Make no mistake about it, Spike Lee is a master. It’s no exaggeration to say that his films have started conversations that have helped change American culture. His work has inspired generations of young filmmakers. He is a master of his craft. BlacKkKlansman will go down as one of his top five films of all time and is without a doubt, one of the best films of 2018.
Spike is in Beverly Hills sipping coffee, talking basketball and tells me how he hasn’t yet been to a game all season. He’s a hardcore Knicks fans. He’s in a jolly mood, cracking jokes every so often. We commiserate about how badly the New York team are doing this season. We also talk about Summer of Sam for a moment and how he got that shot in the Bronx on Arthur Avenue during one of the hottest summers on record.
What is it like for someone like Spike Lee to wake up in America today with all that is going on politically? Lee calls the person situated in the Oval Office “Agent Orange.” We discuss how history will judge this troubling era. We discuss the importance of BlacKkKlansman not just here, but as a reflection of what’s going on all around the world. He talks about the coda at the ending of his film and how he still has hope, drawing on his ancestors, recalling the resilience they had to get through each day alive.
What is it like for Spike Lee to wake up in 45’s America every day?
I call him Agent Orange. Hopefully, it’s only four years and it’s going to go down in history as not a good time in America. The mid-terms just passed so that was positive and we have to keep moving and grooving to the next presidential election.
I have said that the 2020 Presidential elections are going to be for the soul of America. It’s not going to be pretty.
You make a film like BlackKklansman and we see how America has always had an ugly side.
Slavery was the ugliest period. America was built up the genocide of the native people and slavery. There is no refuting that. That is a fact. George Washington owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. When you talk about history of America and you don’t include that as its start, it’s a false narrative right? It’s fake news. It’s fake history. [laughs].
When I moved here I did not think I’d be living in this version of America, but here we are.
Here we are. You can’t be smiling too much though, there’s stuff going on in the UK. Here’s the thing, I think people are starting to understand that Blackkklansman is not just about the United States of America, it’s about the rise of the right, globally.
It is indeed global. It’s going on everywhere.
You had the presidential election in Brazil. That guy, he’s not doing it by himself. It seems as if they’re in cahoots. Putin. Him and Agent Orange. Come on! There’s Salvini in Italy.
There’s hope though. There’s always hope.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve always felt there always has to be hope. This is the truth. Any time there’s a setback, I draw upon the strength of my ancestors because of what they went through. That’s something I’ve been aware of and drawing upon the power of the ancestors. They are with me.
Did you know Ron’s story before Jordan came to you?
Jordan called me. I had never heard of it.
What did he say to you about it?
He gave me a six-word pitch; Black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan. I asked if it was true. The first thing I thought was it was a Dave Chapelle skit. He said, “No. It’s before Dave. It’s a true story.” He said there’s a book, we have the script and would I be interested.
Your working with your team again. Who was the first person you called to talk to about it?
Kevin Willmott, the co-writer. I told him about it and said we should do it. It didn’t take that long to write. We didn’t come in and tear up the previous script. I think Jordan and his producers felt it needed more and that’s why he called me and I brought in Kevin. We did our thing.
We both agreed we had to tie the past to the present and we had to intertwine this film that takes place in the early ’70s with what’s happening today. And it wasn’t that hard. A lot of this hate stuff is recycled. It’s not new and it’s the same playbook.
For example, Make America First. The Klan was saying that in the 1920s against immigrants. So, all this stuff is recycled and I got great assist -= and I’m not saying it jokingly =- the coda that happened in Charlottesville happened before we started to shoot. I had to put that in.
That wasn’t even going to be in there right? Your original ending was the cross burning.
But when I saw what was happening in Charlottesville, that had to be the coda.
Was it hard to crack and write?
I just say this: everything is tough. Filmmaking is no joke. People don’t understand how hard it is to do this. Kevin and I had it mapped out. It’s a matter of execution. People talk about how funny it is and it’s a comedy. It’s not a comedy. I would prefer the word, humor. The humor that makes people laugh or chuckle is organic. It comes from the premise. It’s absurd. It goes back to Jordan Peele’s pitch: Black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan.
Kevin and I didn’t write jokes. The humor came from the absurdity of it all.
Did you get to speak to Ron at all?
Ron came to the read-through. That’s where everyone met him. We read the script with everyone and he actually spent a lot of time with John David.
You open with Alec Baldwin and that newsreel footage. Let’s talk about that opening and the entry point.
You look at the historical news footage whether it’s George Wallace or the governors of Mississippi, these guys were horrible. That’s what his character is, this newsreel, PSA type of thing.
Later with Harry Belafonte, it’s one of the most powerful scenes in cinema in years. That juxtaposing of the KKK scene was striking.
That character he plays was a real person. He saw his friend get beaten, stabbed, castrated, lynched, and burned. The words he’s saying are the words, the actual description of what happened in Waco, Texas. Those photos you see of the students where they’re holding those images, those are the actual pictures of the lynching. That was real. Kevin and I thought it would be powerful to cut back and forth and to juxtapose this witness to the lynching and murder, intercut that with the Klan initiation which culminates in that group watching The Birth of A Nation with popcorn [laughs] like a Saturday afternoon Klan matinee.
