It‚Äôs a cool June day in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and seemingly everybody on DeKalb Avenue wants to say hi to Spike Lee. A woman smiles and waves as Lee and I squeeze past her flock of tiny children. People middle-aged or older and of various races‚ÄĒall of them, from the looks of it, old-school, no-bullshit New York types‚ÄĒnod our way. A couple of hipsterish white guys smile hello as we cross the street. A barkeep waves.
Lee, 61, breezes through it all, talking and walking at an athletic pace. He‚Äôs got on Nike track pants and a red-and-black jacket emblazoned with the name of his production company, 40 Acres & a Mule, whose South Elliott Place headquarters we‚Äôre headed to. We pass Fort Greene Park‚Äôs rolling hillocks, specked with sunbathers, Frisbee nerds, and the occasional kissing couple‚ÄĒmost of them young, white. A black postman, face beaming as he crosses our path, waves and says, ‚ÄúHey, how ya doing, Spike?‚ÄĚ in a chipper, bushy-tailed voice.
‚ÄúYou‚Äôll remember the park if you‚Äôve seen the movie,‚ÄĚ Lee says. He‚Äôs talking She‚Äôs Gotta Have It, his provocative debut feature from 1986 about the sexual liberation of a young black woman named Nola Darling. ‚ÄúShot that in 12 days,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúI didn‚Äôt know what I was doing.‚ÄĚ
When we meet, he‚Äôs 10 days into a 47-day shoot for Season of Netflix‚Äôs TV adaptation of the movie. It‚Äôs filming just a few blocks behind us, in front of what was once Lee‚Äôs middle school. I came to talk to Lee about his new work. Somehow, I got a brief tour of his life‚ÄĒmarking a 34-year career arc from the crisp, stylish black-and-white Nola Darling of the 80s to the 5K episodic version you can stream on your cell phone‚ÄĒwith a quick detour through Lee‚Äôs adolescence besides. Back in 1985, Lee, three years out of N.Y.U. film school, shot the original for $175,000. The new show likely burns through more than that in a single day, if last season‚Äôs budget is any indication, a sign of Netflix‚Äôs deep pockets but also an indication of how much has changed in the last three decades in Fort Greene, certainly, and especially for Spike Lee.
Lee has made more than 20 features, including consensus classics like Malcolm X, whizbang moneymakers like Inside Man, overlooked curiosities like Girl 6, and contentious political agitations like Bamboozled. He‚Äôs made flashy studio pictures and crowd-funded art-house fodder, epic documentaries, Nike commercials, music videos, and teleplays, TV shows, TV movies, short films, a video game.
He‚Äôs lost money, made money, harnessed public outrage, caused public outrage. This summer, Lee will release a new movie, BlacKkKlansman, that‚Äôs poised to accomplish any and every combination of the above. Set in the 70s, the film spins the at times wickedly funny but ultimately terrifying story of Ron Stallworth, the first black detective in the history of the Colorado Springs Police Department‚ÄĒand the first, as far as Lee knows, to go undercover in the K.K.K.
The premise sounds like a comedy sketch‚ÄĒspecifically, Dave Chappelle‚Äôs Clayton Bigsby, the blind black man who becomes a white supremacist. Unlike Bigsby, Stallworth is very much real, and so are the Klan members with whom he brushes shoulders, chief among them the leader of the organization: David Duke. It‚Äôs a story that, dancing along the knife‚Äôs edge of realism and satire, demands a director of great style and even greater imagination. If it hadn‚Äôt been a Spike Lee Joint, you‚Äôd probably cite him as an influence without even seeing it, so squarely does it tie into his artistic identity.
To say nothing of American identity. The movie opens on August 10: the eve of the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville riots, which began as a Unite the Right rally of white supremacists, including Duke. It is one of the first films that can really be called a reaction to the Trump era. Yet when we finally sit down in 40 Acres‚Äô spacious third-floor loft, Lee tells me it didn‚Äôt begin as his project. ‚ÄúJordan Peele called me,‚ÄĚ he says. Peele hired Lee to re-write BlacKkKlansman and direct it for the production company Blumhouse.
