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Spike Lee: The wake-up call

The Hollywood director has been ‘woke’ since before it was a thing. Some 30 years after he made his feature debut, the auteur has finally been nominated for best director at the Oscars. Overdue as it might be, BlacKkKlansman feels like the film of our time

I wanted there to have been some progress.

“Black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan.”

Spike Lee says this is the greatest six-word pitch in the history of the Hollywood studio system, and it’s difficult to argue with him.

This premise grew into BlacKkKlansman, based on Ron Stallworth’s memoir of how he, Colorado Springs’ first black detective, infiltrated the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

Almost 30 years after Lee directed his first feature film, BlacKkKlansman delivered him his first best director nomination at the Academy Awards. A video of Lee jumping for joy at the announcement went viral. “You can do your best work, but sometimes it takes the stars to be in line. And everything was in line for this film,” he told a late-night host.

“It’s topical.”

I wanted there to have been some progress.

Set in the 1970s, the film is a sociopolitical period piece on the one hand while also serving as a contemporary wake-up call with its chilling allusions to the current political climate in the US under Donald Trump, who Lee derisively calls “agent orange”. There’s the Klansmen’s “America first” refrain, which could have been taken from the current presidency. Then, talking about the political ambitions of the extremist hate group’s Grand Wizard, Stallworth — played by John David Washington — says: “America will never elect someone like David Duke into the White House.”

To which his sergeant replies, “Coming from a black man, that’s pretty naive.”

Lee even ends the film with actual news footage of Trump and the real-life Duke, not-too-subtly drawing comparisons between them.

“What we wanted to do, Kevin Willmott [his co-writer] and me, was not a history lesson,” he tells the Guardian. “We wanted the audience to connect with the world they live in today. We thought that the story could make lightbulbs go off in their heads.”

This isn’t the first time Lee has tackled the KKK. At New York University’s graduate film school, his class studied DW Griffith’s 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation, a key recruitment tool for the Klan. Considered the “godfather of American cinema”, they were asked to explore the filmmaker’s technical innovations, ignoring its social commentary. Lee made the film The Answer in response, with a black director remaking the film from his own perspective. Some faculty found his student film too “aggressive”.

Adam Driver and John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman. Washington, Denzel Washington’s son, plays Ron Stallworth, the police detective who infiltrates a local chapter of the KKK with the help of Driver’s Flip Zimmerman. Topher Grace appears as head Klansman David Duke. 

BlacKkKlansman, although dealing with similarly serious subject matter, is also a comedy. “The humour comes from the absurdity of the premise,” Lee explains.

He adds that balancing that tone was one of the greatest challenges, and Barry Alexander Brown’s editing nomination is testament to its success. The rest of the film’s six Oscar nominations are for original score, adapted screenplay, supporting actor (Adam Driver as Flip Zimmerman, the white face in the ruse) and best picture, where the producers include Jordan Peele, who approached Lee with that original pitch.

Lee doesn’t shy away from touching nerves. “The one that gets me is ‘controversial’ — ‘the controversial director’,’” he says, as it suggests his main aim is to shock.

Instead, he’s been telling it as it is, making his social conscience public over the course of more than 40 films. “I can just about live with provocateur,” he offers.

Born Shelton Jackson Lee in 1957, he moved from Atlanta to Brooklyn as a child. He maintains an office near where he grew up. Lee’s father was a jazz musician, and his mother taught black literature. Many of his views can be traced to his childhood.

Lee often acts in his own films, including in Do the Right Thing, which was nominated for two Oscars. In the film, simmering racial tension culminates in tragedy on a hot summer day.

In a move that would be considered “woke” today, Lee has been urging audiences to “Wake up!” in almost every film he’s released since his second, School Daze, which ends with Laurence Fishburne’s character screaming the phrase into the camera.

“I get no joy from being right,” Lee says. “I want to be wrong. I wanted there to have been some progress. ‘Wake up’ has been like a refrain for me. And I’m still saying it.”

Lee has carved out a niche as an auteur unconcerned about validation — he didn’t care about it at film school nor does he need it from critics. He does his own thing, and lets his body of work speak for itself. “I’ve been very fortunate. Some people might call me a hardhead, but I’m not going to let other people dictate to me who I should be or the stories I should tell. That doesn’t register with me.”

He’s been outspoken about his views in films such as 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It (about a woman’s sexual liberation), Do the Right Thing (dealing with racial tension in a Brooklyn neighbourhood), Malcolm X (a biography of the activist), Miracle at St Anna (a drama about black soldiers in the Second World War) and Chi-Raq, which focuses on gang violence in Chicago.

His 1997 feature documentary 4 Little Girls, dealing with the Ku Klux Klan bombing of a church in Alabama in 1963, was also nominated for an Oscar.

Lee returned to Atlanta to attend Morehouse College, and fell into filmmaking after spending a summer shooting around New York with a Super 8 camera when he couldn’t find a summer job. Rolling blackouts was the order of the day, but disco was also breaking through and there were block parties all over the city. “That was the first summer that the hustle came out, so I made a film called Last Hustle Brooklyn, which was real inter-cut with the looting from the blackout with the block party stuff,” he says.

“So that’s when I really decided I wanted to become a filmmaker.”

Today, he’s considered a pioneer of modern black cinema, and artistic director of the graduate film programme at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Lee wore “love” and “hate” knuckle rings to the world premiere of BlacKkKlansman at Cannes. The rings first appeared in Do the Right Thing, which was famously snubbed for the Palme d’Or in 1989.

Lee is a staunch proponent of independent filmmaking, and sees it as a way to counteract the lack of representation of minorities in film. “People of colour have a constant frustration of not being represented, or being misrepresented, and these images go around the world… I do not think there is going to be any substantial movement until people of colour get into those gatekeeper positions of people who have a green-light vote,” he’s been quoted saying.

His own production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, has produced more than 35 projects for film and television, including hits such as Love & Basketball, The Best Man, He Got Game, Jungle Fever and Mo’ Better Blues. Inside Man, starring frequent collaborator Denzel Washington, is his biggest box office success to date. The company is also behind the Netflix remake of She’s Gotta Have It.

“You gotta make your own way,” he says. “You gotta find a way. You gotta get it done. It’s hard. It’s tough. That’s what I tell my students every day in class.”

Legendary Nike designer Tinker Hatfield made Lee a pair of custom BlacKkKlansman Air Jordans, featuring the slogans “Truth to Power”, “Speak On It” and “Resist”.

Lee was a principal voice in the #OscarsSoWhite movement, which pressured the Academy into addressing diversity among its ranks. He credits the campaign with the recognition BlacKkKlansman is getting at home. As well as a 10-minute ovation, the film was nominated for the Palme d’Or, and Lee won Cannes’ grand jury prize. “What that campaign did, it made the academy understand that they had to diversify their membership,” he tells Entertainment Weekly.

“The diversity of the voting members makes a difference.”

Whatever happens on Oscar night, Lee’s place canon of American cinema is secure. His body of work speaks for itself.

But BlacKkKlansman and the questions it poses about social change is perhaps the film of our time.

Woke is as woke does.

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