Spike Lee on ‘BlacKkKlansman’ and Life in Trump’s America
Every visitor to 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, Spike Lee’s production headquarters in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, is greeted by Radio Raheem. A massive papier-maché rendering of Do the Right Thing’s tragic hero — complete with trademark boombox — towers over the entryway, a potent reminder of themes that run through so much of Lee’s oeuvre: the beauty, absurdity and horror of black life in America. Nearly three decades after releasing that masterpiece, Lee has crafted a fitting companion in BlacKkKlansman (opens August 10th), based on the true story of an African-American cop named Ron Stallworth, who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado in the Seventies. In May, the film won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, where Lee publicly called President Trump a “motherfucker” for his refusal to condemn white supremacists who had incited violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year. Lee, 61, was not nearly as combustible when we met in his office in June. Surrounded by artifacts from his films and others, including a French On the Waterfront poster that director Elia Kazan had autographed twice, the director ruminated on his career and explained why, in a political moment seemingly more fractured than ever, he wants his art do the talking.
My first reaction to the film is that it’s not just about white terrorism; it’s about white silence.
We were just trying to tell truth to power. You know? It had to be a period piece that also comments on what is happening today with this guy in the White House. The whole thing with [NFL players and] the anthem, building the wall, “Mexicans are rapists”… it’s just crazy. The Year of Living Dangerously, that’s where we are.
I saw the football.
The nuclear football?
I saw it. My wife, Tonya, and I, we hosted a benefit for President Barack, and this vehicle was parked out in front of our house. I came outside to get some air, and my man was in the back seat. I looked, pointed, he nodded back at me [laughs]. And even with Obama, I had a nightmare that night.
What was the nightmare?
That somebody could really end the world. And then with this guy… I heard he don’t really got the number.
You heard that somebody’s keeping the nuclear code safe from President Trump?
I heard he got the fake number. [Like] back in the day, when [a girl] would give you a number, and it was a fake number… I hope they gave him the fake number [laughs]!
This presidency is always shrouded by culture-war stuff.
It’s a distraction. A misdirection play. You think one guy has the ball, and this other guy has the ball. And he’s high-stepping down to the goal line. So we just have to be smarter and not go for the three S’s: shenanigans, subterfuge and skullduggery! I got that from Mike Tyson.
Jordan Peele and his co-producers approached you with the script for BlacKkKlansman. What was missing from it that you delivered?
They acquired Ron Stallworth’s book and felt it needed more flava. And that’s what I brought. I was grateful for the opportunity because I had never heard of Stallworth. I didn’t know his story. People say, “That is too unbelievable to be true.” And that’s what makes it such a great story.
Can you speak to the “white voice” that Stallworth uses to fool the Klansmen over the phone? How much of race is an act or a performance to you?
I mean, that’s what black folks do! When Ron came to read through the script, that was the first question I asked, about the voice. And he said, “Spike, they couldn’t tell.” [laughs] He said the Klan, they just couldn’t tell.
John David Washington, who plays Stallworth, is Denzel’s son. Did you see any of his father in him?
John David is amazing in this movie. That phrase “the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree” — there’s a reason people say that. He is Denzel Washington’s first son. That’s a big, big burden. But he’s also his own man. I have a history with him. His first film was Malcolm X. At the end of the movie, when the kids say, “My name is Malcolm X!” He’s one of the kids. He was about six years old.
Cannes this time was a different experience than when you were there with Do the Right Thing. Are you finally getting your due on the world stage?
I think time was on the side of Do the Right Thing. People forget: Do the Right Thing wasn’t even nominated for [the Academy Award for] Best Picture. Best Picture that year was Driving Miss Daisy. Who is watching that film today?
I remember seeing Ava DuVernay’s picture of you holding your prize — you looked proud in a way that I hadn’t seen.
You didn’t see me holding the [2016 honorary] Oscar [laughs]. I was happy for everybody involved with the film. The family, the actors, everybody. It was just a great moment. And the standing ovation at the end? That was surreal. More than 10 minutes. I can’t recall the time. I was just in a zone. It was amazing. As a filmmaker, you know the result you want from an audience. I mean, people love Crooklyn now; they didn’t love it when it came out. Bamboozled, He Got Game, I can go down the line. I’ve done films that have caught on. But to have a hit when the film comes out?
