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Spike Lee: ‘This Guy in the White House Has Given the Green Light for the Klan'

The director’s award-winning new film is the story of a black detective who went undercover with the KKK. He talks ‘wokeness’, vindication and Trump’s America

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‘The whole foundation of the US is wack’: Spike Lee in his production offices in Brooklyn, New York, Shaniqwa Jarvis for the Observer New Review

[Watch a trailer for Spike Lee's latest movie, BlackKKKlansman.]

Spike Lee has heard all his film-making life that he is preoccupied with race. Sometimes the criticism has not come from obvious voices. Back in 2000, when Lee suggested that a lot of African American comedy and music – including gangsta rap – was not far removed from minstrel shows, the actor Jamie Foxx observed: “I think it’s getting to the point where nobody cares, because he talks about it so much that now he’s just become the angry guy, the angry black man.”

For a long time, Lee has been proposing an idea of America – that its stories should be told in the context of its violently racist past – that not everyone wanted to hear. In the present political moment, however, with the president that he calls Agent Orange in the White House, he is, obviously, unrepentant. People are rethinking films of his, he suggests, that they previously might have dismissed. And having mostly been ignored by the major award juries for the past 30 years, Lee, aged 61, is once again picking up prizes.

Often the criticism of his work has been coded. Two weeks ago, I mentioned to Lee in his studio office in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, that, having read a selection of three decades’ worth of reviews and profiles before our interview, the description of him that surfaced most often was “provocateur”. That word sometimes seemed to be used as a euphemism for “uppity”.

“I can just about live with provocateur,” Lee says, weighing me up with his sparky, seen-it-all eyes from behind outsized, orange-framed glasses (in person he is anything but angry – considered, thoughtful, quick to laugh). “The one that gets me is ‘controversial’ – ‘the controversial director.’” He dislikes the tag because it suggests he sets out only to shock. Mostly, Lee believes, over the course of more than 40 films – beginning in bravura style with the liberating She’s Gotta Have It in 1986 and continuing through Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X and Clockers and Miracle at St Anna – he has simply been telling it like it is.Many of those films have been conceived in this building – a pair of brownstone houses converted into a three-storey studio space, only a couple of blocks from where Lee grew up and from where his father, Bill, a jazz musician, now 90, still lives. The office is something like a museum to the director’s obsessions, or a glimpse inside his head – the walls are lined with paintings and artwork relating to Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson, as well as posters of his own films. You have the sense of him circling around these reference points, feeling for what has changed, and what has not.

Lee’s latest expression of the facts of American life – BlacKkKlansman, which was awarded the Grand Prix at the Cannes film festival – is the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first black detective in the Colorado Springs police force who, in 1978, went undercover with the Ku Klux Klan. The story began bizarrely enough, when Stallworth saw a recruitment ad for the KKK in the classifieds of the local newspaper. He called the number, raised the pitch of his voice a couple of notches, and made up a tale about his disgust at his white sister dating a black man. He was immediately invited to join up. Working as a double act with a white Jewish cop – Stallworth on the phone, his partner in the hood and robes – he infiltrated the group, and, in a series of unlikely twists, not only ended up being proposed as leader of the local chapter, but also became the telephone confidant of David Duke, the “grand wizard” of the white supremacists. Duke eventually came to Colorado Springs personally to initiate Stallworth into the Klan.

The film, like all of Lee’s films, enjoys some wicked shifts of tone, in this case designed to make his audience smile at some of the historical ironies even as they are asked to confront the vivid extremes of American bigotry. Lee is a master of comic caricature and the Klan members offer scope for a full range of racist imbecility. In Stallworth’s memoir, the undercover cops foil a planned nail-bomb attack on a gay bar. Here, the targets of the Klan’s plotting are black student activists who invite Stokely Carmichael, the former Black Panther, to speak at their campus, which allows Lee to appropriate some of the style of the post-blaxploitation era.

In a coincidence not lost on the director, at the same time that Stallworth was infiltrating the Klan, Lee was involved in some anti-fascist action of his own.

