Spike Lee on 'BlacKkKlansman,' Charlottesville Riots and "Praying for" Kanye West

The outspoken helmer talks returning to Cannes with his new film — about around an African-American cop who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, duped Grand Wizard David Duke and became the head of a local chapter in Colorado — and what's next.

When it came time to cast the lead in his new film BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee turned to a familiar face. Sort of.

John David Washington, the son of Denzel, has collaborated with Lee on four features, the first time on the biopic of Malcolm X. And it was on the set of that 1992 film that the future professional football player turned actor landed his first role with Lee, playing a Harlem student with one line. Washington was 6 years old.

“From what I can remember, the set was so cool and everybody seemed to love Spike Lee, and that was definitely evident on this set as well,” says Washington of BlacKkKlansman, which revolves around an African-American cop who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, duped Grand Wizard David Duke and became the head of a local chapter in Colorado.

Adam Driver plays his partner on the force in the film, which reassembles the group of red-hot producers behind Get Out, including Jordan Peele, Sean McKittrick and Jason Blum. The Focus Features film marks the sixth time Lee, 61, will hit the Croisette with an official visit and his first in nearly two decades (Do the Right Thing in 1989 and Jungle Fever in 1991 played in competition; while Girl 6 screened out of competition in 1996; and She’s Gotta Have It and Summer of Sam bowed in Directors’ Fortnight in 1986 and 1999, respectively).

Lee sat down with THR in his native Brooklyn to discuss BlacKkKlansman ahead of its May 15 Cannes premiere.

How did this project first get on your radar? Who brought it to you?

Jordan Peele. I never heard of any of that. I never heard of Ron [Stallworth, who penned the memoir on which the film is based], never heard of the book.

What was your first reaction?

Is this real? Because everybody remembers David Chappelle’s skit [in which the comedian played Clayton Bigsby, a black, blind member of the KKK].

This film was coming together right as the Charlottesville Unite the Right protests were happening. What was your reaction when the news of the protests began?

I mean, No. 1, there was a murder. Susan Bro lost her daughter. And then No. 2, Agent Orange [Donald Trump] refused to repudiate the Klan, the alt-right and the Nazis. “There’s good people on both sides.” That’s gonna be on his gravestone. He’s on the wrong side of history. I just think that his dog-whistle stuff has given these people that “come out,” you know. They get the signal. That’s what happened in Charlottesville, [Virginia].

What did you think of Kanye West’s recent support of President Trump?

I pray for my brother.

What do you see as a solution for this undercurrent of racism in America?

Undercurrent? It never went away. Racism is woven into the fabric of this country. The foundation of this country is the genocide of the native people. And my ancestors were stolen from Mother Africa and brought here to work from can’t see in the morning to can’t see at night and built this country. That’s the source. Genocide and slavery is the source, the foundation of this country. That’s a fact. That’s how I feel. The foundation of this country is faulty, is false.

You’ve made most of your movies for Universal, including this one for the studio’s Focus label. Have they been particularly supportive through your career?

All I can say is thank God for [former Universal chairman] Tom Pollock. He was my angel. When that whole Do the Right Thing brouhaha started after Cannes [with critics saying the film would spark riots], people were pleading with Tom not to release it, at least not in the summer. He went through hell with [Martin Scorsese’s] The Last Temptation of Christ, had death threats. He had to have bodyguards. So, I would’ve understood a hundred percent if he said, “Spike, you saw what I went through with Marty’s film. I can’t do this again.” But he didn’t do that. He showed a lot of courage. People did not want him to release Do the Right Thing, and he said, “Fuck you.” He’s like, “I’m puttin’ the film out, and I’m puttin’ it out in the summer.” And the rest is history.

Name someone you haven’t worked with yet who you would like to work with?

Lee Sean Penn.

Do you have a role in mind?

Lee Nope. Everything happens that's supposed to happen. I just hasn't happened yet. Timing is everything.

What movie do you plan to make next? Are you going to delve into the Marvel superhero world with Sony’s Nightwatch?

I’m gonna be like Sgt. Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes: “I know nothing!” [doing a German accent].

A version of this story appears in The Hollywood Reporter's May 8 daily issue from the Cannes Film Festival. Click here to download.