When Fort Worth native Jordan James Burchill, one half of the musical duo Beth // James, sat down to watch Spike Lee’s new film, BlacKkKlansmen, he was excited. One of Beth // James’s songs was selected to play in the film, and Burchill was about to see something he created shared with the world on the big screen. The only problem: Burchill had no idea what scene his song would play in. Sitting in the darkened theater, he would see how his song was used for the first time.
“It was a complete surprise in the movie theater, which was really stressful,” Burchill says. “Our song comes on an hour and 45 in. We kind of knew that because we had a cue sheet, so we knew what time it would be at, but they didn’t really show us the scene, so very stressful.”
BlacKkKlansmen is a film based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department, who sets out to infiltrate the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan. The film has been well-received by both critics and audiences, currently sitting at a 96 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Much like many of Lee’s films, the commentary on race relations and bigotry serves as a view to the past that parallels tensions still existing today. The scene featuring Beth // James’s soft, melodically tender and sultry folk song proved to be no different.
“Our song is in a really tough scene,” Burchill says. “I think the coolest part about hearing our song was that it was a scene that was just disgusting in the sense that they’re using terribly foul language, talking bad about people’s different races and religions.
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“But Spike definitely used our song perfectly because our song is called 'Lion Eyes' and it’s this Klan member and his wife in bed and the whole time Spike is a master at film in general, but the whole time you can just see (the Klan member’s) eyes, and when the chorus hits it was like, 'Oh my gosh. Now I completely understand why he picked our song.' Because the song is perfect for this scene.
“Even though the scene is disgusting, and I don’t want to be really involved with that kind of language — that is art.”
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The journey to have a song featured in a Spike Lee film was an improbable one. Burchill recalls it was Mikaela Beth Kahn, the second half of Beth // James, who found a submission contest on Instagram looking for music. The contest was specifically seeking music to be featured on Lee’s Netflix series, She’s Gotta Have It, based on his 1986 film of the same name. Kahn submitted their song “Lion Eyes” for consideration, not expecting much from an Instagram contest but figured it was worth a shot.
When a producer called to explain the song wasn’t a good fit for She’s Gotta Have It but that Lee did want to use “Lion Eyes” in an upcoming film, Burchill and Kahn said yes immediately. Burchill recalls they said yes before the producer had explained to them the money being offered or even what the project was. The duo was just excited for the opportunity.
The timing for Beth // James could not have been better. The duo has developed a loyal following in Austin where they’re based, but the exposure to a national audience comes at a time the group is releasing new music. Beth // James will release a new single later this month that will be part of a planned EP release in the fall. Until then, they’ll perform regularly, including a Sofar concert Sept. 14 in Dallas, anxious to meet the new listeners who have found the duo on Spotify since the movie premiered.
“We’re on a lot of BlacKkKlansmen playlists,” Burchill says. “And people make their own playlists featuring the movie songs. Focus Features put out a playlist a couple of days ago ... not just about BlacKkKlansmen, but Lee’s films in general, and they picked one of our songs for it.”