Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman premiered in August, on the one year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. This was no accident. Lee’s film, based on the memoir of black police officer Ron Stallworth, who successfully infiltrated the David Duke-run KKK in the 1970s, had so many rhetorical parallels with what happened in Charlottesville, when white supremacist demonstrators marched to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, and which resulted in the murder of counter-protester Heather Hayer, that they couldn’t be ignored during the shoot. Lee cast John David Washington in the lead role, having known the Ballers star since Washington was a baby. It was the second time they worked together, after Washington’s childhood cameo as one of the kids who said, “I am Malcolm X,” at the end of Lee’s Malcolm X, which starred his father, Denzel.
At the end of BlacKkKlansman, you play footage from the Charlottesville rally. How much did the movie become about what had happened at Charlottesville in your mind as you made it?
Spike Lee: When our brother Jordan Peele called us, Charlottesville had not happened. Charlottesville happened August 11th, and we started shooting in the middle of September. Kevin Willmott, my co-writer, and I, we felt that we could make a hit film—a contemporary film—that takes place as a period piece in the past, but that we wouldn’t have to dig long and deep to find things that connect what happened in the story with what’s happening today.
John David, you worked with Spike on Malcolm X when you were how old?
John David Washington: Six years old.
Lee: I knew him before he was born.
Washington: My whole life. We’ve always been a strong family unit, the Lees and the Washingtons.
Lee: Let’s add the Jacksons in there. Samuel Jackson, LaTanya and Zoe.
Washington: The Jacksons too, yeah. That’s right. So you know, we’ve kept it pretty tight. But after my first experience of working for him, I didn’t know if it was ever going to happen again. You know, I wanted it to. I was so excited when I got the text from him [about BlacKkKlansman]—first to do a homework assignment and read the book. After I read it, I was so blown away by the story—an actual, true story—and I was ready to get to work.
How old were you when you realized the reputation of Spike Lee?
Washington: I mean, I knew that just from the talks I had with my parents. I wasn’t allowed to see Mo’ Better Blues. Moms wouldn’t let me see that.
Lee: Pauletta was not having that!
Washington: Yeah, she wasn’t having that [laughs]. I watched his other movies growing up though. I never saw us look so royal. I never saw us look so good on screen, and the full range of personalities of the black community. Our story is usually the kind of stereotypical portrayal. So knowing the history of this legend, and knowing that I was going to be able to work with him again, I couldn’t wait.
Which was the first of his films you got to see?
Washington: I was allowed to see Malcolm X. When I got older, I saw Mo’ Better Blues and School Daze. I actually saw School Daze late. I didn’t see that until I was in college, and I think I’m glad I waited because I went to an historically black college.
Lee: Morehouse College. We both went there. Morehouse men, like the late Bill Nunn, who played Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing, and Samuel Jackson.
Washington: Yeah. Spike really nailed the experience. It was so accurate in its depiction of the experience of an African-American student in an historically black college. So we’re all connected in that way. I was proud of that, to be able to enjoy and connect to the experience of an historically black college in this country.
Spike, when you cast him in Malcolm X, did you see the spark of talent?
Lee: Yeah, if he chose to do that. Everyone has their own path. But it was really when I saw him in Ballers.
Washington: I also worked with his wife Tonya. She produced a movie called Monster that I was in. So I must say, Spike picked me first, but I feel like Tonya believed in me first. She really fought for me to get the role, and it was a great role, to explore something totally different from myself. That experience; I’m indebted to her for that.
Lee: What year was Malcolm X?
Washington: Right, but Tonya gave me more meat on the bone [laughs].
Lee: That was a hard line to do. “My name is Malcolm X.”
Washington: It took about seven or eight takes. I had to get comfortable. You kept saying, “Listen to Uncle Spike. You’re going to say the line, you’re going to get up…” It took a lot of concentration. I was excited though. I’d been on sets before, but never got to be in anything.
What’s the first set you remember being on?
Washington: I remember being on Glory.
Lee: In Savannah?
Washington: Yeah, I guess we were in Savannah. I think it was the final epic battle scene. I wasn’t in that, but I wish I was. But I was there for that scene. I do remember my pops coming up out of the pit. It was just so dramatic in my mind. He came up after a take and he was like, “You want to come down there?” I looked at my mom, and she was like, “No, he can’t go.” I was so pissed. There were all these explosions and loud noises, but we couldn’t really see it because we were a ways away. That was my first set experience. Knowing that, and loving that movie. Pops playing the trumpet all day, every day…
Washington: That’s it, baby. You got it [laughs]. I loved that film. From that, and being on the Malcolm X set, I was in heaven. Spike had to calm me down.