In the summer of 1980, in his first few weeks at NYU graduate film school, Lee’s class was shown DW Griffith’s 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation (for more than a century the film, which depicts the rise of ritual white nationalism, has been a defining cultural symbol and recruitment tool for the Klan). Lee’s class were taught not about that violent social history, however, but rather asked to use the film to examine the technical innovations that made Griffith the “godfather of American cinema”. “That disturbed me,” Lee says.

His response was a student film – his first – called The Answer, in which a young black director is hired by a Hollywood studio to remake The Birth of a Nation from his own viewpoint. Inevitably, that vision becomes compromised by the studio and the young director pulls out of the film. Along the way he becomes a target for the Klan himself. The final scene of Lee’s student movie involved a cross-burning on the lawn outside the director’s window, prompting him to head out, with a knife in his hand, to confront the Klansmen. When The Answer was shown at a faculty screening, some staff members were reportedly shocked by the “aggressive” tone of the film; two recommended, unsuccessfully, that Lee should not be invited back for the final two years of the doctoral programme.

Nearly 40 years on, BlacKkKlansman has been conceived by the director as another kind of “answer” to the reality of The Birth of a Nation. This time, pointedly, it is directed toward the occupant of the White House, Agent Orange. “What we wanted to do, Kevin Willmott [his co-writer] and me, was not a history lesson,” Lee says. “We wanted the audience to connect with the world they live in today. We thought that the story could make lightbulbs go off in their heads. For example, there’s that scene where Ron [played brilliantly by John David Washington, son of Denzel] tells his boss there is ‘no way in the world that the United States would elect a president like David Duke’…”If that sounded far-fetched in 1978, it sounds tragically less so now. “This guy in the White House,” Lee says, “has given the green light for the Klan, for the alt-right, for the neo-Nazis to come out in the open. There is no need for the so-called dogwhistle any more, they are in full daylight.”

BlacKkKlansman ends, in a typical Spike Lee payoff, with graphic news footage from the violent Unite the Right march in Charlottesville last August, which ended with the death of Heather Heyer, who had been protesting against the torch-lit rally. He also uses footage of the president’s shaming assertion that “both sides” were to blame for that violence, and of Duke himself, the racist undead, endorsing Trump’s rise (while suggesting that a few of Trump’s ideas – building the wall, America First – had been stolen direct from his own manifestos).

Lee didn’t start shooting his film until last autumn. When he watched those scenes in August, it was obvious, he says, that the news had written his film’s ending. He contacted Heyer’s mother for her blessing to use footage of the fatal moment when the neo-Nazi James Alex Fields drove his car into the crowd of anti-fascist protesters, killing her daughter.

That must have been a tough phone call to make, I say.

“It was a harder call for her. She lost her daughter in an act of terrorism. One hundred per cent American, apple pie, fourth of July, homegrown terrorism.”

The film is due to be released in the US on 10 August, to coincide with the first anniversary of the Charlottesville march. There are plans for another Unite the Right rally, this time opposite the White House.

For a long time, Americans have wanted to see white supremacism as ancient history, Lee suggests, but it has never been that.

“The whole foundation of this country is wack,” he says at one point, on the subject. “It’s bullshit. If you go to the constitution it is written that slaves were counted as three-fifths of a human being, chattel, like cows or chickens. Unless we can come to grips with how this nation was formed and be honest about it we will never go forward.”

Because Lee has been associated so closely with Brooklyn as a film-maker, it is easy to forget that he was born in the south, in Atlanta, Georgia. His father’s family was from near Selma, and the terrorism of slavery and lynchings and Jim Crow were close to home.

Watching Lee’s films again, I find myself drawn to the two documentaries he has made about the south – both exceptional films – Four Little Girls, about the 1963 Birmingham church bombings, and the four hours of When the Levee Broke, his intensely human appraisal of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. It seems to me that his film-making always wants to have journalism somewhere near its heart. He agrees that those films were pivotal in some ways to how his methods have developed.“One of the most extraordinary things I ever had to do,” he says, in reference to Four Little Girls, “was to interview [the architect and enforcer of segregation in Alabama] George Wallace. He was a man not long for this world, he knew that he was soon to meet his maker, and he knew that he was going to hell.”

In some ways, Lee – irrepressible, steeped in history – was born to that role of inquisitor of white power. His father, like his grandfather before him, went to Morehouse College in Atlanta, a celebrated African American arts institution, and was a contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr. Lee studied alongside Martin Luther King III at Morehouse in the class of 1979.

