'BlackKkKlansman's' Spike Lee and Jordan Peele in Conversation: Inclusion, Influences and Family Histories
The director and producer reflect on developing their Oscar-nominated dramedy ("How have people not heard this story?") and researching their lineage: "Guess who my 12th cousin is? Brad Pitt."
From the office of Focus Features chairman Peter Kujawski, directors Jordan Peele and Spike Lee can see a near-panoramic backdrop of Universal Studios extending before them. "This is the room we came to to ask for more money," says Peele, 39, situating himself in his seat, while Lee, 61, adds: "Right here. This very room!"
Lee and Peele are talking about their best picture Oscar nominee BlacKkKlansman, for which Lee also is nominated for best director (notably, his first in that category) and adapted screenplay (which he wrote with Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott).
Peele, who served as a producer on BlacKkKlansman after being offered it as his directorial follow-up to Get Out, is here with Lee to talk about their first memories of each other, their thoughts on the "next frontier" in inclusion in the industry and the way their ancestors influence their outlook on where they are now.
JORDAN PEELE You probably don't remember, but I remember: You came out to Sarah Lawrence [College]. You came to talk to my film history class. It was a packed little theater, and I had the distinct impression you did not want to be there.
SPIKE LEE My wife, Tonya [Lewis Lee], was twisting my arm. She said, "Spike, I'm on the board of trustees, you've got to go!" So finally I said all right.
PEELE You really — the way I put it is — you really handed us our asses.
LEE What'd I say?
PEELE I don't remember exactly. I just remember there were a lot of stupid questions flying out. I remember one woman — and look, this is with all respect to the great Forest Whitaker, one of our greatest actors — asked you, "Why would you use Denzel in your movies when there are actors like Forest out there?" You looked at her and you were like, "You are questioning my use of Denzel Washington? Denzel Wa — X! Mo' Better! Glory!" I was just shrinking. I was so embarrassed to be, essentially, the one black dude in this room of white women asking you questions. I remember asking you a question, [but] I don't know what I asked. I thought, "Let me just bring this back on track." You handed me my ass too.
LEE Get us back on the map.
PEELE Right. so I asked you a question, and you handed me my ass too.
LEE What'd I say?
PEELE I don't remember! I blocked it out.
LEE But, hey, it didn't stop you from doing what you had to do. Not one second!
PEELE It probably got my ass in gear.
LEE Let me tell you my story. I saw Get Out, and I said, "Holy shit." I saw it with a black audience first, [and] I said, "Let me do an experiment. The next day, I saw it with a white audience. The film was hitting at both levels, but there were certain things that the black audience laughed at — I mean, it was insider stuff — but it did not stop the white audience joining. That's when I got your phone number, I called you up. I said, "Brother, man. You've got something here." Another thing is how the film has done internationally. [Get Out earned nearly $80 million at the international box office.] Historically, they say, "Black folks don't travel the globe." Your film and Black Panther, too, it's going to be very hard [now] for these guys to use that argument again. You were very, very, very important in getting rid of that narrative. That narrative is a lie.
PEELE The whole thing is going to be perpetuated as long as people can excuse themselves and say, "I'm not racist, I'm just looking at these numbers. I'm looking at this business side of things." I felt like Straight Outta Compton had —
LEE Oh yeah. That one too.
PEELE That did a big piece [$40 million overseas]. But my response to that theory of black films don't travel, I'm like, "How do you know? You're not letting enough black people make films. How many white films don't travel? You're not talking about that." There is this enormous lack of balance that has prevented black filmmakers from getting opportunities.
LEE We've got to bring the sisters up too, now. We've got to have those voices [like] Dee Rees.
PEELE That's right. There was a while where, Spike, there was [just] you, and it was like, "OK, we got one!" Case closed. But now you can't reverse this at this point. I'm past the fear that this is a phase, or whatever. There's too much creativity, there's too much artistry that's been built up.
LEE I would take a little different approach.
PEELE Okay. Talk to me.
LEE What I'm focusing on now is not that we get a film [made], we're past that point. For me, I'm looking forward, and that's the gatekeepers. That's where the next frontier is. In my opinion, those gatekeeping positions where these individuals, quarterly, decide what we're going to make and what we're not fucking making. To the best of my knowledge, we're not up there. Maybe one or two.
