WASHINGTON — Spike Lee, at a D.C. screening of his Oscar-nominated “BlacKkKlansman,” weighed in on the revelations that Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, and attorney general, Mark Herring, wore blackface to parties in their college years.
“Black shoe polish is in high demand,” Lee told reporters when asked about the controversy, before chuckling at the ironic comment.
“BlacKkKlansman” is the story of Ron Stallworth, who, in the 1970s, was first African-American officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department and went undercover to infiltrate the local chapter of the KKK. The movie was nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture, directing and writing nods for Lee.
He told an audience at the Newseum screening that “why this film is a success is we connected the past with the present.” The film ends with real-life footage from the riots in Charlottesville, Va. in 2017, triggered by marches staged by racist groups.
The more recent controversy has put Virginia’s politics in turmoil.
Lee said that he thought it “is going to be very hard” for Northam to continue serving as governor. He faced widespread calls from Democrats and Republicans to resign last week after the revelation that his 1984 medical school yearbook entry contained a picture of someone in blackface standing next to someone in a white-hooded KKK outfit.
Northam apologized, but in a press conference on Saturday, he said that he did not believe that he was one of the people in the photo. However, he admitted that he did appear in a darkened face to pose as Michael Jackson for a dance contest in 1984.
On Monday, Attorney General Mark Herring, who is third in line to the governorship, said that he wore blackface to a college party in 1980.
In the wake of the furor over the revelations, Lee said, “Every politician today had their aides and assistants go find their high school, college, law school, med school yearbook. I put money at that happening.”
“Some of that stuff happened a long time ago, so you don’t exactly remember what kind of shenanigans you have done for your picture,” he added. “And I would like to say that when the picture is in the yearbook is what was under your name, it is what you wanted. It is not just they picked something. … However you looked like, that was your decision.”
Asked whether he is surprised that the revelations did not come out during one of their political campaigns, Lee said, “Now people are much more sensitive. That is what I said earlier. People are scrambling today to get their yearbook pictures.”
He said he had not been following the controversy involving another top Virginia elected official, its lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax, who has been accused of sexually assaulting a woman, Vanessa Tyson, in 2004. Fairfax denies the allegation.
The Congressional Black Caucus co-hosted the “BlacKkKlansman” screening, and Lee appeared on a panel that was moderated by Van Jones with Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who chairs the caucus, and American Urban Radio Networks’ Washington bureau chief April Ryan.
One topic was top of mind: President Trump’s State of the Union address.
Lee called out the president for introducing Holocaust survivors and D-Day veterans, even though he said after Charlottesville that there were “very fine people, on both sides” of the riots. Politicians on the left and the right chided Trump for making the equivalence of neo-Nazis and white supremacists to counter-protesters.
“He didn’t write the script” for the State of the Union, Lee said. “Somebody wrote the script. So obviously to me that is a terrible misdeed if you do not see the connection, because in Charlottesville [Trump] did not denounce — there were Swastikas everywhere. He didn’t do it.”
He added, “It is my belief, as this reign of terror is over, and historians go back, they are going to go, ‘There is a lot of shit he says, but what he said about Charlottesville, that is not going to even be on the first page. That is going to be in the prologue.'”