HFPA in Conversation: Spike Lee on the Power of Laughter

by Kirpi Uimonen Ballesteros December 19, 2018
Filmmaker Spike Lee, Golden Globe nominee

magnus sundholm/hfpa

Filmmaker Spike Lee likes to take on serious topics with a bit of humor.  HFPA journalist Alessandra Venezia sat down with the Golden Globe-nominated director in October on the patio of the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles.  His latest movie delves into a true-life tale of a black police officer, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. “BlacKkKlansman is not the first film in the history of cinema that has used humor for a very serious subject matter.  One example is Dr. Strangelove.  What could be more serious than the destruction of this god’s earth?  That film was very, very funny.”

Lee thinks that the humor works well in BlacKkKlansman because of the concept. “When Jordan Peele called me up, it was really a six-word pitch: black man infiltrates KKK.  I started laughing right there.  I automatically thought of the David Chappelle skits.  The humor from the concept is organic.  It’s not like we’re writing a bunch of jokes, just the concept, the premise of…and it’s a question mark…black man infiltrates the KKK?  That’s where the humor comes from.”

But he wanted to make sure that no one is laughing at the end of the film. “People call me from all over the world, and they all said the same thing.  At the end of the movie, you could not hear a pin drop.  People sat paralyzed, unable to move.  And some of the blacks were saying that white people were hugging them and apologizing.  How crazy is that?  But that’s the impact of a film.”

During his long career, Lee has seen attitudes change towards black culture. “The important thing is that you have to be careful this doesn’t become a trend.  Every now and then black people are hot, we’re a trend and then it dies out.”
To ensure the change, he says we have to make sure that people of color are getting those gatekeeper positions that can greenlight projects.

Listen to the podcast and hear why his childhood was interesting; why he is fascinated with Michael Jackson and Prince; how was it working with Michael Jackson; why he is not critical towards other artists anymore; what is his responsibility as a filmmaker; why he doesn’t want BlackKklansman to be compared to Black Panther; why teaching is important to him; what he has learned from his two kids; how his wife has influenced his projects; how  he describes the four films he did with Denzel Washington and how was it working with his and Pauletta’s son; and what kind of director he is.

Listen to the conversation here or, for immediate access to all of our podcasts, subscribe to HFPA in Conversation on iTunes.