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On Monday night, Spike Lees BlacKkKlansman electrified the Cannes Film Festival with a comic-tragic retelling of the incredible true life story of Ronald Stallworth (John David Washington), a black Colorado police detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1970s. Riding a razors edge tonally, Lee draws a straight line through American history, from D.W. Griffiths incendiary Birth of a Nation to the racist buffoons battled by Stallworth and his Jewish police partner, played by Adam Driver, to news footage from devastating Donald Trump-era events like the Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally.

The morning after his premiere, Lee spoke to Vanity Fair about making Trump a key figure in his film, repudiating the legacy of Gone With the Wind and John Wayne, and what needs to happen to make meaningful change in Hollywood.

Vanity Fair: Why did you want to premiere this movie at Cannes? Its such an American story

Spike Lee: Cannes is the worlds greatest film festival, and it aligned with when we finished shooting the film. First, there was no guarantee we were going to get into Cannes. But I wanted this to come out in the summer. I really wanted it to come out around the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville.

Some of the news footage you include in the film—the Charlottesville neo-Nazi protest, for instance—happened after you were already on board the project. How did you decide to incorporate those contemporary events in your 1970s-set story?

I live and breathe where Agent Orange is the president of the United States of America. I had to be flexible. This stuff is happening in the world, and I had to incorporate it into the film to make it fit. It still keeps the narrative going. From the very beginning, my co-writer, Kevin Willmott and I—once Jordan Peele brought us on, we wanted to connect this film. Cannes asks directors, whats the song you want to walk into [the theater] to? The song we came into last night was the great Temptations song “Ball of Confusion.” Its also in the film. Its a great song, and the troubles they spoke about back then, in the early 70s, are still relevant today.

What were your initial conversations with Jordan Peele about getting involved in the film?

He called me out of the blue. I congratulated him about Get Out. He told me the story [of BlacKkKlansman] and the first thing I said is, “Is this true?” He said it is, and he sent me the book. I told him my writing partner and I, Kevin Willmott, we wanted to take a try. They said we want hear your pitch, so they flew Kevin and I out. We spoke and they said, good. Then we had to re-write a script.

Why do you think he came to you?

It doesnt take a rocket scientist to discover why. He wanted a bad motherfucker to direct this. The subject matter. I have to give a love shout-out to Jordan, because he was doing his thing. On top of the world. There was probably a list. Theres no guarantee he had to come to me. I want to thank him for that.

Theres a poignancy in seeing the two of your names on the screen in the same film. A kind of intergenerational connection.

My wife went to Sarah Lawrence. She and JJ Abrams were in the same class. She was on the board and asked me to speak there. I came, and [Peele] was there. He saw me speak at Sarah Lawrence as a student.

How did you settle on what your tone would be in the film?

Thats a very good question. I knew what I wanted to do, because Ive done this before, which is have very serious subject matter with humor. Id like to let the record state that this is not a comedy. Theres humor in it, theres laughs—but this is not a comedy. Theres nothing funny about the Klan. Theres nothing funny about those Nazis and alt right motherfuckers. It was not fun for me to call Mrs. Susan Bro [mother of Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally victim Heather D. Heyer] and ask her permission to use that footage where her daughter was murdered. That was not fun to ask.

So you called her directly?

Oh yes, I was not going to do that without her blessing. She had seen my films, and she knows my hearts in the right place. That footage, with the car, I was not gonna put that in unless Heathers mother, Susan Bro, gave me her blessing, and she did. I was in Marthas Vineyard when I saw that footage and what was happening in Charlottesville, and it hit me: I said, you know what, that has to be the end of the film.

Kevin and I said, you know, the early 70s to today, this could not just be, in our opinion, a historical piece. We had to make people understand, especially young audiences, that shit doesnt pop up out of nowhere. All this stuff that were seeing now, its been there. And with this Agent Orange in the White House, hes allowed these people to come out of the woodwork, out of the darkness, into the light. They say, “Fuck it, we dont care. Were out here.”

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Weve got tiki torches.

