BlacKkKlansman: Interview with Director Spike Lee

Interview with Spike Lee, director of BlacKkKlansmanship, winner of Grand Jury Prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Fest.

Timely Movie with Humor

Spike Lee: Not everything in this film is entertaining, especially the coda.  And I have done this before, “Do the Right Thing” is very serious subject matter, and it ends with the murder of Radio Raheem, strangled to death by NYPD.  Some of my favorite films of the past, great filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, “A Clockwork Orange” was much more serious than the end of the universe as we know it, and Peter Sellers.  So it’s been done before, and it’s hard to do and it’s a tightrope, but I can do it.

Making It

Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) called me, so anything he wanted to do was going to get made, that’s just the truth.  He called me up, he said I want you to do this, and we got it made.

Trump’s Reaction

SL:  Very good question because since the beginning of cinema, they have screened films in the White House.  D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” was film in the White House, under President Woodrow Wilson.  And his famous quote was after he had seen the film, was “it was like writing history with lightning.” But I don’t think Trump is going to see it though, he should.  All of them guys.


SL: Kevin Willmott and I, my writing partner, wrote the screenplay.  I think anyone who sees this film, could know who made it.  I will leave it at that.

Ambience on the Set

SL:  It was comfortable for me.  The white actors had problems saying the ‘N word.  And I had to make them understand that it wasn’t them doing it, it was the character.  I had a discussion with John Turturro on “Do the Right Thing,” about the same thing. He said Spike, I ride the subway, back then.  And then the film came out and he said black people love me, black people love me!  So that’s part of the job sometimes, I mean Robert De Niro was not worried that people were going to hate him after doing Travis Bickle.  That was the role.  Topher Grace’s role is to play a hateful person, David Duke.  You can’t worry about what are people going to say, you are playing this despicable, heinous, hateful character.


I did not need this film to inform me who those hate groups are.  I grew up in America, I have been watching race images of my people since I was a kid, and Native Americans and women and Hispanics, so this from way when I was a kid in Brooklyn than 2018.  I’ve been doing it since my first film in NYU Film School called “The Answer.” 1980, about a young black screenwriter who is hired to write a direct a $50,000,000 remake of “Birth of a Nation.” My first NYU Grad film, so this is not new.   

Black Films Abroad

SL: “Black Panther” changed stuff.  For years, here’s the thing though, when you are doing a budget, one of the main line items is foreign.  And for years, studios have put about this lie that black films do not do well overseas.  So you are trying to do a film and trying to get a budget, and they present the budget, and it has zero for foreign, that gives you not enough money to make the film.  So then they will start going, alright, we will do it, and they keep changing the goal line.  You think of the goal line and they move another ten yards, and then they say oh, that’s an exception.  So if you have a black star, it don’t make money.  But “Black Panther,” it blew that shit out the water, studios can no longer say that black films don’t make money overseas and you have to have a star in it.  Ryan Coogler changed that.  And those lies can no longer be used to keep black filmmakers from getting the amount of money they need.  Because as you know, before, most of the money you made was domestic.  Now, you make more money foreign.  So if you make more money foreign, but they still give you peanuts for in that line item, you can’t have the money to make the films you want.  And that argument is dead with “Black Panther.”

Resurgence of Black Cinema Movement

This happens every ten years.  Every ten years, my phone rings off the hook about the motherfucking resurgence of Black Cinema.  And then it’s another motherfucking nine year drought.  (laughter)  So my thing is this, in order for this not to be on a cycle, people of color have to get the gate key positions.  That means the motherfucking, excuse my language, vote.  Studios vote.  They have quarterly meetings where they decide what they are going to make, and what they are not going to make.  And unless I am wrong, there are only one or two people and I am not talking about Oprah Winfrey and I am talking about people at studio jobs that have votes, I call them the lofty gate keepers.  Until we get in those positions, people of color, it’s going to be cyclical, it’s going to be every ten years, because they decide what we are doing, and what we are not doing.  And if you are not in the room, you don’t got to vote.  Even stars, I mean, the biggest star today, they have still got to go to the studio, unless they are financed themselves and say I want to do this film.  That’s the way it works.  And I am not talking about Independent Cinema, I am talking through the studio system.  So that to me is the battle, not to get the film made, the battle is getting those lofty positions of the gate keepers.  And many times, the gate keepers don’t know anything about the subject matter, I don’t want to name any specific films, but also, to finish this long winded answer, the United States Census Bureau says that as early as 2025, or maybe sooner, White Americans will be the minority in the United States of America.  So even if you are a racist, (laughter) it’s still good business practice,  and forget about what is the right thing to do, it’s business, Harvard Business School 101.  You are a consumer, you are public, this is not motherfucking “Father Knows Best,” “The Donna Reed Show,” “Leave it To Motherfucking Beaver.”  That’s over.  If I am a business, I am going to make product that might be acceptable to the majority.  Or more important, I am going to make sure that my workforce is going to reflect the population.  It’s not me, it’s the United States Census Bureau, it’s probably already like that in California. Even though Agent Orange wants to try to roll back the clock, I mean, I don’t know how many walls he wants to build, tries to build, or break up families at the border, children separated, still children separated from their families.  Time moves forward, people want to stay in the past.  That’s the last by the way, no more profanity.


