“I don’t know why some Jewish people get upset when you say there are a lot of Jewish people in the movie industry. That’s like saying there are a lot of blacks in the NBA. That’s not a judgement, thats just a fact. I’ve never seen black men with fine white women. They be ugly. And you always see white men with good-looking black women. I just don’t find white women attractive. And it’s way too many fine black women out there.”
“Mike [Jordan] is a down brother. He felt like I did, that we should hook up. He pulled me to the side. ‘Look, there’s been some grumbling where Nike is trying to ease you out. But as long as I’m around, you’re around.’”
There are many logical places you might find a famous director, writer, producer or actor–in a bungalow office on the studio back lot, poolside in Bel Air or maybe at a prominent table at Le Dome. But if you’re looking for the most successful hyphenate in movies–a man who is the writer, producer, director and star of a series of commercially and critically successful films–forget Hollywood and head for a renovated three-story firehouse in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn.
The fact that Spike Lee has chosen to oversee his burgeoning show-business empire from Fort Greene, his childhood home, is simply one example of his fierce independence. He demands complete control over his often controversial movies, such as Do the Right Thing, School Daze, She’s Gotta Have It, Mo' Better Blues and the upcoming Jungle Fever. He directs and stars in a string of Nike commercials with Michael Jordan. He directs music videos. He oversees books and documentaries about himself and his films. He’s starting a record company. He owns a store–Spike’s Joint–that merchandises every conceivable type of paraphernalia based on his movies.
“Spike is first and foremost a damn good businessman,” says actor-director Ossie Davis, who played Da Mayor in Do the Right Thing and Coach Odom in School Daze. But Lee is much more than that. With his movies, he has clearly raised the consciousness of Hollywood toward black film makers and, more importantly, he has shown that black-themed films can be both commercially and critically viable. But Lee is not satisfied with putting blacks on the screen; he is a vocal advocate for getting blacks jobs behind the scenes as well. He stipulates in his contracts–whether for movies or commercials–that blacks be hired, often in capacities that have not been available to them previously. He insists, for instance, that black artists do the posters for his movies and he has built a loyal repertory company of actors and crew, some of whom have been with him since his days as a student film maker.
Probably no movie director since Hitchcock has become so immediately identifiable to the public. Part of that fame stems from Lee’s acting, both in his films and in commercials. But Lee, 34, has also positioned himself as a spokesman on a variety of racial issues. Vogue dubbed him a “provoc-auteur,” and he seems dedicated to living up to that image.
Shelton Jackson Lee–who was nicknamed Spike by his mother–is the eldest child of a middle-class Brooklyn family. His mother, who died in 1977, was a teacher who demanded educational excellence from all five Lee children; his father is a musician who has written the scores for most of his son’s films. Lee was the third generation of his family to attend Morehouse College, the so-called black Harvard, and later went to New York University when he decided to pursue film making. His Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads won a student Academy Award and became the first student film ever shown at Lincoln Center’s “New Directors, New Films” series.
Despite that success, he was unable to land serious filmwork. Since Hollywood wasn’t helping him, Lee decided to help himself. Armed with spit, prayers and a budget of $175,000, he made She’s Gotta Have It, a dizzying, up-to-the-minute look at a relationship through the eyes of an independent and charismatic young black woman and her three suitors. Lee himself played one of those suitors–Mars Blackmon, the fly-mouthed messenger who does everything, including make love, in a pair of Air Jordans that seem to be as large as he is. (Mars lives on in Lee’s Nike commercials.) The movie made $8,000,000 and turned Lee into an overnight sensation.
Had Spike’s first film been a fluke? Was it a lucky break or was he really a film maker?
Lee answered that with School Daze, an ambitious, multilayered tale about life at a black college. Not only did he attempt to examine such sensitive issues as the stratification of light- and dark-skinned blacks and the cliquish assimilation into the middle class that takes place at black colleges, he did it as a musical comedy. School Daze was one of Columbia Pictures' biggest-grossing films of 1988.
