NEW YORK — Spike Lee has been opining for a few minutes now: Isn’t it ludicrous that people call football players unworthy of living in this country for kneeling during the national anthem, he says, when the first American who died during the Revolutionary War was a black man?
“So nobody can tell black people s--- about going somewhere else,” he concludes. “Along with the genocide of Native Americans, this country got built cost-free from slavery.”
Seated on a bright purple couch in the Brooklyn office of his company, 40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks, Lee eventually pauses. It all comes down to love vs. hate, he says — it always has. That is why the two words appeared on the knuckle rings of Radio Raheem, a fictional character killed by police officers at the climax of Lee’s 1989 film “Do the Right Thing.” Some claim Lee is on a soapbox, but he really just wants to be on the loving side of history.
The provocative filmmaker, 61, has recently faced hurdles in his everlasting pursuit of this goal: “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” opened to less-than-lukewarm applause in 2014, and the satirical depiction of violence in 2015’s “Chi-Raq” insulted some Chicago natives. But the latest Spike Lee joint, “BlacKkKlansman,” attempts to capture racial tension with the same clarity of “Do the Right Thing,” which Roger Ebert wrote came “closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time.” Only this time, he attempts to do so using a story from the past.
“BlacKkKlansman,” which took home the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Grand Prix in May, tells the real-life story of a black Colorado Springs cop named Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1970s by pretending to be a white man over the phone. But it also connects the Klan’s racism to what spurred last year’s Charlottesville rallies and even directly attacks the Trump administration for perpetuating such behavior.
Lee held such “precise opinions” throughout the project, co-writer Kevin Willmott says, that make today’s rant seem comparatively scattered. He frequently trails off in the middle of sentences, gazing off through his orange, thick-rimmed glasses. There is simply too much buzzing in his mind. From where he stands, hypocrisy among those in power, dubbed “snake oil salesman,” has reached an almost unfathomable level.
Although he refuses to utter the president’s name — “Who? Oh, Agent Orange” — Lee admits that while making “BlacKkKlansman,” “everything was done knowing that this guy had the nuclear code.” In one scene, Ron declares that the United States would never elect a man like KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) president. A superior tells him he is remarkably naive for a black man.
“From the very beginning, Spike said, ‘I don’t want it to be a period piece,’” Willmott recalls. “He didn’t want to give people an out in terms of this being something from the olden days.”
News outlets disagree on whether the standing ovation “BlacKkKlansman” received at Cannes lasted for six or 10 minutes. Lee isn’t a numbers guy, so he doesn’t know which is accurate. What he does know, however, is what a relief it was to discover that the festival audience understood his film.
“It didn’t have to be that way,” he says. “People get booed at Cannes.”
They also get snubbed for awards, which Lee still holds happened to him back in 1989. He doesn’t have any beef with Steven Soderbergh, whose “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” beat front-runner “Do the Right Thing” for the Palme d’Or, or even the festival itself, but rather with the president of the jury: German filmmaker Wim Wenders.
Lee says jurors Sally Field and Hector Babenco later told him that Wenders overlooked “Do the Right Thing” because he considered Mookie, Lee’s protagonist who incites a riot after Radio Raheem’s death by throwing a garbage can through the window of a pizzeria, to be unheroic. The film ends with quotes from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, expressing their differing views on violence as self-defense against oppression.
By way of comparison, Lee exclaims, “If you look at the main character of ‘Sex, Lies, and Videotape,’ the guy was masturbating watching videotape.”
(Wenders responds in a statement, “It was an exceptionally great year in terms of films,” and adds, “I understood Spike’s frustration and even grief, and I was sorry that Spike concentrated his anger on me.”)
There is no denying the heroic qualities of Stallworth, played by Washington, son of Denzel. “The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Lee says of his natural talent. Washington spoke weekly with Stallworth, who swung by the set one day and passed around his KKK membership card, which Washington says “made it even more real and scarier.”
“Signed by Mr. Duke,” he adds, incredulous. “Are you kidding me? This is bananas.”
Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), an activist college student and Ron’s love interest, tells him in the movie that he “can’t change things from the inside. It’s a racist system.” Lee says he and Willmott wrote the line with W.E.B. Du Bois’s theory of double consciousness in mind: Ron is black, but, as a police officer, he also works a job with a history marred by violent racial oppression.
“It’s gotta be difficult for brothers and sisters who are police officers, because they’re not blind — they’ve gotta see what police forces are doing, shooting down black people left and right,” Lee says. “Knowing that black folks ain’t really feeling you, just because you’re black but you’re also a cop . . . in a lot of ways, Ron’s character is feeling that, too.”
Despite this inner turmoil, Ron orchestrates the undercover mission, persuading his colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to be his white stand-in at Klan meetings. He boldly calls up the KKK and proclaims to hate anyone who “doesn’t have pure white Aryan blood running through their veins.” He does so while working alongside a white officer who once shot a black child and continues to abuse his power.
“We’re flesh and blood, we feel everything,” Washington says. “But he had to just take it, approach it like a job so he didn’t crack.”
The actor says the warm reception at Cannes felt like winning the Super Bowl. But Lee still has the tiniest of bones to pick with this year’s jury president, Cate Blanchett, whom he says he loves dearly. After “BlacKkKlansman” won the Grand Prix, she described it as “quintessentially about an American crisis.”
The film does end with footage from last year’s neo-Nazi rallies in Charlottesville and President Trump’s response, but “this is not just America,” Lee counters. “It was happening in England, with Brexit. This right-wing thing is happening all over the world.”
A citrusy scent suddenly wafts through the office. Grapefruit, perhaps?
“Yeah, it’s a SoulCycle candle,” Lee says, resuming the calm demeanor that appears between his bursts of outrage. He is fresh off one about how the Trump administration’s shenanigans, skullduggery and subterfuge — “The three S’s!” as he repeatedly exclaims — will bring about the end of democracy as we know it.
It is in this even-keeled tone that Lee expresses how odd it is that people look to him for answers to the societal ills depicted in his films. But then he amps back up again, suggesting a solution anyway: To move forward, we must pursue the truth.
The pursuit requires taking off the rose-colored glasses through which we view our nation’s history, according to Lee, a product of the New York City public schools. That’s where he was taught the tale of George Washington cutting down a cherry tree.
“F--- that,” Lee says. “George Washington owned slaves.”
He then directs the same profanity toward all of the Founding Fathers.
In interviews, the sheer strength of Lee’s emotions sometimes gets the better of him, such as when he said he had a “Louisville Slugger bat with Wenders’s name on it” in his closet. He once claimed that he could not have made an anti-Semitic film because Jews ran Hollywood, and “that’s a fact.”
His “25th Hour” star Edward Norton told the Atlantic years ago: “I don’t think Spike is his own best advocate. . . . People associate Spike sometimes with an angry righteousness and urgency that I don’t think his films have. I don’t think his films are angry at all. They are very compassionate.”
But Lee says he is always happy to do interviews — he did so as a young director when studios wouldn’t spend that much advertising money on his films and now does them as an artist passionate about his work’s message.
Lee has taken off his hat that says “BLACK” on the front, with a KKK hood in place of the A. “BlacKkKlansman” serves as a direct response to the “corn-fed American terrorism” that killed Heather Heyer as she protested Charlottesville’s white supremacist march and is set to hit theaters a few days before the one-year anniversary of her death. There is an urgency to this particular message, he says, Academy Awards season be damned.
David Duke says in the movie that he wants “America to achieve its greatness again.” Lee hopes America can achieve greatness, period.