In the annals of American filmmaking, there’s prolific, and then there’s Spike Lee. Since making his feature-length debut with She’s Gotta Have It in 1986, Lee has helmed 25 films, copious documentaries and live specials for both television and the big screen, a TV series, an NBA 2K installment’s story mode, music videos, and far more still. That’s not even including all of the screenwriting, or the production, or anything else Lee has put his hands on during 30-something years at the forefront of the film industry. He’s weighed in on just about every corner of modern media, in some form or another.
Yet as Lee was quick to tell us during our conversation, he’s never asked or claimed to be the spokesman for anybody but himself in particular, even as his hard-earned status as an industry elder statesman (and something of a loquacious type) always makes people want to assign him that task. The director isn’t any one thing. He’s worked in nearly every genre you can think of, and if he hasn’t gotten around to it yet, you can be sure the gears are turning somewhere about it. At 61, Spike Lee somehow still feels like he’s just getting warmed up.
Yet somebody just getting warm couldn’t bring the sense of authority, craft, and command of tone that Lee brought to this summer’s BlacKkKlansman. The unbelievable true story of Ron Stallworth, a Colorado Springs detective who managed to infiltrate a local chapter of the KKK using his wits, his voice, and a white partner as a physical proxy, BlacKkKlansman feels almost like a true story that occurred for the explicit purpose of Spike Lee being able to tell it. The film veers from comedy to high drama to moments of truly overwhelming dread about America’s past and future alike, and there are very few directors working today who could negotiate the high-wire act of a dark comedy about American racism.
But Spike Lee is absolutely one of them, and in his hands, BlacKkKlansman stands up as yet another superb achievement in a career full of the same. Lee offers a vision of an America that was divided long ago, one which never stopped being at all and was already planting the seeds of its own destruction decades earlier. It’s prescient and completely of-the-moment, hilarious and mortifying, edifying about our capacity to save one another from the brink even as it’s hyper-aware of just how close to it we’re all standing. And have been.
We saw any number of great movies in 2018, but when it came time to pick our Filmmaker of the Year, there was only one name we could consider. One which has bore a standard of excellence for years, and has continued to reinvent against the popular fashions or politics or genres or filmmaking styles of the time. Primarily in his own words, we present the 2018 CoS Filmmaker of the Year, Spike Lee.
When Jordan Peele brought this project to your attention, what attracted you to kind of this slice of American history?
Well, what attracted me, from the jump judgment, was Jordan Peele’s six-word pitch—has to be one of the greatest pitches in the history of cinema, in the history of the studio system. The six words being: “Black man infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan.” [Laughs.]
It’s an incredible elevator pitch.
So when I heard that, I laughed, so it was very funny, and automatically thought of those great David Chappelle skits about the blind guy in the Klan. And then I said, “Is this true?” And Jordan said, “Yeah, it’s true.” He gave me a whole backstory about Ron Stallworth.
Nostalgia is the fuel for so much of today’s entertainment, but there’s also been a lack of reassessment in so much of it. What are your thoughts on the industry’s insistence upon it and how has that informed — if at all — your own way to revisit the past as of late?
I’m a cinephile. I’m a filmmaker, a tenured film professor at NYU Graduate Film School, and I also liked history, you know, as a kid. Being African-American in the time, growing up, there was just, you know, imagery that was disturbing. I remember specifically my late mother grabbing me and saying, “Don’t think that Cleopatra looked like Elizabeth Taylor.” [Laugh]
That’s the type of mother I had, and it was my mother where I began to love film. My father, Bill Lee—great composer, jazz bassist who’s done my scores—he hated movies. So, since I was the firstborn, I was my mother’s movie date. I remember specifically my mother taking me to see—she introduced me to Martin Scorsese! With Mean Streets.
And I remember my mother taking me to the Easter Sunday show of Bye Bye Birdie at the Radio City Music Hall, and this is a true story—it wasn’t until many years later that I understood that me having Rosie Perez dance at the beginning of Do the Right Thing … that came from Ann-Margret dancing in Bye Bye Birdie. [Laughs] And I think Bye Bye Birdie came out ’63, ’64, so I was like seven, eight years old. I mean, I wasn’t even thinking about being a filmmaker.
