Spike Lee furrows his brow, peers across the table and asks: "How old was Kurosawa when he stopped making films?"
On the spot, I don't have an exact number, but I know he was 80 when Dreams came out.
“All right then,” smiles Lee. “There you go. I’m going into my fourth decade doing this. I have to catch up. I will say this though: I say my prayers every day because it didn’t have to be this way. Many people go to the grave having worked a job they hated. When you’re able to make a living doing what you love, then you’re blessed by the Almighty.”
He laughs: “You don’t believe me?”
I'm not sure I do. When you're the man behind such modern classics as Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Get on the Bus, and When the Levees Broke, it can't just come down to prayer.
“Here’s the thing though. I don’t sit around: Dear Lord, please help me be a film-maker. I bust my ass. But busting your ass is not a guarantee. A lot of people work hard.”
By the time I sit down with Lee in London, BlacKkKlansman, his marvellous 25th feature film, has won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, has tipped past the 96 per cent "Fresh" mark on Rotten Tomatoes, and has delivered his best US opening in more than a decade.
Spike Lee is back with a bang without ever having been away.
Lee's new hit 1970s set cop drama is based on the true story of black detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a black Colorado officer who went undercover to infiltrate and expose the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Given the inherent dangers in his plan, he enlists Flip Zimmerman, a white Jewish cop played by Adam Driver, to con the Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace).
Despite buzz from audiences and critics, this a Spike joint so inevitably not everybody is happy with the new film.
Last week, Boots Riley, the director of the incoming and keenly anticipated Sorry to Bother You, responded to BlacKkKlansman with a three-page essay on Twitter.
“[T]o the extent that people of colour deal with actual physical attacks and terrorising due to racism and racist doctrines — we deal with it mostly from the police on a day to day basis. And not just from White cops. From Black cops too. So for Spike to come out with a movie where a story points are fabricated in order make Black cop and his counterparts look like allies in the fight against racism is really disappointing, to put it very mildly,” wrote Riley.
Lee smiles a veteran smile. "I could go back to my first film," he says. "For She's Gotta Have It, bell hooks, the feminist writer, wasn't happy. For School Daze, Abiola Sinclair, who wrote for the Amsterdam News in New York, said the film set the black race back 400 years. With Do the Right Thing, Joel Klein and David Denby said this film is going to incite black folks to riot all over. With Mo' Better Blues I was anti-Semitic because the characters Moe and Josh Flatbush were played by Nick and John Turturro. Just because I'm an African-American film-maker doesn't mean that all black people are going to like my stuff. We're not a monolithic group. I just keep stepping and don't let anything stop me. And nothing has stopped me so far."
The urgent, compelling BlacKkKlansman offers the events of August 2017 as a coda, when President Donald Trump declared that "very fine people" were among the Nazi mobs descending upon Charlottesville, Virginia, and when white supremacist James Alex Fields jnr crashed his car into peaceful protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
"That became part of the film on August 12th," says Lee. "The day it happened. So we had that as the end of the film in August. We didn't start shooting until September. I got the number for Heather's mother, Ms Susan Bro and got her blessing."
Lee has often been known to refer to the 45th president of the United States as "Agent Orange" or that "motherf****r", but today we're playing the Voldemort game. It's almost as if he can no longer bring himself to say the word "Trump".
“I do know that this upcoming midterm election is very, very important,” he says. “I hope that this film can give some little extra push or touch or anything to get people to register to vote. If people don’t realise how important it is to vote now, after months of this guy in the office, I don’t know what’s going to. The guys – and the ladies – in this administration are probably the most crooked administration of all time. They got to go. For the world’s sake.”
Much has been written about Trump's links to the alt-right generally and the Klan, specifically. In February 2016, Trump declined to condemn former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, after Duke urged his followers to vote Trump. Lee cites Woodrow Wilson's supposed review of Birth of a Nation: "Like writing history with lightning" as presidential precedent.
“[Trump] was a racist before he got into office. Look at his apartments in New York. He got sued for discrimination against black communities. So nothing he has done has surprised me. He’s trying though. He’s giving the whole heave ho.”
BlacKkKlansman may have Trump in its sights, but the film has been a long time coming. Spike Lee was born Shelton Lee into a cultured family in 1957, in Atlanta, Georgia. At a young age, he moved from pre-civil rights Georgia, with his mother Jacqueline, a teacher of black arts and literature, and father, the jazz musician and composer William James Edward Lee III, to Brooklyn, New York. His mother nicknamed the youngster Spike to reflect his dogged sensibility.
“I’ve been very fortunate that I came from a household where my parents and grandparents taught me to value myself, to believe in myself, and to have a sense of purpose,” says Lee.
"So whatever people say they can't drag you down to their level. My family weren't thinking about any of us being film-makers: that was just so that we could grow up in this world. And that's been very helpful for me because criticism can sometimes cripple people. But I learned a lot from Michael Jordan. He uses criticism as a fuel. Turn negativity in positivity. Not everybody is going to like what you're doing. Not everyone is going to like who you are. You just have to be at peace with yourself."
He honed his film-making skills at Clark Atlanta University and the Tisch School of Arts graduate film programme. At NYU, he was outraged when the film department screened DW Griffith's The Birth of a Nation without contextualising it as a recruitment film for the Ku Klux Klan and a picture that had directly led to people getting lynched. Lee's first 10-minute short was The Answer, a riposte to The Birth of a Nation, a response that is expanded greatly within BlacKkKlansman.
"That was my first film in grad school," he recalls. "It was about a young African-American director who is given a chance to do a remake of Birth of a Nation by a big studio. And he goes in thinking that he can do that. Just like the Pierre Delacroix character played by Damon Wayans in Bamboozled. He overestimates his power. Both those films don't end well for the protagonist."
For a man who is frequently depicted as an angry controversialist, Lee is an awfully chill fellow with a sly sense of humour.
“Who do I know in the Democratic Party?” he asks.
Don’t you know Barack Obama?
“Oh, him. Oh, yeah.”
Between chuckles, he’s apt to ask questions. He has only ever spent a day in Dublin, but he’s keen to get some sense of the post-Brexit implications for the peace process. Now there’s a question.
“This is something I want people to know,” he says. “Please do not think that this film is just about America. The rise of the right is a global thing. The immigrants! They’re the reason the economy ain’t good; they’re the reason for crime; they’re tearing our culture apart. This stuff is everywhere.”
BlacKkKlansman is produced by Jordan Peele who wrote and directed Get Out. It's a good moment for African-American cinema, notes Lee, but there's still a long way to go.
"Timing is everything," he says. "I think Get Out helped Black Panther and that's now of the top 10 grossing films ever. You don't just show up. It doesn't begin with you. There are always people laying the groundwork.
I had Ossie Davis, Oscar Micheaux, Melvin van Peebles. But when you look at the numbers – the roles, for minorities, the roles for people of colour, especially women of colour – they're still very, very small. We can't get blinded by the successes."
– BlacKkKlansman opens tomorrow.