You ever hear them talk about the tiki torches? Shit. For the President of the United States, thats gonna be at his grave site. A pivotal moment where you have to condemn racism, these Nazis, these KKK—he did not do that. He says theyre fine people. I was talking to my wife, and she said she was talking to some Jewish Americans who said, “I didnt know the KKK hated Jewish people like that.” I was like, “What? Theyre number two on the list.”

Trump—excuse me, Agent Orange, has sided with David Duke. And so all these Jewish people hes hanging out with, what the fuck are they thinking about? How can they reconcile supporting this motherfucker, knowing hes aligned with actual people who hate Jews? What the fuck is [Trump attorney] Michael Cohen thinking about? Dont they understand what this guy represents? Do you understand that these are the same people that put them in ovens and concentration camps? Where is the disconnect? Dont you understand what this man represents? And what he represents are people who tried to annihilate you off the face of this earth? What da fuck? WDF. Not WTF. DA. What da fuck.

The man said that Nazis, alt right and the KKK are good guys and youre still gonna stand behind that bullshit? This film is on the right side of history. I dont give a fuck. This film is on the right side of history. I know that for a fact.

You have footage from two old films in this movie, Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind. Tell me why you included them.

Im an alumnus from N.Y.U. film school. Ang Lee and Ernest Dickerson were my classmates. My third film my first year was a film called The Answer, about a young black screenwriter whos hired to direct a major motion picture remake of Birth of a Nation. And he said he would do what he wants, but it doesnt turn out that way. The reason why he did that is because in film school, we were shown Birth of a Nation purely from a technical viewpoint—D.W. Griffith being the father of cinema ,and the many different techniques and film grammar that he brought into filmmaking.

But the professor never talked about that this film was used as a recruiting tool for the Klan. And as my man Harry Belafonte said, that film gave a rebirth to the Klan. Directly, people died because of that film. When they talk about Triumph of the Will, they make that distinction between the great filmmaking of Leni Riefenstahl. You can look at Star Wars and see where George Lucas got some of that stuff. But that never came up in my film class about D.W. Griffith.

Film, for 100-plus years, and television for 50-plus years, in many instances has degraded people of color. From the very beginning. Woodrow Wilson was not joking when he said it was like writing history with lightning. Film is a very powerful medium. That Kwame Ture speech [which appears in a scene in BlacKkKlansman], those were his words. I didnt write that stuff. We compiled several speeches. And its so meaningful for me when he talked about Tarzan. Cause Tarzan made black people hate being black and hate just being connected to Africa.

And its not just African Americans. Fuck John Ford. Fuck John Wayne. Fuck em. What they did to Native Americans—and they tried to fix it with The Searchers. Fuck it, it was too late. The United States of America is based upon genocide of the Native people and black folks being stolen and brought from America to here. Thats the foundation of this country, genocide and slavery. Racism is interwoven in the very fabric of Betsy Rosss motherfucking red, white, and blue flag. Its the truth. Thats the foundation. Everything out from that is gonna be wrong. Film and television is part of that. Were repudiating that Gone With the Wind shit. Birth of a Nation.

Its easy to say Birth of a Nation, 1914, Gone With the Wind, 1939. But this shits still happening today. That Pepsi commercial. That Dove commercial. The H&M kid. This stuff is still going on. It keeps perpetuating itself. People just gotta get hip to what the fucks going on. This guy in the White House. Oh my God, lets wake up.

Since you were nominated for Do The Right Thing in 1989, the makeup of the Academy has undergone a change. What do you make of it?

The Academy, they really have moved forward as far as diversifying the members. Back then in 89 and now is night and day. My thing is this… its not about who gets nominated, who wins what. That doesnt to me have a big effect. The only way to me that things have really meaningful change is when people of color get in those gatekeeping positions. By gatekeeping, I mean when people who have a green light vote, [people] who decide what were making and what were not making. Until we get those numbers, were just playing Tiddlywinks.

Not to be disrespectful to anybody who wins an Academy Award. But in long-term thinking, to me, fundamental change will come when theres more people of color among the gatekeepers. Those are the motherfuckers who are running shit. If you aint running shit, youre taking orders. Youre hired help.

Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:Cannes Film Festival 2018: The Must-See LooksRebecca KeeganRebecca Keegan is a Hollywood Correspondent for Vanity Fair.

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