BLACKKKLANSMAN

WHEN TIMES GET BLEAK, SPIKE LEE GETS TO WORK. AND BLACKKKLANSMAN MAY BE HIS MOST IN­CEN­DI­ARY AND IM­POR­TANT FILM YET

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS - IN­TER­VIEWS AMON WARMANN WORDS IAN FREER

The cast of Spike Lee’s lat­est talk work­ing with the iconic film­maker on his provoca­tive crime-com­edy-thriller.

On hol­i­day in a sunny spot in South­ern Europe, ac­tor Laura Har­rier, best known for play­ing Peter Parker’s su­per-smart crush in Spi­der-man: Home­com­ing, re­luc­tantly reached over for her buzzing cell phone.

“I hear, ‘Laura, this is Spike Lee!’” she re­calls. “He asked me to meet him. I told him I was on an is­land in Greece, and he was like, ‘No, that’s not gonna work for me. I need to see you Thurs­day.’ And I’m like, ‘Spike, it’s Tues­day and I’m in Greece,’ and he’s like,‘no, see you Thurs­day — va­ca­tion is over. Bye.’ And then he hung up.”

Lee’s ur­gency was pal­pa­ble. Gifted a script by Get Out film­maker Jor­dan Peele, Lee had a project so zeit­geist-y it needed in­stant ac­tion. With big­ots in po­si­tions of power go­ing right up to the Oval of­fice and hor­rific in­ci­dents of racial ha­tred erupt­ing on Amer­i­can streets (not to men­tion equally bil­ious in­vec­tive on so­cial me­dia), Lee needed to make the film now, and the film needed Lee to make it now. Hear­ing the pas­sion in Lee’s voice, Laura Har­rier, slap­ping on the sun­screen by the Aegean Sea, knew what she had to do.

“I was back in New York in a day,” she says. Blackkklansman was gath­er­ing steam.

At the end cred­its of ev­ery Spike Lee Joint is a quo­ta­tion from Mal­colm X: “By any means nec­es­sary”, fol­lowed by Lee’s whim­si­cal “Ya dig?” and “Sho nuff”. Mal­colm X’s motto

— a ral­ly­ing cry to end racial in­jus­tice — has acted as a pre-twit­ter hashtag for Lee’s en­tire ca­reer. The 61-year-old film­maker hasn’t so much had his fin­ger on the pulse of the Africanamer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence as plugged in an IV line. There have been fan­tas­tic achieve­ments (the still-as­ton­ish­ing

Do The Right Thing; Mal­colm X), fascinating if flawed mis­fires (Girl 6; Bam­boo­zled) and Old­boy. But taken as a whole (es­pe­cially fac­tor­ing in his non-fic­tion films), his work forms an es­sen­tial, of­ten an­gry, al­ways hu­man mo­saic of black ex­pe­ri­ences, his­tory, con­cerns and rit­u­als. If a thou­sand years from now, an­thro­pol­o­gists want to find out what it meant to be black and Amer­i­can in the late 20th/early 21st cen­tury, they could do a lot worse than watch Spike Lee’s oeu­vre.

“We had re­hearsals at Spike’s of­fice and you see all the pictures from his films,” says John David Wash­ing­ton, the lead in Blackkklansman. “It felt like a mu­seum. The one sheets, the pho­to­graphs. It did feel like I was a part of his­tory. It felt spe­cial.”

But, if Lee’s HQ has the feel of a ‘mu­seum’, Blackkklansman is as far as you can get from an an­cient relic. Part buddy-cop biopic, part com­edy, all state-of-the-na­tion ad­dress, Lee’s lat­est may en­joy a high con­cept (a black po­lice of­fi­cer in­fil­trates the Klu Klux Klan) and com­mer­cial el­e­ments (a car chase) but it also seethes with anger. Fierce and fu­ri­ous, it makes Robert De Niro’s “fuck you” to Trump at the Tony Awards feel like a play­ground taunt.