PEELE No, we're not.
LEE [That's] the way to make sure this is not a phase, it's not a trend. You're coming out in March, [but] I'm not gonna film next year, I don't think Ryan [Coogler] and a whole bunch of other people have films.
PEELE That's a good point. Do you know what your next movie is?
LEE Well, I'm not going to speak about it, but I'm not making a film in the theater next year. That's why I think we start to focus on getting in those lofty, rarefied air positions of the gatekeepers. And it's not just film. We have to focus on people of color being in those rooms when those decisions are made — especially [in] advertising. Example number one: that motherfucking Pepsi commercial.
PEELE The Kendall [Jenner one]?
LEE I don't think there was a person of color in the room.
PEELE Miles, miles away.
LEE [No one] to say, "Hold the phone, so you know Black Lives Matter is a thing?" So giving the police officer a soda —
PEELE It's going to solve police brutality. It's just going to solve it.
LEE These things happen all the time. These companies have to put out an apology, and then they get blasted and it happens again.
PEELE The duality of the time we're in right now — you could say, to an extent, there's always some kind of duality — but it's confusing in one industry to feel and see what I'm hopeful is progress —
LEE I'd never say we're not progressing.
PEELE And then, on the other hand, feel like steps backward. Obviously, it's not steps backward, it's an illumination of what's already been there. There's a whole Obama conversation to open up, I'm not trying to even go there. But that piece of progress felt like you can't reverse that and then …
LEE Then we woke up. Again, these are all my opinions, I think we got a little complacent having brother man there, Michelle [Obama], the kids, the dog. Eight years, I mean, it feels like forever. I think what we see now is a retaliation for those years. But let's talk about why we're here. Tell me the first time you were made aware of Ron Stallworth.
PEELE I received the script from Sean McKittrick at QC Entertainment.
LEE Had Get Out come out or were you shooting?
LEE Get Out had probably just come out, and I immediately recognized, I think, what you recognized and what other people recognized: How have people not heard this story?
LEE That's what I asked you, the day you pitched it to me, "Is this the Dave Chappelle skit?"
PEELE Just in terms of the marketing of it: the attractiveness, the magnetism, the absurdity, the comedy. Sean, who I'd done Get Out with, was like, "Hey, do you want to direct this?" And I was like, "Look, I'm working on something else." They said, "Do you want to produce?" I said, "Yes, I do." So, let's talk about who directs it. We made a list — you were at the top of the list, obviously.
LEE Is that list still around?
PEELE I'm sure it is. I'm sure you could guess the list right now.
LEE We don't want to blow up nobody's spot. All I wanted to say is, don't throw it away; That's a piece of history right there. Are you starting to keep your stuff? You should.
PEELE It's hard, but you're right.
LEE You should get it started. I save my stuff. You don't want people selling your shit on eBay.
PEELE My mother says that.
LEE When are moms wrong?
PEELE Moms are usually right. I think you would have been first on my list for many movies, but [BlacKkKlansman] in particular, it has a mix of genre elements. It's funny, it's suspenseful, it's meaningful, it's interesting. What you've proven with your work is that you're able to encapsulate all of those vibes into your pictures, and it creates a texture that is unique to you and it is special.
LEE So talk about the phone call.
PEELE We're talking on the phone, and I instantly realized you knew this thing better than I did.
LEE I'm just saying, I'm 61. I've got another 20 years, but still to see you and Ryan [Coogler] and all these others, it's just gratifying.
PEELE Do you feel as big a part of us as you are?
LEE You know what's the interesting thing? Today, Jackie Roosevelt Robinson would've been 100 years old. But we're here because of him, Mel Van Peebles, Ozzy the director, Gordon Parks, Mike — a lot of people sleep on Michael Schultz. Brother directed a lot of those great Richard Pryor films. So, no matter who you are, there was somebody there before you who was catching hell. And I feel that we could all use that, to draw upon our ancestors.
PEELE If our ancestors saw us. That's a thought that trumps all.
LEE When things aren't going right or whatever it is, I thank my ancestors because whatever has happened to me, that ain't nothing to what our ancestors went through.
PEELE I did [the PBS series] Finding Your Roots with Henry Gates. I cried like a baby.
