It’s a picture-perfect day on Martha’s Vineyard. Families stream by on a heavily foot-trafficked thoroughfare, while white men in cargo shorts dock their boats and crack open their beers. In the middle of it all is Spike Lee, sitting on a bench, delivering an earful of Saturday-afternoon real talk. “Agent Orange is in office,” he says. “If this isn’t a motivation to get off our asses and register to vote, I don’t know what is.”
It soon becomes clear why Lee picked this spot. He wants to talk about President Trump and Barack Obama and Colin Kaepernick and the Ku Klux Klan. But why do that in private when you could do it loudly, outside, for everyone to hear?
Lee is on the island to shoot scenes for the second season of his Netflix show She’s Gotta Have It, based on the 1986 film of the same name that launched his career. But he’s also a regular in the area, having built a house in Oak Bluffs in 1992 while making Malcolm X. Even though the Vineyard has deeply entrenched roots in black America, with black families sprinkled in every establishment I walk into on this late-July day, Lee still stands out.
It isn’t just his recognizable face. Lee is wearing a Mars Blackmon backpack (his iconic character from the original She’s Gotta Have It) and a hat that reads BLACKA, with each A replaced by a Klansman’s triangular white hood.
Spike Lee is a subversive walking advertisement for both Spike Lee and his new film, BlacKkKlansman, out Aug. 10. It premiered in May at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix award, the second most prestigious prize of the event. Based on the early-1970s true story of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective to work for the Colorado Springs police department, the film centers on Stallworth (played by John David Washington) and a veteran Jewish cop (played by Adam Driver) as they find a unique, and risky, way to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.
BlacKkKlansman is Lee’s most critically heralded and accessible effort in over a decade. The film represents another opportunity for one of society’s most distinctive voices to make a statement at a time when America’s politics on race and identity are at their most fractured in a generation. The film is also being released on the anniversary of a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., and a counterprotest that resulted in the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, after a Nazi supporter drove a car into the protesters. Footage from Charlottesville serves as the film’s coda, a necessary gut punch both for those who internalized the film as another dark reminder of our country’s history and those who wrongfully spent two hours treating it as a buddy-cop comedy. The timeliness of the film—and its early acclaim—has prompted many people to declare that Spike Lee is back. (Did he ever leave? More on that later.)
The project came to Lee by way of Jordan Peele, a producer on the film. His directorial debut, Get Out, which is also a sophisticated commentary on race in America that is routinely (and not quite accurately) described as a comedy, became a box-office sensation last year and earned Peele an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
When Lee committed to the film, he called Washington—the son of Lee’s longtime friend and collaborator Denzel Washington—and told him to read Stallworth’s book, Black Klansman. “I told him, ‘I knew you before you were born,” says Lee. “I didn’t have him audition or read. Even before I sent him the script, I knew brother man could do it.”
The film begins abruptly, with a scene of Scarlett O’Hara at a train yard after the Battle of Atlanta, from the 1939 film—and American institution—Gone With the Wind. As she makes her way through the rows of the injured and deceased, the minstrel song “Old Folks at Home” provides a soundtrack to the slaughter. The camera then zooms out to show a tattered Confederate flag waving proudly.
Lee saw Gone With the Wind as a student in New York City on a class trip, when it was reissued in theaters. “There was no discussion afterward for historical context, no discussion about Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen in those stereotypical roles,” he says. “It was, ‘Wasn’t it great?,’ and that was it.”
This selective understanding of American history continued to rear its head as Lee marched into adulthood. The older he got, the more frequent he found it to appear—and the more he knew he needed to not only learn the truth, but also tell the truth. He recalls being shown 1915’s The Birth of a Nation as a student at New York University’s film school. “They lectured about D.W. Griffith and his film,” Lee says. “But the social and political implications of the film were never discussed.” During that period, the KKK was largely inactive. “The film brought about the rebirth of the Klan,” Lee says. “And therefore, it was directly responsible for black people being murdered and lynched. Never discussed.”
You learn all of this in BlacKkKlansman. That should come as no surprise, once you understand what Lee truly cares about. There are three intertwined ideas that he routinely returns to, both as a black American and as an artist who is dead-set on holding up a mirror to society, ever hopeful that we’ll eventually open our eyes. Spike Lee wants us to wake up. He wants us to start being honest with ourselves about this country. And he is begging us to educate ourselves about our history.
