Spike Lee is no wallflower. Over the course of our spirited conversation on a restaurant rooftop overlooking the Palais des Festivals in Cannes, the 61-year-old director has jumped up, acted out scenes, and screamed with laughter. Though we are tucked away in a far corner of this French terrace, he’s quickly become the center of attention.
Eventually, Lee catches himself and turns circumspect. “My wife always tells me, ‘Why are you goin’ off all the time?’” he says. “And there have been times when I should just be quiet.”
He is thinking of the last few days at the Cannes Film Festival, which have capped off a whirlwind week even by Lee’s heady standards. His new film BlacKkKlansman just premiered at Cannes to rave reviews, and stars John David Washington (son of Lee’s muse, Denzel) in the wild true story of a black detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan by phone. The film culminates with a powerful documentary coda tying this period story to last year’s clash in Charlottesville, and the day after BlacKkKlansman rocked the Palais, Lee went to the film’s press conference and delivered a blistering denunciation of President Trump’s response to that crisis. “It’s an ugly, ugly, ugly blemish on the United States of America,” he told the press.
At that same event, as a shaken Lee tried to collect himself, journalists peppered him with questions about Kanye West’s MAGA journey and Quentin Tarantino’s use of the N-word. Often, the media treats Lee more as a cultural pundit than an auteur, and if there’s something on the lips of every black American, journalists will go to the freewheeling Lee to get the most colorful quote. Not this time, though: Lee demurred throughout the press conference, fearing that any offhand remark would generate headlines that had nothing to do with his film. The new Spike Lee won’t take your bait so easily, though as he told Vulture — flanked by Washington and his BlacKkKlansman co-writer, Kevin Willmott — his newfound, on-message focus was the result of a group effort.
Tell me about the press conference. Spike, what was it like for you?
Spike Lee: Full disclosure! John, I’m gonna keep it 100, baby. Yesterday, they’re bringing up Kanye and Tarantino, and he tapped my leg under the table.
John David Washington: I can’t believe you’re saying this right now.
Lee: 100! 100! So imagine it: Spike and John David, and there’s some question, and he knows me, and he taps me. And I can feel your mother tapping me through you, too! Who’s tapping me is him, my wife, and Pauletta!
Washington: I was their representative, yeah.
Lee: You were the rep! I can imagine Pauletta saying, “Just watch Spike.”
Washington: Oh my God. [Laughs.]
Lee: So, some crazy person comes up: “Oh, what about Tarantino?” And John is like… [mimes frantic tapping].
Washington: Yo, that happened, though. That’s a fact.
Lee: 100! 100! 100!
Washington: That’s 100.
Lee: I understood when he was doing that that he was thinking, like, “This motherfucker goes off!”
Washington: “Don’t do it, Spike! Don’t do it!”
Lee: And I appreciated it. I’m saying love. I mean, forget about John — my wife does it too. She gives me a look.
How often do you get that look from her?
Lee: Often! We’ve been married 25 years! And to be honest, there’s shit I can look back on where I’m like, I should just not say nothin’. So I’m trying to get better at it. But listen, the thing you printed word for word yesterday — and I’m glad you did it — that was not premeditated. There was a couple times where there were pregnant pauses in my speech because I was very moved, where I thought I’d start to cry. Look, I’m not perfect. But over 25 years, I’m getting better at it.
Spike, you made sure to note that the hate groups we see in BlacKkKlansman and its coda are not just an American issue. That sort of thing is happening all over the world right now.
Lee: It’s human nature that when things aren’t going your way, to wonder who’s responsible for that. You gotta scapegoat. I’ll be honest: When the Knicks lose, I’m like, “Who fucked up?” I’m at the Yankee game, I’m like, “Why’s this reliever coming in and now we’re behind?” That’s human nature. Bill Buckner, the ball went through his legs. Scott Norwood, missed a field goal. Pete Carroll, we got the ball on the half-yard line, you got beast mode, and you throw the ball? Pete Carroll, scapegoat! And he’s my guy! I knew him at USC and he’d invite me to practices! But to do that against the Patriots? I still get mad about that.
What do you attribute the global rise of that sort of fervor to?
Kevin Willmott: Immigration is probably the big issue, the world issue right now. These right-wing groups are using fear to sell their hate message … Le Pen in France, Brexit in the United Kingdom. Just like in the ’20s and ’30s, when the Klan and the American Nazi party were on the rise again, they used immigration to sell their message.
