On the veranda of the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, people have gathered from all corners of the film industry to celebrate the DVD release of Spike Lee’s latest film BlackKklansman. Lee is jovial, taking pictures with friends and fans alike against the step-and-repeat announcing the occasion. John David Washington, who stars as the title character, and Ron Stallworth (a Colorado police officer who infiltrated the KKK in the 70s) join Lee, along with other members of the cast like Topher Grace (who plays David Duke) and Ashli Atkinson (who plays a woman klansman). With a 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes, a $10.8 million opening weekend (his highest in a decade) and some of the most effusive praise yet for the film, Lee is riding high.
Shadow and Act caught up with the iconic filmmaker at the event to talk legacy, criticism, and the work he’s still passionate about doing.
“Six-word pitch: Black man infiltrates ku klux klan,” Lee laughs as he recounts the words his co-executive producer Jordan Peele said to convince him to get on board with making BlackKklansman. Lee didn’t believe it was based on a true story. “I automatically thought it was a Dave Chappelle skit,” he says. But once he received Ron Stallworth’s book Black Klansman and began reading, the wheels started turning as to how he could tell this story on screen. “I was in right away,” he says, and he knew just who could play Stallworth.
This film isn’t Washington’s first Spike Lee Joint. The son of Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington, John David appeared as a child, the next generation of freedom fighters at the end of Malcolm X.
“I knew he could do it,” Lee says of Washington’s acclaimed performance. “The fruit does not fall far from the tree. So he just had that…” he gestures with his hands, searching for the word, and settles on That. He got it!”
“I’m very lucky because I’m doing what I love,” he says of his legendary film career. “If you can make a living doing what you love, you’ve won.”
Still, he recognizes that life could have gone another way for him. At the time he was making his first films, “There was only one African American [director] working in Hollywood,” he says contrasting his beginnings with today’s Black film and TV renaissance that younger Black directors like Peele are enjoying. “His name’s Michael Schultz, a brother who was directing a lot of films for Richard Pryor and Richard Pryor was the biggest star in Hollywood,” he says. “You had my films, you had Robert Townsend’s films, Hollywood Shuffle, these were the films that brought about the next wave of Black cinema.”
Though his impact on cinema is undeniable, its impossible to have more than 40 years in the game with no criticism. BlacKkKlansman is not exempt. The most high-profile criticism of the film came from fellow director Boots Riley (Sorry to Bother You), who was disappointed in many things about the film, including the choice to “make a cop the protagonist in a fight against racist oppression” and to portray Stallworth as a hero after his infiltration of Black liberation groups in Colorado for the police, which was glossed over in the film, Riley says.
“With every film, it’s something,” Lee says, not considering Riley’s criticism specifically. “She’s Gotta Have It is ‘misogynist;’ School Daze, I was ‘airing out the dirty laundry;’ Do the Right Thing, ‘Black people are gonna riot;’ Mo’ Better Blues, I’m ‘anti-semitic;’ Jungle Fever, I’m ‘against interracial relationships,'” he says recounting the criticism over the years.
“bell hooks had an article called, ‘Whose Pussy Is [This]?,'” he laughs, remembering the scathing essay the renowned feminist scholar wrote about the misogyny in the film version of She’s Gotta Have It.
“It’s always something, but it does not detract me. I wouldn’t be going on my fourth decade if I was going to let that stuff get to me, so you just do the best you can and keep stepping.”
But just because he doesn’t allow criticism to stop his creative process doesn’t mean he ignores it all completely.
“I tell my film students, if you have thin skin, this ain’t the place to be,” the tenured NYU graduate film studies professor says.
“Some stuff you dismiss because, number one, you look who the source is. Other stuff…I’m never going to say that any of the criticism I’ve received over the last 40 years was not correct; no one’s going to do any art form that long and there’s not going to be criticism that’s legit,” he says. “So, if the stuff’s legit, you try to reconfigure based on what the criticism is and just keep stepping,” he repeats.”
The new Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It is not a part of that reconfiguration, however.
“My wife, Tonya, she’s the one that came up with the idea to revisit it; it’s not in any way to correct whatever I did wrong in that,” he says. “What people don’t remember is that the feature film She’s Gotta Have It was 86 minutes long, there’s only so much you can do in 86 minutes,” he says, comparing it to the 5.5 hours the 10-episode season one received on Netflix.
“When I wrote the script, the screenplay was written by me. It’s different for the series,” he says. “It’s dominated by very talented sisters and it turned out very well. Lynn Nottage who’s won two Pulitzer Prizes, she was in the [writers’] room. A whole bunch of sisters.” He says there was “no way,” he would’ve done the series without them. “I would’ve been crucified–and rightfully so–if there weren’t Black women in the room writing [main character] Nola Darling,” he laughs. “I was tired of hearing the phrase ‘male gaze,'” he jokes. “I don’t want to hear that shit no more.”
But just as he explains to students in his upcoming film Masterclass, writing film screenplays will always be a handwritten, solitary process for him. And at 61 years young, he’s got plenty more stories he still wants to tell.
“I want to do a musical,” he says. “We’re going to make School Daze a Broadway musical first; it’s coming.”
Next year will also bring about the 25th anniversary of Crooklyn and the 30th anniversary of Do The Right Thing.
“We’re having a huge block party,” Lee says of his plans to celebrate the occasions; and as anyone who’s ever attended his annual Prince block party in his native Brooklyn knows, it’s going to be epic.
As far as legacy is concerned, Lee feels secure.
“My legacy is going to be my children, the children of Tonya Lewis Lee and Spike Lee,” he says. “My daughter, Satchel Lee, who’s a recent graduate of [NYU] Tisch School of the Arts, she’s co-founded a magazine called Drome, and my son, Jackson, who’s a senior at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and that’s the living legacy.”
As for his films, he says, “The work, that lives forever. I’m just a filmmaker a storyteller and leave it at that, let the body of work, the 4 decades of the films, short movies documentaries commercials, just let it speak for itself,” he says.
“I can’t dictate how people are going to see the work, as an artist, you just put it out there. It’s out of your control, I feel.”
BlacKkKlansman is out on digital release now and DVD release on Nov. 6.
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‘BlacKkKlansman’: Real-Life Ron Stallworth Says David Duke Is Concerned About His Portrayal, Is A Fan Of Spike Lee