It was in 1989 that Lee tackled his most heated subject: race relations on the hottest day of the year on a tense Bedford-Stuyvesant block in Do the Right Thing. From the flamboyant opening to the tragic climax that ends in one character’s death at the hands of the police to the double-barreled closing quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing was proudly combative. When it failed to earn a chance at an Oscar for Best Picture, Lee was publicly outraged, claiming the snub was racially motivated.
Lee changed pace with Mo' Better Blues, a movie about a single-minded jazz musician, but he continued to be a controversy magnet–he was branded as anti-Semitic because of the movie’s portrayal of two avaricious, small-minded Jewish club owners. Since his newest movie, Jungle Fever, a story about interracial love, promises to be one of his most controversial, we decided the time was right to send Elvis Mitchell, a free-lancer and National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition entertainment critic, to check in with Lee. Mitchell reports:
“Lee has made my life miserable for the past couple of months. The line ‘Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me’ comes from ‘Fight the Power,’ the bracing and hardcharging theme of Do the Right Thing, and invariably, in phone-tag intramurals preceding our meetings, every message Lee left on my answering machine began with those deathless words, followed by his trademark cackle.
"I first met with him in his office in Fort Greene, where he was putting together an assemblage of Jungle Fever to show the studio before leaping into his next picture, an epic on the life and times of Malcolm X. The place is cluttered with boxes and people and Lee was extremely busy. We did manage to talk briefly and schedule our first session, which was to take place on a flight from New York to Los Angeles. He was good-humored and prickly; he loves to catch people off guard and make incendiary comments. For instance, he demanded the right to approve this interview before it was published, but when I told him no, he simply cackled.
"Our first lengthy session, squeezed in between drops during a bumpy flight and a showing of Dick Tracy, demonstrated that Lee was a man of many moods. He preferred judging questions to answering them and seemed more combative than comfortable. But our second session, which took place at his New York apartment a few blocks from his office, was far more relaxed and productive. He responded to the questions with candor and enthusiasm and even posed some of his own. He asserted his shyness and spoke about his difficulty with interviews, even as he talked at length.
"We started with the obvious question.”
You like to cause trouble, don’t you?
Sure. I was an instigator as a kid. I just like to make people think, stir ‘em up. What’s wrong with that?
Jungle Fever certainly seems likely to stir things up.
[Laughs] You think that one’s gonna cause some trouble?
When you write lines such as “You never see black men with fine white women”? What was the word in the script–mugly? Wasn’t that the way you described the white women black men go out with?
[Laughs] But that’s true. I’ve never seen black men with fine white women. They be ugly. Mugly, dogs. And you always see white men with good-looking black women. But, hey, every time you see an interracial couple somewhere, people stare at 'em.
Come on, Spike. That’s a big generalization. We’ve seen good-looking interracial couples.
I said what I meant to. Never see it.
We know you’ve said in the past that you won’t get involved with white women.
I don’t need the trouble. Like I don’t have enough as it is. Black women don’t go for that, don’t like that shit. I just don’t find white women attractive, that’s all. And it’s way too many fine black women out there.
Isn’t there an interracial marriage in your family?
Yes. My father. My father remarried. He married a white woman.
Did that have any effect on your making Jungle Fever?
Why? Why would it? I didn’t talk to my father about it. I talk to my father only when it comes to scoring my movies. This isn’t about him.
There’s another potential controversy in Jungle Fever. In the opening, you address the audience directly, not as a character, and tell them that if they think you’re a racist, they can kiss your “black ass.” You say it twice. Why?
I felt it was justified. I wanted to hit all that, about race, before anybody else.
How did test audiences respond to it?
The test audiences liked it. I don’t think Universal is crazy about that shit.
Will it stay in the movie?
I guess it will. I do have final cut.
Why does so much of Jungle Fever emphasize racial anger?
Why shouldn’t it? It’s out there.