Though civil rights politics were never far from the dinner table, his parents had other, equally formative impacts on him. Lee’s love for music comes from his father, who played standup jazz in Greenwich Village, and was a good enough session musician to record with Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Duke Ellington among others. His mother, Jacquelyn, who died when Lee was 20, was a high-school teacher of art and African American literature, and gave him his love for cinema. “My father did not like movies – there were no films about black people and he didn’t want to see the Hollywood stuff,” he says, “so as the eldest son I was my mother’s date.”

What did she take him to see?

“One of the first was Bye Bye Birdie at Radio City Music Hall,” he says. “It’s funny, that opening scene of Do the Right Thing, in which Rosie Perez dancesto Fight the Power, that came, I realised later on, from the opening of Bye Bye Birdie and Ann Margret singing about Birdie being drafted.”

That attitude – that he could rewrite the history of American cinema in his own way – seemed fully formed from the beginning in Lee’s film-making. In the past year or two he has reconnected directly with those early films by remaking She’s Gotta Have It as a Netflix series.

It was the idea of his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, a film producer. “She watches a lot of series, Amazon, Netflix,” he says. “And she could see a way to do it. We shopped it around and Netflix said OK.” After a successful first run, he has just finished working on a second 10-part season following Nola Darling’s love life.

The space between the series and the original film documents not only subtle changes in sexual and racial politics, but also the dramatic gentrification of his Brooklyn neighbourhood. The original film was as much a collective expression of the group of artists and actors he lived among here in the mid-80s as anything else. Does he still feel that community is possible?

Adam Driver and John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman.

“It is,” he says, “but it depends on there being a place where artists find it affordable to live. A young Andy Warhol in Pittsburgh, or even a young Madonna in Michigan, could not make it to New York and exist here now.”

He doesn’t believe online hubs can replace those communities.

“It’s gotta be face to face. We were all bumping into each other on the block here.” He fetches a picture from the studio’s bathroom wall of the coolest-looking Bloomsbury set of all time and runs through the names: “Chris Rock. Joseph Simmons from Run DMC. Bill Stephney from Public Enemy. A few of them are still around.”

It is an irony not lost on Lee that the look and success of his own film first made Fort Greene attractive to property developers. If you walk up from his studio across the park to his old house now, it is full of children’s nannies pushing state-of-the-art buggies, and financiers and lawyers jogging with focus, or pulling along exotic dogs. The brownstone houses have mostly been tricked up in heritage paints and sell for many millions of dollars. Lee has been a fierce critic of this process, which he inadvertently set in motion, and has been given to public rants about it, such as this infamous one to a local gathering a few years back: “There were brothers playing motherfuckin’ African drums in Mount Morris Park for 40 years and now they can’t do it any more because the new inhabitants said the drums are loud. My father’s a great jazz musician. He bought a house in 19-motherfuckin’-68, and the motherfuckin’ people moved in last year and called the cops on my father. He’s not – he doesn’t even play electric bass! It’s acoustic! Here’s another thing: when Michael Jackson died they wanted to have a party for him in motherfuckin’ Fort Greene Park and all of a sudden the white people in Fort Greene said: ‘Wait a minute! We can’t have black people having a party for Michael Jackson to celebrate his life. They’re gonna leave lots of garbage.’ Garbage? Have you seen Fort Greene Park in the morning? It’s like the motherfuckin’ Westminster dog show.”

He is less animated about the fact when we meet. How does he feel walking around here these days? “It’s like all over,” he says. “It’s like Brixton, where I used to hang out in London. I guess it’s safer now, but it’s not the same.”

Though he maintained his studio here, Lee and his wife and two children, then toddlers, moved out 20 years ago when they bought a 8,292 sq ft town house on the Upper East Side on Manhattan that used to belong to the painter Jasper Johns and, before that, to Gypsy Rose Lee. He has never been shy of accumulating or displaying his wealth, though in the past he has tried to claim, somewhat ridiculously, that he is not “rich rich”. “Rich is Spielberg. Lucas. Gates. Jay-Z! Oprah Winfrey,” he once observed, “that’s a ton of money. Compared with them, I’m on welfare.”