The project is nevertheless very much Lee‚Äôs: an archive of racial agitation that actively puts itself in conversation with movies such as Gone with the Wind and D. W. Griffith‚Äôs The Birth of a Nation. It pivots through the radical, sudden shifts in tone Lee is known for, nimbly but disorientingly balancing comedy and tragedy.
That‚Äôs another word Lee refuses to use: ‚Äúcomedy.‚ÄĚ He‚Äôs adamant that it mischaracterizes what he‚Äôs going for. ‚ÄúI never saw it as a funny film,‚ÄĚ he tells me, offering up a rapid-fire list of directors who, like him, have made passionate, serious moral tales with high doses of humor: Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove), Sidney Lumet (Network), Elia Kazan (A Face in the Crowd), and Billy Wilder (Stalag 17). ‚ÄúIt is possible,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs been done before. They have very serious subject matter with humor. I‚Äôm not using the word ‚Äėcomedy.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
Lee may as well have listed a number of his own movies to prove the same point, starting with She‚Äôs Gotta Have It and up to and including his more recent features, like 2015‚Äôs Chi-Raq, which got itself into trouble as early as the release of its first trailer for seeming too glib and colorful a take on Chicago gun violence. One of BlacKkKlansman‚Äôs singular triumphs is that its mishmash of tones and ideas adds up to something urgent, material, real. You walk away assured of its ideas: just as it begins to make history feel like burning satire, it suddenly, violently tears through the boundary between the two. What feels most outlandish in this movie is in fact what‚Äôs closest to truth.
Lee‚Äôs naming of the storied white directors who‚Äôve come before him to this end has a curious effect: less that he‚Äôs worried we‚Äôll drop him from the canon than that he dares us to try. I tend to pretty much agree with that assessment. Lee is one of the most distinctive voices working in American movies, certainly in my lifetime. That‚Äôs in part because his films tackle problems those other great mainstream directors barely, or only rarely, touched: when it comes to race, Hollywood has largely favored milquetoast liberal solutionism and left the radical ideas to the scrappy independents. And how Lee does it is equally essential. You could pick his style out of a crowd with ease: the stuttery editing, the constant music, the red-hot flashes of loquacious, moralistic anger. Lee imbues his movies with a style befitting his black, Brooklynite, and, yes, decidedly middle-class upbringing. The mere idea of his movies has meaning.
But critics and frustrated audiences, not nearly as taken with Lee‚Äôs recent work as they were with his fabulous run in the 80s and 90s, are quick to remember that it‚Äôs been a while since Lee‚Äôs last ‚Äúhit‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒwhatever that word means. Lee‚Äôs singularity has surely increased with time. Chi-Raq took the bare bones of Aristophanes‚Äôs 2,425-year-old comedy Lysistrata and applied them to modern urban life, versified dialogue and all. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, from 2014, remade the grit-streaked 70s cult classic Ganja & Hess, a vampiric black romance, through the glossy fantasy of 21st-century black luxury.
‚ÄúI never saw it as a funny film,‚ÄĚ Lee says. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm not using the word ‚Äėcomedy.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
Lee probably has movies like these in mind when he bristles at the slightest comparison to other directors. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm not like most filmmakers, and the films I make aren‚Äôt like most films,‚ÄĚ he says, adding: ‚ÄúWhether people think that‚Äôs good or bad, that‚Äôs just the way it is!‚ÄĚ
Back on the set of She‚Äôs Gotta Have It, I watched as Lee filmed a scene of Nola Darling‚ÄĒnow played by the confident young actress DeWanda Wise‚ÄĒresponding to the bitter pill of criticism. (As in the movie, Nola Darling is a painter.) I watched as her director observed each take from a video monitor across the street.
‚ÄúI will always be defensive about my shit,‚ÄĚ Nola says, in two takes, then three, increasingly passionate. ‚ÄúEspecially when I feel like it‚Äôs misrepresented or misunderstood.‚ÄĚ
Lee nodded along, silently.
