‘We’re still fighting that same fight’: how Spike Lee got his groove back with BlacKkKlansman
Movies . Editorial Content . 8 Minutes . Alex Godfrey
Spike Lee had mellowed somewhat. Not that the motormouth director with a socially provocative back catalogue had traded his sneakers for slippers, but in February 2015, having just released vampire romance Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, he was making a documentary about Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and, he told the Atlantic, time and fatherhood might have softened him. “If you get angry about everything you’re going to give yourself cancer,” he said. “You can’t let anger rule your life. It’s just not productive.” The truth, though, is that anger has been extremely productive for Spike Lee. And a lot has changed since 2015.
In February 2017, a month after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Get Out director Jordan Peele was given a screenplay adapted from black police officer Ron Stallworth’s memoir Black Klansman, about his experience infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s – on the phone, then with a white surrogate in the flesh. Lee, thought Peele [who has produced the film], would be ideal to direct it. “Spike just has an ability,” he told the Hollywood Reporter, “to do tension right, to do the moments of levity right, to deliver a social message and a punch.” In August, the Unite the Right rally took place in Charlottesville, followed by the killing of Heather Heyer, and Trump’s “blame on both sides” diatribe. Weeks later, cameras rolled on BlacKkKlansman. “I’ve never been in a movie that came out so fast, from when it was shot,” says Topher Grace, who plays the KKK’s David Duke. “There was this feeling on the set, like: ‘We’ve gotta get this movie out tomorrow.’” The result is Lee’s most entertaining, accessible and – without a doubt – angriest film in years.
The BlacKkKlansman draft that Lee was given, by screenwriters David Rabinowitz and Charlie Wachtel, was a more straightforward adaptation of Stallworth’s book. Lee’s film has fun with 1970s nostalgia and still tells Stallworth’s story but, thematically, it has startling contemporary currency. “Spike didn’t want it to be a period piece,” says Kevin Willmott, who co-authored the rewrite with Lee. “He wanted it to really resonate with what was happening today. Philosophically, he believes that period pieces give people a pass that permits them to look away. Trump had just come into office and had said all the racist things he had said in the campaign, so that was very much on our minds.” BlacKkKlansman draws direct lines from David Duke to Trump, certainly when Duke’s acolytes chant “America First!”, the isolationist KKK slogan Duke regularly deployed.
“This felt like the first film grown out of the soil of the Trump administration,” says Grace. “You could feel it when you were reading it. It was woven into its DNA.”
Lee has always voiced his concerns in his films. “BlacKkKlansman falls squarely within the artistic traditions of what Spike Lee has done in the past,” says Mia Mask, professor of film at Vassar College, New York. “Even going back to [1988’s] School Daze. School Daze was based on the experiences of African-American students at historically black colleges and universities, and it took up issues that were right out of the headlines, like student protests against investments in South Africa, and student activist culture on college campuses. He has a long tradition of taking political material from the zeitgeist at that moment and weaving it into his films. Do the Right Thing is an example of that, in many ways.”
Do the Right Thing (1989), a funny yet blistering drama set in a heatwave, was a microcosm of racial tension, culminating in the ghetto blaster-wielding Radio Raheem being choked to death by a truncheon-happy white cop, and a subsequent riot that leaves Italian-American Sal’s pizzeria burned to the ground. Lee was in part inspired by the 1986 incident involving black 23-year-old Michael Griffith, whose car broke down outside a pizzeria in Queens. Police were summoned to investigate “three suspicious black males” before Griffith and his friends were attacked by white youths with baseball bats, resulting in a severely beaten Griffith being hit and killed by a car. Other events also inspired the film, including the fatal choking by police of black graffiti artist Michael Stewart in 1983, but Lee drew from the broader climate in New York at the time: a racial polarisation that was “escalated,” he felt, by mayor Ed Koch.
Lee has said he hopes BlacKkKlansman, which ends furiously with footage of Charlottesville and Trump’s comments, motivates viewers to register to vote. He had similar hopes for Do the Right Thing. In one of the latter’s scenes, “Dump Koch” is spray-painted on a wall, while Samuel L Jackson’s DJ ends the film telling listeners to “register to vote – the election is coming up”. Koch was up against the city’s potential first black mayor David Dinkins, and Lee hoped the film’s June 1989 release would play a part in encouraging the city to elect him.
“We knew that when the film came out it would be right before [September’s] Democratic primary for mayor,” Lee told Kaleem Aftab for his biography on the director. “We felt that we could have a little bit of influence … and every time we could nail Koch, we would.” Dinkins did beat Koch to become mayor. Last year, Lee directed a music video for Stew & the Negro Problem’s song Klown Wit Da Nuclear Code, rejigged for Lee’s television reinvention of She’s Gotta Have It, his debut 1986 film about “polyamorous pansexual” Nola Darling, the song now serving as an episode prologue set on 2016’s election night. This time, the graffiti read “Dump Trump”.