You’ve said that black people are incapable of racism. Do you really believe that?
Yeah, I do. Let me clear that up, 'cause people are always taking stuff out of context. Black people can’t be racist. Racism is an institution. Black people don’t have the power to keep hundreds of people from getting jobs or the vote. Black people didn’t bring nobody else over in boats. They had to add shit to the Constitution so we could get the vote. Affirmative action is about finished in this country now. It’s through. And black people had nothing to do with that, those kinds of decisions. So how can black people be racist when that’s the standard? Now, black people can be prejudiced. Shit, everybody’s prejudiced about something. I don’t think there will ever be an end to prejudice. But racism, that’s a different thing entirely.
You’ve been quoted as saying that no white man could properly do the Malcolm X story, which you’re preparing to direct.
You don’t think Norman Jewison, who was originally scheduled to direct, could pull it off?
No, I don’t. Why do people pull that shit with black people? Don’t you think Francis Coppola brought something special to The Godfather because he was an Italian? Don’t you think that Martin Scorsese brought something special to GoodFellas because he was Italian?
Marlon Brando’s not Italian and he was in The Godfather. Isn’t the point that there simply aren’t enough minorities to be considered?
Yeah. Now, when that shit changes, then we can talk. Until there are enough black directors, minorities working in movies so it’s not an issue, we have to address it different.
But what about one director having skills another director doesn’t?
I like Norman Jewison’s movies. I respect what he does. I saw In the Heat of the Night, A Soldier’s Story. I respect his work. But I think a black man is more qualified, especially in this case. Now, I do think black people are qualified to direct movies about white people.
How does that work?
Because we grow up with white images all the time, in TV, in movies, in books. It’s everywhere; you can’t get around it. The white world surrounds us. What do white people see of black people? Look at the shit they have us do in movies: “Right on, jive turkey!” [Laughs]
There’s a line in Jungle Fever that says a black man won’t rise past a certain level in white corporate America.
It’s true. How many black men do you see running Xerox? How many black men you see running IBM? Shit, we need to be black entrepreneurs, run our own shit. That’s what it’s about.
Is that what’s behind your store, Spike’s Joint?
It started off as this mom-and-pop operation. We sold T-shirts for the movies and stuff, but we just had too much stuff going on. So, yeah, I wanted to get it going the way I wanted. I want to control the business, and it’s easier to do it from the store. Black people just have to understand we need to become owners. Ownership is important. I don’t mean to get down on Eddie Murphy, but he only owns fifty percent of Eddie Murphy Productions. His two white managers each own twenty-five percent of Eddie Murphy Productions. He don’t even own a hundred percent of himself.
You have some other complaints about Murphy, don’t you?
My problem with Eddie has to do with the hiring of black people. He will maintain he can’t do nothin’ about getting black people hired at Paramount. That’s bullshit. A man who makes them a billion dollars can’t do nothing about getting black people hired at Paramount? I can’t believe that. In my contract, I demand a black man does the design and artwork for my poster. Eddie built Paramount. He built their house, he can bring some people in there if he wants to.
Overall, you seem to have become less critical about other black performers. Have you mellowed?
Look, I was never that critical. When I said that shit about Whoopi Goldberg, I was talking about the contact lenses, she was wearing blue contact lenses. She don’t wear them blue contact lenses no more, do she?
What’s the deal between you and Arsenio Hall?
[Smiles] Deal? What deal? I been on his show twice. You have to be specific.
Wasn’t there a quarrel between the two of you?
I criticized him once. I never criticized him as a talk-show host.
Our understanding is that you appeared on his show last summer and were supposed to go back about a month later and were disinvited.
Yeah. They canceled on me at the last minute. Didn’t even hear from him. Some assistant said they didn’t want me on the show. It’s in the past. Nothing to say about it. It’s all been worked out. I was on his show for Mo' Better.
Jungle Fever and Do the Right Thing both deal with the relationships between blacks and Italians in the outer boroughs of New York. Why did you choose to deal with that twice?
