EXCLUSIVE: After a screening of Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman at New York’s Lincoln Center, Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee reminisced about their days at NYU and broke down their shared influences in a 45-minute conversation that proved catnip for any cinephile.
But the talk also featured a dose of Scorsese at his most overtly political. Describing the closing minutes of the Focus Features release, he praised its switch from scripted narrative to documentary footage of the Charlottesville. Without mentioning President Donald Trump by name, Scorsese said it is “chilling” to see the clear line between the events of the 1970s and today via the footage of the lead-up to and aftermath of protester Heather Heyer’s death.
“The picture takes you to a safe place — we’re watching a movie, it’s up on a screen — and suddenly we’re catapulted into now. Right next to you. Because it’s not only real, what you’re seeing up there on the screen — it’s happening. It is happening. And it’s sanctioned by government,” Scorsese said. “It transcends the medium, what he did there in the last 10 minutes. It’s cinema and it’s beautiful.”
Scorsese said his reaction to the ending has only intensified each of the three times he has seen the film. After the crowd applauded the two-minute dissection of the ending, Lee shouted, “My man!”
As soon as the Charlottesville events unfolded when the film was in pre-production, “I knew that was going to be the ending,” Lee said. His previous plan was to end the film with the cross-burning, which is the final sequence before the transition to Charlottesville. The narrative sequence shows the Ku Klux Klan remained a threat despite the efforts of Ron Stallworth, the real-life protagonist of Lee’s film, a cop who posed as a Klan member in order to thwart violence.
Lee recalled the process of shaping the updated ending of the film, a process during a summer break in Martha’s Vineyard that included him breaking the news of the clash to President Barack Obama. “He was shook about it, as we all were,” Lee recalled.
With so many mobile devices capturing images at the scene, “The reason why this stuff works is that we had footage that no one has ever seen before,” Lee said.
The pair of filmmakers ended with an exchange about blaxsploitation films, a theme that becomes a topic in BlacKKKlansman both visually and through dialogue. While the films were viewed as liberating entertainment by many African Americans in the ’70s, others (including Stallworth’s girlfriend Patrice, an activist who is a key character in the story) saw them as retrograde and problematic.
Scorsese, whose emergence as a front-rank director paralleled the rise of blaxsploitation, revealed a development twist about his breakout film, Mean Streets, that appeared to be news to a wide-eyed Lee.
As Scorsese was looking for backers for his passion project, producer Gene Corman (Roger’s brother) ushered Cool Breeze, a black-cast remake of The Asphalt Jungle, onto screens in 1972. It was a box-office winner. Because Scorsese had directed Roger Corman’s Boxcar Bertha, he got a meeting with Corman about Mean Streets. “‘I read the script,'” Scorsese said Corman told him. “‘Gene just got a lot of money. I could give you some money for this if you’re willing to swing a little and make it black.'”
Lee replied, astonished, “Mean Streets?!”
As the audience laughed, Scorsese dryly remembered telling Corman, “‘Let me think about it.'”
While the notion of Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel never getting the chance to make film history in 1973 is intriguing to ponder, Scorsese said the debate about racial or ethnic representation on screen is not foreign to him. “It’s kind of like saying. ‘Why don’t you make a film about Italian Americans who aren’t gangsters?” he said. “It’s a big argument.”