BlacKkKlansman is an example of how even when inheriting pre-existing work, Lee retools it to fit his own perspective, then further still to reflect current concerns. For 2002’s 25th Hour, adapted by David Benioff from his own novel, the drama about drug dealer Monty Brogan’s last stretch of freedom was written before 9/11, but Brooklyn-bred Lee, who lived in Manhattan at the time, reworked it to reflect the mood of a dramatically altered city. Filmed after the attacks, Ground Zero features throughout; Lee makes Brogan’s father a firefighter who runs a bar adorned with tributes to dead colleagues; and the characters feel upended.
“Are you going to move?” Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Jacob asks Barry Pepper’s Frank.
“Fuck that. Bin Laden can drop another one,” replies Frank.
“That’s not really Frank talking,” Hoffman told Aftab. “That is 8 million New Yorkers saying: ‘We’re staying here.’”
The same urgency fuels BlacKkKlansman. Promotion has been Trump-heavy, beginning with Lee’s seething six-minute opening monologue about Charlottesville at its Cannes premiere in May. Three decades ago, Lee was just as angry about the same person, and the same issues. On 19 April 1989, a few weeks before Do the Right Thing’s release, white 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili was raped in Central Park, leaving her in a coma for 12 days, the trauma erasing all memory of the attack. Five male teenagers were apprehended – four of them African-American, one Hispanic – and on 1 May, in response, Trump (whose office overlooked the park) bought full-page ads in New York’s four major newspapers, railing against muggers and murderers and calling for the death penalty.
As Lee told Film Comment at the time, the rape of a black woman in Central Park days after garnered no such coverage. “Didn’t see no outcry,” he said. “I didn’t see Donald Trump taking any fucking ads out behind that shit.” The media had “whipped white New York into a frenzy”, he said, “and Donald Trump wasn’t helping”. Despite DNA from the scene not matching the suspects, who said their confessions were obtained under coercion, in May 1990 they were convicted and jailed. Their lawyers said Trump’s ads had inflamed public opinion. In 2002, a convicted serial rapist told the police he was solely responsible, and DNA confirmed it; the Central Park Five sued the city for emotional distress, winning $41m. Still, Trump refused to apologise, insisting the men were guilty, a claim he repeated while campaigning in 2016, saying their convictions should not have been overturned. John McCain called his comments “outrageous”.
“It comes from what Spike believes in, what he cares about,” says Willmott of these bookend parallels. “That’s the guiding force in all of this. When he was doing Do the Right Thing there was a certain kind of racial, political reality going on. With BlacKkKlansman there’s a different reality, but the same issues. You’re still fighting that same fight.” Charlottesville, he says, was “unfortunately, like a confirmation” of what their script was already warning of. As soon as he saw events there unfold, Lee wanted the footage to end the film.
“It’s a case where Spike Lee is going back to the incident in question and recasting it,” says Mask, “replaying it from a black community’s perspective, because our narratives are so rarely given exposure in the mainstream news.”
Lee presents genuine documentation elsewhere in BlacKkKlansman: a chilling sequence features Harry Belafonte detailing the real-life case of the 1916 mutilation, burning and lynching of mentally impaired black farmhand Jesse Washington, convicted of raping and murdering a white woman in Waco, Texas. It is Lee’s most powerful scene in years, made even more so by Belafonte and others displaying actual photographs of the aftermath. It echoes the climax of 2015’s gun-violence drama Chi-Raq, also written by Willmott and Lee, in which real members of Chicago’s parent advocacy group Purpose Over Pain hold up photos of their dead children, victims of gang warfare.
Melding drama with reality is nothing new for Lee: he began 1992’s Malcolm X biopic with footage of Rodney King’s beating, linking racism’s past and present before the film even started. “Throughout his oeuvre it’s been very effective,” Mask says of the technique. “What he’s been doing by incorporating this footage into these films is quite prescient in its anticipation of Black Lives Matter. He’s showing you: black film matters, because black representation matters, because black lives matter. So there is this clear link that he’s trying to make between representation and the value of black life in society, which is fundamentally undervalued in many ways. Even in Bamboozled, he uses real footage [of blackface minstrels] to remind people this is not just about entertainment; the events depicted are also about real lives.”
The Charlottesville footage is a horrific kicker at the end of BlacKkKlansman, the fourth wall destroyed, the story given context. Lee has never dilly-dallied with his messages. There is little subtext, and less subtlety, especially when he is fired up. “Yeah, we don’t try to be that subtle!” he laughed when an interviewer questioned his films’ directness in 2015. “Why pussyfoot around? Let’s get to the point!” But Jordan Peele’s instinct was right: it’s hard to think of anyone else who would be as brazenly head-on with this material.
BlacKkKlansman ends, as so many of Lee’s films do, with a howl. Sometimes they are figurative; sometimes literal, like Wesley Snipes’s scream, cradling a crack-ravaged prostitute at the end of Jungle Fever, or Jennifer Hudson’s collapse, confronted with her child’s killer, at the end of Chi-Raq. Almost his entire body of work is a howl. Today, it is louder than ever.