Warning: This interview includes spoilers for specific scenes and moments in BlackKklansman.
It’s a story so wild and absurd, you’d never think it was true. When BlackKklansman producer Jordan Peele called up writer-director Spike Lee and asked him to tell the story of a black cop who successfully infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan during an undercover assignment in the ‘70s, even Lee had to pause for a moment and wonder, aloud, whether this was actually 100% real life.
But it was... and is!
In 1979, Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective in the history of the Colorado Springs Police Department, answered an ad in the paper looking to recruit new Ku Klux Klan members. Not only did he become a member and rise through the ranks within his local group, but his membership card was even signed and sent by Klan leader David Duke himself.
“You can't get a more Hollywood concept: black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan. That's high concept at the utmost!” Spike Lee told Fandango during a lengthy conversation prior to the film’s August 10 release. “The story, for me, in a way is about American history, and how history affects us today and in the future.”
We spoke with Lee about how he came to the project, now in theaters, and why he made significant changes to it, including the addition of a powerful sequence starring 91-year-old Harry Belafonte. Brooklyn, New York’s most prolific writer-director also teases his first Broadway musical, settles the debate between Shaft and Superfly, and reveals the moment he knew he had to end this film in the most shocking of ways.
Fandango: As I was getting ready to talk to you, the news was breaking that Black Panther has crossed $700 million at the box office domestically. It's the third movie ever to do that, and I was just curious whether you have felt the effects of that movie at all as an artist?
Spike Lee: Ryan [Coogler], we're good friends so I'm very happy for him, and I told him that this film changed the landscape because for years it was used against black filmmakers that black films don't make money overseas, and overseas is a key line item in your budget. So if they put in zero for foreign sales, your budget's going to be impacted very much. First they said overseas, and then we need to have a hit, we needed to have stars. There are really no stars, not before it was released. So it's a great day.
Fandango: When did you first hear about Ron Stallworth’s story, and did you automatically think it was a movie?
Spike Lee: Jordan [Peele] called me out of the blue and pitched it to me, so I did not know of Ron's story nor of his ... Not know of him, his story, or had I known of the book, also.
Fandango: What'd you think when you heard it?
Spike Lee: I remember asking Jordan if this was true.
Fandango: Why do you think it took so long for that story to actually be known?
Spike Lee: I don't know. Maybe people just didn't believe it. What? Nah, no one's going to believe that. One of those things. It is a great thing because it's so hype. You can't get a more Hollywood concept: black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan. That's high concept at the utmost!
Fandango: Was there a part of Ron's story that you left out for any reason? Maybe it was too crazy, or it didn't work in the film?
Spike Lee: No. In fact I was talking to my editor, Barry Brown, yesterday. We don't have any scenes we cut out of the film for the DVD.
Fandango: You really used everything?
Spike Lee: And that never happens with me. There's not a scene that we shot that did not make the film.
Fandango: Why do you think that is?
Spike Lee: That’s a first. I don’t know, but it worked.
Fandango: Denzel Washington has worked with you on several films--
Spike Lee: Four films.
Fandango: He Got Game and Inside Man being two of my personal favorites.
Spike Lee: Today the He Got Game Jordans came out!
Fandango: Yes! I've found myself listening a lot to the Public Enemy song of late, from He Got Game. I love that version.
Spike Lee: Yeah, that was originally a Stephen Stills song.
Fandango: Both are great. But having worked with Denzel so often, what was it like to work with his son as a leading man for the first time?
Spike Lee: It was a joy.
Fandango: How are the two men similar and how are they different as actors?
Spike Lee: Well, at this moment John David can't tell me what to do. [laughs] But it's coming. I say that playfully. It's a joy. In fact, the Lees and the Washingtons, it's funny because this film has really brought our families together, closer, for the most part because they're in L.A., the Washingtons are in L.A. and the Lees are in New York. But this film has really brought us together, the two families, and it's wonderful.
Fandango: One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the dance scene because it's one of the only moments in the film that the characters seem like they're relaxed, they're enjoying themselves--
Spike Lee: Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose.
Fandango: "Too Late To Turn Back Now." Why is that scene important to the film?
Spike Lee: And that's a very good question. It was a very shortcut way to show they were falling in love with the song and that dance together. That's how it used to be back in the day before Tinder and all this other shit. You used to ask any girl to dance. Come now, you know what I'm talking about!
Fandango: Oh, I know - it's that old-school approach. I watched that scene and thought, where is the Spike Lee musical? So many of your movies are very musical and incorporate a lot of music throughout.
Spike Lee: Oh yeah. My first musical's going to be School Daze -- we're going to do School Daze as a Broadway musical. One day soon, god willing.
Fandango: That’s great!
Spike Lee: But you are right, music plays such a big part of my films. And over the 30 years, there've been several scenes that are very musical, too.
Fandango: And speaking of music, you were able to get an unreleased Prince song for the end of the movie, for the credits.
Spike Lee: The end credits song is Prince singing the old Negro spiritual, “Mary Don't You Weep.” It's him singing and him on piano. That's it. And it was my good friend, Troy Carter, who works with the Prince estate. They found it among 10,000 cassettes in the vault at Paisley Park, and I truly believe that -- enough people might think that I'm crazy -- but Prince wanted me to have that song. My brother wanted me to have that song. I do not believe out of 10,000 cassettes that this one just is discovered all of a sudden. And I couldn't think of a better way to end that horrible act of American terrorism than with that Prince song of the old Negro spiritual, “Mary Don't You Weep.”
