Why Spike Lee Included Charlottesville Riot Footage in 'BlacKkKlansman'

Spike Lee attends the "BlacKkKlansman" New York premiere - Getty-H 2018
Gary Gershoff/WireImage

The prolific filmmaker opens up to The Hollywood Reporter about his movie's political significance under the Trump administration.

When Spike Lee penned the script for BlacKkKlansman, he knew there was only one way to drive its message home.

At the movie's New York premiere Monday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater, the prolific filmmaker told The Hollywood Reporter why he decided to include footage from last year's riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists and neo-Nazis gathered to protest the removal of Confederate monuments throughout the South.

"It happened before we started shooting," Lee said of the August rally, which resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old woman who was killed in a car attack during a peaceful counter-protest. "I was in Martha's Vineyard and watching CNN and saw a homegrown, American apple pie act of terrorism."

Days later, President Donald Trump said there was "blame on both sides," telling reporters during a combative exchange, "You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now."

Lee chose to feature clips of Trump touting those controversial remarks in the movie because, as he told THR, "He said those things. And people need to be reminded that the current president of the United States says things like that."

BlacKkKlansman tells the true story of Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), the African-American police officer who skillfully infiltrated a Colorado chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in 1979, exposing their plan to attack people of color. According to producer Raymond Mansfield (Get Out), Lee "successfully walked a delicate line" by juxtaposing the discrimination against black people in the '70s with the racist behavior exhibited by some Americans since Trump was elected into office.  

"We knew it was tricky because if done wrong, it could feel exploitative. But we decided shortly after it happened to include that footage. It was Spike's idea," said Mansfield. "He wrote it into the screenplay and as soon as we saw the revised draft come through, all of us went, 'That's it.' It ties the entire movie together in the most profound and emotionally effective way. We thought it was a stroke of genius."

Topher Grace, who plays KKK leader David Duke in BlacKkKlansman, agrees. "The film starts with a shot of the Civil War and it ends with Charlottesville. There's only one filmmaker who can draw that line," the actor told THR, emphasizing Duke and Trump's "eerily similar" mannerisms. "A big part of my research going into playing Duke was watching old interviews. When I watched him on The Phil Donahue Show, he kept using the terms, 'America first' and 'Make America great again.' The parallels are insane."

The real-life Stallworth — who details his interaction with Duke and the KKK in his upcoming memoir, Black Klansman — also came out to support Lee on Monday night. The cop-turned-author said the director and writer "did a masterful job" of telling his story, while drawing comparisons between Trump's "hateful" rhetoric and the bigotry that was prevalent 40 years ago.

"The racism today is just like it was then. If anything, it's even worse because Trump has basically allowed racists to come out of the shadows. We need to be vigilant to that and try to address it from a perspective like Spike's," Stallworth told THR. "Trump is an idiot, and his idiocy needs to be brought to the forefront. Spike did a masterful job at capturing that."

BlacKkKlansman is set to hit theaters Aug. 10, one day before the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville riots.