When you’ve been in the movie industry for decades, your career will see its share of ups and downs, and Spike Lee will heartily attest to that. No one is immune to a bad movie or two, but the outspoken Lee has one word he hates; comeback.
Spike Lee heard the whispers.
Just a few years ago, some were suggesting that Lee was no longer the essential filmmaker he had once been. There had been critical and box-office disappointments. He was hunting for funding on Kickstarter. His remake of the Korean classic “Oldboy” was re-edited against his wishes.
As Lee readies his latest “BlacKkKlansman,” his incendiary satire of white supremacy, those whispers are long gone. If it ever didn’t, the phrase “a Spike Lee joint” again carries with it something urgent and vital.
“What’s the famous Mark Twain quote? My demise has been greatly exaggerated? A couple (people) had written me off: I’m done. Over! Not relevant!” said Lee in a recent interview, with a prolonged cackle. “But you know what? They don’t know! Count me out if you want to! Come on, I’m in Brooklyn! We go hard!”
At the suggestion that the change has been less his than America’s — some have said the culture caught up to him, rather than vice versa — Lee reaches a still higher pitch.
“Well, I got another hundred yards!” exclaims the 61-year-old filmmaker, roaring with laughter at the discovery of one of his favorite things: a good sports metaphor. “I got me another Usain Bolt hundred yards!”
Lee was introduced to the story of “BlacKkKlansman” by Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) who called up Lee with the true-life tale of African-American police detective Ron Stallworth, who in 1979 infiltrated a Colorado Springs, Colorado, cell of the Ku Klux Klan. There was already a script, but Lee reworked it with Kevin Willmott to add what he calls “more flavor.”
And while the crew is peopled by longtime collaborators of Lee’s, the cast is full of, as Lee says, “new blood.” John David Washington, the eldest son of Lee’s go-to leading man, Denzel Washington, stars as Stallworth. (“You can’t write that stuff!” says Lee of his second-generation Washington star.) The other top roles are also Spike Lee joint newbies: Adam Driver plays a fellow detective; Topher Grace plays former KKK leader David Duke.
It all adds up to the year’s most explosive, rip-roaring commentary on race in America — and as Lee insists, around the globe — drawing a straight line from yesterday’s Klan to today’s White House. While much of “BlacKkKlansman” has a part comic vibe, reveling in the KKK’s dimwitted absurdity, it concludes in a searing present-day coda. Lee ends the movie with footage of the white nationalists march in Charlottesville, Virginia, which turned violent in clashes with counter-protesters. Anti-racism activist Heather Heyer was run over and killed. President Donald Trump afterward said there were good people “on both sides.”
“I believe that what happened in Charlottesville was a pivotal moment in American history where an American president had a chance to denounce hate groups like the Klan, the KKK, neo-Nazis, the alt-right, and chose not to do so,” says Lee. “The stories will write that this guy in the White House was on the Wrong side of History, with a capital W for ‘Wrong’ and a capital “H″ for ‘history.’ Wrong. And I believe this film is on the right side of history.”
Lee traces the rise in white supremacy and more blatant expressions of racism today directly to Trump’s rhetoric — though he refuses to use the president’s name.
“It’s the guy in the White House,” he says. “It’s not even dog whistles. They’re not even doing it on the sneak! They’re not even doing it on the low-low. This is blatant. This is like yelled through a megaphone. They’re not even trying to be coy or sneaky about it.”
Focus Features will release “BlacKkKlansman” nationwide Friday, a year after Charlottesville. Lee was prepping the film to shoot in the fall when he saw the images from Charlottesville on the news at his Martha’s Vineyard house. Lee doesn’t play golf, but his house is on the 18th hole of a golf course, where President Barack Obama happened to be playing that day. (“You know when he’s playing golf because all the Secret Service are in the trees!“) It was Lee, meeting Obama on the fairway, who gave him the news.
Lee quickly resolved that the Charlottesville marchers, Trump and Duke had “written themselves into the movie.” ″They took the past, and they brought it back to the present,” says Willmott. Lee later sought and received permission from Heyer’s mother to use the video.
“It’s a testament to his movies, which are always historically unpredictable. Even how he directs on set. He’s very much about impulses — following your impulses, trusting them,” says Driver. “He’s worked with all the same people since ‘Do the Right Thing’ so there’s a shorthand. That’s what I like about his films: They’re filmed with an energy where you never know what’s going to happen.”
To a remarkable degree, that energy has remained at a boiling point for Lee’s entire career. Lee has been arguably at his best, at his most passionate when outraged, when fueled to depict and deconstruct racial injustice, whether on the streets of Bed-Stuy (“Do the Right Thing”), New Orleans (“When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts”) or Chicago (“Chi-Raq”). But those films, like “BlacKkKlansman,” are as much laced with comedy and sorrow and love as they are with fury.