Well, history has proven that in New York City, those are the two most violent, volatile combinations of ethnic groups. Black people and Jewish people have static, but it rarely ever elevates to a physical thing. Little Italy, Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, Canarsie–black people know that these are neighborhoods that you don’t fuck around in.
What do you remember as a kid about that kind of thing–that feeling of fear you talk about?
Well, I grew up in sort of an Italian neighborhood. I lived in Cobble Hill before I moved here to Fort Greene. A lot of Italian people there. And we were really the first black family to move into Cobble Hill. For the first couple of days, we got called “nigger,” but we were basically left alone. We weren’t perceived as a threat, because there was only one of us. In fact, some of my best friends who lived down the block were the Tuccis. Louis Tucci, Joe Tucci. Annabella’s [Sciorra] family [in Jungle Fever], they’re the Tuccis.
While growing up in that kind of neighborhood, what was your feeling about Italians?
I think Cobble Hill is a lot different than Bensonhurst. You had a lot of Jewish people in Cobble Hill, too, so it just seemed to be more–I don’t want to use the word intelligent, but—
Yeah, that would be a good word.
It just seems odd that the kind of neighborhood you depict in your pictures is so different from the kind you grew up in. Did you ever have an encounter in one of those places like Bensonhurst?
No. See, I went to John Dewey High School on Coney Island. But some of my friends went to other high schools, like F.D.R., Fort Hamilton, schools like that. They used to chase the black kids from the school to the subway station. A lot of my friends got chased.
Do you ever go to Bensonhurst just to see what it’s like over there?
A couple of days after Yusef Hawkins got murdered, this reporter from Newsday invited me to walk around Bensonhurst with him. Other than that, I never went to it until we shot Jungle Fever over there.
What was that walk like?
Well, I was a celebrity, so it was “Spike, sign an autograph.” “Spike, you bringing Michael Jordan around here?” “Spike, you bringing Flavor Flav?” It was exactly like the scene in Do the Right Thing between me and Pino over the cigarette machine, with an allowance. Pino says Magic Johnson, Eddie Murphy and Prince aren’t black, they’re more than black. That’s the way I thought I was being viewed. I was “Spike Lee,” I wasn’t a black person, so they asked me for my autograph. If I was anybody else, I could have gotten a bat over the head.
How does it make you feel to be a celebrity in the neighborhood where you more or less grew up?
Well, I think that people don’t necessarily look at me as a celebrity, because they know I grew up here. It’s no big thing; they see me every day, buying the paper or walking to work and stuff like that. People say hello, but it’s not like [a throaty scream] “Spike Lee!” It’s not no Beatles shit or anything like that.
What do people on the street say? Do they tell you what they like or dislike about your movies?
They come up and tell me how much they like Mars Blackmon, or they tell me what they think I should do for my next movie. I’m always getting these comments from people who know exactly what my next movie should be. It’s funny–I guess everybody’s a director. Or a critic.
When you were a kid, did you know you wanted to make movies?
I didn’t grow up thinking I wanted to make movies, be a director. Everybody in my neighborhood saw a lot of movies. There was nothing special about going to the movies. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. At Morehouse College, I had a combined major, communications: radio-television, journalism, film–not film right away.
Do you remember the first film you saw that made you want to make movies?
Wait a minute. I never had a moment like that. It was never, “I saw Lawrence of Arabia when I was two and suddenly I was hit by the magic power of film.” That’s bullshit. Like I told you, I just went to the movies. Nobody thought about being a director, not me or anybody else. I read that all the time–“After I saw that picture, I knew there was nothing else for me to do”–that’s a lie. It’s just bullshit when people say that.
Maybe it’s a lie sometimes, but certainly, some directors see movies as kids and want to make films.
