Spike Lee Turns a Period Piece Into a Protest of the Trump Era

Posted May 15, 2018 6:38 p.m. EDT

CANNES, France — On Tuesday, Spike Lee shook up the Cannes Film Festival all over again.

The last time he rocked it this hard was in 1989 when he was here with “Do the Right Thing.” This time, the film is “BlacKkKlansman,” which tells the weirder-than-life true tale of Ron Stallworth, a former intelligence officer with the Colorado Springs Police Department who in 1979 infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. The twist? Stallworth is African-American, which is only the start of a story that finds him making a fool of white supremacist David Duke. The less-surprising twist is that it’s very much about the American present — a direct, furious protest against the Trump era.

Ron is played by John David Washington, who can sound uncannily like his father, Denzel, the star of Lee’s “Malcolm X.” Ron infiltrates the Klan with the help of a colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who pals around with Klan members in person in scenes that are by turns surreal, absurd and hair-raising.

I met Lee the morning after the film’s premiere on the terrace of the Carlton, one of the grand hotels that look out over the Mediterranean. Wearing a black ball cap and denim jacket, he was in a good mood, often breaking into deep, rolling laughter. “I’ve always had fun at Cannes,” he said, soon after sitting down. “This is the world’s greatest film festival — it’s like when people come to Madison Square Garden to see the Knicks — this is the mecca.”

Lee has now had five movies at Cannes, but he hasn’t been in the official program since 2002 and the anthology feature “Ten Minutes Older.” When “Do the Right Thing” played at Cannes it didn’t win any awards, and the jury led by Wim Wenders bestowed the festival’s top honors on Steven Soderbergh’s “sex, lies, and videotape,” causing Lee to famously assert that he had been robbed. A prize might have been nice, but he didn’t need the festival’s blessing; “Do the Right Thing” became a cultural touchstone, an essential work in Lee’s enduring, electric career.

In 2017 he was in the middle of production on the first season of the Netflix series “She’s Gotta Have It” (based on his film), when he received a call from Jordan Peele, the director of “Get Out,” about the project that became “BlacKkKlansman.”

“Spike, I’ve got this script,” Lee recalled Peele saying. “I want you to take a look at it.'” Lee said that there was a lot that already worked in it (Peele is among the producers of the film) but that he along with one of his co-writers, Kevin Willmott, had to put their stamp on it. “Jordan Peele and his guys came to me because they wanted a Spike Lee Joint.”

To do so, Lee continued, he and Willmott had to link Stallworth’s story with the present. “It cannot be just a history lesson,” Lee said. “It has to be contemporary. So that was the hip thing that we did. Otherwise it’s a period piece. We had to connect David Duke to Agent Orange today.”

This is the name Lee uses to refer to President Donald Trump, whom he did not mention by name during our conversation. Lee happily credits musician Busta Rhymes for the nickname Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War: “Shoutout to Busta,” he said, laughing. Lee worked with colleagues who have helped him turn his vision into cinema before, including Terence Blanchard, his longtime composer. For this film, though, he brought on a new cinematographer, Chayse Irvin, who shot Beyoncé's “Lemonade.”

“BlacKkKlansman” has a great, strange story that keeps you off-balance — you seek footing as it shifts between comedy and horror — but it also has moments of serene loveliness. When a guest of the student union, Kwame Ture (aka Stokely Carmichael), begins speaking about black beauty, Lee folds in floating close-ups of men and women whose halolike Afros create a sense of near-holiness.

“I wanted to show black is beautiful,” Lee said. “Not to denigrate anyone else, but white America has been told through 100 years-plus of cinema that white people are the epitome of beauty, the standard.”

Cinema is a critical, intellectual touchstone in “BlacKkKlansman.” Pointedly, the film opens with a legendary scene from “Gone With the Wind” (1939) in which a stunned Scarlett O’Hara walks past a multitude of wounded and dying soldiers as the camera moves up and up, finally stopping on a tattered, still-flying Confederate flag. Lee also incorporates images from D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), which he saw when he was a student at New York University.

“What got me mad,” Lee said, “is that they only talked about Griffith and not the effect that film had. ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ undeniably, led to the rebirth of the Klan. So you can see, directly or indirectly, people were killed because of that film. It never came up.”

While he was a student, Lee made a short, “The Answer,” about an African-American screenwriter who’s hired for a remake of “The Birth of a Nation.” Lee said that his teachers weren’t pleased with his film and that he was almost expelled. He is now a tenured professor at NYU, and while he doesn’t show “Birth” to his students, he thinks it should be seen with the right historical context.

Lee had finished shooting “BlacKkKlansman” when a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August grew violent. He turns sober as he speaks about that weekend and Trump’s divisive response. “That’s his definitive moment,” Lee said. “That’s going on his tombstone. He had the opportunity to show the moral leadership that we need,” adding, “He would not repudiate the Nazis, the Klan and the alt-right. He did not do that. That’s what the president is supposed to do.” Lee then added, “All these Jewish people supporting him, don’t they understand that he’s aligned with the people who tried to wipe them off the face of the earth?”

The intensity with which Lee spoke about Trump and Charlottesville finds a corollary in a section of “BlacKkKlansman” that incorporates some of the rally’s most agonizing images. These include the death of Heather D. Heyer, who had been part of an anti-racism counterprotest.

“I called up Heather’s mother, Susan Bro,” Lee said. “I was not going to put that in unless she gave me her blessing.” He gave her his sympathies and then said, “'Mrs. Bro, I want to end ‘BlacKkKlansman’ with the murder of your daughter.'” Lee said after a silence, she told him: “Spike, put it in.” The film, he continued, opens in August, a year after Charlottesville. “That’s what this film is about,” he said. “It’s about today. Are we going to go forward or backward?”