But to answer your question, look at the films that we use. BlacKkKlansman begins with one of the most famous shots in the history of cinema. From Gone With the Wind. When I was in elementary school in Brooklyn, New York, and there was a release of the film, we had a class trip to see that film, and nothing was done by the teachers to prepare the black students—and they were kind of young, you know, I think like sixth, seventh grade—to prepare us for the imagery that we were gonna see.
It was not even thought about—and the black students did not like that film. You know, we didn’t give a fuck about Scarlett O’Hara. [Laughs] And cringed at—and no disrespect to Hattie McDaniel, who won an Academy Award, or Butterfly McQueen—the imagery. “I don’t know nothing about birthing babies!” Oh, we just wanted to duck under the chair.
And the other film, The Birth of a Nation. NYU Graduate School’s a three-year program, and the first film I remember us seeing was The Birth of a Nation. My class included Ernest Dickerson and also Ang Lee. We were all in the same class, NYU Graduate Film School, and we were taught the discussion about D.W. Griffith, the filmmaker. The so-called Father of Cinema, if you will, and all the great techniques and innovations he had invented.
There was not a discussion about the social or political aspects of that film. We were not taught that Birth of a Nation really revitalized the Klan, who were dormant at that time. So with the rebirth of the Klan, that led directly to black people being lynched. That was not discussed. At all. So those films, Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation, are very personal to me.
In fact, my first film, at NYU Graduate Film School, was a film called The Answer, and it’s about a young African-American writer-director who was hired to do a big budget remake of The Birth of a Nation by a Hollywood studio, and it doesn’t end up well for him, to say the least, you know.
So those, those film choices are very, very specific, and personal to me, and that’s why they’re in BlacKkKlansman.
The opening really recalled the ending of Bamboozled, and the way that you sort of tried to rewrite the understanding of blackness on film, especially in the 20th century.
Yes. I forgot about that. The one clip we really needed, we found Bugs Bunny in blackface. Warner Brothers wouldn’t let us use it. You know, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney—you know, it was amazing, the footage we could find of people in blackface. It’s easy getting Al Jolson, but I’d never seen Judy Garland in blackface.
FACT AND FICTION
At points, the film takes creative license with some of the known facts of the story, accepting that many of the official files are gone. On your end, what went into filling those gaps or making those changes, and how did those changes affect the story?
At the beginning of the film, there’s a title that says, “This Joint is Based Upon Some For Real, For Real Shit.” So, what is the for real, for real shit?
The foundation, the truth that Ron Stallworth lived, is still with us. That’s number one. Number two: Ron Stallworth became the first African-American to enter the Colorado Springs Police Department. That’s true. Third truth: Ron Stallworth infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. Four: Ron Stallworth actually was assigned to be a bodyguard for David Duke.
So Kevin Willmott and I, he was my co-writer … that’s all we needed. As long as we stayed true to those truths, we felt—of course, this not being a documentary—that we could, you know, make the movie we wanted to make, and as everybody does, you take poetic license.
The character of Flip (Adam Driver) is interesting because he’s only ever addressed as “Chuck” in the book, and yet Flip’s confession about not really acknowledging his own cultural heritage until he experienced prejudice himself is a paramount theme in the movie. More specifically, how that prejudice turned his own cultural heritage into his own identity. Would you be able to talk about this inclusion in the film?
One of the things that Kevin Willmott and I wanted to avoid was the stereotypical black/white buddy cop film. That is not the movie we wanted to make. [Laughs] So, therefore, we had to do some other stuff. We had to dig deeper, we had to be more complex, and it really came from this whole world of passing.
Start with Ron Stallworth—he’s on the phone, a black man, on one end of the line, speaking to the Klan on the other, and he’s passing. And then you have, you bring in Flip, who is the white Ron Stallworth. He’s passing. And then you have the fact that he’s also Jewish!
And one of the things that surprised me is that people don’t get it, or don’t understand, that the Klan hates Jews too! So I’m telling you, I’m amazed by how many people said to me, “I didn’t know the Klan felt that way about Jews.” I said, “What?” And these are Jewish people! I said, “What? You’re second place! You’re next in line!”
[Laughs] It’s true. It’s so scary.
Didn’t you see that footage? As David Chappelle said, “Those tiki torch motherfuckers?” [Laughs] Didn’t they say that—“Jews will not replace us”? “Blood and soil”—that comes from Nazi Germany! The fuck! So, all of that is tied together with passing.