Spike Lee remembers his critics. He remembers, for example, that David Denby‚ÄĒon the occasion of Do the Right Thing‚Äôs 1989 release‚ÄĒwrote in New York magazine that the film would likely incite racial violence. He remembers, too, that in the same issue of New York, Joe Klein suggested David Dinkins‚ÄĒthe future black mayor of New York‚ÄĒwould have to answer to Lee‚Äôs movie, or else risk losing the election. ‚ÄúThey said blood was on my hands,‚ÄĚ Lee tells me. ‚ÄúThat a stick of dynamite was under every seat. To the white audience, one of them said, ‚ÄėJust hope this doesn‚Äôt open up in your neighborhood.‚Äô Come on, that‚Äôs horrible.‚ÄĚ
I didn‚Äôt say so to Lee, but I sensed an alternative read on these infamous remarks‚ÄĒthough, granted, one obscured by the faulty assumptions about race and violence at their core. In a roundabout way, Denby, Klein, and others were suggesting that Lee has his finger on the pulse of a widespread, racially specific political rage. Their contention wasn‚Äôt that Lee‚Äôs movie would invent black anger wholesale, but rather that a movie like Do the Right Thing was incisive enough, even persuasive enough, to serve as a tipping point. His movies of the 80s and 90s were immediate in that way. There were riots‚ÄĒthe Bensonhurst demonstrations in 1989, the Crown Heights riots of 1991‚ÄĒbut Lee‚Äôs movie was a symptom of that same anger, not the cause.
If, for you, the endgame of political art is a shift in politics‚ÄĒliterally‚ÄĒyou‚Äôd be inclined to say that Lee‚Äôs power as an artist is somewhat limited. On the other hand, when, years later, footage of the suffocating Eric Garner saying ‚ÄúI can‚Äôt breathe,‚ÄĚ with a police officer‚Äôs knee pressed into his back, made the news, many of us found power in returning to the obvious cultural touch point: Do the Right Thing and the death of Radio Raheem. That‚Äôs political, even if it‚Äôs not politics per se.
Maybe Lee doesn‚Äôt see it that way. When I asked if he wants BlacKkKlansman to make money or have a social impact, he says, simply, ‚ÄúI am a storyteller.‚ÄĚ Meaning: don‚Äôt limit this to politics‚ÄĒor money.
In Lee‚Äôs movie, the story of Ron Stallworth begins with the chipper young detective (played by John David Washington, son of Denzel) walking into the Colorado Springs Police Department under the auspice of a ‚ÄúMinorities encouraged to apply‚ÄĚ banner. After getting hired, he‚Äôs initially assigned to the record room‚ÄĒuntil the Trinidadian-American radical black activist Stokely Carmichael, by that time known as Kwame Ture, Civil Rights icon and coiner of the phrase ‚ÄúBlack Power,‚ÄĚ is invited to Colorado Springs to give a speech by the Colorado College black student union.
‚ÄúWe don‚Äôt want this Carmichael getting into the minds of the good black people of Colorado Springs,‚ÄĚ says Stallworth‚Äôs boss, Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke). So they send him undercover: to spy on Ture‚Äôs speech and get a feel for whether he‚Äôs inciting the crowd to violence, particularly against the police. At least, it starts that way‚ÄĒbut of course the double bind of a black police officer is in the mutual, completely opposed loyalties to both black people and the police. ‚ÄúI always wanted to be a cop,‚ÄĚ Stallworth confesses late in the movie, ‚Äúand I‚Äôm still for the liberation of my people.‚ÄĚ That last part is thanks, at least a little, to Ture‚Äôs speech. It‚Äôs one of the best scenes in the movie. ‚ÄúIt is time for you to stop running away from being black,‚ÄĚ preaches Ture at the rally, and smartly, Lee cuts back repeatedly to Stallworth, who appears to take those words in as if directly implicated‚ÄĒand to the faces of the black students in the crowd, rising into their self-pride at Ture‚Äôs words.