Getting Spike Lee going is delightful if you know how to hang, how to spar and how to shut up. On this bench, the angry Spike Lee I’ve been hearing about my entire life is nowhere to be found. Is he brash, contrarian and intellectually intimidating? Absolutely. Does he have an air about him that suggests wasting his time will not be tolerated? Completely. And I love it, for the same reason I always loved getting my black uncle going about politics, race and his issues with Obama, in a room full of family members to whom 44 could do no wrong.
Lee vacillates between talking with you and talking at you, as if every moment could be his last opportunity to say his piece. But when he gets to the end of one declarative statement, he smiles at you and then says some version of: “And another thing …”
Lee has used the refrain “Wake up” in many of his films; it’s the first line in Do the Right Thing and the last line in School Daze. You also hear it in BlacKkKlansman. To some, his repetition can feel heavy-handed. In BlacKkKlansman, he refuses to let the viewer miss the parallels between racism in the 1970s and today; between law enforcement then and now; between the Klan and the so-called alt right; and between KKK grand wizard David Duke and President of the United States Donald Trump. At one point, Stallworth tells his white sergeant that “America would never elect somebody like David Duke President.” His sergeant’s response is telling: “For a black man, you’re pretty naive.”
This is Lee’s way of wondering when black people, liberals and Americans in general will stop falling for what he repeatedly calls the “okey-doke.” By that he means the tricks—which Lee calls the skulduggery, the shenanigans, the subterfuge and the bamboozlement—that straight, white American men masterfully use to stay in control. Lee is a student of history, and so he understands where these tricks are hiding and what form they might take in the future. He’s obsessed with the okey-doke. And it explains so much of why Lee is the way he is.
For decades now, Spike Lee has been characterized as indignant, a coded way of saying, “Why, rich man, are you still so angry?” It’s a common trap: main-stream society can make successful black people prioritize smiling more and complaining less. And many successful black people, as Lee sees it, forget who they are and who came before them. “People become delusional and think they’re not black anymore because they are accepted—it’s the okey-doke,” Lee says. “You can say that now, but they still think you’s a nigger.”
Lee knows this because of what history has shown him. He has seen how the U.S. has watered down the legacies of some of the great black Americans in the spirit of moving on by way of covering up the scars. “And another thing,” Lee says, pointing at me. “In his later years, Muhammad Ali became a national hero, a global hero.” But before that, Lee says, Ali was vilified for his opposition to the Vietnam War. By the end of Ali’s life, most of America acted like it had never happened.
When Lee speaks about what happened to Ali, what happened to Martin Luther King Jr. and other radicals, you know he is dealing with the anxiety of what America will do to him, when it’s all said and done. It’s one of the reasons why Lee is so loud, so brash and seems to never take his foot off the Spike gas—Americans haven’t earned the right to be comfortable around him yet. What James Baldwin said in 1968 could apply to Lee in 2018: “It is not for us to cool it.”
He’s always drawing boundaries, because he never wants to be sanitized. And simply existing as black in any white space requires grappling with the so-called benefits of being seen as “safe.” This way of thinking permeates society today, from art to politics to sports. “There’s this thinking that athletes should just run up and down the field, run around the bases, run down the court, play ball and shut the f-ck up,” Lee says. “But there’s a history of that not being the case. And the powers that be don’t like that.”
This feeling is exacerbated by a President who has moved from coded dog-whistling to what goes well beyond that, including consistent public attacks on prominent black Americans. Trump’s recent tweets about LeBron James’ intelligence are a prime example. “He has a thing for black athletes,” Lee says. “He does not like them brothers making that money.” But it runs even deeper than that. “This stuff is all planned,” he continues. “The sneaky thing is, he tried to start some sh-t between Michael [Jordan] and LeBron. That’s the old divide and conquer.”
The ugliness of this current climate is front and center in BlacKkKlansman. There’s a line in the film, repeated four times by a propagandist played by Alec Baldwin who is hell-bent on spreading fear of blacks and Jews, that sums up the then and the now: “We had a great way of life.”
