When director Spike Lee was approached by producer Jordan Peele about bringing police officer Ron Stallworth’s memoir, Black Klansman to the silver screen, he claims it only took six words to sell him on the project.
“Here’s the way Jordan Peele pitched me the story,” Lee told SF Weekly at the SFFILM Tribute to Spike Lee: BlacKkKlansman event at the Castro Theatre, which included an onstage conversation about his career and creative process with film critic David Thomson, followed by a free screening of his latest film, on Sep. 25. “Black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan. That was it. Six words. It was high-concept.”
Lee, who also received a Certificate of Honor from the Office of the Mayor that night, said he actually didn’t want any more details about Stallworth’s story, because it was important to him that his film, what would eventually become BlacKkKlansman, about the first African American to join the Colorado Springs Police Department and then infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1970s, resonate with audiences today.
“It was key that this film would not just be a period piece,” Lee said. “It had to feel like that shit’s happening today.”
SF Weekly spoke to Spike Lee about making a movie about good cops during a time of bad cops, how he made a historical movie relevant today, and why San Francisco will always have his heart.
Why were you drawn to the character of Ron Stallworth?
You know, Ron Stallworth is an important person. He was the first African American to join the Colorado Springs Police Department and he did infiltrate the Klan, and these things are the foundation of what the film’s about.
There have been criticisms leveled against this movie. One is that the hero is a police informant at a time where the police aren’t seen very favorably.
That’s total BS when people say that I’m an advocate for the police. Didn’t they see Radio choked to death in Do The Right Thing? Let me tell you something: She’s Gotta Have It, one of my first films, was said to be anti-women, School Daze was airing dirty laundry, Do The Right Thing was going to cause riots all across America, Mo’ Better Blues was anti-Semitic, Jungle Fever was against interracial couples, Malcolm X…we can keep going, so it’s not new.
What makes BlacKkKlansman so relevant today?
The reason why the film works as well today is that my cowriter, Kevin Willmott wanted to make a contemporary film, even though it takes place in the ‘70s. He didn’t want the film to feel historical or dusty; he wanted the film to resonate today. So we worked on the script to make sure that story from the past would be connected to what is happening today in the world.
What’s the message you hope audiences take away from BlacKkKlansman?
I refrain from giving takeaways. I think the audiences when they’ve seen this film in many different places, they’re affected by the end of the movie, so I don’t have to tell them anything.
Going back, When the Levees Broke, your 2006 documentary about the toll that Hurricane Katrina took on the people of New Orleans, told a very important story at a very dark moment in U.S. history. If you were going to do a documentary right now, which of the many insane things going on right now would you want to focus on?
Michael Moore just did it [with Fahrenheit 11/9]. Mike, my friend, beat me to it. I did the narrative version with BlacKkKlansman, but he did the documentary. I haven’t seen it, but I hear it’s great.
You have an interesting history here in San Francisco. You’ve premiered not one, but two films at the SFFILM Festival — 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It and 1994’s Crooklyn — and you received the Irving M. Levin Award for Film Direction from SFFILM here in 2007.
Yes, the first feature film, She’s Gotta Have It. It all started here at the San Francisco Film Festival. The famous story with the blackout. There was a power outage, so for 45 minutes, I was on the stage answering questions in the dark. At the one hour mark, the fire marshal came and said we gotta stop — “Everybody go” — and miraculously the electricity came back on and nobody had left, so that was a good sign. A bidding war ensued after that screening, so I signed with Island Pictures and we went to Cannes where it won the Prix de la jeunesse. So it all started here in San Francisco.
So what’s it like coming back tonight to receive another award?
I don’t have to get an award to come to San Francisco. I just love the city and the people.