I think it’s bullshit. It’s just something almost every director says. I have never believed it. I tell you this: It wasn’t that way for me. “That’s what makes movies seem like this magical thing” or somethin'. That’s just Hollywood bullshit, people saying that shit because it makes makin' movies special, and the people who make movies special. The first time I went on a movie set, it didn’t look like nothin' magical to me. [Laughs] It was the exact same thing I was doing on my student movies, only it was bigger and they were spendin' more money. That’s what keeps black people out of movies–the idea that makin' movies is some special thing, some calling or something. That’s what I’m about–demystifying movies. I want to do away with that bullshit.
Do you remember the first Sidney Poitier film you saw?
It had to be Lilies of the Field. I hated that movie. I must have been six, seven years old, but even at that age, I felt like putting a rock through the screen. Later with these nuns! You better get outa here before one of ‘em says that you raped 'em! But we owe a lot to Sidney Poitier, because in order for us to get to where we are today, those films had to be made. And Sidney had to do what he had to do. He was the perfect Negro.
What did you think when you saw Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner–especially now that you’re doing a movie about interracial romance?
It was white liberal b.s. You have to look at it in the context of when this film came out. This film came out in the Sixties, during the whole civil rights movement. At that time, it was a great advance for black people in the cinema.
That aside, what were you thinking as you were sitting there watching it? Were you bored? Angry?
I wasn’t angry. It was just that the only way they would accept this guy was because he was a perfect human being: a doctor, from Harvard or whatever it was. Making a long-distance call and leaving the money out. That’s the only way the audience would accept him, because he was such a fine, upstanding citizen.
Sidney had a great burden. He was carrying the whole weight of the hopes and aspirations of the African Americans on his shoulders. I think that had a lot to do with the roles that he chose. I think he felt he could not do a “negative” character. That’s something I have tried to do, not get into that whole positive-negative image thing.
You must hear that sometimes.
Sometimes? All the time. Black folks tell me all the time that my image is not a positive portrayal of black people.
Did that start with She’s Gotta Have It?
She’s Gotta Have It has Nola Darling. She’s a negative portrayal of black women and just reinforces what white people think about black women being loose, anyway. And School Daze–again, it was negative images of black people, showing fighting all the time. I was airing dirty laundry with our differences, which I feel are petty and superficial.
Do the Right Thing, I’ve got more negative images. None of the black people in Do the Right Thing have a job. It shows we’re all lazy or whatever. It shows Sweet Dick Willie pissing against the wall, and that’s a negative image of black people.
But obviously, you understand the complaints.
I understand what that means, positive black role models, because of the way black people have been shown in movies and on TV. But it’s unrealistic to make every character I come up with a doctor or a lawyer or something that’s just a flat character. Like, inJungle Fever, I bring in drugs because it’s time. One of the characters is a basehead, because its appropriate.
What about a movie such as School Daze, in which you’re showing the environment at a black college? Did that get a negative reaction?
Yeah. The schools themselves were saying it would be a negative portrayal of black higher education. That’s one of the reasons why, three weeks into shooting, we got kicked off Morehouse’s campus. Spelman refused to let us shoot there at all.
In School Daze, you showed a part of the black culture–the black middle class–that’s not usually shown. Didn’t they want that to be shown?
Yeah, but a lot of the administration and faculty in these schools, these are old schools. To me, they’re very backward.
Did many of your fellow students rebel at middle-class traditions at Morehouse?
Yeah. We never got a really big thing, but there were students who were not going along with the program. They didn’t want to be that “Morehouse Man.”
How many films did you shoot when you were in school?
At Morehouse? I might have done one or two. It was there that I had my appetite whet. That’s where I became interested in film and that’s where I decided I wanted to become a film maker. That’s why I went to NYU. At NYU, I started making films.
It took you three years to get any work after you graduated from NYU. Did that bother you?
I have no bitterness. The way it happens is the way it should happen. We had to struggle for three years, but I was a better film maker. I don’t think I could have made She’s Gotta Have It straight out of film school.
What did it take for you to be ready to make it?
More maturity. And to be hungrier.
Where did the money come from?
