Nearly 30 years ago, the fiery filmmaker lost out on the festival's biggest award, for 'Do the Right Thing' (and no, he hasn't forgiven jury president Wim Wenders). Now he's back with another button-pushing look at race relations — with Jordan Peele on board as a producer — that's made more urgent by Charlottesville and the president, whom he calls a man "on the wrong side of history."
Sitting in the back seat of an Escalade en route to Brooklyn, Spike Lee can't help but offer direction. "So, you're gonna take the FDR?" the director asks as his driver pulls away from Lee's Upper East Side townhouse and heads downtown.
"If you know a shorter way, then ya know. You're a Brooklyn guy," the driver says.
"Nah, nah, 59th Street Bridge," Lee concedes after closing his eyes, mapping out the route in his head and considering the morning's prevailing traffic patterns. "OK, go ahead."
Though Lee moved to Manhattan nearly 20 years ago, he still makes the trek most days to his 40 Acres & a Mule offices in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he is putting the finishing touches on BlacKkKlansman, which will have its world premiere in competition at the Cannes Film Festival on May 14.
Based on a memoir by Ron Stallworth, BlacKkKlansman centers on an African-American cop who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, duped Grand Wizard David Duke and even became the head of a local chapter in Colorado. John David Washington, son of Lee's three-time collaborator Denzel Washington, stars as Stallworth, and Adam Driver plays his partner on the police force. The Focus Features film promises to be the hottest button on the Croisette because of the renewed visibility of the Klan in the wake of last summer's Charlottesville Unite the Right rally that left one counter-protester, 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer, dead. (The film will be released Aug. 10, the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville mayhem.) And given that it could also speak to the rise of the far right throughout Europe, the film boosts the prospects of Lee finally capturing the Palme d'Or — an honor that he still feels was unfairly denied him for Do the Right Thing nearly 30 years ago.
Wearing a jean jacket with more patches than a Boy Scout uniform and a pair of Kendrick Lamar's "Don't Trip" Nike Cortez sneakers, Lee looks younger than his 61 years, and he remains every bit the political provocateur who uses his films to diagnose the national mood while pressing for change. He blames President Trump for the reawakening of nativism that was on ugly display in Charlottesville. "I just think that his dog whistle stuff has given these people that 'Come out,'" he says. "They get the signal. That's what happened in Charlottesville." As for Trump's post-Charlottesville statements, Lee's even more damning, adding, "Agent Orange refused to repudiate the Klan, the alt-right and the Nazis. 'There's good people on both sides.' That's going to be on his gravestone. He's on the wrong side of history."
Though Stallworth's story is four decades old — making it a veritable period piece — BlacKkKlansman came together in record time by Hollywood standards. In February 2017, Get Out producer Sean McKittrick brought Jordan Peele a copy of Stallworth's book, first published in 2014, along with a script by David Rabinowitz and Charlie Wachtel. Universal had just released Get Out, Peele's directorial debut, and the $4.5 million film was burning up the box office, where it would eventually gross $255 million worldwide. The pair, looking to collaborate again, enlisted fellow Get Out producer Jason Blum and put the project on a fast track.
"I was just blown away," Peele says. "I couldn't believe I had never heard about it. It's one of these pieces of reality that almost plays like social satire. So, I was immediately obsessed with this story."
Peele briefly considered directing it himself but decided early on that it needed a filmmaker with a different skill set, and Lee topped his list. "I thought about Malcolm X, Inside Man [and] 25th Hour, and Spike just has an ability to do tension right, to do the moments of levity right, to deliver a social message and a punch," Peele adds. "This is a unique film, and Spike has sort of forged a subgenre of his own that I just saw this fitting in."
Peele called Lee and told him about the story. Lee's reaction was, "Is this real? Because everybody remembers Dave Chappelle's skit," in which the comedian played Clayton Bigsby, a black, blind member of the KKK. Assured that it was indeed real, Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott came up with their own take on the material and flew to L.A. to meet with the assembled teams from McKittrick's QC Entertainment, Peele's Monkeypaw Productions and Blum's Blumhouse Productions. "We gave our pitch, and they said, 'Let's do it,'" Lee says.
Preproduction had just begun when Charlottesville exploded in August, and "the timing for this couldn't be more urgent," Peele recalls thinking. "The country just got this sobering reminder that groups like the KKK are still active and still dangerous and still hateful, and they're emboldened right now." Peele was as appalled as Lee by Trump's "both sides" comment about the events in Virginia. "That was [a] clear example of the president's ignorance and divisiveness," he says. "To suggest there are good people who are carrying Tiki torches screaming 'Jews will not replace us' and inciting violence was a really dark moment. Really sad."
Considering that Peele and Blum are based at Universal, the studio's Focus label became a natural home for the project. Lee, too, enjoys a long history with Universal, dating to 1989's Do the Right Thing and including the biggest box-office hit of his career, 2006's Inside Man, which earned $184 million worldwide. Focus committed to back BlacKkKlansman, which began filming in October in Ossining, New York, at a budget said to be in the midteen millions.
On the page, the project depicting a charged period in America's racial past might have appeared aimed only at a domestic audience, and a limited one at that — in August, for example, Detroit, timed to the anniversary of the 1967 Detroit riots, was a flop. It's also difficult to gauge the track record of films about the Klan or white supremacists given that there are so few — 1988's Mississippi Burning and 1998's American History X made $35 million and $24 million worldwide, respectively. But Focus chairman Peter Kujawski argues that BlacKkKlansman has universal appeal.
