Spike Lee needed a queen. Three queens, in fact. One in front of the camera, one behind it, another to make sure everything looked and felt just so. As a filmmaker who has been tackling racism in America for more than 30 years, Lee has often strived to do many things at once: mix comedy and drama, satire with seriousness, and brazenly resurrect the past, as he did with his latest movie, BlacKkKlansman, in order to forcefully comment on the present. His approach to directing a fashion shoot—a fashion joint, this being a Lee production—was no different. He saw it as an opportunity to pay homage to two lifelong sources of inspiration: famous photographers who have powerfully captured black iconography of the past century, and the timeless power of black women.
Hence the three queens he had gathered inside a photo studio in Hollywood.
There was Angela Bassett, the actress, whom Lee first directed in Malcolm X, and whom he had chosen specifically for her imperial charisma. “So regal, so majestic,” Lee remarked. There was LaToya Ruby Frazier, the artist acclaimed for her work exploring the intersection of race, family, and place, who also shot the movie posters for BlacKkKlansman. And styling the proceedings was Ruth E. Carter, Lee’s costume designer since School Daze, his second feature, whose intricate work on Black Panther helped give the blockbuster its singular aesthetic and earned her an Oscar nomination. Together, they would spend the day paying tribute to some of Lee’s favorite photographers, including those in his personal collection, like James Van Der Zee, Irving Penn, and Gordon Parks, the late director of the original Shaft, and a hero of Lee’s. The idea was not so much to re-create celebrated images as to channel them into something new, with Bassett starring in a variety of shape-shifting roles—formidable diva, bohemian temptress—as the director saw fit.
“I grew up around strong black women—my mother, my grandmother—and for this it was important for me to have strong black women on all sides of the camera,” said Lee, who is more subdued than his films. He was dressed completely in purple—sweats, hoodie, and baseball cap, all from NYU, where he went to film school and is now a professor. “Angela simply embodies that energy in a profound way,” he went on. “She has this incredible, almost intimidating presence.”
As Lee spoke, Bassett was being dressed by Carter for the second shoot of the day, which would become one of this issue’s covers. It was an ode to a 1950s photo by Parks that itself was an ode to Invisible Man, the classic Ralph Ellison novel that slyly tackled issues of individuality and personal identity faced by African Americans in the first part of the 20th century. In the original photograph, a black man sits having a meal on a makeshift stool, his face obscured in shadow and backlit by a wall of Edison bulbs; it’s a visual representation of the novel’s nameless protagonist, who lives underground in a room illuminated by more than a thousand bulbs lit with pirated electricity. For the magazine, a similar backdrop was constructed, though Lee added gauzy curtains in pastel shades—an allusion to Parks’s work from the 1980s. The effect was wholly different from the original. Bassett emerged in a purple Gucci dress and elegantly sauntered onto the set; as Frazier’s camera clicked, Lee beamed at the images on a monitor: a radiant black woman who was aware of her power, proud to be seen.
“Boom shakalaka!” exclaimed Lee. “We got it!”
He was working under the gun, needing to finish up in order to catch a red-eye back to New York, so the celebration was short-lived.
“Okay, everyone, onto the next!” he shouted. “Go, go, go!”
Lee had been on a busy, booming run since last May, when BlacKkKlansman premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix. Telling the true but improbable tale of Ron Stallworth, a black police officer in Colorado who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s, the film has been widely heralded as Lee’s best work in years: a rollicking period piece that takes savage aim at the modern era, specifically the divisive politics of Donald Trump. Entertaining but unapologetic in its rage, the film builds to a devastating climax where Lee’s reimagined past fades into real footage of the 2017 riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a clash between white supremacists and leftist counterprotesters turned lethal. “I was not trying to be subtle with this film,” Lee said. “The time we’re living in is too dangerous to be subtle.”
While this sense of urgency has long fueled his work—Lee had asserted that black lives matter long before hashtags—BlacKkKlansman resonated with a larger audience; grossing $89 million, it marked the second-best box office opening of his storied career. “It’s loony tunes out there, total insanity,” said Lee, growing animated as he referred to the political climate. “And that’s why this film connected with audiences globally. They see this film, they see this guy in the White House, what’s happening in America—but this resurgence of the far right is happening globally.”
Two days before the shoot took place, Lee had been at the Golden Globes, where BlacKkKlansman was nominated for four awards, including best drama and best director. He came away empty-handed. “I’m not going to sit here and lie to you and say it was nice,” he said. “But if that was the driving force for making films, me winning awards, I would have quit after Do the Right Thing.” Two weeks later, he would receive Oscar nominations for best director and best motion picture, both firsts; but he seemed already satisfied that his resurgence had triggered people to reevaluate some of his earlier work that carried a similar message but didn’t find its way into the mainstream. “At the time, people weren’t ready for films like 25th Hour and Bamboozled,” he said. “So they fell through the cracks. But now people are ready.”
The shoot with Bassett was a frenetic affair, with a total of eight sets built and dismantled throughout the day. Bassett, who carried on in a sphinxlike silence, was posed in a position reminiscent of Irving Penn’s famous photo of the world heavyweight champion Joe Louis, and later transformed into Billie Holiday in an homage to Roy DeCarava, the renowned jazz photographer. Working with Frazier, a Guggenheim fellow and recipient of a “genius grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, was for Lee a momentous occasion—Frazier’s solo show at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise last year featured “Flint Is Family,” a harrowing series of photographs of three generations of women who endured the Michigan water crisis; it earned her comparisons to Goya. “When I really like people’s work, and there’s an opportunity to work with them, I love doing it,” Lee said, explaining that he saw Frazier’s photography as an extension of the same lineage they were now celebrating. “Simply put, she’s killing it.”
Exhausted from months devoted to promoting BlacKkKlansman, Lee was clearly enjoying the chance to spend some time doing instead of talking. Toward the end of the day, as Bassett was being prepped for a shoot inspired by the photographs of Charles “Teenie” Harris, who documented black life in Pittsburgh for four decades, Lee decided to give modeling a shot. Hopping onto the set, he sprawled across a vintage Chinese rug, mugging for the camera in a variety of faux-sultry poses. But then Bassett, his queen, arrived in a satin slip dress. Lee happily relinquished the throne.