Stallworth eventually lands himself in the intelligence department at work, and it‚Äôs here that he concocts the hilarious, dangerous idea to call the K.K.K. and see what happens. The logic goes that if the police are going to spy on black radicals, they ought to spy on white ones, too. And so, Stallworth puts on his best white voice‚ÄĒwhich, cannily, isn‚Äôt so different‚ÄĒand calls up a Klan recruiter. ‚ÄúSo, what‚Äôs your story?‚ÄĚ the recruiter asks, after some chit-chat. ‚ÄúWell, since you asked,‚ÄĚ Stallworth says, ‚ÄúI hate niggers.‚ÄĚ He ends the call with a hearty ‚ÄúGod bless white America.‚ÄĚ
It‚Äôs the central joke of BlacKkKlansman that everyone in the Klan is certain they‚Äôre talking to a white guy. He has to be, their logic goes, because blackness is a behavior, not just a skin color, and these men are so sure they can pick out its qualities, they think they can identify that blackness over the phone. Says David Duke: ‚ÄúI can always tell when I‚Äôm talking to a negro.‚ÄĚ
The story takes us all the way up the food chain to Duke himself thanks to a cockamamie scheme in which Stallworth continues his phone correspondence with the Klan and sends his colleague, Flip Zimmerman (played by Adam Driver)‚ÄĒwho‚Äôs white and Jewish‚ÄĒto play ‚ÄúRon Stallworth‚ÄĚ at the Klan meet-ups. Being Jewish isn‚Äôt exactly desirable for the Klan, either, and Zimmerman, whom some members suspect from the start, is at one point pushed to show a Klan member his penis. ‚ÄúI hear you Jews do something weird with your dick,‚ÄĚ says one. ‚ÄúIs your dick circumstanced?‚ÄĚ
But they aren‚Äôt all idiots. As David Duke, Topher Grace, previously best known for playing Eric Forman on That ‚Äô70s Show, is just this side of ‚ÄúHi, Neighbor!‚ÄĚ It‚Äôs disconcerting. ‚ÄúEvil can present itself in so many different ways,‚ÄĚ Grace tells me. And indeed, the structure of BlacKkKlansman‚Äôs script, as he pointed out, smartly front-loads the first half of the movie with variations on the stereotypical Southern hick, providing a pitch-perfect role for Paul Walter Hauser, for example, who lit up the screen last year, in I, Tonya, as Jeff Gillooly‚Äôs idiotic crime conspirator Shawn Eckardt.
Duke is different. Duke, says Grace, ‚Äúhad a new idea of what direction the Klan should go in. It was like a rebranding. Like a lot of terrible, terrible leaders, he‚Äôs intelligent and very media-savvy. As it‚Äôs stated in the film, he always wears a three-piece suit.‚ÄĚ By the time he enters the movie, Grace‚Äôs Duke comes off as the chipperest white supremacist you ever did see. It‚Äôs a key to the movie‚Äôs structure. ‚ÄúWhen David enters the film it‚Äôs kind of how he entered being in the scene at the time,‚ÄĚ Grace says. ‚ÄúWe showed what racism was and then it was clear that if he‚Äôs not in the beginning, it‚Äôs more interesting to show a different take on that hatred.‚ÄĚ
I asked Grace what it was like to play a white supremacist‚ÄĒespecially now, for a monumental director like Lee. ‚ÄúThere are zero other directors that I would have played this role for,‚ÄĚ Grace tells me. Lee, he says, puts a primacy on his actors‚Äô comfort, not least because of the conflict-ridden nature of the movie. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a very delicate tone, and you can feel really nervous as a performer putting yourself out there if it‚Äôs not going to work. But when you know someone like that has your back, you can take the leap.‚ÄĚ
Lee tells me he‚Äôs sympathetic to the difficulty of the role. ‚ÄúI understand, No. 1, that there‚Äôs a concern to play characters that may not be the nicest people in the world and therefore there‚Äôs language they‚Äôre being asked to say which is horrible.‚ÄĚ He recalls, with a laugh, John Turturro‚Äôs concern over playing the racist son of Sal in Do the Right Thing. But then the movie came out. ‚Äú‚ÄėSpike, Spike, people love me now!,‚Äô‚ÄĚ says Lee, imitating Turturro. ‚Äú‚ÄėI mean I got major love.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
Grace can expect the same; the performance is one of the movie‚Äôs most satisfying, as it gets at what racism looks like when it polishes up, professionalizes. It‚Äôs a funny counterpoint to Washington, whose performance is also less self-tortured than you might expect of a man caught, existentially and professionally, between two worlds. That playfulness with tone, Washington told me, is what makes it a Spike Lee movie.
