BlacKkKlansman: Spike Lee’s Back to Top Form


Stallworth’s story is four decades old, but BlacKkKlansman came together quickly by Hollywood standards. In February 2017, Get Out producer Sean McKittrick brought Jordan Peele a copy of Stallworth’s 2014 book, along with a script by David Rabinowitz and Charlie Wachtel. Universal had just released Get Out, Peele’s directorial debut, the $4.5 million film which became an instant hit, grossing $255 million. The pair enlisted fellow Get Out producer Jason Blum and put the project on a fast track.

“I was just blown away,” Peele says. “I couldn’t believe I had never heard about it. It’s one of these pieces of reality that almost plays like social satire.  I was immediately obsessed with this story.”

Peele briefly considered directing it himself but decided that it needed a filmmaker with a different skill set.  “I thought about Malcolm X, Inside Man and 25th Hour, and Spike just has an ability to do tension right, to do the moments of levity right, to deliver a social message and a punch,” Peele adds. “This is a unique film, and Spike has sort of forged a subgenre of his own that I just saw this fitting in.”

When Peele called Lee and told him about the story, Lee’s reaction was, “Is this real? Everybody remembers Dave Chappelle’s skit, in which the comedian played Clayton Bigsby, a black, blind member of the KKK.

Assured that it was real, Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott had their own take on the material and flew to L.A. to pitch the project.

Preproduction had just begun when Charlottesville exploded in August, and “the timing for this couldn’t be more urgent,” Peele recalls thinking. “The country just got this sobering reminder that groups like the KKK are still active and still dangerous and still hateful, and they’re emboldened right now.” Peele was as appalled as Lee by Trump’s “both sides” comment about the events in Virginia. “That was [a] clear example of the president’s ignorance and divisiveness,” he says. “To suggest there are good people who are carrying Tiki torches screaming ‘Jews will not replace us’ and inciting violence was a really dark moment. Really sad.”

 Peele and Blum are based at Universal, so the studio’s Focus Features became a natural home. Lee, too, enjoys a history with Universal, dating to 1989’s Do the Right Thing and including the biggest box-office hit of his career, 2006’s Inside Man, which earned $184 million worldwide. BlacKkKlansman began shooting in October in Ossining, New York, at a modest budget.

On the page, the project depicting a charged period in America’s racial past might have appeared aimed only at a domestic audience, and a limited one at that. Last August, Detroit, timed to the anniversary of the 1967 Detroit riots, was a flop.

Other films about the Klan or white supremacists include:1988’s Mississippi Burning and 1998’s American History X which made $35 million and $24 million worldwide, respectively.


Washington, who was cast first, actually worked with Lee when he was 6 years old, playing a Harlem student with one line in 1992’s Malcolm X, in which his father, Denzel, starred. Still, it was a surprise to the professional football player turned actor (HBO’s Ballers) when he received the call from Lee.

“I didn’t even know he had my number,” says Washington, 33. “And he told me about this book, like, ‘Sending it to you. Where are you?’ I was like, ‘I’m in Cincinnati shooting a movie. Old Man and the Gun.’ ‘All right, it’ll be there tomorrow. Read it. Click,” the actor says with a laugh. Washington did and signed on immediately, having just worked with Lee’s wife, producer Tonya Lewis Lee, on the Sundance film Monster.

Casting Driver, 34, one of Hollywood’s most in-demand actors due to his villainous appearances in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, was a coup. Unlike the Stallworth character, little is known about Driver’s Flip Zimmerman. “Spike is definitely in charge,” says Driver. “But he is so collaborative and open, and you know exactly where he stands at all times. There’s no ambiguity. There is no drama going on off-set that makes its way onto the screen.”

To play then-KKK Grand Wizard Duke, Lee turned to Topher Grace. Did he have any concern that casting an affable performer like the former star of That ’70s Show would humanize the notorious Klan leader? “No,” replies Lee, dismissing the suggestion. “The real David Duke wasn’t going play him, so we had to get an actor who understands the part. We never even discussed how he was going to approach it, but I had confidence in him. It’s fantastic when you see people do something they’re not known for.”

The August 10 release date for BlacKkKlansman also coincides with the start of the trial of 20-year-old James Fields Jr., “the motherfucker psychopath who plows his car down through a crowded street and killed Heather Heyer.”

The film’s Cannes reception will serve as critical test for how it will be received at home and abroad. Focus is planning a robust international release, and Lee says that Black Panther‘s success will prove important for films like BlacKkKlansman because it has obliterated the long-standing assumption that so-called black films don’t travel to foreign territories. “People always make up these rules. ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ And I’m always like, ‘Well, who made up that motherfuckin’ rule?'” he asks.

BlacKkKlansman is not a buddy comedy, as one writer said after footage debuted at the CinemaCon exhibitors in April. “Horrible,” Lee says of that label. “People still have a hard time understanding the difference between humor and comedy. I don’t do comedy. No one is slipping on a banana peel [in my movies]. And you can have humorous moments dealing with very serious subject matter. Just because you have humor that will make people laugh does not mean that it’s a comedy.”


This year, Lee is one of the few American filmmakers who got an invite.  For Lee, this will be more than just vindication. At a moment when Western democracies are seeing an upsurge in prejudice, he’s posing a challenge to racism.