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“I’m Not Like Most Filmmakers”: Spike Lee on BlacKkKlansman, the Trump Era, and More

Photo: Maciek Jasik

It’s a cool June day in quiet Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and seemingly every person 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 – all of them, from the looks of it, old-school, straight-up New York types – nod our way. A couple of hipsterish white guys smile hello as we cross the street. A shopkeeper waves.

Lee, 61, breezes through it all, talking and walking at an athletic pace. He’s wearing 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’re headed to. We pass Fort Greene Park’s rolling hillocks, specked with sunbathers, Frisbee nerds, and the occasional couple – most of them young, white. A black postman, face beaming as he crosses our path, waves and says, “Hey, how ya doing, Spike?” in a chipper, bushy-tailed voice.

Originally printed in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue of Vogue Man Arabia.

“You’ll remember the park if you’ve seen the movie,” Lee says. He’s talking about She’s Gotta Have It, his provocative debut feature from 1986 about the liberation of a young black woman named Nola Darling. “Shot that in 12 days,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”

When we meet, he’s 10 days into a 47-day shoot for season two of Netflix’s TV adaptation of the movie. It’s filming just a few blocks behind us, in front of what was once Lee’s middle school. I came to talk to Lee about his new work. Somehow, I got a brief tour of his life – marking a 34-year career arc from the crisp, stylish black-and-white Nola Darling of the 80s to the high- resolution episodic version you can stream on your cell phone – with a quick detour through Lee’s adolescence besides. Back in 1985, Lee, three years out of NYU film school, shot the original for $175 000. The new show likely burns through more than that in a single day, if last season’s budget is any indication, a sign of Netflix’s 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 classics like Malcolm X, whizbang moneymakers like Inside Man, overlooked curiosities like Girl 6, and contentious political agitations like Bamboozled. He’s made ashy 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’s lost money, made money, harnessed public outrage, caused public outrage. Last summer, Lee released a new movie, BlacKkKlansman, that was 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 – and the first, as far as Lee knows, to go undercover in the KKK.

Photo: Maciek Jasik

The premise sounds a bit like a comedy sketch – specifically, Dave Chappelle’s 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’s a story that, dancing along the knife’s edge of realism and satire, demands a director of great style and even greater imagination. If it hadn’t been a Spike Lee Joint, you’d 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 opened on 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’ spacious third-floor loft, Lee tells me it didn’t begin as his project. “Jordan Peele called me,” he says. Peele hired Lee to rewrite BlacKkKlansman and direct it for the production company Blumhouse.

The project is nevertheless very much Lee’s: an archive of racial agitation that actively puts itself in conversation with movies such as Gone with the Wind and DW Griffith’s 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’s another word Lee refuses to use: “comedy.” He’s adamant that it mischaracterizes what he’s going for. “I never saw it as a funny film,” 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), Elia Kazan (A Face in the Crowd), and Billy Wilder (Stalag 17). “It is possible,” he says. “It’s been done before. They have very serious subject matter with humor. I’m not using the word ‘comedy.’”

Lee may as well have listed a number of his own movies to prove the same point, starting with She’s Gotta Have It and up to and including his more recent features, like 2015’s 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’s 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’s closest to truth.

BlacKkKlansman, 2018.

Lee’s naming of the storied white directors who’ve come before him to this end has a curious effect: less that he’s worried we’ll 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’s 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 stutter editing, the constant music, the red-hot ashes 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’s recent work as they were with his fabulous run in the 80s and 90s, are quick to remember that it’s been a while since Lee’s last “hit” – whatever that word means. Lee’s singularity has surely increased with time. Chi-Raq took the bare bones of Aristophanes’s 2 425-year-old comedy Lysistrata and applied them to modern life, versified dialogue and all.

Lee probably has movies like these in mind when he bristles at the slightest comparison to other directors. “I’m not like most filmmakers, and the films I make aren’t like most films,” he says, adding: “Whether people think that’s good or bad, that’s just the way it is!” Back on the set of She’s Gotta Have It, I watched as Lee filmed a scene of Nola Darling – now played by DeWanda Wise – responding to the bitter pill of criticism. I watched as her director observed each take from a video monitor across the street. “I will always be defensive about my stuff,” Nola says, in two takes, then three, increasingly passionate. “Especially when I feel like it’s misrepresented or misunderstood.” Lee nodded along, silently.

Spike Lee remembers his critics. He remembers, for example, that David Denby – on the occasion of Do the Right Thing’s 1989 release – wrote that the lm would likely incite racial violence. He remembers, too, that writer Joe Klein suggested David Dinkins – the future black mayor of New York – would have to answer to Lee’s movie, or else risk losing the election. “They said blood was on my hands,” Lee tells me. “That a stick of dynamite was under every seat. To the white audience, one of them said, ‘Just hope this doesn’t open up in your neighborhood.’ Come on, that’s horrible.”

I didn’t say so to Lee, but I sensed an alternative read on these infamous remarks – though, 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 had his finger on the pulse of a widespread, racially specific political rage. Their contention wasn’t that Lee’s movie would invent black anger wholesale, but rather that it was incisive enough, even persuasive enough, to serve as a tipping point. His movies of the 80s and 90s were immediate in that way. Lee’s movie was a symptom of that anger, not the cause.

If, for you, the endgame of political art is a shift in politics, you’d be inclined to say that Lee’s power as an artist is limited. On the other hand, when, years later, footage of the suffocating Eric Garner saying, “I can’t breathe,” with a police officer’s 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’s political, even if it’s not politics per se. Maybe Lee doesn’t see it that way. When I asked if he wants BlacKkKlansman to make money or have a social impact, he says, simply, “I am a storyteller.” Meaning: Don’t limit this to politics – or money.

The difficulty of some of Lee’s recent work is that it can take forms that grate against our sense of what we, the politically aware public, feel we need. Lee’s writing partner Kevin Willmott says that’s part of the point. “This is the challenge that audiences, black and white, have to grapple with. There’s truth to be had there.” Which isn’t the same as saying we have to accept the movie on its director’s terms, though many of us will. At Cannes this year, BlacKkKlansman won the Grand Prix. Director Ava DuVernay, a lifelong fan of Lee’s work, was on the jury, and she told me its members were more or less on the same page about the movie. “It’s the first film by an auteur of the Trump era,” she says, “a filmmaker directing their camera right on the crosshairs of this moment in a way that’s very specific.” The movie garnered positive notices in the press, though words like “uneven” and “mess” came up their fair share. At least one black American critic, Miriam Bale, walked away dismayed. “The film seems one-note and superficial,” she wrote for W magazine, “like a Saturday Night Live sketch.” Cannes was, for her, notable for having so few black critics in attendance – and this, she suggests, might explain the generally upbeat tenor of the reviews. This debate is likely to continue. Lee opens the movie with that famous wide shot from Gone with the Wind, where an astonished, terrified Scarlett O’Hara 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.

“We 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,” Lee says. The ending is an explicit attempt to accomplish that and then some. Does it overplay its hand? Depends on whom – and when – you ask. His more provocative movies, Lee reminds me, aren’t usually appreciated in their time. “Sometimes films don’t click, audiences don’t get it right away,” he says. “People did not get Bamboozled. They get it now!” I ask if he thinks BlacKkKlansman will find the audience it deserves. “I’m not gonna jinx anything,” he says. “I’m not messing with the cinema gods. I’m hoping for the best. And that’s my answer.”

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