Hatred and Peace–Optimistic

That’s a hard question.  But what makes it difficult is when people tie hate with money. So when you tie hate with money and that is the way you are going to make money through hate, that’s like these guys running the office, I mean, how can one who used to be a lobbyist for the coal industry, end up running EPA, how does that work?  It doesn’t make any sense, the person who used to be a lobbyist for the coal industry, got a job running the EPA?  That’s greed.  All this is tied to greed and these guys would put their mother on the corner for a dollar.  I want to be optimistic, but we can’t be asleep like Disneyland, like cautious.


SL: The most immediate thing is that we have to do is register to vote.  This midterm is coming up, and within the last 18 months if there has not been a wakeup call to vote, I don’t know what would make you vote.  So another thing I would like to say is that I think that a lot of us got complacent during the eight years of Obama and some new law got accomplished that he was going to be able to run for twelve years.  And there was an opening and Agent Orange slipped in.  I think a major factor is what happened last election, and besides the shenanigans going on with the Russians, there was a segment of the public that was reacting to the last eight years of having a black President in the White House. And Agent Orange used that as a marketing strategy and look where we are now.


Wearing Sneaker for World Premiere

That’s not something I came with.  Robert Mitchum wore that, in fact, that comes from Night of the Hunter,” directed by Charles Laughton.  It wasn’t a ring, it was a tattoo and Robert Mitchum had the words love and hate tattooed on him. And that great speech was written by James Agee, which we rewrote slightly, for Radio Raheem in “Do the Right Thing.” And I just think at this time now, there’s no in-between and either you are for love or for hate.  And so it was a homage to “Night of the Hunter,” which I saw for the first time in film school and with Robert Mitchum, also my dear friend, who is no longer with us, Bill Nunn, who played Radio Raheem, and it thought it was right for the world premiere of “Blackkklansman.”  And I love sneakers.


SL: I didn’t even know he was from Finland. I thought he was from Mississippi, Alabama, because I had never heard of him.  And I must have not read his last name.   Cause I had no idea my brother was from Finland. But when he came in there, whoo, I said man, we got a real redneck up in here!  That part I mean, he was great.  We are working together some more, he killed it.  I didn’t know he was a big star in Finland.  He is like the fisherman of the year, something like that too?  That’s what he told me, he was like one of the biggest fishermen in Finland.  I am really not that much up on what is happening in Finland.  I knew he could play Felix. He’s scary.  Now, all actors are different, but he never had any concern about saying nothing. He said this is the role?  Let’s go.  Of course, Topher, he was on the “70’s Show,” so it was a thing.  But with Jasper, he didn’t give a fuck.   He was ready, come on, he was fearless.  You know what he told me?  He spent high school, his senior and junior year in Baltimore, and he took, it wasn’t his girlfriend, but a friend of his who was black to the prom, and they both caught holy hell.  You should ask him about that.  It probably never happened to him in Finland, because there’s no black people in Finland.

Yeah, not that new, not when you were in high school.  I’ll tell you what he told me, and if you want to get another story from him, go ahead.   But he told me that was the first time he really came face to face with racism, him and his friend, not his girlfriend, his friend, that’s what he told me. Anyway, they both went to the prom together in Baltimore and they both caught holy hell.  Ask him.

Trump’s Star on Hollywood Blvd

He got a star?  You know what?  How about move him out of office?  Forget the star, you step on it, I don’t even want one, dogs pissing on it, people stepping on it.  It’s another one of those distractions and nobody cares about that stuff, I don’t.  Why be focused on getting the star removed when you should be trying to get him impeached? Big difference.

