Spike Lee’s new film project was sparked by a six-word pitch, spoken to him down the telephone by Get Out director Jordan Peele: “Black man, infiltrates Klu Klux Klan.”
The cinematic legend and vocal Trump critic Spike Lee had never come across the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective in the Colorado Springs police force in the 1970s. Now, his latest film BlacKkKlansman details how Stallworth, played by John David Washington, manages to go undercover in the white-supremacist group – even finding favour with grand wizard David Duke, with whom he had various phone conversations.
In one of those conversations, Stallworth asked if Duke ever worried that a black person would ever pretend to be white over the phone in order to gain information about the Klan, as he was. Duke replied he never did, as he could always tell when someone wasn’t a “pure Aryan white”. He explained that he could decipher race over the phone line, “by the way they pronounce certain words and phrases”, using Ron’s “correct” “white” pronunciation of the word “are” as an example. There are several “you couldn’t make it up” moments like this in the film that are based on Stallworth’s real life.
Spike Lee’s new film project was sparked by a six word pitch, spoken to him down the telephone by Get Out director Jordan Peele: 'Black man, infiltrates Klu Klux Klan'
Like all of Lee’s work, the film is a searing commentary on race relations in the States, which he believes has worsened and become more fraught over time. The harrowing footage of the Charlottesville attack, in which protestor Heather Heyer was killed last year, concludes the film.
“It was an American, home-grown 'red, white and blue' apple-pie act of terrorism," he says of the attack. "Home-grown terrorism. And that car speeding down that street was a murder weapon.”
His film credits over the last three decades include other iconic films that feel as relevant today as they did then, such as Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever and Bamboozled. His 1986 offering, She’s Gotta Have It, was considered groundbreaking in terms of its portrayal of black female sexuality and has no doubt been a springboard for the sex-positive, boundary-pushing black female leads we now find in shows such as Issa Rae’s Insecure.
It has since been rebooted for the Netflix generation – a move, he tells me, came from his wife Tonya Lewis Lee, who is the shows executive producer. “The [writer’s] room was predominantly African-American women,” he says. “Because we needed to have authentic voices from African-American women and not – as they used to beat me up with in the writers roo – the ‘black male gaze.”
In this interview, Lee and I discuss his legacy, race in America and, of course, BlacKkKlansman, which is being hailed by many as his best work in years. The film is out today.