When Spike Lee talks, people listen. At the Cannes Film Festival in May, the “BlackKklansman” director delivered a searing indictment of the Trump Administration, lambasting the president for his response to Charlottesville riots and including an epilogue in his movie that did the same thing. He went on to win the Grand Prix at the festival, some of his best reviews of the festival, and a late-summer smash: Lee’s lively, seriocomic look at the efforts of African-American police officer Ron Stallsworth (John David Washington) to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan by using a white voice on the phone grossed over $86 million domestically and remains a part of the fall awards season conversation as the movie hits DVD and Blu-ray next week.
Despite the enthusiasm surrounding “BlackKklansman,” its success carried an air of gravitas, as the movie taps into the roots of bigotry in the United States and their reverberations in the current moment. Speaking by phone less than a week after several hate-fueled acts of domestic terrorism, Lee ruminated on the movie’s ongoing relevance and his commitment to the craft. He also shared his thoughts on the success of “Black Panther” and why he remains a committed film school professor in addition to his other various gigs.
I wish we didn’t have the context for “BlackKklansman” that we have now, but it’s impossible to talk about the movie without considering current events — the shooting in Pittsburgh over the weekend, and the pipe bomb suspect arrested in Florida. How much do you think these events were an extension of the Charlottesville riots and, more broadly, the racism explored in your movie?
Well, I was hoping you’d ask that question, so I want to thank you for that. There were critics and other people, who said that including the Charlottesville coda in the film was too much, beating a dead horse, too obvious, hitting the nail on the head. I’m not happy about being right. But I am. I wish those letter bombs hadn’t gone out. I wish those people had not been slaughtered in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. But history will say that all those things happened after Charlottesville. When Heather Heyer was mowed down by that car, that murder vehicle, that was an act of homegrown American terrorism for the whole world to see.
David Lee/Focus Features
The supposed leader of the free world had the opportunity to denounce that act, to denounce hate, to denounce that evil, to denounce the KKK, to denounce the alt-right, to denounce the Neo-Nazis, and he didn’t do it. Often when incidents like this happen in the United States or the world, people look to their leader for some moral support. Agent Orange did not deliver. Now, what you see in the film is are his first comments after Charlottesville. A couple days later, he switched up. The same way he switched up in the incident with the Saudis: “Those were rogue people.” It is my experience that whatever this guy says the first time is what he thinks. I think that the fact that he didn’t denounce these guys right away was like the green light. They think, “Our guy didn’t denounce us.” Many people might say he was protecting his space. I don’t know. You’d have to ask him. But I will say this: Charlottesville, the letters bombs from Florida, Pittsburgh — the thing that all three of these horrendous acts have in common is that all of this is homegrown American terrorism.
Is it scary to be a famous storyteller right now? After all, the letter bombs went to Robert De Niro, not just politicians.
I’m not scared. My head’s on a swivel. [laughs] I’m not walking around in a daze thinking everything’s alright or hunky-dory. I mean, people forget that I got death threats on “Jungle Fever” when we shot in Bensonhurst. At that time, Bensonhurt was predominantly an Italian-American neighborhood. I made the front page of the Daily News: “Cops protect Spike Lee.” I have it hanging up in my office. But these are the times we live in. I’m confident that artists are not gonna punk out and be silent. So it’s not just me. I’m not gonna speak for everybody else. I’m gonna keep speaking truth to power. I believe in my heart that I will be on the right side of history on this one.
Did you connect with Topher Grace after he received threats for playing David Duke?
Yeah. I mean, he has a young kid. The atmosphere I feel has been provoked by Agent Orange. I find it so hilarious that he’s talking about how we need peace, and love, and we have to get rid of divisiveness. Has he listened to what he said about Mexicans? How he talks about women? Talks about countries in Africa? Does he understand the words that come out of his mouth produce divisiveness, produce hate? He’s their cheerleader! In my opinion. I mean, this so-called caravan, out of nowhere he says there are Middle Easterners among them. Who told him that?
I’m going to guess Fox News.
