Spike Lee has spent the past 30 years making films — such as “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X” — that tell hard truths about racism in America. His latest movie, “BlacKkKlansman,” touched a nerve when it opened in theaters in August, earning nearly $50 million at the domestic box office and generating Oscar buzz. The Focus Features release chronicles the 1970s true-life tale of a black police officer, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. By using real footage of the Charlottesville riots of 2017, Lee makes the point that the white supremacists portrayed in the film have only grown more emboldened under Donald Trump.
Lee has spoken up for his political beliefs throughout his career and has, as a result, landed close to the center of the nation’s civic life. But he’s a local landmark, and a widely seen neighbor, in New York City. He lives on the Upper East Side, works from his production offices in Brooklyn, teaches at NYU and can often be spotted at Madison Square Garden, cheering for the Knicks. In a wide-ranging phone conversation, he talks with his friend New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker about “BlacKkKlansman,” police brutality in America and Trump, whom Lee nicknames “Agent Orange.”
Cory Booker: Thanks for doing your thing. I loved the movie. It was so powerful.
Spike Lee: You saw it in New Jersey?
Booker: No, I was in Manhattan. I drove over the river. When the movie was over, everybody was staring at the screen. I look around, and I could see people processing. When you were developing this, what was your intent? Obviously this is art where you don’t just go, “Oh, that was a beautiful picture.” This is art that breaks up the soil of your soul and plants seeds in that soil.
Lee: So “BlacKkKlansman” is one word: urgency. There’s urgency with the filmmaking, with the acting, with the direction, with Terence Blanchard’s great score, Chayse Irvin’s cinematography. There was urgency in thinking about the release date on the first anniversary of Charlottesville. I knew that we got to get this film out ASAP so it could speak to this crazy, upside-down world we live in.
We were in pre-production when Charlottesville happened. When I saw that, I knew in my heart that this was going to be the ending that would make people sit in silence. But there’s one thing I always talk about. I was not going to have that scene of the car, that murder weapon, going down that crowded street without the blessing of Susan Bro [whose daughter Heather Heyer was killed]. I called her up and gave her my condolences. And I asked her blessing: “Can I please use that shot?” And she said yes. So once Ms. Bro gave us her blessing, I knew this film was going to have the impact it has.
And another thing that I’d like to say was something really interesting about Ms. Bro. At first, she was kind of hesitant, because she told me that she had been reading complaints that her daughter was being used as a martyr — and why was that, when black people were killed every day? I had to remind her that was crazy talk. You go back to the civil rights movement. There’s many cases where white activists lost their lives down South.
Booker: Your films, from “School Daze” to “Get on the Bus,” they were such pivotal parts in my coming of age. I still remember being in college talking about your films and how impactful they were on the consciousness of my classmates and I.
Lee: Where did you go to school?
Booker: I went to Stanford. I cannot tell you how the soundtrack to “School Daze”… I mean, I could sit here and sing you “I’m Building Me a Home” right now.
Lee: So you could’ve transferred to Morehouse and been in the glee club?
Booker: I didn’t say I could sing it for you well. I could almost remember where I was in my life when each movie was dropping. And what it meant to me, and how you were speaking to so many elements — not just of the black experience, but really you were speaking to the American experience in a challenging way. In using art, you were speaking to pain points in our country that had been covered over, and in many ways you were exposing those pain points and bringing them to light, allowing healing to happen.
Lee: “Do the Right Thing” came out in 1989, and then to see the whole thing almost exactly duplicated with the strangulation by the NYPD of Eric Garner, that was sad. Here’s the thing. I never condemned all police. We need police, but we need police who are fair and will treat everybody the same. At the same time, I’ve been not hesitant to criticize police in my films when they are doing some effed-up stuff.
Booker: There was that scene in “BlacKkKlansman” where [Stallworth] is apprehending the bomber. The police officers come up, and I didn’t know if he was going to be shot or not in that moment.