I guess the last day of my shooting BlacKkKlansman, he had to calm me down also, when we finally got to the double dolly shot; the famous shot. I was a little kid. It was probably a rough day for you, I’m sure. I didn’t care, I was having a blast. I was not focused, you kept saying, “John, c’mon man, focus! Focus!” I was like, “Nope this is it, this is my moment.”
Has his process improved since the Malcolm X days, then?
Washington: Please say yes.
Lee: Yes [laughs]. I knew he could do this part as soon as Jordan gave me the six-word pitch—one of the greatest pitches ever. “Black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan.” That’s high concept. It was exciting, but at the same time I asked Jordan if it was true, and he said it was. I said, “I’ve seen this a million times’; it’s the Dave Chappelle skit.” He went, “Nah, nah, this is real.”
Did you meet Ron Stallworth before you shot?
Lee: We both met him, the first day at the readthrough.
Washington: I was asking Spike, right after we talked and I read the book, when he told me, “See you this summer.” I was stalking Spike for Ron’s number, and he wouldn’t give it to me. I think one time he said, “Not yet.” I don’t know why you did that, but I’m glad you did.
Lee: You know why.
Washington: I think it was beneficial for the performance; for the process of trying to figure out something like this in a film of Spike Lee’s.
Lee: It was my thinking that he would meet Ron and want to walk like him, talk like him. It wasn’t like Malcolm X. No one knew who Ron Stallworth was, and that gives you freedom.
There’s a playful tone to the film.
Washington: Ron said they had so much fun with it, during the actual investigation. They were laughing hysterically in some of these moments. There’s a blueprint there; the hilarity is based off how ridiculous the story is. But it’s all true.
Lee: What was that word? Hilarity? I would add “absurd”. I think people like the film because they’re laughing. But Kevin and I, we weren’t sitting around writing jokes. The humor comes from the absurdity of the premise. It’s so organic. The jokes are 100% organic. From the six-word pitch onward.
And BlacKkKlansman isn’t the first film in the history of cinema that injects humor into serious subjects. I mean, my favorite example, by one of my favorite filmmakers, is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. It is a film about the end of humankind. But then you get Peter Sellers playing both these roles, and, “There’s no fighting in the war room.” So it’s been done before. But it’s a hard thing to do, because of balance. You have to get the right balance.
You mention the Dr. Strangelove quote. There’s also so much humor in the rhetoric from David Duke and the KKK. What he’s saying is absurd, but it’s also terrifying to think people out there believe this stuff.
Lee: One of the great surprises for me came when we were doing the research, with my great researcher Judy Aley, who I work with on all my documentaries—anything I do. I didn’t know that David Duke was in Charlottesville. Judy found that footage of him. So we had the guy—we had Topher [Grace] playing the guy—and then we had the footage of Charlottesville, and the guy was there [laughs]. The guy’s there commenting. Co-signing his boy. You couldn’t make it up. Who woulda thunk it?
You have the line in the film, where Ron says, “There’s no way in the world America would elect a person like David Duke.”
Lee: All of it. “America First.” The Klan was saying that in the 1920s about immigrants. This stuff is not new. It’s all from the same playbook. Get a culprit; someone to blame it on.
Washington: That’s what’s scary to me too, though, is the resurgences of what you see displayed in the film. How it opens with Birth of a Nation, which was played in the White House. David Duke changed the face of hatred to what it is now, with the current administration. Changing the face of hate. Preying on the insecure—the lost souls who want to believe in something. Due to the research I got to do as well, I saw that. This kind of hatred is hard; it’s institutionalized. You’re being born like this. So seeing that history, and seeing the connection of all this language, generationally speaking, is really mindblowing.
Lee: Some people said the Charlottesville footage [in the film] was too much. It was too on-the-head. Some people. And then what happens in Pittsburgh, with the synagogue, and the guy mailing bombs? It was not over-the-top. It’s current.
They said, “Oh, Spike’s so didactic. He doesn’t know when to stop.” I’m sorry, but if I may just say this: these are dangerous times. The film had to end the way it did. History in only a couple of months has proven that to be true. Why pussyfoot about? A car, which became a murder weapon, went down a street and murdered Heather Heyer. That was a blatant display of homegrown American terrorism. Americans have been trippin’, thinking the word ‘terrorist’ has nothing to do with America. “It’s just ISIS, or some Muslims,” Automatically, that’s what they think terrorism is. We have to wake up. We’re terrorizing ourselves. We don’t need ISIS, we’re doing it to ourselves.
When those letter bombs were being uncovered, there was a moment in the news cycle when the word was “terrorism.” But when they identify the suspect, it becomes “deranged individual”.
Lee: What it is, which has been a part of this administration, is a false narrative. These human beings are on their way here to seek freedom—fleeing their countries, for whatever reason. Thousands and thousands. They say, “Also the middle-easterners are among them too.” It’s not true! This caravan, and the guy said all Mexicans were rapists and murderers. “We’re going to build a wall to keep you out, and you’re going to pay for it.” I never heard that before. That’s something new. You build it and you got to pay for it too, to keep yourselves out?