Everywhere. Even though the budget for the film was a hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars, we never had that money all at one time. When we began the shoot that July, we only had thirteen thousand in the bank.
Man, that movie was so hard to make. We were cashin’ in bottles for change, because we had so little money. I remember, we were shootin' in Nola’s loft in the middle of the summer–it musta been a hundred and four degrees up there. When it’s so hot, people drink a lot and I remember sayin', “Don’t throw away the bottles.” That’s the one of my movies I can’t watch again, She’s Gotta Have It.
Was it so painful to make?
Yeah, it was hard. We only shot for twelve days, but every night, after we finished the day’s work, I had to think about tryin' to go out and raise money for the very next day. Things have changed so much now, you know. We have money for contingencies, reshoots or whatever. Each picture is a little easier. But also, with She’s Gotta Have It, the acting was bad.
You don’t like the performances?
No, not at all. They just weren’t very good. I didn’t really know how to direct. I wasn’t good with the actors, in telling ‘em what I wanted from 'em. I was just out of film school, and that was my only experience. In film school, you don’t really get to work with actors, you never really have much contact with the actors, and so you’re kinda intimidated by 'em. You don’t deal with 'em much at all.
What was your personal life like at the time?
Everything was wrapped up in getting this film made. We invited the American independent distributors to come to the San Francisco Film Festival, because that’s where the world premiere was going to happen. In the middle of the film, there was a blackout in San Francisco. Not the whole city but that particular neighborhood. So for half an hour–the theater was packed, too–people just sat there. I was sitting there in a chair in the dark, on the stage. There was a question-and-answer period while we waited for the lights to come back on. So I answered questions in the dark, and nobody left.
Did you start laughing at that point? You’d been through so much.
No. I said it was an act of God. What is happening? At the beginning of the movie, a blackout. But that’s where the bidding war started. We sold it to Island Pictures for four hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars and went on to make eight million.
How long before you made your next picture?
That has been the biggest gap of all my films, between She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze. I had to stay with that film a long time. Promote it, get it out there. It came out in '86, and School Daze didn’t come out until '88. But since then, we’ve made a film every year.
School Daze sounds like it was overly ambitious, going from a four-character piece essentially in one room to a big musical with lots of production numbers and lots of characters.
I didn’t think that was overly ambitious. I know that has been reflected in some people’s reviews of the film. What I wanted to do in School Daze was, in that two-hour movie, was compress my four years of Morehouse.
Were you surprised by the response that your next film, Do the Right Thing, got at the Cannes Film Festival?
That was a big response. You don’t know. Sometimes, what might play in the States might not go in Europe, and vice versa. But I knew they would like She’s Gotta Have It. It had a very European feel to it, the way it was cut and shot and that kind of stuff.
What about what German director Wim Wenders said?
Oh, yeah, he said that Do the Right Thing was “not heroic”? Yeah, very. I was disappointed. I hold no grudges against Wim Wenders now. I never had anything against Steven Soderbergh [who won the Golden Palm that year], because it was not his doing. He made a very good film with sex, lies, and videotape. It was not his fault that he got the award. I know he’s happy he got it, but I had no ill feelings toward Steven, and we’re still friends today. [Sex, lies, and videotape] was very, very heroic. Especially this James Spader character, this guy jerking off all the time to the TV. Taping sexual confessions of women. Very heroic.
You said that Mo’ Better Blues, your fourth film, was consciously noncontroversial. Not only are you dealing with interracial romance in Jungle Fever, but you’re also dealing with drugs. Why add two controversial elements?
I don’t know. I might have given it the interracial thing, but how is drugs controversial?
Because you purposefully avoided, you said, drugs as a subplot previously in Do the Right Thing.