Like so many things in the film, the parallels between the 1970s and now are stinging. That propagandist’s line registers because it’s a sentiment that is felt today by so many—even those who aren’t outright racists. It’s the line I consider as I watch Lee bark loudly about Trump (whom he continues to refer to as Agent Orange) being a direct response to having eight years of a black President, within earshot of people who are just trying to enjoy their vacation, without having to think about all that.
“This brings me to another point,” he continues. “Let’s stop telling lies and teaching young people bullsh-t. The United States of America’s foundation is genocide of native people and slavery!”
At this point, Lee is at his loudest. He laughs every time he brings up something obvious. “That’s the foundation—the very fiber,” he says, standing up on the sidewalk, with three men on their boat watching him. “No people have been more patriotic than black folks, who shouldn’t be.”
A man steps off his boat and interrupts our conversation: “Are the Yankees done now?”
This is the fourth person to stop Lee during this hour on the bench. One was a white woman who shook his hand and then said, “I can never wash my hand,” prompting him to uncomfortably reply, “Don’t say that,” prompting her to uncomfortably say, “I’ll wash it. Good night!” even though it was 12:35 p.m. The other two also wanted to talk about sports. People love to talk to Lee about New York City sports, a state he brought on himself by being a very public fan of his home baseball and basketball teams.
These are the moments when the wall Lee has built against the okey-doke shifts enough to be cordial. He entertains what must be a daily conversation with a stranger about the Knicks and the Yankees. Yet in times like this, his guard isn’t down but twice as high, because this is when others get too comfortable as conversations about his work take a backseat to sports. It’s a reminder that much of white America is still terrified to engage with the work of Spike Lee but would love to chat about courtside theatrics. Sticking to sports is one of the easy ways to sprint toward equality without dealing with our history.
“To use football terminology, it’s a classic misdirection play. They’re masters at it,” Lee says. In this context, they refers to everyone from a white man talking about sports to members of the Republican Party to any group of powerful whites. “It’s well-conceived, well-disguised. So we, as a people, as American people, have to really stop going for the okey-doke. We have to be smart and not go for these distractions.”
Bringing his voice down, he leans over and says, “And you know they’re calling me every type of nigger when they do that sh-t.”
When I saw Lee’s movie Bamboozled in 2001 as a high school freshman, I had only been around white people for four years. My mother was a tactician when it came to raising a black boy, but she saw how accepted I had become at my predominantly white, progressive Atlanta private school, and she was terrified of how that would shape my identity and erase my blackness. The magnetic force of perceived assimilation was growing stronger. My mother needed some assistance. Enter Spike Lee.
Watching that movie in my living room on a Sunday evening, I felt feelings I’d never felt—bad ones.
Monday morning, I went to school angry. And while I didn’t stay angry, I knew too much to ever return to simply smiling and nodding and acting as if everything were fine.
“That must have messed you up, huh,” Lee says with a smile, followed by a loud, singular chuckle that led to a few heads swiveling in our direction.
Bamboozled—a movie that draws a line from minstrelsy to Hollywood—is important, just as BlacKkKlansman is important, because Lee makes movies to reopen wounds that white America would like to pretend have healed. He’s a provocateur who clearly knows what his role is: to say difficult things about both the history and the present state of race in America. A movie like Bamboozled wasn’t appreciated at the time, because no one was ready to go there. Almost two decades later, with BlacKkKlansman, the public is learning how to open its eyes at the same time a filmmaker is improving his delivery. Yet the declaration that Spike Lee is back turns out to be a surprisingly underhanded compliment.
“Hmm. What’s that famous Brother Mark Twain quote?” Lee says, grinning mischievously. I don’t readily know—the man said a lot of things. “It’s something about, ‘My death is,’” Lee says, trying to remember. Clearly it’s part of an important comeback. “Look it up,” he says. “Google it. Google it now.”
I find what he is looking for: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
“‘He’s back?’” Lee says. “Where’d I go?”
Even when he’s joking around, he never takes his work lightly. “I’ve been doing this for the last 30 years. I think it’s very important people understand that Kevin Willmott and I—the co–writers on the film—are filmmakers, but we’re also both tenured professors of film. So we’re not f-cking around. This is our life. This is our lifelong pursuit. We take this sh-t seriously.”
