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Spike Lee had many words, plenty of them harsh, to say about the current occupant of the White House during his TimesTalks appearance Tuesday night. But “Donald Trump” wasn’t among them.
“I don’t say his name,” said the filmmaker. “I call him ‘Agent Orange.'”
Speaking with the New York Times columnist Charles Blow, Lee talked about his acclaimed new film, BlacKkKlansman, and the past and current state of race relations in America. The idea for the film came from Jordan Peele, who pitched Lee with the simple phrase “Black man infiltrates the KKK.” He recalled that he asked Peele if the story was really true, joking, “It sounds like a Dave Chappelle skit.”
Describing his latest effort as “a vehicle to talk about this topsy-turvy, upside-down world,” he mentioned the film’s coda, which includes footage of last year’s violent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. “It was homegrown, red-white-and-blue, apple-pie terrorism,” Lee said of the incident, in which a young woman was run over by a car and killed. He said that he was the one who personally informed former President Obama about it during an impromptu meeting at the golf course next to Lee’s summer home in Martha’s Vineyard. Going on to talk about Trump’s public comments after the event, Lee advised, “Whatever he says first, that’s in his heart. Don’t believe his statements walking it back later.”
To make a point about the depiction of African-Americans in films, BlacKkKlansman includes footage from both Gone With the Wind and Birth of a Nation. “The two films that we attack in this film are considered to be two of the greatest films ever made,” Lee pointed out. “This country has a very, very dark history that we’re still dealing with now.
“People talk this bullshit about the founding fathers,” he fumed. “The founding fathers owned slaves!
“We have post-slavery traumatic stress,” Lee went on. “It’s in our DNA.”
An audience member asked Lee whether black athletes need to assume greater social responsibility, citing the recent tweet storm among Trump, LeBron James and Michael Jordan.
“I know you might think I’m biased,” Lee responded about Jordan in particular, as laughter broke out. “He gets a bad rap. He does a lot of stuff that no one ever hears about.” He also praised Jordan for his response to Trump’s tweet about James, which he described as a “divide and conquer strategy” by the president.
“Michael didn’t take the bait,” Lee pointed out. “Sports make a difference,” he added. “If it didn’t, why is this guy in the White House going after NFL players?”
Asked which films had been most important in altering the depiction of black people onscreen, Lee was momentarily stumped. He finally cited Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, pointing to the importance of its star Sidney Poitier.
“He was in a jam,” Lee said of the actor, comparing him to Jackie Robinson in terms of being a pioneer and having to behave in a certain manner so as not to provoke more racial tension than necessary. “He had to constantly play the role of the perfect negro,” he added.
“Do you see any parallels with our last president?” Blow asked him, causing the audience to erupt in laughter.
When the merriment subsided, Lee went on to talk about Poitier’s transformative role as police Detective Virgil Tibbs in the Oscar-winning In the Heat of the Night, particularly the famous scene in which Tibbs slaps a white man.
“Black folks went crazy!” the filmmaker gleefully proclaimed. “We had never seen that before!”
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