Yeah, I mean his whole thing about the fake media? Come on. And he’s celebrating a politician that body slammed a journalist like that shit’s OK? That shit’s not OK.
Going back to “BlackKklansman” for a second. You’ve been pretty diplomatic about Boots Riley’s criticism of the movie, specifically as it pertains to Ron Stallworth and whether his actions with COINTELPRO harmed the black community. What surprised you about that response?
Look, my man, let me tell you. I’m in my fourth decade doing this. With “She’s Gotta Have It,” I was [a] misogynist. With “School Daze,” I set the race back 40 years. With “Do the Right Thing,” I’m trying to make black people riot all over the United States of America. With “Mo Better Blues,” I’m anti-semitic. With “Jungle Fever,” I’m against intermarriage. Do you want me to keep going? [laughs] And we haven’t even got up to 2018 yet! What’s that famous line from “Some Like It Hot,” at the end?
Yeah! Nobody’s perfect. That’s the line. My man Billy Wilder. I’m taking that as a homage. Nobody’s perfect.
For whatever it’s worth, Boots Riley’s movie, “Sorry to Bother You,” is also pretty good.
Hey, more power to you! I hope he does well. God bless him.
So you’re at this unique point in your career: “BlackKklansman” was produced by Focus Features, a studio subsidiary. Meanwhile, you’re directing another season of “She’s Gotta Have It.” What do you make of the contrast between the traditional studio realm and the new players?
I go where the work is! [laughs]
Oh, come on.
To be honest, I’ve been doing this from the get-go. I got my left Jordan in the independent world and my right Jordan in the studios. [laughs] Mars Blackmon, come on! What was Mars wearing? Air Jordans! Gotta be the shoes!
There’s apparently a sequel to “Inside Man” filming now, but it doesn’t look like you’re involved at all.
Oh, they’re doing that, but it’s going to be straight to DVD. We’ve moved on.
You’re still active as a producer on various projects. How was that part of the game changed since your career took off?
It’s the same thing. Gotta find the money. Gotta get it done. That’s never gonna change for me.
You’re still teaching film production at NYU. What compels you to keep that gig alongside everything else you’ve got going on?
Well, you left out the tenured part. I’m a tenured professor, and I’m also artistic director of the grad film school. I finished NYU in 1983. Ernest Dickerson and Ang Lee were in my class. I come from a long line of educators in my family. I just happen to be teaching film. Here’s the thing though. Am I proud of various students who made? I’m proud of all my students, because everybody works hard. A break here, and break there, and somebody makes it — like Dee or the Green brothers. But this thing is not guaranteed. I have students who, after they finish their thesis films, have a quarter million dollars in students loans. I also have this Spike Lee NYU fellowship where I give out funds for students to apply so they can finish their thesis film. This shit ain’t no fucking joke.
One of the conversations surrounding the success of “Black Panther” is that it has proven black films have audiences overseas. Of course, you’ve been traveling the world with your movies for decades. So how do you feel about this response?
“Black Panther” is a blessing. So often when black filmmakers are trying to get money for their films, at studios and whatnot, the line item would be that they’re boring. The first lie-slash-narrative was that black people don’t sell overseas. So then you get Sam Jackson, Denzel, Will [Smith]. Then they come with another narrative-lie: “Well, they sell to black stars.” Then they come up with another lie behind “Black Panther”: “Well, it has no stars, but it’s a Marvel comic book.” So it’s the same okey-doke. The same shenanigans, skullduggery, subterfuge, where they keep moving the motherfucking goal lines back. Because black filmmakers are given numbers for the business they’re doing overseas, we’re never going to get budgets that we need. I think that’s some straight-up bullshit. They’ve done this, historically, and every time we reach a new moment, they move the motherfucking goal lines back. I hate that.
Where does that leave us today?
Nowadays, you’re going to make more money on foreign [gross]. A lot of times it can outgross your domestic. So when they’re doing your numbers and they put in a low, low figure for foreign, it’s horrible. Shenanigans! Subterfuge! Skullduggery! Same old, same old. It’s gotta stop.
Focus Features releases “BlackKklansman” on DVD and Blu-ray on November 6.