What kind of influence do you think your art has had on a generation not just of other artists like Peele, DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, but also thinkers and activists?
That’s hard for me to answer. For sure, my films have affected the culture. People still tell me they would never have gone to a historically black school if they hadn’t seen School Daze. I do know my art’s going to be around a long time after I’m gone. That’s all you can hope for. That your life made an impact. In a positive way.
Do you ever reflect on the effect you may have had on people?
Not really. I remember the first time I showed She’s Gotta Have It in L.A. After the film, a young filmmaker by the name of John Singleton came up to me. He said, “I’m gonna make films just like you.” And he did.
Five years later, Boyz N The Hood.
You know, so… I’m aware, but it’s not something I think about all the time. I’m too busy trying to do my stuff.
You’ve revisited and reimagined She’s Gotta Have It as a series for Netflix. In this cultural moment, people are looking at female empowerment, relationships and abuse in a different way. How much of that factored into your desire to go back to that material?
My wife was the one who is behind it. There’s definitely a stronger women’s viewpoint, and that was by design. Seventy-five percent of the writers are women, so that’s a conscious decision to have women be the majority of the voices. All are writers of color. All of them.
And now it’s heading into Season Two.
I’m very happy that it’s gotten a great response. I never thought about coming back to my first film, as a filmmaker. [But] what I like is that people are rediscovering a film they loved way back in 1986, and people born in 1986, who never heard of the film… It’s multigenerational.
At Cannes, Cate Blanchett, who was the festival’s jury president, said BlacKkKlansman is “quintessentially about an American crisis” —
But see, here’s the thing. And I think she’s a great actress. I told her that I want to work with her after the festival. The thing I think she missed, and that other juries missed — and I’m not saying this because I didn’t win the [top prize] Palme d’Or — is that this thing is not just about the United States of America. This is happening all over Europe: Britain, France, Italy, the rise of neo-Nazis in Germany. I want people to understand that. This rise of right-wing, fascist groups is not just an American phenomenon.
I still want to work with you, Cate! Don’t get mad at me!
Where is the urgency to confront race with the honesty we see in films made by black directors, especially now?
I mean, my days of telling people what they should do are over [laughs]. People are on their own paths. They’re either on the right side of the street, or the wrong side. That’s what it comes down to.
Have you been to the lynching memorial and museum in Montgomery yet?
No, but I want to go.
When I went there during the opening weekend in April, I thought about what you put in your art — the frankness of presentation when tackling racism.
You ever see my documentary, 4 Little Girls? My great, great, great archivist — her name is Judy Bailey, been on all my films — found some postmortem photographs of the four little girls [who were killed in the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama]. And for a period of time, I kept wondering whether I should use them. But my spirit told me I had to use them, that I had to show what they looked like. What an act of American terrorism, that led “Dynamite” Bob Chambliss to blow those beautiful black girls up. The people had to see this.
BlacKkKlansman ends on footage from the August 2017 Charlottesville riots, of the moment a white supremacist drove into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a young woman named Heather Heyer. Why did you decide to use it?
Same thing. We started shooting in September. When Charlottesville happened, I knew that was going to be the ending. 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. And 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.” Did you hear the song at the end?
I recognized his voice immediately. How did that happen?
I knew that I needed an end-credits song. I’ve become very close with Troy Carter, one of the executives at Spotify [and a Prince estate advisor]. 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-Eighties. Prince wanted me to have that song, I don’t care what nobody says. 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 [laughs]!
You’re clearly unhappy with the direction America’s headed in. Is one aim of your work to show our faults so that the country gets better?
I’m going to go back to “Wake up.” That’s been in almost all my films. Wake up. Be alert. Don’t fall asleep. Don’t go for the okey-doke. Don’t go for the shenanigans, subterfuge and skullduggery. Don’t go for it. Let’s make the best of the time we have on this earth, and not get into this hate and all this other bullshit.