Since launching in 2000, Kenny Gravillis’ boutique LA design studio Gravillis Inc. has created a vast array of key art for television and film—among it Queen & Slim, The Rise of Skywalker, Orange is the New Black, Hereditary, The Hateful Eight, The Witch, Straight Outta Compton, Avatar and so many other projects.
In 2015, Gravillis began working with Spike Lee for the film Chi-Raq—a collaboration that continued this year with the release of Da Five Bloods. And for that film, the duo brought the legendary Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, into the mix.
Gravillis captured the subsequent collaboration in a short film that you can watch below, and after, he tells us more about how the project played out.
In a nutshell, what’s Spike like to work with?
Ha. That’s a loaded question—we ain’t got that kinda time! As you could imagine, Spike is a highly creative, pushing-the-envelope individual. He can be intense, for sure, and knows what he wants and doesn’t want, but he’s actually the most supportive person in his type of position that I know. He has been very supportive of us as a studio since we met, and that’s incredibly refreshing as he really doesn’t have to be.
Tell us about his love of posters. His collection sounds amazing.
It's insane. Going to [Spike’s production company] 40 Acres is like going to a museum. I mean, he’s been in the business since 1986 and has pretty much been famous since then, so he has a wealth of rare posters from his peers like Scorsese and Coppola—all signed with personal messages to Spike. It’s pretty wild.
… Does that make working on key art for him daunting?
I’m more comfortable with Spike now after five years, but when I first met him I was crazy nervous, and even the first project was a lot for me. He’s iconic so you don’t want to mess it up. He’s big in a room so you have to just deal with that.
When did you first come across the work of Emory Douglas?
A few years back. We are always looking for historic illustrative references, so his book had been in our studio library for a while.
How would you define his impact and legacy in visual culture?
It’s probably undefinable, if you can imagine a black man in the ’60s making art that is honestly speaking to the social state of a country, and that art was literally putting his life in danger.
In the doc he mentions how it’s about we rather than me. Most artists are quite selfish, and they almost need to be to express themselves honestly, but he was using his art to speak for the voiceless, and he gave them a voice.
Did you think there was a chance Emory would be up for the gig?
Actually, the way that went down was Spike told us to find him when I sent Spike a piece of his art, and then we couldn’t. Spike being Spike, he found him and sent me his info. I knew he had spoken to Spike already, so I was coming off the back of that and feeling OK that he was going to be into it.
What was it like the first time you brought Emory and Spike together?
Ha. It was awesome—it was great seeing them interact. Spike was very humble and joyful when the two met. He understood the massive historical richness of the moment.
Did you know from the start that you wanted to document the process?
My partner, DeAnna, has been pushing us to think about content more when working on all our projects, so it made a ton of sense right away once the connection had been made.
How did the collaboration play out?
Emory was incredibly humble—no ego, which kinda makes sense when you think about this legacy. He would take notes no problem. It was incredibly easy. He would work in his studio and scan stuff and send it through; it would usually come pretty late at night.
What do you think of the final product?
I think it was great and it also inspired the pieces the studio created, so we benefited from Emory’s work on many levels.
I love that Spike had him sign a book for him.
Fun moment for sure—Spike texted me after the day was done with the simple word
Historic, so he was honored to be there.
Do you think you’ll ever get a chance to work with Emory again?
I can't talk about it, but I have a feeling …
Special thanks to Jillian Adel