“It may seem like I’m in a constant rage of anger. People define me. Now they’re going to add ‘BlacKkKlansman’ to ‘Do the Right Thing’ and ’Malcolm X,’” says Lee. “But I’m going into my fourth decade as a filmmaker. If you look at the whole body of work, not all the films are about anger. If you look at my semi-autobiographical film ‘Crooklyn’ and other films. They put the moniker on me over the years: ‘Angry black man.’ ‘Angry black filmmaker.’ They put that on me a million years.”
Since its prize-winning premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, “BlacKkKlansman,” has been hailed as an apotheosis encapsulating everything singular about Lee as a filmmaker. It has his trademark dolly shots and his long-held obsessions. It weaves in a commentary on the Hollywood imagery of racism, with cameos of both the confederate dead of “Gone with the Wind” and the Klansmen of “The Birth of a Nation.” Since his film student days at New York University, where Lee made a short about a black filmmaker hired to remake D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, he says, “It’s haunted me.”
But his current outlook is forward. Lee recently finished shooting the second season of Netflix’s “She’s Gotta Have It,” an update of his 1986 debut. Everything runs through his Brooklyn-based production company, 40 Acres & a Mule. He still hopes to make the Joe Lewis epic he wrote years ago with Budd Schulberg, the legendary screenwriter of “On the Waterfront.”
Soon he’ll be off and running again, trailblazing his own path through today’s cinema and through America. But before he goes, Lee has one request:
“You gotta put in that Usain Bolt line.”
Our Favorite Top 10 Spike Lee Films
10. Jungle Fever (1991)
Call it a double feature mashup within a single movie, and you won’t be far off the mark. There really are two storylines vying for attention in this sometimes amusing, sometimes angry and always enthralling drama — and while the transitions between the two aren’t always smooth, the bumps seldom impede the pace of the wild ride. One thread deals with the interracial affair between a married African-American architect (Wesley Snipes) and an Italian-American temp secretary (Annabella Sciorra), a doomed relationship that Lee hints may be driven more by curiosity than passion. The other thread focuses on the architect’s drug-addicted brother (played, brilliantly, by Samuel L. Jackson), whose downward spiral takes him to an inner-city inferno described, not imprecisely, as “the Trump Tower of crack dens.”
9. Crooklyn (1994)
At once street smart and sweetly sentimental, this warmly nostalgic coming-of-age drama could be described as a Spike Lee movie for people who normally dislike Spike Lee movies. Set in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant during the summer of 1973, it’s an episodic semi-autobiographical drama — Lee co-scripted with his bother Cinque Lee and sister Joie Lee — filled with scenes that have the unmistakable feel of incidents that, for better or worse, are deeply felt and vividly remembered. (The‘70s golden-oldies soundtrack pleasingly enhances the period atmosphere.)
Alfre Woodard (as a dedicated schoolteacher) and Delroy Lindo (as a struggling musician) appear as the parents of the four young children who propel most of the interconnected plotlines. Their experiences and misadventures are all the more touching when you consider that, just five years earlier, Lee offered a far less rosy (and much bleaker) view of life in their neighborhood (“Do the Right Thing”) 16 years after the events of this film. As novelist L.P. Hartley once noted: The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.
8. 4 Little Girls (1997)
Lee received a much-deserved Oscar nomination for this outstanding documentary, a richly detailed and profoundly moving account of a horrendous tragedy that proved to be a watershed moment in the history of the American civil rights movement. On the morning of Sept. 15, 1963, a bomb exploded in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.
This was a hate crime, designed by militant racists to intimidate black churchgoers who were active in Birmingham’s racial equality campaign. But instead of short-circuiting the civil-rights protests, this cowardly act of terrorism had a galvanizing effect, largely because the explosion claimed four young victims: Carol Denise McNair, 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Rosamond Robertson, all 14.
7. Inside Man (2006)
Spike Lee goes mainstream. A corking good caper-thriller with an abundance of memorable characters and clever plot twists, along with the tangy New York flavor that is Lee’s trademark special sauce. But wait, there’s more: An all-star lineup that includes Denzel Washington as an NYPD hostage negotiator dealing with gunmen who have taken control of a Manhattan bank; Clive Owen as the heist mastermind who turns out to be the title character in more ways than one; Christopher Plummer as the bank founder who has some dirty little secrets tucked away in the vault; and Jodie Foster as an aggressively glam and sensationally self-assured “fixer” who clashes with the negotiator while trying to protect the bank founder’s interests. Fun fact: “Inside Man” is the biggest box-office hit of Lee’s career. So far.
6. He Got Game (1998)
Lee rarely gets the respect he deserves as a director of not only individual actors but acting ensembles in his films. To fully appreciate his talent in this regard, take a look as this cumulatively affecting yet chronically underrated drama, in which Denzel Washington plays Jake Shuttlesworth, a convicted felon who gets a week off from prison — where he’s serving time for killing his wife — on the order of the governor, who wants Jake to convince his son Jesus (NBA star Ray Allen), the top-ranked college basketball prospect in the country, to attend the governor’s alma mater. (If Jake succeeds, well, there may be a permanent early release in his future.) The father-and-son reunion doesn’t go smoothly (for a long time, it doesn’t go anywhere) and the dramatic tension is enhanced by Lee’s skillful balance of heartfelt performances by a seasoned pro (Washington) and a first-time moonlighter (Allen). And don’t overlook the fine supporting turn by Milla Jovovich, whose role as a put-upon prostitute in need of Jake’s help gives her more opportunities to demonstrate her acting chops than she’s had in all the “Resident Evil” flicks combined.