People—and also, let’s be honest, that’s part of—that’s a large part of assimilation, for immigrants. If you were Italian, Irish, Jewish, you change your name! Because people knew that applying for work, or whatever, your last name could keep your ass from getting a job.
THAT ONE SCENE
On the flipside of that, you depict white racism, and white hate as it exists, in such a milquetoast, apple pie, American kind of way, where racism is this boring, tedious thing.
One of the many scenes I’m proud of in BlacKkKlansman is, we did something that’s never been done before, I think, in the history of cinema. A pillow talk love scene, a married couple, a late-night talk, lovey-dovey, all hugged up, talking about how, “We’re about to kill some niggers.” [Laughs] That scene—no one’s ever had a scene like that before!
It’s so warm and cuddly and lovely and, and then my man Jasper [Pääkkönen] says, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, free of them niggers at last.” [Laughs] And then, Ashlie Atkinson, she’s a great actress, I had her start channeling Lionel Richie. People haven’t gotten it yet, but part of her speech is inspired by a Lionel Richie song, “Just To Be Close to You.”
“Before I met you, I had no direction. No purpose.” [Laughs] That’s slipped by a lot of people. No one’s gotten that yet.
Deeply in love, Klan couple, curled up in bed, late at night. [Laughs] That’s a first.
CASTING DAVID DUKE
In the same way, your depiction of David Duke is so unsettling in part because he seems so everyday.
Yeah, Topher Grace did a great, great job.
Seriously. In working with Grace, how did you approach making such a revolting figure into a sort of friendly marketing face?
Well, that’s the approach to David Duke—he made that decision. That, for whatever reason, you know, to get what he wanted, to build a more broader base, that he could not be running around in public with a hood on and a cape. So he wanted to put that smile on hate. I like that, he put a smile on hate. And I didn’t really have much to do with—I mean, that’s all Topher.
He’s talked about it in interviews. It’s a very, very, very hard role to do. But I told him, you know, I did the best to reassure him, like, “Look. People understand that this is not you. No one’s gonna think you’re David Duke. No one’s gonna think that you believe those hateful words you’re gonna say. So just do your thing.” And he did.
But another thing I’d like to add is that several of my African-American friends who live all over the United States saw the film in predominantly white audiences. And at the end of the movie, when the lights come on and these black people stand up, the whole crowd’s looking at them, and they’re going over to them and hugging them, saying, “I’m sorry.”
I don’t know if it’s white guilt or what, but they’re like, “Come here, give me a hug.” I’ve never heard of that before, ever. And these were—I mean, they were very sincere, too. I mean it wasn’t like they were trying to be funny. They were just black folks just getting all types of hugs. You know, “Is there anything I can do for you?” I mean, it’s crazy.
But that’s the power of this film. And the power—the film was powerful enough without the Charlottesville coda, but with the coda, like, that’s the whopper right there.
The coda is one of the most arresting things we’ve seen on film all year. As far as directly invoking this ugly kind of American history, what distinguishes art from being able to get people’s attention in that way from seeing it on the news?
Well, when you see it on the news, no disrespect to my fellow TV people, but they’re not–they’re not editors. They just show the clips. I have a great, great editor, Barry Alexander Brown, editor on a lot of my films. Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Inside Man. We have a lot of footage with the expertise. One of my secret weapons is a woman named Judy Aley, she’s my researcher. So what you saw was a whole lot of stuff that you didn’t necessarily see on CNN when it happened. We put ads in the newspapers in Charlottesville, so we had stuff that wasn’t seen. You know, anybody with an iPhone, now, is a potential reporter.
So my charge to Judy was to find me archival footage, stills, whatever. I need as much material for Barry Alexander Brown, my editor, to cut this footage, this material, into a very powerful ending. So, there’s some editing going on. It’s not like a news clip. There are angles like that drone shot—no one ever saw that drone shot of the crowd—of the car going into the crowd. We had some stuff that had never been seen before.
That Saturday—that was like Gettysburg. And the thing is … where are the cops? I mean, they just let it—that was like, all-out civil war. And then you might say, in Charlottesville, like, the capital of the Confederacy. Right within sight distance of the Robert E. Lee statue, which is still up. I mean, they covered it up, but, you know, it’s not knocked down yet.