Blackkklansman is not Lee’s first cin­e­matic skir­mish with the Klu Klux Klan. In 1980, as a fresh­man at New York Univer­sity Film School (along with Ang Lee and Jim Jar­musch), the 23-year-old Shel­ton J. Lee was ex­posed to the greats of Amer­i­can cinema, in­clud­ing Birth Of A Na­tion. At the time, NYU held up D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic as a touch­stone for tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tion and cin­e­matic technique, but, for Lee, “They never talked about how this film was used as a re­cruit­ing tool for the Klan and was re­spon­si­ble for black peo­ple get­ting lynched.” Full of piss and vine­gar, Lee made an an­gry ri­poste. The An­swer is a short satire about a young, black screen­writer who gets hired to write a Birth Of A Na­tion re­make. “The fac­ulty took it like I was at­tack­ing the fa­ther of cinema, so they kicked me out,” he later ex­plained. Only his prodi­gious work rate in the equip­ment room got him re­in­stated.

Twelve years later, mak­ing Mal­colm X, Lee filmed a shot of the Klu Klux Klan rid­ing sil­hou­et­ted by the moon be­cause it tick­led him to sub­vert the iconic

mo­ment from E.T. The Ex­tra-ter­res­trial. Yet Blackkklansman is Lee’s big­gest en­gage­ment with the white su­prem­a­cist group so far. The story is based on the real-life ex­pe­ri­ences of Ron Stall­worth (Wash­ing­ton), the first black cop in the snowy white (in all ways) hills of Colorado. In 1979, tired of work­ing in the records of­fice, he calls the lo­cal chap­ter of the KKK and tells them he wants to be­come a mem­ber. Know­ing it is im­pos­si­ble to pass as white, he does a Cyrano de Berg­erac and sends non-prac­tis­ing Jew­ish de­tec­tive (great name klaxon) Flip Zim­mer­man to wear a wire and ‘be’ Ron Stall­worth in per­son.

Out of the nifty premise, Lee spins #Black­livesmat­ter as nar­ra­tive, a si­mul­ta­ne­ously funny and chill­ing re­minder that as much as things have changed since the ’70s, things have stayed the same. Blackkklansman provoca­tively builds bridges be­tween Amer­ica’s past and present, pil­ing on the dra­matic ironies. “It’s a pe­riod piece, but it has such a con­tem­po­rary feel to it,” says Wash­ing­ton. “There is a scene where Ron is talk­ing to his sergeant and says, ‘No­body would ever elect [then Klan Grand Wiz­ard] David Duke as Pres­i­dent. We’ll never see that in Amer­ica.’ And now you see where we are to­day.” Lee has forged his ca­reer on de­pict­ing dis­unity, col­lid­ing dis­parate groups to­gether and stand­ing back to watch the sparks fly — it’s just this time the his­tor­i­cal con­flicts are even more pointed and res­o­nant.

“It’s just how di­vided we are on a lot of is­sues and how the in­sti­tu­tion of hate seems to be gen­er­a­tional and that’s how it con­tin­ues to progress in dif­fer­ent ways,” con­tin­ues Wash­ing­ton. “David Duke is the new face of hate, the guy next door, the well-spo­ken man, a guy that’s not nec­es­sar­ily off-putting at first and you want to lis­ten to him be­cause of how ap­proach­able he seems. All of that can still re­late to where we are to­day.”

Yet Lee isn’t just hit­ting the big po­lit­i­cal tar­gets. He is also de­tail­ing the smaller acts of prej­u­dice and big­otry that con­tinue to af­fect ev­ery as­pect of African-amer­i­can life. The mo­ment ac­tivists Pa­trice (Laura Har­rier) and Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) get pulled over by the cops is still the re­al­ity faced by black youths in 2018.

“We shot that late at night and it was re­ally dif­fi­cult,” says Har­rier. “Just to think of how many un­named black peo­ple had been in that same sit­u­a­tion — that was sober­ing and drove every­thing home in a way.”

Wash­ing­ton re­calls an­other scene where an un­der­cover Stall­worth acts as se­cu­rity de­tail for David Duke at a Klan ban­quet that was a “hard day for me, just be­ing in that en­vi­ron­ment for 18-plus hours”. A se­quence that sees the Klan take shoot­ing prac­tice only for the tar­gets to be revealed as black car­i­ca­tures sounds like some­thing from an over­done satire. But it’s true. All of it.

“We got those on­line,” mar­vels Wash­ing­ton. “You can get those to­day. We didn’t have to make those. So you talk about rel­e­vance. That just goes to show you how di­vided we are.”

Yet be­ing an­gry — how­ever right­eous — is one thing. It is some­thing else to turn it into cin­e­matic alchemy.