Lee: John David Washington, Denzel’s son, gives a great performance. When he’s trying to apprehend the bomber and the cops pull up, they’re on him. And then what a lot of people miss, the bomber is screaming, “That n— tried to rape me.” How many black men are no longer here with us because of the accusation that is put forth by a white woman saying, “This black man tried to…” Look what happened in Dallas the other day [when a white female cop killed Botham Shem Jean in his apartment]. I don’t want to get started, but how did she get manslaughter?
|Spike Lee with Adam Driver and Jasper Pääkkönen on the set of “BlacKk-Klansman”
Booker: The challenge is that maybe not that particular fact pattern, but you see so many unarmed African-American men getting shot by the police. In fact, one of the most powerful speeches since I’ve been on the Senate was by Tim Scott, a black Republican senator from South Carolina, when he talked about trying to enter the Capitol and how many times he got stopped by police.
Lee: There are not too many of us. They don’t know what we look like?
Booker: Well, it speaks to experiences we’ve all had. I remember at Stanford just being pulled over surrounded by numerous cops all around my car, screaming at me. And then after it was all over, sitting there sort of holding my steering wheel, shaking, worrying that I was going to get … God knows what — anywhere from arrested to shot. I remember taking my hand off the steering wheel once to scratch my head, or something like that, and just getting screamed at.
Lee: That could’ve been fatal. Just scratch your head with them guns on you.
Booker: I remember a conversation with somebody who said, “Why is there all of a sudden all these unarmed African-American men getting shot or beaten by the police?” And I’m like, “It’s not all of a sudden.” It’s because we all now carry cell phones that capture a lot of this. Have you gone down to the museum [The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration]? Most Americans don’t know about the history of lynching, and here is a documentation of the over 4,000 lynchings. And these are the ones we know about.
Lee: The scene with the great Harry Belafonte, that is a real lynching of Jesse Washington, which took place in Waco, Texas. And those gruesome photographs of the charred, burned and mutilated body. You could tie that film “The Birth of a Nation’s” record to that because the Klan was dead. The Klan was dormant until that film. [After screening the movie at the White House], Woodrow Wilson said, “It’s like writing history with lightning.”
Booker: Which is painful to me. And this is what I thought was beautiful about your film, the way you toggle back and forth from present day to past.
Lee: Throughout the writing process, my co-writer Kevin Willmott and I were looking at ways to connect the past with the present day. When Charlottesville happened and the president of the United States has a chance to denounce hate — the Klan, the alt-right, neo-Nazis — he did not do that. I’ve come to realize whatever he says the first time, that is what’s in his heart. That first statement after Charlottesville, it was like, “There’s good guys and bad guys on both sides.”
Booker: You did such a great job showing even David Duke using the president’s words to validate what he was doing. What most Americans don’t realize is since 9/11, we’ve had between 80 and 90 domestic terrorist attacks in our country. The majority of them have been done by far-right groups.
Lee: That’s not the narrative they want to have. Let me ask you a question. On your block, what happened when someone said something about your mother? He said the black players in the NFL are sons of bitches. Are you a football fan?
Lee: Agent Orange, I’ve got to give him some credit. He’s the master of misdirection. These tweets are misdirection plays that get us focused on something that doesn’t matter, and we take our eyes off the ball.
|Lee directs Anthony Ramos in the Netflix TV adaptation of “She’s Gotta Have It.”
Booker: By the way, if you know football, often these misdirection plays have the defense bumping into each other. That’s why it’s important to understand, number one, we can’t let anybody divide us. We’ve got to keep our focus on not what we’re against but what we stand for, what we should be fighting for.
Lee: And the latest example of trying to divide us: Agent Orange tried to start some shit between LeBron [James] and Michael Jordan. But they didn’t take the bait. They said, “Hell, no.” People got to register to vote for these midterms. I think even President Obama said it may be the most important midterms in history.
Booker: Our government was designed to have checks and balances. We have none right now. We need folks to come out and vote and try to get some kind of balance back to our government. But I just want to say to you: I was brought up by two parents deep in the civil rights movement, and it was made clear to me early on about the power that artists and athletes had. And what I see in you, you keep putting forth pieces of art into the national conversation that are forcing us to confront the unfinished business of America. Forcing us to not be able to cover it over, or ignore it, but forcing conversations that really need to be had that aren’t easy.
Lee This is what I like to tell my students at NYU film school. What’s easy? Ain’t nothing easy. Nothing worth having is easy.
This interview has been edited and condensed.