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In conversation with Spike Lee, the ever-energetic provocateur

04 Sep 2018

via @officialspikelee’s Instagram

It’s over two hours after he was supposed to enter the room and when he bursts in, Spike Lee takes me by surprise. Walking purposefully over to the long dressing table that stretches along the wall of the Soho Hotel room, he appears to be in a rush. “Temptations ‘Ball of Confusion’,” he says, scribbling out instructions before handing it back to the man on his press team. “I need that mix DJ Spinner did for me.” After a back and forth about how he will make it to his next engagement on time he suddenly turns his attention to me. “So, you went to Oxford or Cambridge? You couldn’t get in? I’m just messing,” he laughs.

As someone who has grown up watching his work, being in his presence is like being dropped right in the middle of a Spike Lee joint. The attention to detail in choosing music to set the tone for his promotional events, the rapid-fire runaway dialogue, how our conversation oscillates between sobering conversations about white supremacy to a hilarious and surreal moment where he makes me call my housemate to get her to sing her favourite song from the recent She’s Gotta Have It series. She’s been struggling to find it since the Netflix hit aired. “Sing to the best of your non-singing abilities,” he laughs as she gives a breathy rendition of the hard-to-find track we now know to be Asia Major’s “All About Me”. His hair may be greying, but he still has a boyish playfulness, and he then moves on to show off his box-fresh Nike Jordan sneakers once we put the phone down.

In our arrhythmic conversation, we unpacked everything we needed to: his new film, race relations, gentrification, and his impressive filmography. He’s always in control of the narrative, however chaotic or unconventional. In that way, he continues to set himself apart four decades after his debut. 

Fittingly, his latest film, BlacKkKlansman, focuses on near-truthful events from the life of Ron Stallworth, a black detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s with the help of another agent. It has drawn some criticism from Boots Riley and other cultural commentators for painting a supposedly rosy picture of America’s police. Regardless of whether you agree with its execution, Lee and Jordan Peele masterfully bring that 1970s fear of a brewing race war to the present day. And, with films like Malcolm X in his repertoire, and a production company named 40 Acres and a Mule – in reference to the reparations promised, but never delivered, to freed African American slaves – he continues to push black empowerment onto the silver screen.

Spike Lee on set with Adam Driver in the BlacKkKlansman

gal-dem: So what is it about Ron Stallworth’s story that originally gripped you?

Spike Lee: How can a black man infiltrate the Klu Klux Klan? That’s the pitch. Jordan Peele told me when he called me to do, to film. Six words, high concept. Black man infiltrates the Klu Klux Klan.

Do you know Jordan Peele well?

Oh yeah. (We’re) not friends, but when Get Out came out I called him right away. That’s a great movie, I gave him mad love.

So the film covers the rise of white supremacy.

I don’t know about a rise. White supremacy that’s been around!

How did you try and make the film feel urgent for today, even though it’s set in the past?

That was something that my co-writer Kevin Willmott decided early on that in order for this film to really be the best we had to make a period yet contemporary film. That was the secret sauce (laughs). That’s a good one. I never thought of that before. The secret sauce!

Why did you include footage from the horrors of Charlottesville?

12 August a year ago, that happened, but we didn’t start shooting until September. I knew we had to include it right away, but I still needed to get permission from Heather Heyer’s mother, her name is Susan Bro.

It’s such a powerful moment at the end because it really brings you right back to –

Here we are. We’re not in the seventies when the world now is topsy-turvy. It’s upside down.

I’m not gonna get in rap beef or battle. I’m too old for that – Spike Lee on Boots Riley

What makes a Spike Lee joint a Spike Lee joint?

Keep it 100? One HUNNID! A Spike Lee joint is a combination of many things. My films are a cinematic mixtape (leans closer to the mic).  Ooh, cinematic mixtape. Aw shit! There’s a whole lot of shit in there. Little bit of this, little bit of that to get the right mix. Even without knowing my name before the movie you would look at it and say “Spike did it”, even before you know I’m involved you can see.

Do you view your filmmaking as activism?

It depends on the film. Yes with things like Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X or the latest joint but one day I want to make a musical. They got these here yet? (Points to his shoes)

I’m not really a sneaker person I own one pair of trainers.

You disappoint me, you broke my heart man. You ain’t got no Jordans?

I’m afraid not.

Have you been to Brooklyn?

Yes, I have but don’t ask me where.

How can you not know?

Well, tell me somewhere you’ve hung out in London

I know where Brixton is.

Fine, where would you go in Brixton?

It’s gentrified! Trick question. This is something that’s happening all over the United States – all over the world. When I did the film She’s Gotta Have It before you were born, the Brooklyn back then was way different to Brooklyn today. When people are moving in they’re not leaving it alone they’re like: ‘this has to go, this has to go, this has to go’. In Harlem, there’s been a park for like 40 years and boys would play African drums on a Sunday. Not no more. Have you ever heard of colonising?

Yeah, I feel like it’s just become a bit of a habit. It happens over and over again.

You’re talking about our movie. This stuff is not new. The Klan started chanting ‘America first’ in the 1920s and then Donald Trump brought it into his campaign. This stuff has all been recycled, reshaped, remodelled, but it’s still hate.

I’m not mad at people saying I’m a provocateur. I like the way it sounds too. That French shit – Spike Lee on his reputation

In the age of Blue Lives Matter, were you wary of painting police to be aids to black liberation?

No. Not at all. Anytime there’s a piece of work that’s provocative, people are going to try to interpret it the way they want and there’s nothing you can do about it. I know what’s in my heart, I know the crew and cast – the film we wanted to make. People want to twist and turn it some way to their own devices. That’s them. But I know that this film down the line will be on the right side of history. The right side.

Are you not being specific on purpose? Because there was Boots Riley who released a statement

You can ask the question, but my answer is no comment. I’m not gonna get in rap beef or battle. I’m too old for that.

Do you think in the future you might put a project together that explores how the police have aided and white supremacist organizations in the past or tried to destroy black movements?

I’ve done them already. I did a documentary called 4 Little Girls. It was a film about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that took place in 1963 during the height of the civil rights movement. These Klan members bombed the church and blew four little black girls to bits. We talk about how the FBI knew. I mean it’s been documented that many Klan members were members of police departments, especially down south.

Do you wish that you’d been able to fit that narrative and a little bit more to this film?

That wasn’t the story.

I’ve read a lot of interviews with you where people have tried to paint you as quite a controversial character.

First of all, I hate that word. I prefer the provocateur versus a controversial because, in a lot of ways, especially the United States, the word controversial is used in a negative light. I don’t think that I’m a negative person. I’ll agree that a lot of my films are made to provoke, so therefore I’m not mad at people saying I’m a provocateur. I like the way it sounds too. (laughs) That French shit. It’s got that certain ‘je ne POW’.

BlacKkKlansman is in cinemas now