When Lee started his fea­ture ca­reer with the mi­cro-bud­get

She’s Gotta Have It,

film­mak­ing was a fam­ily af­fair: his sis­ter Joie ap­peared in it, his brother David did the still pho­to­graphs and his fa­ther Bill wrote the (stupidly catchy) mu­sic. While the bud­gets have got big­ger, it’s part of Lee’s film­mak­ing MO to keep things in­ti­mate and re­laxed. Even when he’s light­ing fires, he’s hav­ing fun.

“He re­ally does a good job in cre­at­ing an ego-less set,” says Adam Driver, who plays Flip Zim­mer­man. “He’s very fa­mil­ial. Of­ten the peo­ple that he’s work­ing with, he’s been work­ing with them since Do The Right Thing.

So there’s a short­hand on set — there’s no go-be­tween, no as­sis­tant or PA or any­thing that you have to go through.” John David Wash­ing­ton is

prac­ti­cally a mem­ber of Lee’s fam­ily. Son of fre­quent Lee col­lab­o­ra­tor Den­zel, at the age of six Wash­ing­ton Jr played one of the kids who says, “I am Mal­colm X.” (“He just told me to calm down,” re­mem­bers Wash­ing­ton about film­ing the mo­ment. “I was re­ally ex­cited to be there and it took a cou­ple takes to breathe and calm down.”) Break­ing out in Dwayne John­son TV com­edy-drama Ballers, he re­turned to Lee a more sea­soned pro — but the film­maker soon bashed that out of him.

“I was very in­tense in my ap­proach to the char­ac­ter and wanted to make sure that I ac­cu­rately por­trayed this man. But Spike told me not to be so spot-on and leave room for im­pro­vi­sa­tion, to find things or­gan­i­cally with your part­ners and the en­vi­ron­ment that you’re in on set. When I un­locked that, it was a very fluid ex­pe­ri­ence for me.”

Fresh from a plane from Greece, Har­rier, whose Pa­trice be­comes in­volved with Stall­worth, en­joyed a per­sonal master­class with the di­rec­tor, him­self a sea­soned ac­tor.

“I ended up read­ing my scenes with Spike, act­ing with him, and it turned into this crazy im­pro­vi­sa­tion which went on for an hour,” she says of her au­di­tion. “It was in­sane. When I left I had no idea what had just hap­pened.”

As well as an ac­tor’s di­rec­tor, for all Lee’s rep as an ag­it­prop master, it is easy to for­get what a con­sum­mate film­maker he ac­tu­ally is. He may be deal­ing with real-world con­cerns, but his films thrum with cinema — Blackkklansman opens with a pointed use of a scene from Gone With The Wind — from a cheeky use of text (“Some fo’ real shit” is Lee’s ver­sion of “Based ona true story”) to some of the height­ened swag­ger of the blax­ploita­tion sub-genre.

“I love how un­pre­dictable Spike’s films are,” says Driver. “Some­times it’s the story or some other vis­ual el­e­ment or block­ing or act­ing choice that elic­its a re­sponse you’re not ex­pect­ing. When they start, I never know how they’re go­ing to end. That’s just one of many things I love about his films.”

A key weapon in Lee’s arse­nal is his con­veyor-belt trope. It’s kind of a free-float­ing cam­era shot where a ma­jor char­ac­ter is still but mov­ing as if on a con­veyor belt. It’s a sim­ple ef­fect — both the cam­era and the ac­tor are placed on a dolly — giv­ing the char­ac­ters the ef­fect of float­ing through the world lost in their own re­al­ity. The shot has its roots in the greats — it seem­ingly started with Vin­cente Min­nelli’s Madame Bo­vary and was later pinched by Scors­ese for Har­vey Kei­tel’s drunken reverie in Mean Streets — but Lee has made it all its own, be it on a merry-go-round or, in Lau­rence Fish­burne’s case in School Daze, on a crane hov­er­ing in the air hol­ler­ing, “Waaaaake uu­uup.” When Lee broke the dolly out on the set of Blackkklansman, his cast went bat-shit crazy.