Only Spike could do that. The Saturday afternoon matinee of the Klan watching that with popcorn. Only you could come up with that imagery, which is probably happening right now as we speak.
Oh yeah! You know, I found out later on that it’s commonplace for Birth of a Nation to be shown at Klan initiations.
You found out about that shit going down for real?
The screening made sense because that film is considered one of the greatest films ever made and D.W Griffith is considered the father of cinema. Even when I was showing that film at NYU, the sociopolitical aspects of that film and the hate, that film was responsible for people being killed. That film brought about the resurgence of the Klan, which brought about their lies, and black folks got murdered, lynched, castrated and we don’t talk about that.
Let’s talk about your casting for a second. You worked with John in Malcolm X?
These were all kids at the end of the film and he’s one of the kids saying, “My name is Malcolm X.” In fact, it’s the 26th anniversary of Malcolm X. 26 years ago that film came out. The Oscar that it should have won.
You know, we still talk about your films. That film. Do The Right Thing. She’s Gotta Have It. We’re here, they’re part of our culture. No one really talks about Driving Miss Daisy.
It’s not in the Library of Congress or the Film Registry, I’ll tell you that. [laughs].
The Prince song was so perfect and so fitting for the end credits. What was the journey to getting that from the estate?
My dear friend Troy Carter is an adviser to the Prince Estate. I said I needed a song for this film because people are going to need a song that’s soothing after this. Troy flew to New York. He was shown the film and a few days later he said he had this song. It just happened that they found this cassette of him at the piano singing. The way this happened, going back to being spiritual. All of a sudden out of 10,000 cassettes, this appears? My brother wanted me to have that song. Prince singing “Mary Don’t You Weep” after that scene in Charlottesville…
That punch you packed —
— When you saw it the first time, did you know about the ending?
No. I didn’t. I had no idea that it was going to end that way.
In these days we live in, I’ve felt that this film should not be subtle. This is not time for subtlety. There’s a fight for the soul of America going on. Maybe someone else will be subtle, but I wanted a sledgehammer at the end. [laughs].
You come in swinging that so hard.
The world premiere was in Cannes and it’s been seen all over the world, but people react to that ending the same way. You can hear a pin drop at the end of that sequence. People are stunned. That’s why we needed that Prince song, his voice takes you back. That was the nature of Negro spirituals and what came out of slavery. All this is tied together. When you’re out there working the fields, your family, your child, your soul split apart, you’re like, ‘Jesus’. You put your faith in the Lord and that’s what Negro spirit is about, it’s about “God! Give me the strength to get through one more day. God. Give me the strength.” When tomorrow comes you ask for another day.
You never know what’s going to happen the next day.
Especially under slavery.
You mention Cannes.
I wanted two things, I wanted to submit the film to Cannes and I wanted the film to come out on the one year anniversary of Charlottesville. Both those things worked out.
You revisited She’s Gotta Have It, which is now on Netflix as a series. What was that like to go there after all this time for that?
I have to give my wife credit for that, it was her idea. She said she had seen a lot of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu and thought there was a place for it. Her intuitions were right and here we are about to do our second season.
How is that model for you as a filmmaker?
I love the streaming plan. For theatrical, you’re not going to do a film for Netflix and be on 2000 screens, that’s not their model. I think it’s up to the choice of the individual. They have Roma which is a beautiful film. There’s The Irishman by Scorsese next year and that’s just two of the great filmmakers who are at peace with not getting a regular theatrical release.
When in life did you decide you wanted to be a filmmaker? I don’t think we’ve ever discussed that.
It began in college. I was at Morehouse College in Georgia. My adviser told me to select a major. I had exhausted all my electives. I declared a Mass Communications Major which was film, TV, radio and print journalism. This professor told me to go into filmmaking and he is still there.
What do you watch to relax in your downtime?
Sports. I’ve been glued to CNN. Anderson Cooper is my guy. Also Don Lemon. I have to support them now, especially when Agent Orange is going after them. He’s taken one of my guy’s press credentials and doctored a video to look like he hit the lady. It’s crazy. Acting like no one knows that was sped up. It’s amateur hour. You could see it was doctored. If you see me saying something crazy, know it wasn’t me. I’ll be like Shaggy, “It wasn’t me.” That’s what I’m going to be singing.
The reception for the film has been such that people needed this. They needed to wake up and be hit with that sledgehammer.
I’ve been using that term since my second film. That’s way before “woke.” You gotta wake up before you get “Woke.” [laughs]. Here’s the thing, you do the best you can. For me, I can’t predict the reception. You hope for the best and it doesn’t work all the time. I’ve also come to learn that a lot of success can be derived from the timing and the stars aligned for Blackkklansman. The stars aligned. This just lined up for me.