John David Washington, Adam Driver and Topher Grace star in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” about an investigation to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.
MONKEYPAW PRODUCTIONS/BLUMHOUSE PRODUCTIONS
CANNES, France – Don’t be fooled by the Afros, groovy tunes and boogie nights: BlacKkKlansman is not a period piece.
It’s a point Spike Lee would like emphasized on this sunny Wednesday afternoon at Cannes Film Festival. “Can you say that again?” the director asks, as he sits on a terrace overlooking the blue Mediterranean.
His latest film, BlacKkKlansman (in theaters Aug.10), earned a prolonged standing ovation at its Cannes debut Monday night. The film draws a solid through line from the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s to present day, basing its plot on the true story of Ron Stallworth, a young black cop (played by John David Washington) who infiltrated the KKK in the early 1970s in Colorado Springs.
BlacKkklansmancloses with footage from last year’s fatal white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. The film will be released on the one-year anniversary of the riots.
Trumpisms, from “America First” to “Make America Great Again” are peppered throughout BlacKkKlansman’s script — a pointed choice by Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott (Chi-Raq).
“Where that comes from is the 1920s, the second birth of the Klan,” says Willmott, also a film professor at the University of Kansas. “One of their main slogans was ‘America First.’ And then it took on another level in the 1930s with Charles Lindbergh and the American Nazi party. If you look at photographs, there are huge marches during that period with ‘America First’ right out front.”
Sitting in the Cannes sunshine with Washington, all three say they continue to experience insidious racism.
“I still at times can’t catch a cab,” says Lee, pointing to recent national headlines made when cops were called on innocent African-Americans frequenting Starbucks and checking into Airbnb. Washington nods, saying he was followed by a suspicious sales clerk in a big box store in New York as recently as last summer.
“I’ve had friends on a bus going to school in Kansas, and people get on the bus and say, ‘White power!’ now,” says Willmott, who has taken extra security measures as he teaches. Thanks to Kansas’ concealed carry laws, “I teach in a bulletproof vest,” he says.
BlacKkKlansman began with a call from producer Jordan Peele, who “called me out of the blue,” says Lee. “He said, ‘Well, a black man joins the KKK …‘ Automatically, I thought of the Dave Chappelle skit.
“The black white supremacist!” injects Washington, referencing a sketch in which Chappelle plays a blind black man who joins the KKK, unaware that he isn’t white.
“I said, ‘Dave Chappelle did this already!’ ” Lee jokes.
In the film, Washington and Adam Driver play undercover cops who use the same identity to infiltrate a local Klan chapter. By phone, the KKK (including David Duke, played remarkably by Topher Grace) unknowingly interfaces with Stallworth’s rookie, code-switching cop.
In face-to-face meetings, Driver, playing a Jewish cop named Flip Zimmerman, assumes Stallworth’s identity.
Driver says living in New York, he mostly experiences stories of white supremacists and the alt-right in the news. “If anything, I was more aware of it as a kid growing up in Indiana, because there were always Klan rallies like every summer,” says Driver, who isn’t Jewish. “There were people in the Klan who were in our neighborhood.”
To find his star, Lee turned to Washington (son of Denzel), an actor he’s known since he was a baby.
The director first gave Washington, then a child, a small background role in 1992’s Malcolm X. “I’ve since matured as an artist,” grins Washington, who transitioned from a NFL career to acting in the past decade, building his resume with independent films and shows like HBO’s Ballers.
“What he’s leaving out, though,” Lee cuts in, “is every day he was screaming, ‘I love my job!’ ”
“The Washingtons and the Lees, we’re tight,” Lee continues, entwining his fingers. “So, I love him. But if he couldn’t act — it comes down to is he going to be able to carry this film onscreen?”
Stars flock to the premiere of Spike Lee’s new movie “BlacKkKlansman” at Cannes Film Festival. (May 15)
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