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