed Heyer as “really good people.”
“Mary, Mary, don't you mourn/
I got that bad, bad feeling your man ain't coming home/
Oh Martha, don't you mourn.”
“Mary, Don’t You Weep,” The Swan Silvertones 1959