After preview screenings of his latest film, BlacKkKlansman this week, a Q&A session with Spike Lee was broadcast live via satellite link-up to 160 cinemas in the UK, from the BFI Southbank theatre in London.
Looking dapper in panama hat and multicoloured trainers, Spike Lee gave entertaining, if somewhat rambling, answers to the questions posed by the chairperson, audience and via Twitter.
How did he come to make BlacKkKlansman?
“Jordan Peele (director of Get Out) called me up, said ‘I want to pitch you a film … high concept: black man infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan’. Then he sent me the book – I was blessed with getting the call to direct his film.”
Working with cinematographer Chayse Irvin, who shot Beyonce’s video for Lemonade, and using 35 mm film, Lee wanted to evoke the look of early Seventies films such as Dog Day Afternoon and The French Connection.
“This is a great theatre,” said Lee, taking in his surroundings, before asking someone in the audience to throw him an iPhone. “Call me an old fuddy duddy,” he says, holding up the phone’s small screen, “but for young people to see 2001 or Bridge over the River Kwai like this … and they watch it like this” (he turns the phone around, from landscape to portrait, in mock outrage).
Why does BlacKkKlansman open with Gone With the Wind?
“It’s one of the greatest shots … we have culture – the Blues, jazz, hip-hop, Nike, Coca-cola … but the biggest thing is TV and cinema … when we saw the reissued film with school we hated that movie.”
The other film is Birth of a Nation …
“That was the first film they showed you. D. W. Griffith, the father of cinema, never discussed how his film rejuvenated the KKK. People got killed because of his film. Directly … we know that people took picnics to lynchings. Those photos [in BlacKkKlansman ] are real, blown-up pictures taken at a lynching”
Can you separate art from the artist?
“One of my favourite films is Last Tango in Paris … and then you read about how Maria Schneider was treated … can you make the separation? It’s hard … cross-cutting – D. W. Griffith invented that shit. We used it in our film” (a Black Power meeting vs. Klan meeting).
He is asked about his use of a double-dolly shots in BlacKkKlansman.
“… Charlottesville happened before we started shooting … I needed a shot to get us from the 70s to the present day … needed something to make that 40-year jump. We wanted to make a contemporary period film, something to make the connection between then and what is happening all over the world – the rise of the Right being led by Agent Orange – I won’t say his name.”
Question on Twitter: What’s your take on those who refuse to be political?
“My opinion as an artist is if you choose not to include politics [in your work], that’s a political action in itself.”
In your films, such as Do the Right Thing, you have chronicled the journey of the African-American people.
“I want to tell stories of the African-American experience. It’s the bedrock of what I do.”
A member of the audience asks him again about Birth of a Nation, which can be seen as a racist piece of work, but also as an important picture.
“I think we should talk about it … I never said you shouldn’t read Huck Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird, with their use of the n word … it’s about background, subtext … [The Klan is] red, white and blue homegrown American terrorism. These groups are terrorists. When there’s a school shooting, with the gun lobby, it’s two days of mourning, then back to business. We need sensible gun laws – there’s no reason why you should be able to use a semi-automatic gun.”
Do you ever think, ‘what could my work do to help?’
“I talked to Scorcese about Travis Bickle. Enter the Dragon … 5,000 people coming out of the cinema doing flying kicks, knocking each other out with nunchucks … Man … these people are doing this because of a film. It is not to be played with – you have to be careful and responsible.”
What is the takeaway from this film?
“People need to register to vote. I hope this picture will give somebody a little push.”
An American in the audience, who grew up in Colorado, says that ‘we don’t think of these places as being Klan places.’
“The American West is where the concentration camps are – I don’t call them reservations … that’s why I’ve never loved Westerns. I’m not a fan of John Wayne or John Ford and their portrayal of Native Americans. The foundation of the US is genocide against Native people, and slavery. A lot of people think that the Civil War is not over. They chose Charlottesville because of the statue of [Confederate leader] Robert E. Lee.”