This story about Spike Lee and “BlackKklansman” star John David Washington first appeared in Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
Spike Lee is quick to remind anyone that he’s in his fourth decade — not as a brag, but because he’s worked hard to reach his level and because with it comes a certain understanding of the art, the industry and the world outside he’s so keen to hold a mirror to.
In his latest film, the fact-based drama “BlacKkKlansman,” Lee pulls no punches in exploring unchecked racism and inequality, an arena he’s been exploring for his entire career. The film stars John David Washington as Ron Stallworth, the first black officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department, who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s.
There’s a narrative out there with “BlacKkKlansman” that Spike Lee is back.
SPIKE LEE: Where’d I go?
JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON: I’m ’bout to say, he ain’t never left.
LEE: False narrative, that’s all I can say about it — still here, still living, still growing, still teaching my students. I wouldn’t be here if I let stuff get in my head and deter me from the course that I’ve been on.
You’ve been making movies for a long time, fighting a lot of the same battles and finding ways to explore some of the same issues.
LEE: The struggle continues.
WASHINGTON: We were talking about that earlier.
LEE: I got the answers — my friends call me Negrodamus.
WASHINGTON: Oh, man.
You’ve heard this before?
WASHINGTON: I want us all to enjoy it, though. I’m not gonna interrupt.
LEE: Negrodamus. We were talking about global warming in “Do the Right Thing.” I wrote that in ’88. We were talking about gentrification in “Do the Right Thing.”
John David, when you were acting in this film you were forced to contend with this rhetoric that’s raised its head again, of people saying the N-word, and to be around these symbols of oppression…
WASHINGTON: I wouldn’t have done this for anybody else. You know Spike Lee was born to do this story. This is what he does. But those are very difficult moments, especially the banquet scenes. It was very hard. But at the same time I knew we were in the hands of a cinematic tone master. So it was going to be done the right way. That took the burden off of some of those words that we live with every day.
Spike, you’ve probably known John David his entire life, but how did you know he could pull off this role?
LEE: I knew it. I just knew it, you know? There’s a word called cliché, but before something became a cliché it was a truth. So I’m giving you what is now a cliché: The fruit does not fall far from the mothaf—ing tree.
WASHINGTON: I’m not sure that’s the actual quote, but that’s the Spike Lee version. That’s some real for real.
LEE: I put some flavor on it.
WASHINGTON: Always. Yup, yup. Thank you, Spike.
LEE: And then I’d like to say, this man is the son of Pauletta and Denzel Washington. Because I was guilty, and my wife Tonya said, “I do not want you in front of the camera anymore, when you are referring to John David Washington, to just say ‘the son of Denzel.'”
You’ve obviously worked a lot with Denzel on films over the years. And now working with John David…
LEE: Two different people. Two different people. And I’d just like to say, it’s not easy being the son of Denzel Washington when you’re an actor — that ain’t easy. He’s not going to say it, but I took the liberty to say it. It’s not easy being related to nobody in this industry. People, this s— is no joke. This is a very serious business. You see people in all their glory, but you don’t see the hard work they put in. The years of blood, sweat and tears. I mean, this s— is hard.
WASHINGTON: You said that a couple times while we were filming. Like, it’s hard to make a bad movie.
LEE: It’s hard to make a f—ed-up movie. This is something I tell my students all the time, that this industry will eat you up and spit you out. And it takes talent but also hard work.
We’re now seeing a lot more African American filmmakers, actors, creators being able to show what they’ve got.
WASHINGTON: On his shoulders.
LEE: It his has nothing to do with me. I just hope that this is not a trend. I hope this is steady, that it’s not just like a blip where everything came together and then nothing happens after this. We have to keep up the momentum.
WASHINGTON: And I personally would like to see more behind the camera, in those executive seats and the PR department. I would like to see more people of color doing their thing to contribute to the arts in other ways than just acting, directing or writing.
LEE: What my man says is very important, because everybody can’t be in front of the camera. And the truth is, the people with the most power are behind the camera. Everybody can’t be fabulous, you know? Can’t be getting their shine, you know?
Read more from the Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.