Hollywood–Liberal or Not

Hollywood has always not been liberal. Did you see the movie?  Did you see “Gone With the Wind,” considered one of the greatest films ever?  Did you see “Birth of a Nation,” considered one of the greatest films ever.  Those films and this movie are for a reason, that was not a mistake, it was not haphazard.  I don’t care about him having a star.  Let me ask you a question, do you think Robert Muller cares about a star?  Do you think the investigation about having a star removed, do you think that is even in the universe of Muller?  What is he trying to do and he will do?  We got more important things to think about, like Putin running this country.  I am not, and please take this respectfully, but why are we going to get, that’s another distractions, it’s the okie-doke.  And if you know American football, it’s like a misdirection in football.  Forget about that stuff, on the scale, to me.


Fighting Racism 

SL: I mean that was the biggest question in “Do the Right Thing,” and Spike Lee did not get an answer to racism and that was in 1989.  And where are we now?  And not only me, but why are we still talking about it? It’s 2018.  But as I said before, you got to register to vote and it’s midterms and there’s an election, we cannot let this guy get reelected, they got to go.  I cannot speak on behalf of my Caucasian sisters and brothers. (laughter) They have got to do what’s right and I think that people, I know parents have a great impact on their children, but I think we are born knowing what’s right and what’s wrong.  We notice.

Cate Blanchett: Jury President, Cannes Film Fest

SL: One of my favorite actresses is Cate Blanchett.  She is great.  And she was the President of the Jury this year at Cannes.  And she made a statement, when they were talking about what film won what and she made the statement that, I am paraphrasing, that it was a great insight to America.  And I love her, want to work with her, but this film is not just about The United States of America.  This phenomena, the rise of the Right, is global.  And I think if anyone sees this film and thinks that it’s a very specific thing, about a very specific group in America, is missing the point.  And now here’s the thing, the scapegoats are now the immigrants. No matter what the country, and what are they trying to do in Norway with immigrant children, no one knows what I am talking about?  No one has heard of this?  Well anyway, Google.  But the scapegoat worldwide has been immigrants and what you have seen with this Agent Orange calling all Mexicans rapists and all this other stuff and this and that.  And the economy is going bad, who are you going to blame?  It’s just now they are the scapegoats and in Nazi Germany it was the Jews.  Hitler picked out the Jews to be the fall guy, everything is wrong with the country when you still see the same thing globally today I feel.


Fear of the Other

SL: It could be all of those things.  It doesn’t have to be one thing.  But, I tell you this, the base of that is land.  Land that you live on, land that you so-call discover, when other people have been there already.  And you take the land and demonize them, so they are subhuman, and we didn’t take it from human beings, we took it from savages, and humans justify that.  I am not trying to be coy, that’s part of colonialism, you take somebody’s land and still be a god-fearing Christian and dehumanize them, so we are not human beings and then you try to play them off like that.


SL: I think racism is learned.  I don’t think you can learn racism in the womb, it is something that is acquired.


John David Washington: Playing the Lead

SL: I had to direct him, but I knew I wanted him for the part and John David did not have to audition.  We had a meeting, and he had to put himself on tape and I offered him the role, the way to do it.  Let me ask you a question, what do you mean “sheltered background?” He went to private school?  If you say that, and you come from a very particular part of the society, you come from a well-to-do family, that means you can’t act?  I disagree.  But also, I will tell you this, John David, there is not a black man in this country, no matter how much money you got, not like he walks around with a big sign over his head, like Denzel Washington, my father.  He rarely, he hates to do that.  So if he is in a nice car and LAPD pulls him over, they don’t know that’s Denzel’s son, that’s a black man driving a nice car, and let’s pull him over.

Choosing Projects

Any film that I have done over the last 30 years, is a particular story that I wanted to tell at that point in time, and what drives me is, the stuff that drove me in film school to be a storyteller is the stuff that drives me today to tell them.  So that has never changed and nor has my energy and enthusiasm for doing what I love. And I tell my students this at NYU all the time, that any time that you are able to make a living doing what you love, you are blessed, because most of the people on this earth go to their grave hating their job that they work all their life.


I am never going to put a song in a film of mine that I don’t like.  Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose.  Why that song works is because I did not have time to show these two people fall in love.  And back in the day, you asked a girl to dance.  And I felt that by Ron Stallworth asking her to dance, just after she got harassed by the cop, getting her on the floor will make all her troubles, to sing and dance and fall in love. It was a short cut to do that.

The cast members weren’t born when these songs were around.   I am 61, I know those songs.  They knew the song would be from the period, but we all had a lot of fun filming that scene.  But also, you got “Ball of Confusion,” by Temptations, “Lucky Man” by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, “Brandy” by Looking Glass, and “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers.

First Record bought?

SL: The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and I was 45.