Spike Lee talks right-wing movements, race at Montreal International Black Film Festival

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

 

“BlacKkKlansman” director Spike Lee says the rise of right-wing movements and anti-immigrant sentiment isn’t just an American problem.

While Lee has nothing but scathing criticism for U.S. President Donald Trump — whom he refers to only as “Agent Orange”– he told a Montreal audience that the phenomenon is a global one.

“The one thing I hope when people see this film is that they don’t make the mistake of (thinking) this rise of the right is just a specific thing that’s happening in the United States of America,” he said.

“This is happening worldwide.”

Lee, who dressed all in black and donned a baseball cap, encouraged people to reject such movements, which he said seek to use immigrants as scapegoats for society’s ills.

“We have to be smarter as a people and not go for that old divide-and-conquer stuff,” he said as he held court at an Old Montreal hotel.

Lee made the comments at the Montreal International Black Film Festival, where he held a wide-ranging discussion on filmmaking, politics and the recent box-office success of movies featuring black directors and stars.

“BlacKkKlansman” stars John David Washington as Ron Stallworth, a real-life black police detective who infiltrated a Ku Klux Klan cell in Colorado in the 1970s with the help of a white partner.

The film ends with footage from last year’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. — which shows that the kind of racism depicted in the film is neither fictional nor in the past, Lee said.

When he saw the footage from the “Unite the Right” rally that showed a car ramming into a crowd of protesters, fatally striking 32-year old Heather Heyer, Lee knew he had the ending to his film, he said.

“If I could have the power to bring Heather Heyer back and lose the ending I would do it like that,” said Lee, adding that he first called Heyer’s mother to ask if he could include her.

“She’s dead now, a martyr. And I think that’s what resonates with the audience, that this is not some Hollywood bullshit.”

The film also features footage of Trump, whom Lee accuses of contributing to the rise of the radical right by refusing to immediately denounce the racism of the Charlottesville organizers.

Despite his criticisms, Lee also struck some optimistic notes.

He said the success of “BlacKkKlansman” and last year’s superhero hit “Black Panther’” mean that studios can no longer argue that films with black cast members and directors won’t be successful with a wider audience.

And while he’s discouraged by persistent racism and Trump’s policies, Lee said he’s heartened by grassroots movements to bring positive change.

He’s hoping some of that change might come in the U.S. mid-term elections, which he said might be the most important “in the history of the United States.”

The 61-year-old filmmaker, who was making his third appearance at the festival, expressed his fondness for Montreal, which he first visited more than 50 years ago on a family trip to the Expo 67 world fair.

“Montreal has supported my films. I like Montreal, it’s very close to New York, so why wouldn’t I want to come? It’s a beautiful city,” he said.

Lee was scheduled to hold a conference at the festival Wednesday night to discuss his filmmaking journey and offer advice to aspiring writers and directors.

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