Fandango: One fun scene in the movie involves Ron and Patrice having a Shaft vs. Superfly debate. Which one's your favorite? Where do you side on that debate?
Spike Lee: Well, that debate was a debate you would hear on my block in Brooklyn all the time. Then you had the debate, which we hear in that dialogue, about black exploitation films exploiting black folks? I just wanted to have them talk about it, the conversation I heard in that period of time.
Fandango: Do you have a personal favorite?
Spike Lee: Shaft. Patrice just used… those are my words. I don’t think a pimp is a hero.
Fandango: Topher Grace is an unexpected choice. He’s not necessarily the actor you expect as David Duke, but he’s great in the film. How did he get on your radar? How did that casting happen?
Spike Lee: Topher and I share the same agent. Her name is Toni Howard, and she has never, ever, ever badgered me and said Spike please look at my client, read my client, will you meet with them. But this is the first time she asked me, and I just heard the conviction in her voice. "Please meet with Topher. Please." I said okay because she'd never done it before. And that's hard for agents, because agents, their job is to get their clients jobs. But she'd never done that before, and so Topher came in and he was amazing.
Fandango: Let’s talk about the most powerful moment in a film full of powerful moments: the Harry Belafonte sequence. If any other director had made this movie, I don’t think that scene is in this movie. But you directed it, it's in this movie, so I'm curious to know why is this scene in the movie and how important is that scene to you and that moment to you?
Spike Lee: That's one of my favorite scenes in the film. Actually, it's two scenes that are intercut together, the Harry Belafonte character speaking to the Black Student Union at the Black House, and the Klan initiation/Saturday matinee at the movies watching Birth of a Nation.
My co-writer and I, Kevin Willmott, we just knew that this would work, the character that Mr. Belafonte's playing. It's a true story and it was a lynching that took place in Waco, Texas. And we just felt that the juxtaposition, the contrast between the two would be powerful, and it is.
Fandango: Was that scene in the original script?
Spike Lee: Nah, Kevin Willmott and I, we rewrote the original script. Kevin and I [put that scene in there].
Fandango: And how did Mr. Belafonte become involved?
Spike Lee: Funny story. Harry, Mr. Belafonte, Mr. B. as they say, every time I’ve seen him in the past 20 years he would say, "Spike, can I get in a movie? All you do is use Ossie Davis." [laughs] And I'd always tell him, "Mr. B. I love you, just everything is timing. Everything is timing." And he's at the bright young age of 91 and a half, and I think that him playing that role brings such a weight to that scene because this is a guy who was in the trenches. Mr. B. was marching side-by-side with Dr. King. He was there. He was a Freedom Fighter, and just having him be in the scene, it was a blessing.
Fandango: And you saved that until that last day of shooting, that scene. Is that right?
Spike Lee: Yes. The last day of shooting. I didn't tell the crew who was coming, but I said everybody has to be in your Sunday best, suit and tie, because we have to give our brother respect. So everybody was in 3-piece suits, suit and tie the last day of the shoot. I’ve never done that before in my life. We did it for Mr. Belafonte.
Fandango: Now that’s something you put on the DVD!
Spike Lee: Yeah. That was great having him. We were honored. We were honored and it was a blessing, and having him in this film just lifts it up so much.
Fandango: Towards the end of the film, you use your trademark double-dolly shot. How do you work with those shots? Do you film a few of them and then figure out which one to use, or do you know exactly when and where you want to use it?
Spike Lee: Anytime I've used it ... anytime I've done it, I've used it. I don't think I've ever used it and cut it out. But I will say this is the first time that that shot ever got applause. It happened at Cannes, it happened at the Brooklyn premiere. I'm in Detroit now for the National Association of Black Journalists screening and they applauded. It's shocking. No one's ever applauded before for that shot. And every time I see it with audiences, it's been applauded.
Fandango: Why do you think that is? Why this time?
Spike Lee: Well, maybe people are waiting for it and I saved it 'til the end! [laughs] But I think this is one of the best uses of it, too. There's no other place it could have worked better than where it is now.
Fandango: The Charlottesville finale is striking. I kind of feel like once this film wraps up and you go to that, it’s like it slaps the audience in the face.
Spike Lee: No, it's not a slap in the face. It's a Mike Tyson left hook, that's what it is. On the chin, when he was Iron Mike from Brownsville; never run, never will.
Fandango: When did you decide to put that in?
Spike Lee: I was in Martha's Vineyard, and in fact it was August 12th, and I was watching CNN and I saw it. And I said I've got to end it. And I knew around that time ... I live on the golf course in Martha's Vineyard, I knew about that time Obama would be there. He was on the island, I knew he was playing golf that day. And so I was the first to tell him about Charlottesville because when you're on the golf course you turn your phone off. It's four hours. My house is on the 18th hole, and when I went over to see him, he had not heard about it so I told him.
Fandango: What was that moment like?
Spike Lee: He was shocked, too. He said, “Spike, I had not heard.”
Fandango: Was it difficult for you to access that footage because it felt like there was stuff in there that we had never seen publicly?
Spike Lee: The bulk of the footage comes from that piece that Vice did. But we used a lot of people, everybody has a camera now. Everybody could be a potential reporter. We put ads out in the papers and used peoples' photographs from their phones. They opened their phones, and along with my great editor, Barry Alexander Brown, we cut it to that wonderful score by Terrence Blanchard.
Fandango: This is a movie you can talk about in so many different ways. As its director, what do you hope audiences are talking about when they walk out of the theater?
Spike Lee: Well, just that they’re talking…
BlackKklansman is in theaters now. You can grab your tickets right here at Fandango.