So the ending of this movie had to be the way it was. It was not scripted, but when I saw that I said, “This is the ending.” First I had to call Susan Bro, who is Heather Heyer’s mother, and she gave me permission.
John David, describe the experience of being directed by Spike.
Washington: Well, it’s a lot like this interview. Colorful.
Washington: Loud, but also quiet sometimes. What he didn’t say to me was very helpful, and instrumental in my direction of taking the character where I did. But I also learned what a well-oiled machine of organized chaos looks like, feels like. Spike comes with a wealth of experience and knowledge that he’s so open to share with you, too. He’s a great storyteller, whether it be in cinema or just sat at a table talking. He’s got a whole bunch of stories. I’m ready to just listen.
Lee: Let this crazy old man talk, right?
Washington: Nah, not old. Maybe a little crazy.
You also had Harry Belafonte around, too.
Washington: That day, it was like magic.
Lee: I told everybody that they had to wear a suit that day. I said, “The Man is coming.” He’s a freedom fighter. Back in the day, he was running with Dr. King, Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, James Garner.
Washington: Speak on it.
Lee: They were all there. They weren’t just writing checks, they were side-by-side. They showed up, at a time where you’d have to be crazy to think they weren’t being discouraged by their agents, managers, the studios. They didn’t care. So there’s a legacy there.
Everything is politics. If you’re an artist, and you make a decision that there’s going to be no politics in your art, that’s a political decision in itself.
Washington: And the positive and negative effects of irresponsible art. Like, I mean, Birth of a Nation. It can be very dangerous.
Lee: It’s in the film, but the Klan was dormant until Birth of a Nation came, which led directly to black people being lynched. I have a very personal relationship with the two films we show, Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. I’m a product of the Brooklyn/New York public school system, from kindergarten to high school. Third or fourth grade, they rereleased Gone with the Wind. We had a class trip to go see it. There was no discussion beforehand. It was a mixed school, so there was no discussion about how the black students would feel with this imagery. Well, we didn’t like it.
Fast forward. My first year as an NYU grad at film school. The first film we see is Birth of a Nation. Very first film. Now, I’m a person, like, I think we should show it. People think that because of the [word ‘n—-r’, you can’t read Huckleberry Finn. But that’s one of the greatest American novels ever. So I think Birth of a Nation should be seen too. But it has to be put in its context. You can’t just show it.
You know who else was in my class? Ernest Dickerson and Ang Lee. We came in ’79 and all of us graduated in ’82. All we were told was that D.W. Griffith is the father of cinema, and came up with all these innovations that had never been done before. That was it. There was no mention of the socio-political aspects of the film. They did that for Triumph of the Will, by Leni Riefenstahl. They did that [laughs]! But they didn’t do it for Birth of a Nation.
I’ll say one more thing. When they were going over the innovations of D.W. Griffith, I forgot that they talked about cutting back and forth between two scenes. I’m talking specifically about BlacKkKlansman, and the scene with Harry Belafonte cut with you watching the initiation of the KKK. I forgot about that. It wasn’t until I read AO Scott’s review in the New York Times, where he mentioned that scene and said, “That’s something DW Griffith came up with.” What’s the word? Ironic. We used his own shit on him [laughs]. How many years later?
I also didn’t know until later on that the Klan does watch D.W. Griffith during initiations. I found that out after the film came out.
What does having a man like Spike around your whole life teach you about the need to stand up?
Lee: Well let me interject and say, he doesn’t need me for that. He’s got his parents. He don’t need me for that [laughs].
Washington: But the relationship is different, in that this man trusted me with this material. Just hearing him talk about the politics of it all, and where we are currently with social narratives… It’s a responsibility this man has taken on for decades with his art and his storytelling, and what does it mean to stand up and shout? A wise man told me, “Don’t get mad, get specific.” He’s been able to do that through his films and through his ability as a storyteller. The fact that he trusted me with this important piece of American history—one that I think nobody else could have directed to be honest with you, because I think they would have gone for the low-hanging fruit of the comedy, which was already built in—I learned about process, I learned about storytelling, and I learned about the importance of what we do as creatives. And the ultimate form of teamwork. Spike still thrusts themes of teamwork and trust.
Lee: I keep piggybacking on my brother here, but because you brought up the word “teamwork.” This film, the teamwork was amazing. We were like the Golden State Warriors, or the New York Knicks.
Washington: I’m going to go ahead and say the Showtime Lakers, you know, being from LA.
Lee: Right. We didn’t have to sit around saying, “Oh this is such an important film and we have to…” It wasn’t even discussed. Everybody knew what we had to do.
Washington: We did. Just get in position, man. Get in position. Straight up, that’s it.