5. Malcolm X (1992)
After enduring the long months of pre-production controversy — some of it, but by no means all of it, generated by Lee himself — many critics approached this African-American epic with an attitude of, “OK, put up or shut up!” Lee responded by putting his movie where his mouth was, delivering the goods with a rich, rivetingly detailed character study of the man who sought to rebuild black pride “by any means necessary.” Neither a “Hoffa”-style deification nor a “JFK” -style expose, this is an audaciously old-fashioned, impressively multifaceted biographical drama. And lest we forget: In the title role, Denzel Washington firmly established himself as one of the leading actors — if not the leading actor — of his generation.
4. Clockers (1995)
The title refers to low-level drug dealers, but Lee’s film (an artful and intelligent compression of Richard Price’s lengthy novel) stands far apart from conventional dramas about cops, criminals, and inner-city life and death. There are four central characters: a hard-bitten cop (Harvey Keitel) who wants to do the right thing, anything, before retirement; an avuncular drug lord (Delroy Lindo) who manipulates young “clockers” in his neighborhood with equal doses of charm and menace; and two brothers — an ambitious clocker (Mekhi Phifer) and a respectable family man (Isaiah Washington) — whose lives have taken radically different paths. Each man starts out firmly believing he’s the man of his fate. But in the course of “Clockers,” each must face the full extent of his self-delusion. How they come by this hard-won knowledge, and how they respond to it, is what gives this potent movie the stunning impact of a modern-day morality play.
3. BlacKkKlansman (2018)
It’s doubtful that even a filmmaker as audacious as Spike Lee would dare to invent the real-life story of Ron Stallworth, an Colorado Springs, Col. undercover cop who managed in the early 1970s to infiltrate a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan, despite his being very seriously African-American. But Lee gives his own unmistakable stamp to Stallworth’s stranger-than-fiction story in a gobsmackingly entertaining movie that ranks among his all-time finest.
In addition to showcasing most of his distinctive visual flourishes, “BlacKkKlansman” gives Lee the opportunity to demonstrate his ability to be rigorously specific about time (the ‘70s period flavor is well-nigh intoxicating) and brutally persuasive about the timeliness of past events that maybe aren’t really so past at all. At the heart of it all are two beautifully synched performances: John David Washington (son of Lee’s frequent collaborator, Denzel Washington) as Stallworth, who forges a connection with KKK recruiters (and Topher Grace’s David Duke) over the phone, and Adam Driver as Flip Zimmerman, Stallworth’s partner, who pretends to be Stallworth during real-world interactions with the racist (and anti-Semitic) lowlifes.
2. 25th Hour (2002)
Lee’s furiously melancholy drama about life and dread in post-9/11 New York City details the final hours of freedom afforded Monty (Edward Norton), a once-promising young man who’s set to start serving a prison sentence for drug dealing the morning after he completes a series of farewell interactions with his anxious lover (Rosario Dawson), two old friends (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper) — who, truth to tell, aren’t entirely surprised that their feckless buddy is facing hard time — and his guilt-racked father (Brian Cox, who has one of the greatest final lines in all of film history).
Monty is smart enough to acknowledge that he’s done some dumb and reckless things; for a long time, however, he wants to blame everyone (including, during one remarkable monologue, just about every demographic group in NYC) for his fate. Lee’s film, which hit theaters scarcely 15 month after the collapse of the Twin Towers, takes us back into a New York where memories of the 9/11 tragedy, and the paranoia it inspired, still hangs heavy in the air like a poisonous gas, subtly (and, sometimes, not-so-subtly) influencing people even as they go about their blinkered, self-absorbed lives. It takes a lot to wake some people up. Just ask Monty.
1. Do the Right Thing (1989)
To give you some idea of the megaton impact “Do the Right Thing” had back in the day: At the press conference immediately following its first screening at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, Lee found himself fielding questions from skittish white journalists about whether such an incendiary movie might inflame U.S. racial tensions to the point of causing riots. Weeks later, more than a few critics and columnists echoed similar concerns as the film rolled out in North American theatrical release. (Spoiler alert: The riots didn’t happen.)
Ironically — tragically — the most unsettling thing about Lee’s masterwork now is how relevant it remains, how immediate it feels, as bickering escalates into ugly confrontations, and long-simmering resentments reach the boiling point, during 24 fateful hours in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. And yes, it’s still a jolt to experience how the exuberant high spirits of the early scenes gradually give way to escalating dread as the movie darkens, then explodes. Nearly three decades after it first raised a ruckus, “Do the Right Thing” is still the real thing.
Girl 6 (1996)
While many slammed this film, there was something I personally found intriguing about his look at a young black woman getting sucked into the world of fantasy.