After the most fraught year in Hollywood history, one moment from last spring’s Cannes Film Festival bears special mention. Not the 82-woman march Cate Blanchett led up the Palais’ red-carpeted stairs or the fiery accusations delivered from the podium. The moment came near the end of Spike Lee’s new film, a true-life tale of a black cop infiltrator of the Ku Klux Klan. It came after the officer and his activist paramour both froze side-by-side to fill the screen, scared eyes and snubnose pistols fixed on an unseen threat before them, then began floating toward an ominous future. It was a signature Spike Lee “double-dolly shot,” his actors on one moving platform and the camera on another, gliding in the opposite direction. The Cannes audience abruptly burst into applause.
“That has never, ever, ever happened before,” says Lee, 61, a festival regular since his 1986 debut, She’s Gotta Have It, whose Netflix adaptation he’s shooting as we speak “in the people’s republic of Brooklyn,” as he calls it. “At first I didn’t know what they were applauding,” he says of this reaction to a shot found in nearly half his 25 films. “I was shocked,” he says. “I thought, Hey, they know my films!” This particular film then won Lee a standing ovation, the first Grand Prix of his career, and perhaps a more significant kind of recognition: that if you see a film character begin a surreal levitation through their own surrounding space that briefly pulls them out of their own story—whether that story’s about a cop, a bank robber, or Malcolm X—you’re watching a Spike Lee Joint. His made-in-America stamp is indelibly imprinted on cinema’s 140-year tradition.
That tradition is close to the heart of BlacKkKlansman, which is among the very best Spike Lee Joints. It’s based on the real-life story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black member of Colorado Springs’ police force, who posed as white in phone calls to Klansmen that led up the chain to Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) and enlisted a white partner (Adam Driver) to play him in face-to-face meetings. A true-crime thriller, buddy flick, racial comedy of manners, and deadly serious art film, BlacKkKlansman hits every note resoundingly. The mood may be 1970s period piece, but Lee also references two monuments of cinema: the first, that breathtakingly epic tracking shot in Gone with the Wind across a massive, body-strewn battlefield; the next, a spectacular staging of charging white-hooded marauders in D.W. Griffith’s epic Birth of a Nation. Two essential films whose latent ugliness spilled into life. But Lee, a tenured professor at NYU Film School, wouldn’t kick either picture out of the canon. “You can love the medium and be aware of how it affected people,” says Lee. “It always comes down to who’s telling the story.”
Lee may be just the storyteller this moment needs. While his hot-mic statements say one thing, his films—from Do the Right Thing on—say something else entirely, portraying race relations and other social struggles with an evenhanded empathy, whether his protagonists are cops or filmmakers or pizza delivery boys. “We, as a people, have always had to be flexible,” Lee says. “Roll with the punches. Adapt.” So says someone who funded She’s Gotta Have It on maxed-out credit cards and shot it all in 12 days of a sweltering summer—heady times he looks back on with something other than nostalgia. “No one knew who I was; there was no Kickstarter,” he says. “Oh, it was hell to make that film!” But times have caught up with Lee and even his trademark double-dolly shot. Once a showy film-school flourish, it now depicts a widespread psychic dissociation—being pulled out of life by history, borne by a force we cannot see. Lee, for his part, is standing firm. “I’ve always felt American,” he says. “And I’m not leaving now.”