Following his comments at the 2019 Oscars, Donald Trump responded to Spike Lee over social media. Lee’s BlacKkKlansman won him the award for Best Adapted Screenplay, along with co-writers Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. The film, which tackled the autobiography of Ron Stallworth, an African-American detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, was nominated for a long list of awards, including Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Directing, Original Score, Film Editing, and Picture. It lost the latter category to Green Book.
Lee’s career has spanned decades, with his directorial debut going to back to 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It, which was adapted into a Netflix series in 2017. Much of his work, such as Oscar nominees 4 Little Girls and Do The Right Thing, have focused on historical and modern-day violence and oppression of black communities in America. BlacKkKlansman took no exception by tying terrorism events perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s to the Charlottesville riots of 2017. Lee, who stated that he wished BlacKkKlansman had spent more discussing the 2017 events, elaborated on the current political climate during his acceptance speech.
The director thanked his family and collaborators, but also urged viewers to “do the right thing,” regarding the upcoming 2020 election, adding: “Let’s all be on the right side of history. Make the moral choice between love versus hate.” Trump took to Twitter to respond:
Be nice if Spike Lee could read his notes, or better yet not have to use notes at all, when doing his racist hit on your President, who has done more for African Americans (Criminal Justice Reform, Lowest Unemployment numbers in History, Tax Cuts,etc.) than almost any other Pres!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 25, 2019
Footage of Trump was spliced throughout BlacKkKlansman footage of Charlottesville, along with present-day footage of the Klan’s former leader David Duke (played by Topher Grace in the movie), the parade of white supremacists chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” seen globally, and Heather Heyer, a civil rights activist who was killed during the altercations.
Trump’s now-infamous comments that there were “very fine people of both sides” of the incident have been widely cited as exemplary of the necessity for artists across disciplines to continue speaking out about brutality motivated by bigotry. Films since 2017 like Green Book, If Beale Street Could Talk, Sorry to Bother You, and The Hate U Give have taken some of those discussions to the task. While on-screen narratives about marginalized groups subject to inequality have often led to critical acclaim and box office successes in recent years, politically volatile statements made during entertainment award shows are generally expected to yield at least some push back. Jesse Williams of Grey’s Anatomy, for example, was petitioned to be fired following his public support of Black Lives Matter during the 2016 BET Awards.
Lee has been no stranger to controversy for his political outspokenness, or criticism of how he feels Hollywood has treated black creators and directors. However his work speaks for itself, and it’s evident from its response that BlacKkKlansman has given audiences everywhere a lot to reflect on.