As he releases his new joint BlacKkKlansman, we speak to the director about Childish Gambino, Sampha, and black politics in the mainstream
If anyone knows how to make a statement that sticks, it’s Spike Lee. Four decades deep into his career, the visionary filmmaker is renowned for challenging racial and social injustices while celebrating all things black on the big screen. In the 1980s, he broke through with visceral statements about racism and black sexuality, in the iconic Do the Right Thing and She’s Gotta Have It (which was adapted into a Netflix series in 2017). His latest joint, BlacKkKlansman, is yet another charged up example of why Lee is one of the most distinctive voices in pop culture.
Based on the true story of Ron Stallworth – the first African American police officer in the Colorado Springs police department, who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1970s – BlacKkKlansman draws a chilling link between the past and the present. Lee and his co-writer Kevin Willmott highlight the parallels between the teachings of the KKK and Trump’s America, while paying homage to the victims of last year’s Charlottesville protests.
Here, the celebrated director tells Dazed about his hopes for America, why he hates being labelled “controversial”, and his belief that the current rise of black politics in pop culture is part of a problematic trend cycle.
BlacKkKlansman is so powerful – especially in the way it highlights the parallels between the political climate in the 70s and the state of the world today in the United States. Some critics have called it your most important social commentary to date, do you agree?
Spike Lee: I’m glad you said that first part, because that was really the intention. My co-screenwriter Kevin Willmott and I wanted to make a film that took place in the 70s but was still contemporary. But I wouldn’t describe it as my most important social commentary – I can’t. I’m glad people like BlacKkKlansman, but I can’t discount Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X. This is just the latest hot Spike Lee joint, another film added to my body of work.
The hype for this film started at the Cannes Film Festival (where BlacKkKlansman was awarded the Grand Prix) and look, I never get mad when people give me compliments because it’s better than saying ‘We hate you.’ But the thing I found strange is that there has been this recurring theme that ‘Spike Lee is back’, and I’m like, ‘Where the fuck did I go?’ I don’t feel like I ever left.
The good thing about BlacKkKlansman is that it has made a lot of people, especially critics, go back and revisit my body of work to look at films that they might have dismissed or never saw: 25th Hour, Bamboozled, Summer of Sam, Miracle at St. Anna. For me, that has been one of the most gratifying things about this movie, because people have really gone back and said, ‘Damn, I missed this?’
Why do you think those films were overlooked in the past? Is it perhaps because the world wasn’t as open to discussing those social/political issues you were highlighting at the time?
Spike Lee: Look, I’m not bragging but my friends call me Negrodamus (laughs). They’re like, ‘Spike, Do The Right Thing back in ‘89, you were already talking about motherfucking global warming and gentrification.’ This very thing you said about people not being ready or understanding my previous work has come up a lot lately because of BlacKkKlansman and the fact that it has made people look back at the old movies and reconsider. Now they’re saying, ‘Spike was ahead.’ All I’m saying is with BlacKkKlansman, I got another Usain Bolt 100 yards on you motherfuckers.
You’ve been described as “controversial” and “provocative” throughout your career. What are your thoughts on that?
Spike Lee: First of all, I hate labels. I think labels are just indicative of someone who is very lazy and doesn’t want to take the time and effort, or thinks so little of whoever he or she is talking about, so I hate that stuff. For me, controversial is a negative word that is never used in a positive way. “Controversial filmmaker, Spike Lee”, I mean, if I had a dollar for the amount of times I’ve heard that…
What do you make of the recent radical black pop culture moments? (Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”, etc.)
Spike Lee: I love them – I really do. People are reacting to the fucked up world we live in and this guy we got in the White House, Agent Orange. I got that name from Busta Rhymes, when he did that song at the 2017 Grammys with A Tribe Called Quest. I think it’s so effective when artists create moments like that. When Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” came out, it was like a bomb went off. It had such a huge impact in the States and around the world. More than anything, it really spurred a dialogue among black folks (about) how we feel about what’s going on and seeing ourselves shot down. I love provocative art that people talk about like that, because a lot of people be talking about some bullshit. But with this we’re digging deeper and being connected.
“The truth is, these trends come every ten years. Right now, black women are all over the fashion magazine covers, but peep this, there’s nobody black at these individual magazines. The person who says ‘Put this black person on the cover’ isn’t a black person” – Spike Lee
How important do you think it is to have art that responds to the political climate of its time?
Spike Lee: Here’s the thing, I’m 61 now and back in the day I would have said all artists have a responsibility to do that. I’m not saying that today, because everybody has their own path, that’s something I’ve come to learn. Not everybody is the same, and we all want to do different things. I think it’s important that artists do use their platform if they want to, but I don’t get mad when they don’t speak out. I used to, but I grew up and maturity has helped me understand.
With the likes of Black Panther and Get Out, it’s a great time for black culture in mainstream cinema. Do you think this change will last?
Spike Lee: I hope it’s consistent, but the truth is, these trends come every ten years. Right now, black women are all over the fashion magazine covers, but peep this, there’s nobody black at these individual magazines. The person who says ‘Put this black person on the cover’ isn’t a black person. So that means it’s going to be a trend. I stress this a lot, it’s not a big thing for us to be in movies, make films, be on TV, make records, whatever. The last battle for us is to become those gatekeepers, because these are the positions where people actually make the decisions.
Right now, we’re not in the decision-making room – we’re in the hallway outside by the secretary in the motherfucking waiting room. As long as we stay there, black culture is just going to be a trend. Once they’ve given us our turn, there’ll be another ten-year famine, and then we’ll be hot again. The only way to combat that is if we get a seat at the table, and we’re involved in the process when decisions are made about what film we’re making, what TV show we’re making, what’s going to be on the front page of the newspaper and what’ll be the lead story on the news – that’s where the real power is.
There are so many young black creatives emerging at the moment. Do you have any favourites?
Spike Lee: I really try to stay away from naming favourites because otherwise I’ll have people coming after me for forgetting to mention their names, it happens all the time. But in the UK, I love Sampha. The guy who shot the short film for his album Process is called Chayse Irvin – he worked on Beyonce’s Lemonade visual and he’s the DP for BlacKkKlansman, so that’s how I discovered Sampha. I think he’s amazing.
Finally, what do you love the most about your country and what scares you?
Spike Lee: What scares me is motherfucking Agent Orange and his fellow crooks. But what I love about America is the promise. It still hasn’t been kept or fulfilled, but just the promise of what it should be about, I love that. I’ve got children, so I have to hold on to that for the future. What I hope this film does is that it motivates people in the United States to register to vote for the midterm elections, which will be in November, and then two years later in the presidential election. It’s crucial. I’m not trying to be over-dramatic, but the world as we know it will be imbalanced if this guy (Trump) gets elected again, and people forget he has the nuclear codes too.
Blackkklansman hits UK cinemas on Friday August 24