We leave the soapbox of a bench and begin walking to Nancy’s, a seafood restaurant. Unclear what we are doing, I follow Lee to the counter. “Is Doug here?” Lee asks a line cook. Someone leaves to go look for him. Lee’s on his Blackberry, texting, and those around are beginning to take their phones out to take pictures of him. Two minutes later, a white guy with a beard and a trucker hat walks toward us. He and Lee embrace. Lee’s entire demeanor has changed—he’s excited about something.
Doug Abdelnour turns out to be the owner of the restaurant, which is next to a dock and, through that dock, his boat. The three of us are going on a ride.
“Step in the middle of the footstool,” Abdelnour warns Lee as he prepares to enter the boat. I do the same. “I told Barack the same thing,” Abdelnour says. “He didn’t listen.”
Lee likes the fact that Obama has been on this boat. The Vineyard may be a second home for him, but this is clearly an event. When we pull off, Abdelnour warns us that he’s going to go a little fast. Lee puts his Nike hoodie on and puts his hood up, and advises me to do the same so I don’t lose my hat. Abdelnour revs his boat up, and Lee lets out a brief roller-coaster-esque scream, extending his palm for a low-five.
About 10 minutes later, we slow down and Lee starts asking Abdelnour questions. Questions about Valerie Jarrett. He points to certain houses, asking, with an endearing youthful curiosity, who lives where. Diane Sawyer? Ted Danson? Carly Simon?
The morning Heather Heyer was killed, Lee says, almost exactly a year ago, he was on the island. So was Obama. The former President plays golf on a course right by Lee’s house. “I don’t have his number,” Lee says of Obama. “He ain’t calling me. We ain’t got it like that.” (For their first date, Barack took Michelle to see Do the Right Thing.)
Lee had spent the morning, like many Americans, glued to the television. After seeing news from the counter-protest, Lee, taking a break from the coverage, went out to the 18th hole, in his backyard, where he saw Obama’s Secret Service agents. Lee says he then walked up to Obama. “I said, Mr. President, did you hear what happened in Charlottesville? He hadn’t.” So Lee told him. “I could see on his face—that shock. It was Aug. 12, year of our Lord, 2017.” (A spokesperson for Obama declined to comment.)
When Lee first saw the footage, he says he knew he had found the ending to his movie. “I saw this horrific act of homegrown, red, white and blue, cherry-pie terrorism,” Lee says.
Part of what Lee found so profound was the death of Heyer. He called her mother Susan Bro, to ask permission to use footage of her death in the film. “What can you really say to anyone who loses her child?” Lee says. Bro told him that there had been criticism of how Heyer, a white woman, had been lionized in the media when the deaths of so many people of color go unnoticed. Lee didn’t care. “I consider her a martyr,” Lee says. “It don’t matter what nobody else says.”
In Charlottesville, Americans were forced to reckon with the reality that we live in a country where white supremacists can parade openly, and without condemnation from the White House. We allow for the slaughter of unarmed black children and the mass incarceration of people of color. A black President who had to be publicly perfect for eight years was followed by a white President who is habitually dishonest. So many Americans were lulled into complacency by the progress that Obama’s presidency signaled, and the symbol he represented. Yet all gains can easily be lost, particularly in a society stacked against anyone who threatens the dominant order. Lee has been trying to tell us this for more than 30 years. He’s hoping we’re ready to listen.
This story originally appeared in the Aug. 20, 2018, issue of TIME.
- TIME's Top 100 Photos of 2021
- Inside Frances Haugen's Decision to Take on Facebook
- Why We Should Stop Freaking Out About Inflation
- Austria's Plan to Make COVID-19 Vaccines Compulsory Is Dividing Citizens — and Experts
- Inside the 80-Year Quest to Name Pearl Harbor's Unknown Victims
- Buying a House Feels Impossible These Days. Here Are 6 Innovative Paths to Homeownership
- 'They're Very Close.' U.S. General Says Iran Is Nearly Able to Build a Nuclear Weapon
- A Charter School's Racial Controversy Reveals the Real Battle For America's Classrooms