So what can we do about it?
Willmott: One thing Spike does in the film is that he presents it as art. The reality of things is bouncing off people right now. People seem to be becoming numb about the whole thing, and art is the only response you have for this sometimes. You’ve got to inspire people to take action.
John David, was that one of the things that was most enticing about making this film?
Washington: Yes, but chiefly among them was the opportunity to work with this legend and the cast members who were onboard. It was like a master class every day, really. I learned a lot about myself both artistically and in life, period.
What did you learn?
Washington: Confidence. Process. I learned there’s more than one way to discover truth and tell it. I learned how to truly trust your teammates. I played sports, and you have to have trust. As an actor, you’re always trying to get it right, and he tells you, “Don’t get it right, get it true.” That spoke volumes to me.
Spike, how did you know John David was right for the role?
Lee: Well, you follow sports, right?
I’d fuckin’ better, if I’m gonna be able to keep up with this conversation!
Lee: Well, there’s so many similarities between sports and filmmaking. If you’re the director, you have to be like the general manager of a squad. I remember one year the Lakers had like five All-Stars and it was horrible! They couldn’t work together. So you want a cohesive unit, a team. It’s the same as the actors in front of the camera and the people behind it: It’s a team, and you want to pick the best people for the job. I did not say to Mr. John David Washington, “I need you to audition.” I knew he could do it. I wasn’t twisting and turning at night. He was the guy.
Washington: I’m a different artist because of this.
What was it like to watch the film in front of a global audience at Cannes?
Washington: I need to answer these questions in a few weeks because I still can’t form words and sentences to accurately describe how I’m feeling yet. It’s a lasagna of emotion, you know? I was surprised by what they reacted to in the film.
Did they laugh at something you weren’t expecting?
Washington: Yeah. There’s a part where he’s walking with a high back, doing the whole ’70s-walk thing, and I got a big response from the people. I was surprised! And then there’s the presentation of it all: the red carpet, the stairs. You can see it and read about it, but you can’t prepare for that. And it’s for a Spike Lee joint, too? My goodness. It’s been such a warm embrace and there’s been such an enthusiasm for cinema. It’s palpable.
Wilmott: You could feel they were ready for the film. They were hungry for it, and hungry for the message that Spike was trying to deliver here. That was so fulfilling. I hope that happens in America.
Washington: I was thinking that, too! “Is it gonna be the same embrace in America?”
Spike, you’ve been around the block. How do you think the reaction in America will be different?
Lee: Just from being on Instagram, on Twitter, people are ready. They’re like, “I can’t wait until August 5!” Been ready, born ready.
And can you already anticipate the Fox News narratives they’ll craft around the film?
Lee: [Laughs wickedly.] Born ready! I’ve been through this. Do the Right Thing premiered right here, and people said, “This film is gonna cause riots all over America.” Go Google the articles by David Denby, Jack Kroll … they said blood was gonna be on my hands. People were urging Tom Pollock, who was then the president of Universal Pictures, not to open the film. And if he was still gonna open it, don’t put it in the summer, because you know how they do in the summertime. People forget, and I’ll say it in public anytime I can, but Tom Pollock was the patron saint of Do the Right Thing. He’d gone through this before with Martin Scorsese on The Last Temptation of Christ, and he was getting death threats — he had to have bodyguards! So I would’ve understood if he said, “Spike, I love you and I love the film, but I can’t do this after what I just went through.” But instead he said, “Spike, I don’t care what anybody says. June 30, we’re coming out.”
And it did.
Lee: Another thing people forget is it opened in the same week as Tim Burton’s Batman. Counterprogramming! And look, I got love for Tim Burton. Jack Nicholson? That’s my guy. But there’s room.
Spike, how was this trip to Cannes different than your very first?
Lee: I was here in ’86, but I wasn’t in the main competition. I was in Directors’ Fortnight, and in Directors’ Fortnight, they don’t got the Grand Palais! But to answer your question, this is the first time that people have ever applauded my signature double-dolly shot.
Washington: That was an amazing moment.
Lee: And you know what told me? These are people who love cinema and know my films. They were waiting for it, and when they saw it, they applauded. That was moving to me, because it was an acknowledgment of what I’ve done over the last 30 years. They see, “That’s me!”
Washington: It’s like being at a concert: “Play the hits!”
This interview has been condensed and edited.