Spike Lee is accustomed to being ahead of the curve. Thirty years ago, his seminal slice of New York life, Do the Right Thing, spoke directly to social issues that the majority of mainstream movies preferred to avoid: issues like police brutality, racial violence and gentrification of urban neighborhoods. “We were talking about global warming in Do the Right Thing,” the filmmaker told Yahoo Entertainment in 2016. “There’s many things throughout that film. If you really study it, we were on it.”
Lee remained “on it” over the subsequent three decades, using his status as Hollywood’s pre-eminent black director to address interracial romance in Jungle Fever, black activism in Get on the Bus and black representation in movies and television in Bamboozled. In that time, his distinct voice was slowly, but steadily joined by others as more African-American filmmakers found their way into director’s chairs at the both the independent and studio level. Having helped pave the way for that diversity of new voices (think directors like Allen Hughes, Ava DuVernay and Dee Rees) Lee’s own career ebbed and flowed. Time didn’t diminish the sophistication or ferocity of his social commentary, but movies like Miracle at St. Anna, Red Hook Summer and Chi-Raq — which respectively tackled faith during wartime, sexual abuse within the church and Chicago gun violence — found themselves drowned out in the larger cinematic and cultural conversation.
In May 2018, though, Lee was once again heard loud and clear when his latest feature, BlacKkKlansman, debuted at the Cannes Film Festival — the same place where Do the Right Thing premiered 29 years earlier. A rollicking retelling of a “truth is crazier than fiction” real-world event, the movie stars John David Washington as Ron Stallworth, a black police officer who successfully infiltrated the Colorado Springs chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and even spoke directly with then-Grand Wizard David Duke (played by Topher Grace). Unlike Do the Right Thing, BlacKkKlansman didn’t originate as a Spike Lee joint. The director was brought onboard by one of his “descendants,” Get Out mastermind Jordan Peele. Lee inherited a script that had originally been penned by Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz, and set about collaborating with his Chi-Raq co-writer, Kevin Willmott, on a new draft.
All four writers are credited on the final film and, in truth, BlacKkKlansman feels like a movie that’s been through multiple sets of hands. The plot machinery occasionally stutters, and the tonal shifts can arrive at whiplash speed. Behind the camera, Lee has no qualms about stopping the movie’s momentum entirely to amplify other voices. Early on, Stallworth attends a speech by prominent civil rights activist Kwame Ture (played in the film by Corey Hawkins), and Lee cedes the screen to Ture’s words of black pride, with occasional cutaways to the enraptured audience. He does the same thing in a later sequence where Harry Belafonte delivers an extended monologue about the gruesome 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington — a speech that’s intercut with images of KKK members watching D.W. Griffith’s notorious silent feature The Birth of a Nation. These bookended sequences are vintage Spike Lee in the way they speak past the action happening onscreen directly to the audience in the seats.
But it’s BlacKkKlansman‘s coda where Lee’s twin powers as a provocateur and a preacher come together in a galvanizing way. The movie ends with Stallworth winning a small victory against the local KKK, only to be directly confronted with evidence — in the form of a burning cross — that the larger battle is still unfolding. Lee then cuts directly from his recreation of 1970 to all-too-real footage from the 2017 Charlottesville riots that erupted in the wake of a “Unite the Right” rally that brought together members of alt-right and white nationalist groups. The racially charged violence turned that Virginia city into a combat zone involving rally participants, protestors and the local police. The melee resulted in numerous casualties and the death of activist Heather Heyer, who was struck by a car driven by James Fields Jr. (After a lengthy trial, Fields was sentenced to life in prison in December 2018.)
BlacKkKlansman‘s final shot is a tribute to Heyer — an image that Lee knew he was working towards before shooting a frame of footage. “That was the end of the film. It had to be the end of the film,” he told Yahoo Entertainment last August, adding that he personally received the blessing of Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, to memorialize her daughter onscreen. “With this crazy news cycle, stuff gets forgotten — and I don’t want people forgetting the life of Heather Heyer. I don’t want people to forget this act of homegrown American terrorism that murdered Heather Heyer. You can’t forget that stuff.”
Released one year after Charlottesville, BlackKklansman was the first narrative feature to directly connect the riot to America’s long history of racial unrest — in much the same way that 2002’s 25th Hour was one of the earliest movies to depict the impact of the 9/11 attacks on New York City’s psyche. And Lee didn’t hesitate from calling out the man he viewed as stoking the country’s long-simmering racial animus: Donald Trump or, as the director prefers to label him, Agent Orange. The epilogue pointedly includes Trump’s infamous quote about there being “very fine people on both sides” of the riots, which was widely interpreted as a tacit endorsement—rather than an outright condemnation—of white supremacist groups.
“That’s the one that did it,” Lee said of Trump’s eyebrow-raising statement. “Agent Orange had a chance to condemn the Klan, the alt-right, Neo Nazis. But he didn’t do it! He may have retracted that statement a couple days later, but for me, whatever comes out of his mouth the first time, that’s his heart. That’s what he believes in — not the retraction.” Asked whether he’d accept an invitation to the White House to screen BlacKkKlansman for Trump and his staff, Lee issued a flat “No.” That said, he was all for a private Presidential screening that he wouldn’t have to attend. “I do think they should screen this film at the White House. And I think Agent Orange should invite David Duke, because they’re both in it! We’re not even gonna charge them. They should watch it. All the Republicans, too; all his cronies — all of them.”
It’s unlikely that Trump will ever see BlacKkKlansman, but general audiences turned out in force for the film. The film grossed nearly $50 million domestically and another $40 million overseas, making it the second highest-grossing movie of Lee’s career behind 2006’s Inside Man. And in January, the film received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director — the first time that Lee has ever been nominated for the latter statue. (He received an Honorary Oscar in 2015.) That nod comes three decades after voters failed to nominate him for Do the Right Thing and also ignored the film itself — a snub so egregious, Kim Basinger famously called the Academy out while presenting the award for Best Original Score. To his credit, Lee never stopped speaking through his art. And after BlacKkKlansman, it looks like Hollywood is once again ready to listen.
Watch: Spike Lee’s takes us on a guided tour of his career in Director’s Reel:
Yahoo Entertainment’s Diversity in Hollywood 2019 Report
Part 1: Where we are, how far we have to go and how we can get there
Part 2: By the numbers
Part 3: Why it’s time for change and 5 possible solutions
Part 4: Crossroads at the Oscars
Part 5: The future is now
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