Still, he can just about remember what it was like to have nothing. She’s Gotta Have It was shot in summer 1985 in two six-day weeks for a begged and borrowed $175,000 – and made $7m

I wonder if, looking back, he knew when he took that gamble he would end up where he is at 61?

He grins. “I had an idea,” he says. “I went to public school near here. I have several notebooks in which it was just me practising my autograph. I didn’t know what I would become. But I knew as the day is long that one day someone would ask for my autograph.” Lee is a tenured professor at NYU film school but the best lesson he can offeris the importance of keeping on keeping on. After Malcolm X in 1992 the box-office returns for his films followed a steady downward trend pretty much until the 2006 thriller Inside Man, which is still the director’s only real big budget success.

In all that time, more than two dozen movies, he never seems to have been undone by doubt?

“There is no way I could be in the position I am now, if I had doubt,” he says. “That came from my parents and grandparents – even if they had thought it, they never once said: ‘You can’t do that.’ They said: ‘We support you, but you gotta work hard.’ You had to bust your ass.”

 DeWanda Wise in Spike Lee’s Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It, based on his 1986 film of the same name. Photograph: Netflix

He shows no signs of stopping. The spur is never a fear of failure, he says, but simply storytelling. There are always more stories crowding in to be told.

We talk a little about the horror show of American politics. On the day we meet, Trump is in the UK; Lee is amused by the fact that the English have been able to take out their World Cup sorrows on the presidential visit: “Perfect timing.” He wants to make the point, too, that his film is not exclusively or “quintessentially”, as Cate Blanchett said in handing over the award at Cannes, “about an American crisis”.

“This stuff is happing in France, Germany, Italy, Britain. The rise of the right. You have Brexit. We just do it bigger and better than anyone else! But you start to rally your nation around the scapegoat, the villain, the immigrant, we know how that ends, right? What was the first thing Trump said? All Mexicans are rapists. That’s where it began.”

His own antidote to that is the two-word phrase that has been a feature of almost every film he has made, beginning with the last words of his second feature, School Daze, which ended with Laurence Fishburne’s character exhorting his audience to “Wake Up!” Does the contemporary urgency to be “woke” make him feel vindicated?

“I get no joy from being right,” he says. “I want to be wrong. I wanted there to have been some progress. ‘Wake up’ has been like a refrain for me. And I’m still saying it.”

I suggest to him that if we’d had this conversation a decade ago, he might have begun to believe that things were changing. Barack and Michelle Obama had grown up with Lee’s philosophy – they had gone to see Do the Right Thing on their first date in 1989 – and they were on their way to the White House. In a New Yorker profile of Lee in 2008, at the time of Obama’s nomination to the Democrat ticket, he declared that their progress was “ordained – it’s providence. I think this is going to be such a pivotal moment in history,” he said, “that you can measure time by BB, Before Barack, and AB, After Barack.” When I quote that to him now, he rocks back in his seat, and lets out a roar.

“I was wrong about that! Though in one way it’s true in that Agent Orange – his only agenda is to dismantle everything Obama did. I think it goes back to that correspondents’ dinner when he sat there in the audience and President Obama tore him another anus. After that, as soon as he put his right hand on that lying Bible, he was getting rid of everything that Obama had done.”

How does he see the next year – or the next week – going?

“My friends call me Negrodamus!” he says, laughing broadly. “Negrodamus! But I can’t help thinking it’s going to be ugly. What is really amazing is these house Republicans. How do they sleep at night? They are up there co-signing this hatred. You have to think these guys just kneel and pray at the altar of the almighty dollar. They would put their mother on the corner. That is what we are up against.”

What about hope?

“I have faith in [Robert] Mueller,” he says, getting up, shaking my hand, heading across the studio to have his photograph taken. “May God hold him and protect him, that’s all I can say! Let Mueller do his job!”

Tim Adams grew up in Birmingham. A former editor of the Observer’s books pages and of the Review section, he has been a staff writer, contributing features, interviews, reviews and comment, since 2000. Recent awards include the 2015 One World award for newspaper journalist of the year, and the Foreign Press award for arts and culture writing. He is the author of Being John McEnroe (Penguin Random House). Twitter.

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