“Don’t call it a comeback!” Spike Lee said of his triumphant return to the Croisette with the angry and hugely entertaining “BlacKkKlansman,” which is in the running for the 2018 Palme d’Or. It still smarts that Wim Wenders’ jury denied him the prize in 1989 for “Do the Right Thing,” but this week Lee is in high spirits. “I love Cannes!” Lee said on the Majestic Beach. “Cannes can be brutal if you don’t get the right reception: ‘Shit, why did I come?’ That’s why Thierry [Fremaux] changed the rules,” Lee said, referring to the new practice of the press screenings taking place simultaneously with official premieres.
“I didn’t know they changed the rule until I got here,” he said. “I’m glad they changed it. Before, when they had the press conference before the screening, it could be brutal, with directors coming to world premieres, and the word’s out already! ‘We hate your film!’ Destroyed! That’s hard. It’s good to get the flip side.”
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Lee’s Cannes career began more than 30 years ago, when “She’s Gotta Have It” won the 1986 Prix de la Jeunesse. He returned in 1989 with “Do the Right Thing.” “Who’s watching the film that won Best Picture?” he said, laughing. “Who’s doing the remake? ‘Driving Miss Daisy Off the Cliff!'” Cannes also boosted the career of Samuel L. Jackson when he won a Best Supporting Actor prize for “Jungle Fever” in 1991.
David Lee/Focus Features
“BlacKkKlansman” began when “Get Out” director Jordan Peele called Lee out of blue with an adaptation of Ron Stallworth’s memoir “Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime,” the story of a young black man who became the first police officer in Colorado Springs.
“‘Is this true?'” Lee asked, incredulous. “It sounded like a Dave Chapelle skit. I knew I’d rewrite it even before he sent the script, ’cause if the script had everything there, he wouldn’t have called me! I called up my man [‘Chi-Raq’ co-writer Kevin Willmott] and said, ‘Let’s do it.'”
Lee knew exactly what he had to do to make the movie work. “From the beginning, it was a period piece from the 1970s,” he said. “We had to connect it to today.”
The writers assessed the script’s strengths and weaknesses. “We found spots in the story that spoke to the current situation,” said Willmott. For example, the Donald Trump catchphrase “America First” started in the 1920 as the Klan’s slogan, then the American Nazi slogan in the 1930s, which was then taken up by Charles Lindbergh. “We think it was one of the things Steve Bannon found and gave to Trump,” said Lee. “I don’t think that guy thought of that or knew the historical reference where it came from.”
The colorful and hateful dialogue spewing out of mouths of David Duke (Topher Grace), the KKK, and Stallworth (played by Denzel Washington’s son, John David Washington, familiar from “Ballers” and “Monster”) is extraordinary to hear. “That’s how it works, in the ’70s and today,” said Willmott. “It’s the most truthful stuff in the film.”
“We didn’t have to put the words of the past in their mouths,” said Willmott. “This is how the Klan talks. A lot of the dialogue was in the Stallworth book.”
“Google it!” said Lee. “‘Niggerettes!'”
Focus Features chairman Peter Kujawski didn’t even take time to Google. When the Focus team read the script, they wanted it.
“If there’s a dream director to do this project, Spike’s the guy,” said Kujawski. “I think we got the script on a Tuesday; we all read it overnight. Wednesday we looked each other in the eye, and said, ‘Hey, let’s do this.’ It was clear to us that Spike had the humorous angle in mind, but it was also clear that he was never gonna just turn it into a comedy. It’s dealing with serious, important issues, and dealing with them in a way that Spike has uniquely built a voice and a career around. He doesn’t shy away from making an entertainment-forward version of the film, nor does he shy away from truly allowing the movie to become powerful, and somewhat incendiary, and truly an active statement on issues that a lot of people should be thinking about and discussing in today’s world.”
Focus did initially question the film’s coda, which Lee insisted on adding after wrapping principal photography. He watched the August 10 riots in Charlottesville in horror while on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, and saw the death of Heather Heyer. Once he obtained permission from Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, Lee felt empowered to include footage of the car that ran her over.
“That’s the ending, end of discussion,” he said. “Those terrorists groups and the real David Duke should join the Writers Guild of America. They wrote the ending for us. They wrote a better ending.”
Lee is used to getting comments from studios. “It’s their job to make comments,” he said. “‘Do the Right Thing’ was set up at Paramount, but the week before the start of production, they wanted Mookie and Sal to hug at the end. I called up Sam Kitt at Universal, got him the script, he got it up the chain to Tom Pollock, who said, ‘I’m doing it, but not a penny over $6.5 million.’ Warner Bros. wanted to know why [Nelson] Mandela was at end of ‘Malcom X.’ I had to explain to them that Mandela read ‘The Autobiography Of Malcolm X’ numerous times in prison for 27 years. The connection between them and Martin Luther King is they were all freedom fighters.”
The Washington and Lee families raised their kids as close-knit friends. Lee has known John David since he was a boy, and gave him his big-screen debut at the age of six in “Malcolm X.” Pauletta stars in Lee’s Netflix “She’s Gotta Have It” series. When Lee went to the opening-night afterparty for Broadway’s “The Iceman Cometh,” (which kept the elder Washington out of Cannes), Washington said, “What’s up, I can’t get a job now? You’re hiring my family?”
“I don’t do this shit alone,” Lee said at the Cannes press conference. “I’m a general manager of a sports team. You put the best players out there to win, it’s teamwork. Filmmaking is a collaborative effort. Everyone up here contributed and was great. I never worked with Topher before, or Brooklynite Adam [Driver]; this young man [John David Washington] and I go way back. This is new blood, a lot of new people here; this was an infusion. I’m old, I’m 61, I’ve been doing this for three decades. Making a good film is a miracle. There’s some hard shit.”