“That day, Spike did have to calm me down,” Wash­ing­ton gushes. “He was like, ‘John David, let’s do this, stop it!’ Maybe that was the hard­est day for Spike, but I was a freakin’ kid.” That goes double for Har­rier, who be­came one of the few women to be fea­tured in Lee’s sig­na­ture shot. “It was so crazy be­cause John David and I didn’t even know that’s what we were do­ing,” Har­rier re­calls. “And then they started to set it up and I was like, ‘Wait, are we do­ing the shot?’ and we started freak­ing out. It feels su­per-iconic.” Yet it is an­other side of Lee’s film­mak­ing that con­cludes

Blackkklansman. Ever since 1997’s

4 Lit­tle Girls, the di­rec­tor has plied a side­line in doc­u­men­taries, dis­play­ing a deft skill in us­ing non-fic­tion footage to pow­er­ful ends. For Blackkklansman’s clos­ing coda, he cuts to­gether footage of the clashes at a Unite The Right rally in Char­lottesville, Virginia, on 11 Au­gust 2017, that re­sulted in the death of 20-year-old pro­tester Heather Heyer, in­ter­cut with Donald Trump’s in­fa­mous speech claim­ing there were “very fine peo­ple on both sides”. Lee was granted per­mis­sion to use the ma­te­rial by Heyer’s mother and the film will open in the US to co­in­cide with the first an­niver­sary of her death. As a fi­nal mic drop, it is stun­ning. And one that first shocked and si­lenced au­di­ences some 4,300 miles away.

The Cannes Film Fes­ti­val hasn’t tra­di­tion­ally been a happy hunt­ing ground for Lee. In May 1989, Lee’s hotly fan­cied Do The Right Thing

lost out on the Palme D’OR to Steven Soder­bergh’s sex, lies, and video­tape.

Lee felt blind-sided and snubbed, blam­ing jury pres­i­dent Wim Wen­ders, who de­scribed Lee’s lead char­ac­ter Mookie as “un­heroic” for throw­ing a trash can through a win­dow.

“Wim Wen­ders had bet­ter watch out, ’cause I am wait­ing for his ass,” said Lee, promis­ing he had a base­ball bat — his Louisville Slug­ger — with Wen­ders’ name on it (Lee has sub­se­quently walked back these com­ments, de­scrib­ing them as “ju­ve­nile”).

Yet, re­turn­ing to the fes­ti­val for the first time since 1991’s Jun­gle Fever,

Lee felt the love. Blackkklansman

re­ceived a ten-minute stand­ing ova­tion, great first reviews and the Grand Prix award. At his Cannes press con­fer­ence, Lee pulled no punches on Amer­ica’s cur­rent Pres­i­dent, go­ing on a twominute, ex­ple­tive-laden rant about Char­lottesville without ever men­tion­ing Trump by name: “We have a guy in the White House who de­fined that mo­ment not just for Amer­i­cans but the world, and that moth­er­fucker was given the chance to say we are about love, not hate. And that moth­er­fucker did not de­nounce the moth­er­fuck­ing Klan, the alt-right, and those Nazis moth­er­fuck­ers.” The in­ter­na­tional press didn’t need to wait for the trans­la­tor to un­der­stand how Lee felt.

Blackkklansman ar­rives at an in­ter­est­ing point in Lee’s ca­reer tra­jec­tory. He hasn’t had a com­mer­cial hit since 2006’s In­side Man and his work since, such as Mir­a­cle At St. Anna, Red Hook Sum­mer, Da Sweet Blood Of Je­sus, Chi-raq and Pass Over, has failed to be­come part of the cul­tural con­ver­sa­tion in the way his films reg­u­larly did in the late ’80s and ’90s. But the Cannes re­sponse and reviews sug­gests that Lee has got his groove back, once again con­fronting the things oth­ers are scared to tackle.

“It just lays out how peo­ple talk and feel in closed doors and in their homes, and in the pri­vacy of their own spa­ces,” says Wash­ing­ton of Blackkklansman. “I love how Spike wasn’t sug­ges­tive or judge­men­tal, to me. It’s just the truth.”

It’s a high price to pay, but Trump’s elec­tion might have just reignited Lee’s mojo. Re­put­edly next on his dance card is Sony/marvel comic-book flick Night­watch, about an Africanamer­i­can sci­en­tist who steals a su­per-suit that be­longed to an older ver­sion of him­self. Ex­pect Lee to avoid the cookie-cut­ter and fight the power. By any means nec­es­sary.

Clock­wise from above: Zim­mer­man (Adam Driver) goes un­der­cover to in­fil­trate a KKK meet­ing; Lee be­hind the scenes on Blackkklansman; To­pher Grace as Grand Wiz­ard David Duke; Sergeant Trapp (Ken Gar­ito) and Stall­worth.

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