"Everyone's like, 'Oh, it's got KKK in the title. Is it just an American subject?' But the reality is, that's not what the movie is. The movie is about this sort of undercover operation," the exec explains. "And the topic that it is addressing is happening everywhere in the world right now where you've got these far-right groups and agendas. I think a lot of people are going to look at that and say, 'This is relatable in the modern day and relatable to a lot of places in the world.'"
When it came to casting, Lee had one mandate: "Get the best motherfuckers for the roles," he says. Washington, who was cast first, actually worked with Lee when he was 6 years old, playing a Harlem student with one line in 1992's Malcolm X, in which his father, Denzel, starred. Still, it was a surprise to the professional football player turned actor (HBO's Ballers) when he received the call from Lee.
"I didn't even know he had my number," says Washington, 33. "And he told me about this book, like, 'Sending it to you. Where are you?' I was like, 'I'm in Cincinnati shooting a movie. Old Man and the Gun.' 'All right, it'll be there tomorrow. Read it. Click," the actor says with a laugh. Washington did and signed on immediately, having just worked with Lee's wife, producer Tonya Lewis Lee, on the Sundance film Monster.
The casting also received an enthusiastic thumbs-up from Stallworth, now 64. When his book started making the rounds in Hollywood and he was asked whom he would like to see play him, "My first response was Denzel, even though I knew Denzel was too old," he notes. "I was 25 when this occurred, and Denzel is in his 60s. When it turned out to be his son who got the role, I chuckled at the irony."
Casting Driver, a 34-year-old former Marine who has morphed from idiosyncratic TV actor (Girls) into one of Hollywood's most in-demand young actors thanks to his villainous appearances in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, was a coup for Lee. Unlike the Stallworth character, little is known about Driver's Flip Zimmerman. "Spike is definitely in charge," says Driver. "But he is so collaborative and open, and you know exactly where he stands at all times. There's no ambiguity. There is no drama going on off-set that makes its way onto the screen."
To play then-KKK Grand Wizard Duke, Lee turned to Topher Grace. Did he have any concern that casting an affable performer like the former star of That '70s Show would humanize the notorious Klan leader? "No," replies Lee, dismissing the suggestion. "The real David Duke wasn't going play him, so we had to get an actor who understands the part. We never even discussed how he was going to approach it, but I had confidence in him. It's fantastic when you see people do something they're not known for."
Lee notes that the Aug. 10 release date for BlacKkKlansman also coincides with the start of the trial of 20-year-old James Fields Jr., whom he refers to as "the motherfucker psychopath who plows his car down through a crowded street and killed Heather Heyer." (Lee says he talks regularly with Heyer's mother, Susan Bro). By then, the film's Cannes reception will have served as a critical test for how it is likely to be received at home and abroad. Focus is planning a robust international release, and Lee says that Black Panther's success will prove important for films like BlacKkKlansman because it has obliterated the long-standing assumption that so-called black films don't travel to foreign territories.
"People always make up these rules. 'You can't do this, you can't do that.' And I'm always like, 'Well, who made up that motherfuckin' rule?'" he asks.
Just don't call BlacKkKlansman a buddy comedy, as one writer did after footage debuted at the CinemaCon exhibitors convention in April. "Horrible," Lee says of that label. "People still have a hard time understanding the difference between humor and comedy. I don't do comedy. No one is slipping on a banana peel [in my movies]. And you can have humorous moments dealing with very serious subject matter. Just because you have humor that will make people laugh does not mean that it's a comedy."
How the French, specifically, receive BlacKkKlansman is another question. In the case of Do the Right Thing in 1989, Lee says he was "robbed" of the Palme d'Or, which was awarded that year to Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape. Lee blames that year's jury president, Wim Wenders, who also will be in Cannes this year with Focus' other headline-grabbing release, the documentary Pope Francis: A Man of His Word.
"Look, me and Steven are cool, have always been cool. But that thing was commandeered by Wim Wenders," Lee says. "He said Mookie [played by Lee himself] was not a heroic character."
Wenders remembers it differently. "He said he'd be waiting for me in an alley with a baseball bat," the filmmaker says of Lee. "Well, he should have been waiting for the whole jury because it wasn't my decision. The film simply didn't have the support of the jury. It wasn't that it isn't a good film, it is. He just had the bad luck to be in such a great year. With not just sex, lies, and videotape but also Cinema Paradiso, An Angel at My Table and Black Rain. I had sleepless nights over our decision. With Spike, I'm still sad that he took it so personally."
After Do the Right Thing, Lee did make a few more official visits back to the Croisette. Jungle Fever played in competition in 1991, Girl 6 screened out of competition in 1996 and Summer of Sam was relegated to the Directors Fortnight sidebar in 1999. But Lee has since been shut out — for nearly 20 years.
This year, that omission is finally being rectified. In fact, he's one of the few American filmmakers who got an invite. As festival director Thierry Fremaux explained to THR, "When Spike Lee screens us BlacKkKlansman and says that he's ready to go, then we're with him." For Lee, the opportunity to walk the red carpet again will be more than just vindication. At a moment when Western democracies are seeing an upsurge in unapologetic prejudice, he's posing a challenge to racism. If his film is embraced, he'll have achieved a measure of redemption, whether or not he ultimately wins the elusive Palme d'Or.
This story first appeared in the May 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.