Spike Lee: Trump is on wrong side of his­tory

The Arizona Republic - - SUNDAY A&E - Bill Goodykoontz

It’s al­ways en­light­en­ing to talk to Spike Lee, but this was a par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing time for it.

Lee, pro­mot­ing his ter­rific new film “BlacKkKlans­man,” called to talk about the movie the morn­ing af­ter Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump had tweeted about LeBron James and CNN host Don Lemon, dis­parag­ing their in­tel­li­gence. Whether it was that, the high praise his film — about a black po­lice of­fi­cer in the late 1970s who in­fil­trates the Ku Klux Klan — or just the gen­eral state of things, Lee was ready to talk. And talk he did, about just about every­thing, though even he has lim­its.

“Don’t let me start on the NRA,” he said, laugh­ing.

He also wanted to know — again, laugh­ing — how “BlacKkKlans­man” would play in Ari­zona. That’s where the con­ver­sa­tion be­gan, be­fore tak­ing off in all sorts of di­rec­tions.

Trump’s tweet on Lemon, LeBron

Ques­tion: Your film takes place in the 1970s. These days you hear a lot about dog whis­tles, coded racist mes­sages.

An­swer: Here’s the thing, it’s not a dog whistle. A dog whistle, you’re try­ing to do on the sly, coy, on the low-low. This is like, bla­tant. I don’t think the guy (Trump) is try­ing to hide any­thing — call­ing Mex­i­cans rapists, and we go on down the line. It’s bla­tant.

Q: When Trump in­sults black peo­ple, it tends to in­volve in­tel­li­gence, like the tweet about Lemon and LeBron.

A: First of all, I think that (tweet) was a cheap shot at Don Lemon. (Trump’s)

whole thing with NFL play­ers, or (for­mer NFL quar­ter­back Colin) Kaeper­nick, is a joke . ... When it’s all said and done, this guy is go­ing to be writ­ten by his­to­ri­ans on the wrong side of his­tory. That’s just the way it’s go­ing to be — the wrong side of his­tory. And that’s why I chose to in­clude the Char­lottesville coda, be­cause you had this hor­rific event that went global, which was a demon­stra­tion of Amer­i­can-grown, ap­ple-pie, red­white-and blue ter­ror­ism. And this guy, Agent Or­ange (Trump), had a chance to re­fute that, to tell the world that we are bet­ter than this, and he had a chance to de­nounce the Klan, to de­nounce David Duke, to de­nounce alt-right, to de­nounce neo-Nazis, and he chose not to do so.

Why Lee used Char­lottesville footage

Q: The real-life Char­lottesville footage at the end was in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful af­ter the rest of the movie. I ac­tu­ally cried a lit­tle at the use of the phrase “rest in power” for Heather Heyer (who was killed in the vi­o­lence in Char­lottesville when struck by a car).

A: Rest in power, that has re­ally been preva­lent for black peo­ple who have been shot down by po­lice.

Q: Ex­actly, and you ap­ply­ing that to her in this con­text was re­ally mov­ing.

A: I’ver never talked about this be­fore. I didn’t want to use the footage of that car go­ing down the street un­less I had the bless­ing of Su­san Bro. That’s Heather’s mother. And she told me OK, but she also said, “Spike, I feel kind of funny, be­cause some black folks are say­ing, ‘Why are you mak­ing such a big fuss about this white girl when black peo­ple are be­ing killed all the time?’ “And I tried to care­fully take my time and ex­plain to her that who­ever said that, whether black or white, they’re ig­no­rant. Your daugh­ter died for a just cause. And I, Spike Lee, had no con­cerns . ... She was a mar­tyr.

So it’s not about black or white. His­tor­i­cally, you go to John Brown, you go to the civil-rights move­ment, where sev­eral white peo­ple were dy­ing, too, in the South. It’s about truth and jus­tice and what’s right or wrong. For me, Heather Heyer, that touched me. I mean, she was there to de­nounce hate, ha­tred. In that scene we show young white kids at (the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia) chant­ing, “Black lives mat­ter.” They weren’t black peo­ple do­ing that. They were white col­lege stu­dents at UVA. So this whole thing for me is about good and bad, evil, and these guys, they’re on the wrong side. I re­ally wanted to ex­plain to Heather that all black peo­ple don’t feel that way, that your daugh­ter died for a just cause, and the hor­rific demon­stra­tion of home­grown, ap­ple-pie, cherry-pie, red-white-and-blue ter­ror­ism.