LEE I have a story for you. At the Golden Globes, we're sitting at a table, and my wife's there, [William H.] Macy is sitting there, and so I walk over to him, I go to him, and I say, "How're you doing?" We've seen each other, but we'd never really had the opportunity to meet. I said, "Bill, this is your cousin." Tonya, my wife, did [Finding Your Roots]. They're related. And guess who my 12th cousin is? Brad Pitt.
PEELE No shit. You've got to put him in something now.
LEE So tell me why tears came out of your eyes.
PEELE I'm probably not even supposed to talk about it, but I will. He talked about, one of my ancestors named Alvenio Little was sold at 12 years old, separated from her family.
PEELE That was New Year's Day, I believe four months before the Civil War started. When you think of your ancestors and your ancestors that were enslaved, you don't have individuals to think about. You don't have those records. They found these records, and that was just so powerful to me. [Gates] said, "What do you think they would think if they saw you up on that [Oscar] stage?" To think that part of the reason that I am here is because of what they had to endure. Totally humbling.
LEE You draw power from that, right?
PEELE Because we're talking about awards … somebody asked you, before we met, "What do you think about Jordan Peele's chance to win an Oscar?" and you said, "Look, the impact that Get Out has made is so much … is more …" I don't remember the exact word you used.
LEE You can paraphrase!
PEELE "... it's more powerful and more valid than any award he would get." And that just meant so much to me.
LEE I'm just speaking the truth.
PEELE And then when you got nominated this year, I saw a video, the moment it was announced, you were like, "Yeahhhhhhhh!" So, how did that feel?
LEE It was great. Here's the truth: I was happy, I was elated, but a lot had to do with [the nominations] before that. My longtime composer Terence Blanchard got his first nomination. My longtime editor Barry Brown. Adam Driver's first nomination. Whether be it Grammy or Tony or Oscar: As an artist, you need to be very careful about that stuff, because if you start chasing those awards it's a detrimental effect to your art. I understand that the agent can ask more money for nominations and Oscars, but when you start chasing that it can be very dangerous. [You’ve] given a group, a body, an organization the power to validate your work. Now, everything I've ever done is no good because I haven't won an Oscar? I mean that can be … that's kind of shaky.
PEELE That's a dangerous line.
LEE Dangerous! Slippery slope.
PEELE When the Oscars are the best, they're rewarding what you're talking about: They are rewarding a person and a group of people who are making a movie. And it comes through. I feel it.
LEE I want to give a shout-out to April Reign for #OscarsSoWhite. And Cheryl Boone-Isaacs. With all these nominations, people of color getting out, think what would have happened, unless April started that hashtag, or unless Cheryl, as president of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, said to the board of governors of the Academy, "We have to diversify."
PEELE One of the things that you brought to this film — one of the many things — is what you did with the script
LEE Kevin Willmott and I.
PEELE What you and Kevin brought to the script was revelatory. [And] when you first showed us the edit, I don't think anyone in the room was expecting how you ended it.
PEELE Charlottesville. We had discussed a couple of times how the timing of this film would be. How these modern atrocities happening were making our mission even more important. But what happened with that ending, it was so Spike. You reach out into an audience and you grab us by the throat. You can have a fun ride, you can have an entertaining ride, you can have a thrilling ride — all that shit — but at the end of the day, the message became so crystal clear not just on an intellectual level but on an emotional level. Look: We've come nowhere. When did you know that that was how you were gonna end it?
LEE That day it happened. I was in Martha's Vineyard and I knew I wanted it to be the ending, but still I had to get permission. I wanted to get the blessing of Susan Bro, who is the mother of Heather Heyer. I called her up and, best I could, tried to give condolences. But, what can you say? Her daughter just got murdered in a red, white and blue, homegrown American terrorist act. But she'd seen some of my films; she said, "Spike, I trust you." But I've just got to say publicly, this is my brother right here. I'll forever be in your debt. I'm going to be the first motherfucker to buy a ticket [to Us] because I support you, all you young cats and sisters who are coming up. We need you, we need younger voices. We need different viewpoints that contribute to this whole storytelling of this crazy world we live in and you're leading the charge, man.
PEELE Well, I returned an old favor. Let's put it that way.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.