Spike Lee Talks Trump, Neo-Nazis at 'BlacKkKlansman' Screening in D.C.

Tom Williams
From left: Van Jones, Karen Bass, Spike Lee and April Ryan

The filmmaker was joined by Congressional Black Caucus leader Karen Bass and CNN's Van Jones and April Ryan for a panel discussion at the Newseum.

There was nothing but love for Spike Lee when the filmmaker swung through Washington on his way to London’s BAFTA Awards, drawing an invite-only crowd to a double-header showing of his Oscar-nominated film BlacKkKlansman at D.C.’s Newseum, co-hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus. The screenings book-ended an intimate panel discussion that included Lee, CNN’s Van Jones and April Ryan and Congressional Black Caucus leader Karen Bass.

In addition to the screenings, the filmmaker also introduced the audience to his new short protest film, a collaboration with The Killers lead singer Brandon Flowers, called Land of the Free, which employs heartbreaking and humanizing footage of immigrants in crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The panelists spoke about how Lee’s movies impacted their decisions to turn their careers toward seeking justice and telling the truth. They also addressed issues including the short film’s shocking realities and disturbing present-day relevance to President Donald Trump's State of the Union address the previous evening.

“We are a community where our story isn’t told — and then when it is told, it’s told wrong,” said Ryan. “The thing that I like about what Spike has done over the years is that he put issues out on the table that [we need to talk about].”

Ryan went on to ask Lee about being an early champion of human rights throughout his career.

“You’ve gone through all the ups and downs of public life, the artistic struggle, but you are now back in the center of the conversation,” Jones said to Lee. “April was talking about your prescience — how you’ve always been right, just early. What does it take to be that right that young, and what does it take to be this right this old?”

“You believe in your convictions and sometimes you’re wrong, but hopefully most of the time you’re right. This film, BlacKkKlansman, is on the right side of history — Agent Orange will be on the wrong side,” Lee responded. (The 61-year-old director habitually refers to Trump as “Agent Orange.”)

“It’s very traumatic to me, seeing that Charlottesville footage," Lee continued, referring to scenes from the 2017 Unite the Right rally in the Virginia city that are included at the end of his film. "And to me it was nothing but homegrown, red-white-and-blue, hot-dog-and-apple-pie terrorism. [At the State of the Union address] they brought up an elderly gentleman who survived a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, and another person who landed in Normandy with the Allies. … In Charlottesville, the Right to Unite March, we have the Alt Right and Neo-Nazis," he said. "[But when] the so-called leader of the free world … had an opportunity to speak not only to Americans but speak to the world and state for all of us that we're about love, not hate … he chose hate. The President of the United States did not denounce the Klan, he did not denounce the Alt Right, he did not denounce Neo-Nazis. … There’s a terrible misdeed if you don’t see the connection.”

Jones recognized Bass for her lifetime of activism, crediting her with having “reinvented community organizing in Los Angeles in the aftermath of Rodney King,” as well as creating opportunities for economic empowerment in the black community. “But you drew the short straw,” he suggested, “because now you have to do that in the age of Trump.”

“I actually don’t feel like I pulled the short straw. This is where I want to be, in the middle of the fight,” replied Bass. “The struggle for social and economic justice takes many forms … arts, theater, film is absolutely critical to our greater American culture. This is a part of who we are. I just see [Lee] as working on another front of the same struggle. Different front, same struggle.”

During a private reception, Lee spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the current turmoil surrounding Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. When asked whether or not Northam could continue to serve his constituents in light of having admitted to wearing blackface, Lee said, “It would be very hard. Every politician today had their aides and assistants go find their high school, college, law school, med school yearbooks. I’d put money on that happening!”

As to what one would find in Lee’s high school yearbook? “Oh, I have the Afro!” he said with a laugh. “Google it: Shelton J. Lee, John Dewey High School, Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York, 1975. I’ve got nothing to worry about — unless you don’t like Afros.”