Q: “BlacKkKlans­man” takes place in the ‘70s, but it’s rel­e­vant to­day.

A: That was the in­ten­tion of Kevin Will­mott, my cowriter, and my­self. We felt like this film could not be as pow­er­ful as could be if it was strictly a pe­riod piece. Now, of course, we had to be true to the story, the sub­ject mat­ter. We couldn’t make this take place to­day. But there were el­e­ments of what hap­pened in the late ‘70s we could ap­ply and the au­di­ence can make the con­nec­tion it­self. And, with the coda of Char­lottesville, ev­ery­body would un­der­stand the very, very sticky sit­u­a­tion we live in to­day.

How peo­ple are re­dis­cov­er­ing his films

Q: When you’re putting a film to­gether in the edit­ing room, do you ever think, “Wow, I re­ally nailed it this time?”

A: To tell you the truth, you never know. And I’m be­ing hon­est. You do the best you can. And then the film comes out, and some­times peo­ple get it, and some­times peo­ple don’t. I’ve been very for­tu­nate that some of my films did not click upon their re­lease; peo­ple are re­dis­cov­er­ing and lik­ing them. That’s the great thing about Net­flix (laughs).

Q: In pre­vi­ous con­ver­sa­tions, you’ve men­tioned “Bam­boo­zled” as one of the films that worked that way.

A: Oh yeah, peo­ple love that film now. Wasn’t the case when it came out (laughs). Here’s the thing, though. That’s not just a film­maker. If you’re a rap­per or a nov­el­ist or what­ever it is, a whole lot of things have to hap­pen for some­thing to click. Tim­ing, bad weather can kill an open­ing — a whole lot of things have to go right for some­thing to work. That’s just the way it is. So you just do the best you can and hope for the best. That’s what I’ve come to learn go­ing into my fourth decade (of film­mak­ing). If some­thing doesn’t click on the ini­tial re­lease, you go, well, “God will­ing, they’ll get it down the line.” That’s all you can do, and you move on to the next project.

The buzz on ‘BlacKkKlans­man’

Q: The odds seem pretty good with this one. A: I’m not tempt­ing the cin­ema gods on this one. I’m not say­ing nothin’. I’m not walk­ing un­der lad­ders, I’m not split­ting a pole. I’m not go­ing to do any­thing that’s go­ing to anger the cin­ema gods.

Q: Well, it’s been shown at fes­ti­vals and the buzz is good.

A: As I said be­fore, I’m not temp­ing the cin­ema gods (laughs). Hey, I want peo­ple to come out, but there’s no guar­an­tee. I’ll say this, though. Fo­cus Fea­tures (the stu­dio dis­tribut­ing the film), they’re spend­ing money. That’s al­ways good, be­cause what it tells you is they be­lieve in the film and they’re go­ing for it.

How to an­swer Trump’s tweets

Q: Back to Trump for a minute — how should peo­ple re­act to that tweet, and oth­ers like it?

A: We’ve got to stop re­act­ing to that. That’s the old okey-doke, the end-around, the mis­di­rec­tion foot­ball play. It’s a dis­trac­tion. (Spe­cial coun­sel Robert) Mueller’s on his ass, this and that, the Rus­sians, so he says this stuff to make us look at some­thing that’s not there. The ol’ ho­cus-pocus. We’ve just got to keep our eyes on the prize and not be dis­tracted by these di­ver­sion­ary tac­tics. We’ve got to be smart. This is not new. This is a pat­tern. This is rou­tine. When we go off ev­ery time he tweets some­thing, we’re do­ing his bid­ding, I feel.

Here’s the thing, though. I know it is hard not to re­spond to these ig­no­rant tweets. I know it’s hard. But if we’re go­ing to move for­ward some­how we’re go­ing to have to have the re­straint to brush it off and keep fo­cused and not go for the okey-doke. These are acts of sub­terfuge, skull­dug­gery and shenani­gans, the three S’s (laughs).

Spike Lee


Di­rec­tor Spike Lee and ac­tor John David Wash­ing­ton on the set of “BlacKkKlans­man,” a Fo­cus Fea­tures re­lease.

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