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Refusing to refer to Donald Trump by name, Spike Lee on Tuesday damned the U.S. president, repeatedly calling him a “motherfucker” at the beginning of the Cannes Film Festival press conference for the director’s new film, BlacKkKlansman.
The film ends with footage of last year’s Charlottesville, Va., Nazi rally, the resulting violence that resulted in the killing of Heather Heyer, and Trump’s reaction in which he said there were “some very fine people” on both sides.
“That motherfucker was given a chance to say ‘we’re about love and not hate,’ and that motherfucker did not denounce the motherfucking Klan, the alt-right, and those Nazi motherfuckers,” a passionate Lee said. “He could have said to the world, not [just] the United States, that we’re better than that.”
“We look to our leaders to give us direction, to make moral decisions,” he said, continuing, “this bullshit is going on all over the world, this right-wing bullshit.”
“We have to wake up. We can’t be silent,” Lee added, “So this film to me is a wake-up call.” He explained that like his earlier film Do the Right Thing, BlacKkKlansman is not intended to provide answers about the fight against racism, but to provoke discussion. “I know in my heart — I don’t what the critics say or anybody else — we are on the right side of history with this film,” he said to a round of applause.
In discussing the film, Lee said that the moment he saw footage of the Charlottesville riot, he knew he wanted to use it to end the film, but he also reached out to Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, to secure her permission.
Asked by Chaz Ebert, the widow of the late film critic Roger Ebert, about why he decided to use the N-word throughout the movie, Lee first called Roger Ebert out for praise for championing Do the Right Thing, and then, turning to the question at hand, said: “Words can be hateful, and I don’t think I was elaborating how the Klan talks.” Observing that the Klan hates Jews almost as much as it hates blacks, he said, “The way we had those people speaking is the way they speak.” And he also noted, “It was my decision to hear those words. I wanted the hate to be verbalized.”
The audience broke out in applause a half-dozen times during the film’s Monday night premiere, followed by four minutes of applause during the credits and a six-minute standing ovation.
BlacKkKlansman, which focuses on a black police officer (John David Washington) who infiltrated the KKK in the 1970s, marks Lee’s fifth time in Cannes’ official lineup. He also screened She’s Gotta Have It and Jungle Fever in competition, while Girl 6 was at the festival in an out-of-competition spot and Summer of Sam played in the Directors’ Fortnight.
The final sequence of BlacKkKlansman was one of the most emotional finales to screen in Cannes in recent memory, splicing in real footage from the events in Charlottesville. And although the film is set in the early ’70s, Lee commented, “Our job as filmmakers and as storytellers was to connect this period piece to the present day.”
At Tuesday’s press conference at the Palais, the director was joined by the film’s stars, Washington, Adam Driver, Topher Grace and Laura Harrier.
Lee was famously overlooked for the Palme d’Or in 1989 for Do the Right Thing, with the highest Cannes honor that year going to Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Over the ensuing years, Lee has made no secret of his disappointment with that year’s jury president, Wim Wenders, whose documentary film Pope Francis: A Man of His Word made its own rousing debut at this year’s Cannes.
Both BlacKkKlansman and Pope Francis will be released by Focus Features, with BlacKkKlansman‘s release set for Aug. 10, coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the deadly Charlottesville riots.
Before the premiere, Lee called out to those in the balcony: “Brooklyn’s in the house!” He arrived at the Monday night premiere wearing two knuckle rings, one of which read “love” and the other “hate,” along with a pair of Nike shoes — one white, one back — that featured the name of the film on the side of each.
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