Lee spoke to reporters Tuesday after his “BlacKkKlansman” premiered Monday night at Cannes to a rousing standing ovation.
The 1979-set film, loosely based on a true story, is about Black police detective Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington, Denzel’s son) and a Jewish detective (Adam Driver) who together infiltrated a Ku Klux Klan cell in Colorado. Topher Grace plays former KKK leader David Duke.
He said Trump — whom he refused to call by name — had “a chance to say we are about love and not hate,” and sharply criticized him for not denouncing the KKK.
“It was a defining moment and he could have said to the United States and the world that we’re better than that,” said Lee.
“BlacKkKlansman,” produced by Jordan Peele (director of “Get Out”), concludes by connecting the period tale with today. It ends with actual footage from Charlottesville, as well as Trump’s televised response. The final image is an upside-down American flag that fades to black and white.
Focus Features will release the film in August, on the year anniversary of Charlottesville.
Having already wrapped the film, Lee added the Charlottesville coda after the unrest last summer.
“Right away, I knew that this had to be the coda for the film, but I had to do something first,” said Lee. Before inserting footage of the car that plowed through crowds in Virginia, killing counter-protester Heather Heyer, Lee said he telephoned Heyer’s mother.
“I was not going to put that murder scene in the film without her blessing,” said Lee.
Lee called Charlottesville an “ugly, ugly, ugly blemish on America,” but he also repeatedly stressed to the international Cannes media that the racism depicted in “BlacKkKlansman” isn’t unique to the United States.
At the premiere Monday, Lee was outfitted in a shiny purple-and-orange tuxedo and wore one ring declaring “love” on one hand, and “hate” on the other, paying homage to the jewelry won by the character Radio Raheem in his previous film “Do the Right Thing.” He bounced into the premiere at the Palais announcing: “Brooklyn’s in the house!”
Lee has frequently debuted films at Cannes, including “Do the Right Thing” in 1989.
He hopes “BlacKkKlansman” ″shakes people from their slumber.”
“I know it in my heart,” said Lee. “We’re on the right side of history with this film.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP