Why Spike Lee’s laughing at the Ku Klux Klan
When Spike Lee laughs it comes like a wave that passes through his entire body. Crouched in his chair – hands spangled with gold knuckledusters spelling out “LOVE” and “HATE” – his face contorts, a baseball cap obscuring his squeezed eyes as he rocks forward. It’s a state of rapture he returns to several times during our interview. Like an excited child, Lee is constantly distracted, diving into an anecdote only to interrupt himself, cramming as much as he can into every sentence – every question an opportunity to turn the valve and release some of the joy coursing through him.
This time, he’s laughing about a question on the tension-diffusing moments of comedy in his new film BlacKkKlansman. “Spike Lee!” He barks, feigning mock horror. “He only makes angry films. Sir, I’ve done other films besides Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing,” he says, easing into a broad smile. “Nah, I’m just messing with you, man, it’s all fun, it’s all fun.”
“Sure, but the comedy–” I say, in an attempt to steer him back.
“No, no, let me stop you there,” Lee interrupts, eyes wide. “It’s humour. Not comedy.” He lets that sit for a few seconds, before creasing his brow and tilting his head forward in a gesture that can only be read as “Right?”
Lee is clearly relishing the attention BlacKkKlansman, his 23rd feature film, is getting. The film’s world premiere at Cannes drew standing ovations both before and after its screening, a clear sign that it marks a watershed in the director’s storied career. Lee has spent his life telling African–American stories. But now, at the height of eminence in the film industry, he is telling a story tailormade for this political moment.
Lee made his name in 1986 with his first feature film She’s Gotta Have It, which was recently remade into a television series for Netflix. School Daze (1988), another financial and critical success, brought him to the attention of Universal Pictures, the distributor of his third feature, Do the Right Thing – a story of cross-cultural friendship and escalating racial tensions on a hot summer’s day in Brooklyn. The film marked a turning point in independent American cinema and its power remains undiluted nearly three decades on. When it was released, some high-profile reviewers feared the film’s power and morally ambiguous ending could provoke race riots, but there was broad agreement that Lee was a serious talent – regardless of whether you empathised with harried pizzeria owner Sal, or delivery boy Mookie and his act of rebellion. Do the Right Thing’s critical and commercial success hinted that Hollywood’s doors might be finally opening to films representative of America’s ethnic diversity. Whether these inroads have kept pace since Do the Right Thing is debatable, but much of the progress that has been made can be traced to the figure of Spike Lee, as a pioneer, collaborator and supporter of emerging black talent.
“Jordan Peele called me out of the blue and he pitched me the story of the real-life Ron Stallworth,” says Lee of the origins of BlacKkKlansman. Peele is the comedian turned writer-director and creator of Get Out, 2017’s most talked about film. “As he was talking I was thinking, this sounds like a David Chappelle skit. After he finished I asked, ‘Is this true?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ ”
Lee’s incredulity is understandable. In 1971, Ron Stallworth, played in BlacKkKlansman by John David Washington – son of Denzel Washington, Lee’s friend and collaborator – became the first African–American policeman in the city of Colorado Springs. As an undercover detective, Stallworth eventually infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan and, with the help of his partner Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver, became the head of the local chapter.
Not content with the story’s modern parallels of institutional oppression, police violence and the politics of covert and overt racism, BlacKkKlansman ends with footage of Donald Trump and the deadly 2017 Charlottesville protests. Lee’s trademark didacticism is modulated with a strong vein of humour, blaxploitation iconography and a spirit of joy and sheer entertainment value that ensured the film is already being regarded as one of his best.
“When Kevin [Willmott, the film’s co-writer] and I came on board, our No. 1 concern, as storytellers, was to connect this period piece to present day,” Lee says. “We had to con-nect.” His eyes widen on that last syllable, the rhythm of his speech ensuring that the listener doesn’t miss a thing. “So, we did our research. ‘America First’ – that did not just happen with this guy. People have been saying that for years. ‘America First’ was the Klan slogan in the 1920s ... It was the slogan for the American Nazis. Charles Lindbergh used it when he was a Nazi in the 1930s. We wanted to make an alarm go off in the viewers’ heads, like, ‘Hey! They were saying it back then? This is not new?’ So, automatically you’re thinking when you leave the theatre, ‘Oh, this is the world we live in now.’ ”
Lee looks to Willmott, coaxing him into the conversation. “From the very beginning Spike talked about trying to take kind of a Brechtian … approach to it…” the writer says.
“…Uh oh,” says Lee, playing dumb. “Brechtian whaaaat? Oh, I’d just like to say real quick, we are both film professors.”
“I’m at the University of Kansas,” says Willmott, accepting the diversion. “Spike is at NYU.”
“And we’re both tenured,” adds Lee with another burst of laughter.
Beyond multiple digs at the United States president, BlacKkKlansman makes parallels between Trump’s rise and the political aspirations of Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, played with officious malice by Topher Grace.
“Some of my favourite filmmakers have done this before. What we did here is not groundbreaking,” Lee says. “Kubrick, Strangelove. On the Waterfront, Kazan. The great Paddy Chayefsky script, Network. Billy Wilder, Ace in the Hole. This is not a first. There is a long litany of great films that dealt with serious subject matter. That other Billy Wilder one, Stalag 17, right? You see that film? It takes place in a prison camp and the Nazis are running it. That’s a comedy.”
The tension between the dramatic and the humorous is the source of much of Lee’s distinctive tone. His films – including BlacKkKlansman – are full of scenes that could play out in unexpected revelations, humanistic diatribes, stylistic satire delivered for an African–American audience, or broad comedy. Deadly serious subjects are thrashed out in scenes driven by colloquial language, propulsive music cues, deft pacing and characters pushed together by geographic and economic forces. “A Spike Lee Joint is… you know,” Lee loosens his neck. “You’ve got to flow. You can’t be rigid. You got to be with it, you’ve got to be hip, you got to be on it.”
This open collaborative approach was born of Lee’s drive to tell stories about his life. Early films often explored the relationships between New York’s Italian–American and African–American communities, a social tension with which he is familiar.
Lee, who was born in Atlanta, Georgia, moved to New York when he was five. The family in Brooklyn, first lived in Crown Heights before moving to Cobble Hill. “We were the first black family to move into Cobble Hill. And we got called ‘nigger’,” Lee told journalist Will Leitch in a 2012 interview. “At that time, Cobble Hill was strong – I mean, strong – Italian–American, because of the docks. But as soon as the neighbours understood that there was not, like, a mass of black families moving in behind me, I was just like everybody else.”
But unlike his contemporaries from New York’s 1980s independent film movement – including Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley and Mary Harron – Lee’s filmography has blended box office hits such as 25th Hour and Inside Man, with passion projects from his own production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. Since its establishment in 1986, it has committed to telling stories about African–American history, such as 4 Little Girls, a documentary about the children killed when the Ku Klux Klan detonated a bomb at a predominantly African–American church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, and the series When the Levees Broke, about the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. These bold polemics are given just as much attention and drive as Lee’s iconoclastic comedies such as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and Bamboozled and 2015’s music-driven updating of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata myth, Chi-Raq. And all are bound by their director’s outspoken world view – from Hollywood’s race problem and American politics to minority rights and the gentrification of New York.
As both a Spike Lee Joint and a 40 Acres and a Mule production, traces of these cinematic approaches can be found throughout BlacKkKlansman. In the past, Lee has taken inspiration from Rashomon-like stories of multiple truths, Cold War paranoia and ’80s sex comedies, but no other genre infuses BlacKkKlansman more than blaxploitation.
“There’s a lot of good blaxploitation and some bad blaxploitation,” he says, “and you really can’t do a ’70s film without really kind of connecting it to blaxploitation. That’s what was defining us at that time, you know? And at this time specifically there were so many connections to the real story that seeped into some of the blaxploitation films, and it just seemed like a fun way to just reference how they would reference the time period and the reality of the world to us.”
“So, are you Superfly or Shaft?”
“Oh, man,” he stops to think. “I go back and forth. But what you see in the film is a debate that was in the black community at the time. Cause you had people who were pro-blaxploitation films, and other people who didn’t like the imagery. Superfly is a cocaine dealer, that ain’t helping us. Should we be glorifying this?” he shrugs. “So, that debate has always been there, and we wanted our two leads to express that tension, which is still going on in the community.”
That tension is also expressed in Lee’s choice to open the film on the first anniversary of the Charlottesville protests, which occurred while the film was in post-production. When he heard about the horrific event, Lee knew it was the denouement he wanted, despite the inclusion of the killing of protester Heather Heyer almost usurping the story he originally committed to telling. “Once I got permission from Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, I went, ‘Fuck everybody else. That motherfucking scene is staying in that motherfucking movie, because that is a murder.’
“We have a guy in the White House – I’m not even going to say his fucking name – who was given a chance to say, ‘We’re about love and not hate’, and that motherfucker did not denounce the motherfuckin’ Klan, the alt-right and those Nazi motherfuckers. That could have been his defining moment. He could have said – not just to the United States, but to the world – that we were better than that. The so-called cradle of democracy? That’s some motherfucking bullshit. The United States of America was built upon the genocide of native people and slavery. That is the fabric of the United States of America. As my Brooklyn brother Jay-Z would say, ‘Facts.’ ”
Lee pauses, turning over the thought. “That scene had to go in,” he says, finally.
“This motherfucker has got the nuclear codes,” he continues. “My wife and I gave a benefit for Obama for his second term, and I saw the attaché case in the car. That is not science fiction. That shit is real. Now you’ve got that guy in Korea and the other guy in Russia, what the fuck’s going on? So, this film to me is a wake-up call. Stuff is happening and it’s topsy-turvy, and fake has been trumpeted as a truth. That’s what this film is about.”
He pauses, confident the silence won’t be filled by another question. “I know in my heart, I don’t care what the critics say or anybody else. We are on the right side of history with this film.”
And with that he’s back to his happy self, face lifted into an apologetic smile. “Please excuse me for some profane words, but the shit that’s going on, it makes you want to curse,” he says, grinning. As we say our goodbyes, he again punches his hands forward to show off the LOVE / HATE knuckledusters and moves on to face another round of questions about film, race and politics. “It’s been a pleasure.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 21, 2018 as "Klan opener". Subscribe here.