‚ÄúIt doesn‚Äôt feel like a comedy,‚ÄĚ Washington says, ‚Äúby no stretch of the imagination. But there were moments‚ÄĒreal life; in-character moments‚ÄĒthat stuck personally as John David. I laughed even when it‚Äôs kind of serious, on the satire vibe. You know what I mean?‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúBasically,‚ÄĚ says Washington, ‚Äúwhat I was learning from him is that there is no one way to get to the honest truth.‚ÄĚ
The difficulty of some of Lee‚Äôs recent work is that his storytelling can take forms that grate against our sense of what we, the politically aware public, feel we need. Lee‚Äôs writing partner Kevin Willmott says that‚Äôs part of the point. ‚ÄúThis is the challenge‚ÄĒthe challenge that audiences, both black and white audiences, have to grapple with. There‚Äôs truth to be had there.‚ÄĚ Which isn‚Äôt the same as saying we have to accept the movie on its director‚Äôs terms, though many of us will. At Cannes this year, BlacKkKlansman won the Grand Prix‚ÄĒeffectively second place. Director Ava DuVernay, a confessed lifelong fan of Lee‚Äôs work, was on the jury, and she told me its members were more or less on the same page about the movie. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs the first film by an auteur of the Trump era,‚ÄĚ she says, ‚Äúa filmmaker directing their camera right on the crosshairs of this moment in a way that‚Äôs very specific.‚ÄĚ
The movie garnered positive notices in the press, though words like ‚Äúuneven‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúmess‚ÄĚ came up their fair share. At least one black American critic, Miriam Bale, walked away dismayed. ‚ÄúThe film seems one-note and superficial,‚ÄĚ she wrote for W magazine, ‚Äúlike a Saturday Night Live sketch, or more accurately like something from Key & Peele.‚ÄĚ Cannes was, for her, notable for having so few black critics in attendance‚ÄĒand this, she suggests, might explain the generally upbeat tenor of the reviews. This debate is likely to play out again when the film is released in the States. Lee opens the movie with that famous wide shot from Gone with the Wind, where an astonished, terrified Scarlett O‚ÄôHara lumbers into a sea of Confederate casualties. It closes just as aggressively, seamlessly transitioning into footage from Charlottesville, tiki-torch-filled images that have already seeped deep into the public consciousness. Some will find this gauche, at best.
‚ÄúWe knew that would be the key: that if we connect this period film to today, we would have a good chance for it doing well,‚ÄĚ Lee says. The ending is an explicit attempt to accomplish that and then some. Does it overplay its hand? Depends on whom‚ÄĒand when‚ÄĒyou ask. His more provocative movies, Lee reminds me optimistically, aren‚Äôt usually appreciated in their time. ‚ÄúSometimes films don‚Äôt click, audiences don‚Äôt get it right away,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúPeople did not get Bamboozled. They didn‚Äôt get it. They get it now!‚ÄĚ
As for BlacKkKlansman‚Äôs prospects, Lee doesn‚Äôt seem worried. I ask if he thinks the movie will find the audience it deserves in the U.S. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm not gonna jinx anything,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm not messing with the cinema gods. I‚Äôm hoping for the best. And that‚Äôs my answer.‚ÄĚ