"The white actors had problems saying the 'N' word," Spike Lee says. "But it was comfortable for me."

That word, and the idea of free speech versus hate speech comes up a lot in the Academy Award-winning director's acclaimed new film BlacKkKlansman.

The movie, which won the coveted Grand Prix award at Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, explores the dark underbelly of American white nationalism.

It's based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, an African-American police detective in Colorado (one of the largest hubs of evangelical Christianity in the world) who infiltrated and exposed the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

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The story follows the mechanics of Stallworth's journey as he duped the KKK into granting him membership to the organisation, after building a relationship via phone with former Grand Wizard David Duke, who believed Stallworth to be Caucasian.

"It's all true," says Lee. "Even David Duke would admit it."

Arguably, society has changed since the early 70s and our current politically correct climate doesn't allow for such language. Lee's gaze is direct. "In public, yes. But behind closed doors..."

In New Zealand, we recently witnessed those closed doors opening in the form of alt-right Canadian activists Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux. The pair sparked debate over whether hate speech should be protected as free speech, and saw large crowds protesting against them in Aotea Square. (Hate speech is prohibited in New Zealand under the Human Rights Act 1993. Incitement to racial disharmony has been a criminal offence since the enactment of the Race Relations Act 1971.)

"This phenomenon and the rise of the Right is global," insists Lee. "If anyone thinks it's specific to America, they are missing the point."

Lee, who uses his First Amendment right to refer to President Trump as "a motherf**ker", says America "should be focusing on getting him impeached", as many of Trump's slogans like "America first" echo Duke's rhetoric from decades ago.

Upon telling Lee of the morning's news report about the West Hollywood City Council's vote to remove Trump's star from the Hollywood Walk of Fame he has short words.

"Forget the star. You step on it, dogs piss on it, who cares? How about we move him out of office? We need to stop being distracted by things like whether the star should be removed or not."

BlacKkKlansman was co-produced by Get Out's Jordan Peele and stars relative newcomer John David Washington, who has evidently inherited his father Denzel's Oscar-winning genes. It's his debut as a lead actor, and the movie's success rests largely on his shoulders. A former professional football player, since 2015 he has been a series regular as Ricky Jerett on Ballers.

"I knew I wanted him for the part," Lee says. "We had a meeting and I offered him the role. And listen, he doesn't walk around with a big sign over his head saying, 'Denzel Washington is my father'."

To illustrate that Washington is "just like any other black man in America", Lee adds, "If he's in a nice car, the LAPD will still pull him over. All they see is a black man driving a nice car."

Evidently, growing up the son of a celebrity did not insulate Washington from racism.

"I was called the 'N' word as a kid; I was like 10, 11 years old," he says. "I have dealt with racism before and it doesn't matter the kind of upbringing I had."

Also starring is Adam Driver, as a detective who stands in as Stallworth at KKK meetings, and Topher Grace who takes on Duke. Without a doubt, it's been his toughest role.

"Look, when Spike Lee calls and says, 'You're my guy', that's one of the great days of your career. David Duke is a terrible man, but it's such a juicy, great role. I read his autobiography, which is basically his Mein Kampf. This guy is more evil than a normal racist. I tried my best to get in his head, but it's really hard to imagine someone who's educated having those views."

He also admits he had a difficult time uttering Duke's venomous words.

"Hate speech is a part of free speech, absolutely," he says. "If we didn't have free speech we couldn't have made this movie."

Lee also says that without the unmitigated success of Black Panther, which earned US$1.344 billion, he may not have been able to make this movie.

"Black Panther blew the shit out of the water so much so that studios can no longer say that black films don't make money overseas," he says. "Those lies can no longer be used to keep black film-makers from getting the amount of money they need. That argument is dead with Black Panther."

But he warns that this is not the time for the black community to rest on its laurels.

"Every 10 years, my phone rings off the hook about the motherf**king resurgence of Black Cinema. And then it's another motherf**king nine-year drought," he says. "In order for this not to be on a cycle, people of colour have to get the gatekeeper positions in studios."

BlacKkKlansman has garnered very positive reviews for Lee, who impressively straddles that fine line between incorporating highly charged politics in films and creating entertainment devoid of heavy-handed preaching.

"Well, it's been done before. It's hard to do and it's a tightrope." He smiles. "But I can do it."

LOWDOWN
Who: Director Spike Lee
What: BlacKkKlansman
When: In cinemas today