The doors of the immaculate Renault Talisman limousine are open, the beseeching fans are waiting, as are the photographers at the photo call and the journalists at the press conference, but Spike Lee is not getting out of the car. Not just yet.
A passionate and articulate talker who brings an engaging energy and an invigorating sense of humor to a conversation, the director of “BlacKkKlansman” has a point he wants to make and he’s not leaving until he makes it.
Lee’s film, which stars John David Washington in the based-on-fact story of a black Colorado police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, had galvanized the festival the night before, getting a lengthy standing ovation from the black-tie crowd.
Unexpectedly moving was the film’s ending, which focuses on the chaos and tragedy that took place at the alt-right rally at Charlottesville, Va., last August, the death that occurred there and the reaction of President Trump, who said, “There were some very fine people on both sides.”
“That was a defining moment for that guy in the White House,” said Lee, who doesn’t like to even say Trump’s name. “That was a big fat pitch over the plate, not a 100-mile-per-hour fastball, but a juicy batting-practice pitch. He could have knocked it out of the park but he swung and missed.
“He could have said, ‘America should be about love instead of hate,’ he could have told America’s citizens and the world the U.S. won’t tolerate hate, won’t tolerate racism, but he didn’t do it. Who are we as a people, which direction are we moving, are we going forward or back? This guy is taking us back.” He leaves the car and the door closes behind him.
Earlier, sipping cappuccino on a hotel terrace, Lee talked about the way the film’s story, based on a memoir by Ron Stallworth, had come to him from “Get Out’s” Jordan Peele, one of the film’s producers.
“Out of the blue he called me and pitched it,” Lee relates. “‘A black man infiltrating the KKK’ — how many words is that? — that was the whole slug line. I said ‘I’m in.’”
A script by David Rabinowitz and Charlie Wachtel already existed, but Lee and writing partner Kevin Willmott had some additional ideas.
“The biggest thing we wanted” Lee said, “was to put stuff in the script, very strategically, so it would not be a period piece.”
Lee also wanted to deal with Klan Grand Wizard David Duke (played by Topher Grace), a character in Stallworth’s book, and emphasize his connection to what happened in Virginia and to Trump.
“[Duke’s] ass was in Charlottesville, saying ‘Take America back,’” Lee says. “We didn’t put him in an ADR studio, we didn’t go to ILM and put his head on somebody else’s body. Anybody who doesn’t see the connection between the two is on crack or opoids or meth or Jack Daniels — name your poison.”
‘A black man infiltrating the KKK’ — how many words is that? — that was the whole slug line. I said ‘I’m in.’
The casting of the impressive Washington, the son of frequent Lee collaborator Denzel Washington, was similarly straightforward.
“He didn’t have to audition, I offered him the role,” the director says. “I’d seen him on [HBO series] ‘Ballers,’ he has the goods.”
Lee acknowledges “the Washingtons and Lees are like tight, we have a long relationship,” but dismisses any notion of preference. “I love Denzel, but I don’t love him that much. I didn’t hook up Denzel, I hooked myself up with the best actor. [John David] is legit, he got this on his own two feet.”
In fact, says Lee — who cast his star’s mother Pauletta in his “She’s Gotta Have It” Netflix series — whenever he sees Denzel now, “the first thing out of his mouth is, ‘Don’t you love me anymore? Why can’t I get a job from you?’”
Lee had already finished shooting “BlacKkKlansman” when Charlottesville erupted. “I was in Martha’s Vineyard, glued to CNN,” he remembers. He was especially horrified by footage of the death of Heather Hyer, who was killed when a car rammed into a group of counterprotestors at the “Unite the Right” rally.
“I wanted it for the film, but I was not going to put it in until I had her mother’s blessing,” Lee recounts. “I found Susan Bro’s number, we spoke, there was a pause, and I said ‘Mrs. Bro, I need your blessing. You tell me you don’t want it, I won’t do it.’ I swear on my mother’s grave, on my grandmother’s grave, I’m telling you the truth: if she had said no I wasn’t going to do it.”
Lee says each of his features is made with a specific purpose and that “BlacKkKlansman,” which Focus Features will release in the U.S. on Aug. 10, “is a wake-up call. ‘My fellow Americans, I come to you with a heavy heart. Don’t go for the okey-doke, wake the … up. We’re better than this.’”
Since his first feature decades ago, 1986’s “She’s Gotta Have It,” Lee has made more than 20 theatrical films plus doing considerable work for television, an especially remarkable accomplishment given how challenging some of his work is.
“I come from a long line of educators,” he says by way of explanation of his drive. “My mother was a teacher, and my grandmother taught art in Georgia for 50 years, 50 years when white students couldn’t get the benefit of her teaching because of Jim Crow.
“She saved her Social Security checks for her grandchildren’s education. I was the first one and my grandmother put me through Morehouse College. That’s where it comes from.
“My father, Bill Lee, was a top folk music bassist, he played for Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Odetta, he played bass for Peter, Paul and Mary on ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon.’ But he hated movies, so I was my mother’s movie date.”
Now a professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in addition to his filmmaking work, Lee regularly schedules advisement meetings for graduate students looking for career counseling.
“When my students tell me it’s hard, I tell them ‘What is easy? Overnight sensation is bull…, there is no such animal. You’ve got to bust your ass.’
“What I try to instill in my students is a work ethic. I get up at 5 o’clock every morning and I’m in my office at 6. There’s no substitute for hard work.
“But if you love what you do, it’s not a job. If you can make a living doing what you love, you’re blessed.”