So, it was just very important—Kevin Willmott and I, my co-writer from the very beginning—our mission was to make a hit contemporary period piece. We had to—our mission was to connect the past with the present. And [if] we did that, we had [the] potential to make a good film.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
In terms of discussing the past and present alongside each other, you’re officially at a point in your career where you’ve stuck around long enough to be a part of one major national and international dialogue about race, and now you’ve been around long enough to be involved in a very different yet still similar one. How has that time and perspective colored the ways you address these things on film?
Well, hopefully, you know, I’m getting better as a filmmaker, as I enter my fourth decade. And I’ve come to realize over the years that time is everything. Time is everything, and you just have the good fortune for this film to be right in the middle of all this crazy shit that’s happening. Charlottesville happened August 11th, and we started shooting a couple of weeks later in the middle of September.
Do you feel a different type of hunger for filmmaking right now?
No, my hunger has never waned. You know, I’m blessed, I’m doing what I love. And not that many people can say that. So my love of film is gonna—I mean, when it stops, it’s gonna be probably the day before I leave here.
STANDING ON CEREMONY
Intellectual property is the skeleton key for any creative working in the industry in recent years. You’re already in the midst of revisiting She’s Gotta Have It, so is there a particular appeal that revisiting your past work through a modern lens has to you?
Well, I mean, first of all, I have to thank my wife. Because it was her idea to shop She’s Gotta Have It. She watches, you know, Amazon, Netflix, Hulu. I’d never even thought about it. Thank God she came up with the idea.
So, we just finished our second season, filming our second season of She’s Gotta Have It, and it’ll be out hopefully first quarter 2019. Another thing I’d like to revisit, I would love to do School Daze as a Broadway musical.
So there are things like that, but people all the time want me to do a sequel to Do the Right Thing—I’m not doing that. There are just things that I’m not gonna touch. But other things, you know, I feel better about revisiting. But not Do the Right Thing. There is gonna be no prequel or sequel or remake of Do the Right Thing. That’s not happening.
You’ve worked on two Michael Jackson documentaries. Have you ever thought about being the one to actually bring his story to life?
The thing about Michael Jackson, Prince, that makes me—you know, not that I’ve been asked to do it. But for me, I just can’t get past, who’s gonna play Prince? Michael Jackson? I can’t. All I can do is documentaries. But a film—I just can’t get past, who—not to say, I mean, it could be an unknown. But who’s gonna play Michael or Prince? I will tell you this, though: I don’t care what the critics say, fuck ’em—I love Bohemian Rhapsody. Rami Malek did his thing.
He looks just like him.
I mean, I like that film a lot. So yeah, I mean, there’s biopics. I saw a trailer for next summer, there’s an Elton John movie, a biopic!
Biopics seem to come and go in waves.
The wave is coming. [Laughs]
Because, you know, this is a copycat industry, so people see—they’re looking at the ton of money A Star is Born made, it’s not necessarily a biopic, but it’s music, and they’re looking at the money that Bohemian Rhapsody’s made. So I bet there are a lot more biopics that people are scrambling to buy the rights to right now.
But for me, I just couldn’t get past who would play Prince, and who would play Mike. One day, you know, maybe, hopefully I’ll get to do a complete—the trilogy. You know, the first one’s Bad 25. And then Off the Wall, maybe I’ll get to do Thriller.
Or even Dangerous. Such an underrated album.
Oh, one of those. I wouldn’t turn it down. [Laughs]
THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY
The phrase “Wake Up” has been invoked in some form or another in all of your work. Particularly in a time where being “woke” has become a favored shorthand for a lot of people, how has your understanding of that call changed (or not) after more than 30 years in the industry?
Yeah, “wake up” was way ahead of “woke.” [Laughs] You gotta wake up before you get woke.
Where do you stand with the concept now?
Well, I think the whole concept of “wake up” is even more crucial today. Because lies—there’s this science where lies, you know, where if you tell a lie often and loud enough, it becomes truth. And that’s something that we have to fight against.
A lie is a lie. I don’t give a fuck how many times you tell it. A lie is a lie. Mexicans are not rapists, murderers, and drug dealers! All terrorist acts aren’t done by ISIS. Most terrorist attacks in this country are home-grown acts of terrorism. And so we just get this constant false narrative, and I guess people go, “Okie-dokie.” They’ve become numb, so they’ll just believe anything. And anytime where the truth is supplanted for a lie, that is a very—it becomes very dangerous. And that is the world we live in today.
