How Spike Lee's 'BlacKkKlansman' confronts the legacy of hate and Charlottesville

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

Because the newest Spike Lee joint, BlacKkKlansman, takes place in the 1970s, it would be easy — too easy — for moviegoers to think of its incisive depiction of America’s racial tensions as merely a history lesson with no relation to the here and now. So in a powerful epilogue, the always outspoken filmmaker explicitly connects the story he’s telling — one about Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), a Colorado cop who successfully infiltrated his local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the early part of that decade — with the larger narrative still playing out today.

The film’s coda leaps ahead from the ’70s to 2017, when white nationalist and alt-right groups descended on Charlottesville, Va., for a “Unite the Right” rally that erupted in racially-charged violence. Numerous counterprotesters were severely injured in the melee and one, Heather Heyer, died after being hit by a car that white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. allegedly drove into a crowd. (Fields has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges stemming from the incident.) In his first public comments in the wake of the violence, President Trump notably declined to forcefully condemn the alt-right movement, instead saying that there were some “very fine people on both sides.”

As Lee tells Yahoo Entertainment, Charlottesville happened before he started filming BlacKkKlansman, but the events of Aug. 11-12, 2017, gave him a natural ending for the movie. “I think that with this crazy news cycle, stuff gets forgotten. I don’t want people forgetting the life of Heather Heyer; I don’t want people to forget this act of homegrown American terrorism that murdered Heather Heyer.”

Indeed, BlacKkKlansman is dedicated to the 32-year-old activist and Lee says he specifically sought her mother’s blessing to include Heyer in the film. “Once I got the blessing, that was the end [of the movie]. That was not going to change for nobody — nobody.”

John David Washington stars in Spike Lee’s new joint, BlacKkKlansman. (Photo: David Lee/Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Topher Grace, who plays avowed white supremacist and former Klan Grand Wizard David Duke in the film, remembers the impact Lee’s ending had on audiences when BlacKkKlansman premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May. (The movie took home the Grand Prix award.) “The audience didn’t realize at first that it was modern-day,” the actor recalls. “It’s a great sucker punch … where this whole audience kind of gasped when they realized it wasn’t the film anymore — this was 2017.”

Grace and the rest of the film’s cast have vivid memories of watching the events of Charlottesville play out in real time. “I thought we were losing it — that we had lost it as a people,” says Washington. “We lost our sense of decency in this world. It was a very sad and embarrassing moment for our country.” Laura Harrier, who plays fictionalized Black Power activist Patrice Dumas, compared the news footage coming out of Virginia to scenes from Civil Rights-era riots. “The fact that it’s still happening right now and the fact that we then have a president who refused to denounce these people is horrifying and disgusting.”

Spike Lee and Washington on the set of BlacKkKlansman. (Photo: David Lee/Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Speaking of the president — whom Lee pointedly refers to as “Agent Orange” — his infamous “very fine people” remark is also heard in BlacKkKlansman’s epilogue. “He may have retracted that statement a couple days later, but for me, whatever comes out of his mouth the first time, that’s his heart,” the director says. “That’s what he believes in — not the retraction.”

Asked whether he’d accept an invitation to the White House to screen the film for Trump, Lee responds flatly in the negative. He does have an alternate suggestion, though: “I do think that they should screen this film at the White House, and I think Agent Orange should invite David Duke — because they’re both in it!”

BlacKkKlansman opens in theaters on Aug. 10. Watch the trailer:

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