When I go to any film festival, especially Cannes, I always prepare myself, because I know journalists in the past have sometimes looked at me as the spokesperson for black people in America—which, I never, ever assumed that or said that. Knowing that, this film I just made, where we had the world premiere for BlacKkKlansman, I knew I’d be asked about the state of the world. The state of the United States of America. So I said to myself, “Let me come up with something different since it’s the world’s biggest and greatest film festival, in my opinion.”
So I searched. I said, “When this question comes up, I want to answer it with the title of a film.” And I spent many days of thinking and I came up with a title. So when the journalists—when the international journalists asked me, like, “Spike, what the fuck is up?” I would answer with the title of a film, and that title was Peter Weir’s film, The Year of Living Dangerously. And that’s where we are now. And moving forward from May ’til now, when we just had the recent midterm election, I used World War II for another analogy, where the midterm election was Allies landing on Normandy Beach, and we had two more years, you know, to get that ground, inch by inch.
This coming presidential election, 2020, I feel, is about the fight for the soul of America. That’s what I’m calling it. This 2020 presidential election will be the fight for the soul of America. Are we gonna figure out love? I’m going to reference James Agee’s script, my man Robert Mitchum, with “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on his fingers, now with our homage to Radio Raheem from Do the Right Thing. Are we gonna see a nation of hate or a nation of love? When you vilify people, whether they be Mexicans, the gay population, immigrants, African-Americans—our own existence, hate will destroy us all. And I’m trying not to sit around the campfire, “We are the World,” but—it might come to that! [Laughs]
Because we are living in crazy times. This shit is … it’s mind-boggling. It’s insane what this guy, Agent Orange, is doing. I don’t call him by his name, his—as they say, his government name. I have to give credit to Busta Rhymes, he’s the one who came up with that, Agent Orange. [Laughs] And what we have to realize is that—what this film talks about, too, in a way—we will be remiss if we think that what we see in BlacKkKlansman is something that’s particular to the United States of America.
No, no, no. There is a rise of this right-wing/fascist government, whatever. It’s global. This guy that just got elected in Brazil? Oh my God, this guy. This is happening in Europe, all over the world. And what they’re doing is they’re going back to that same old playbook of fascism, of hate. And number one, the first paragraph, is, you know, pick a scapegoat. You know, pick somebody who—whatever’s going wrong—you can say, “These are the motherfuckers, why it happened. They’re to blame.” In today’s world, it’s immigrants. And this President of the United States, to separate infants, babies from their families and put no mechanism in so families can be reunited? Like it’s—I don’t know the exact number, don’t quote me, but there’s thousands, over a thousand kids that they still don’t know who their parents are!
I don’t know why that’s not on the floor of the United Nations! That’s—that has to be some inhuman act, where you’re separating infants from their mothers’ arms, and that shit’s okay? I mean, what kind of country are we? That’s just wrong. And all these people, they know what they’re doing. But they’re going to be on the wrong side of history. The wrong side. Because people, historians, they’re going to look at this period, at America—books that’ll be written, documentaries, movies, about this time we live in today. And one of the titles could be, WTF? [Laughs] “Agent Orange Years.” In capital letters! With three exclamation points! [Laughs]
“WTF.” You can’t—this stuff is—I mean, sometimes I just watch the news and shake my head. It’s just, it’s crazy, and then—what we’re really involved in now is—I wouldn’t even use the word “asylum.” If it were me, this is just me, instead of using the word “caravan,” I would call them freedom seekers. These are people who, when their journey’s over, walked over a thousand miles. I mean, to walk a thousand miles? Things must be bad if you gotta walk a thousand miles.
And the guy says there might be terrorists among them. That’s a lie! Again, it’s the fear. “The caravan—they’re also terrorists too!” It’s once again using the fear tactics. These people, they’re walking a thousand miles in flip flops? What, they’re gonna throw a flip flop at somebody’s head and then they’re gonna explode? What the fuck? Babies on mothers’ hips! What, are they rocket launchers, or grenades? Shit! I mean, they’re coming because—every other immigrant, the Irish, Jewish people, Italians, like every other immigrant to this country, they’re coming for a better way of life. That’s all, that’s what it’s about.