Yeah, but I don’t think the word is controversy. I’m not gonna let any critic determine my agenda. I find it preposterous that critics would attack me for not having drugs in Do the Right Thing, as if drugs were the complete domain of black people. How could you do a film set in Bed-Stuy without any drugs? Easy. We black people aren’t the only people on drugs. The reason you’ve got drugs on the so-called agenda is because you’ve got young white kids in middleclass America and white suburbia who are doing crack and whatever. Then it becomes a national problem. As long as it was contained within the black ghettos, you would never see that problem being dealt with on the covers of Time or Newsweek. And if that is the case, which it is, then why have I never read of any white film makers being chastised for not having drugs in their films?
Obviously, the critics thought the criticism was valid because of that particular neighborhood.
Hey, there’s as much drugs in Bed-Stuy as there is on Wall Street or the Upper East Side.
How did you get hooked up with the Fruit of Islam? Some people criticize that group’s militancy and its association with Louis Farrakhan.
When we did location scouting for Do the Right Thing, we needed a block in Bed-Stuy that had two empty lots on the corner that faced each other. We had to build a pizzeria, and build a Korean fruit and vegetable stand. It turned out there were two or three crack houses on the block, or in the vicinity, so knowing the Fruit–they don’t play that–we brought them in. They closed down the crack houses and they stayed on for security for the rest of the film.
It seems ironic that the movie doesn’t deal with drugs and you had to run the crack dealers off the block.
I don’t find it ironic. Drugs is a part of our society, but I felt they should not be a part of this story. This film was really about twenty-four hours in the life of this block on the hottest day of the summer. It was really about race relations. I didn’t want to put drugs in this.
You seem very sure of yourself, and yet you’ve consistently portrayed the characters you play in your films as powerless and ineffectual.
Yeah, well, I don’t see the need to make myself the hero in my movies. What’s the point in that?
Why do you keep playing the same kind of character?
I’m not that impressed with myself as an actor. I don’t think much of myself that way. I don’t have a whole lot of range as far as acting. Mars Blackmon, that was all right. I didn’t expect people to like him, the way they did.
What makes you continue to act in your pictures?
It really has to do with box office, with having somewhat of a little appeal with the audience. People will be more apt to come to one of my films if I’m in it.
Will you be in Malcolm X?
Probably. [Laughs] I still need to be in my films.
Mo' Better Blues was criticized for its portrayal of Jews. There’s even a story about your father having gone down to apologize to the owner of a Village jazz club because of your portrayal of Jews in that film.
Huh? I can’t respond to that, because I never heard it before. Look, Siskel and Ebert–I shouldn’t say this, ‘cause they’re fans of mine. Soon as Mo’ Better Blues comes out, they [start talking about] stereotypes. Then came [New York Times critic] Caryn James with her stupid-ass article. Nobody was supposed to take those guys as representin' all Jews. Besides, where was everybody when that what’s-his-name movie with Steven Seagal came out?
Marked for Death?
What about that racist piece of shit? That’s a number-one hit for a couple of weeks, and where was everybody when that came out? They had nothin' to say about it.
What did you think when you saw it?
I didn’t see it.
One of the best things in your films tends to be their improvisational quality, the way you handle the interplay between people.
Yeah, it helps to have actors who know how to improvise. Not everybody’s good at it.
I don’t wanna say.
Wait a second. You’re worried about hurting somebody’s feelings? When the Oscars came around in 1990, you didn’t seem so worried about hurting people’s feelings.
That didn’t have nothin' to do with hurting people’s feelings. It was that Fred Schelp—- Sheep—- What’s that guy’s name? That Australian guy?
Fred Schepisi? What about him?
You know, the one who did Driving Miss Daisy?
You mean Bruce Beresford.
Him. Yeah, him. Bruce Beresford. When he was complaining about not getting a nomination for Best Director, nobody made anything of that. Or when [Richard] Zanuck, he started complaining, you know, about Driving Miss Daisy, how could it get a Best Picture nomination and not get a Best Director nomination? It was as soon as I started sayin' we got robbed on Do the Right Thing, suddenly, I’m the one. I’m the problem.
People think you’re an artist, and they have higher expectations of you. When you complain about being shut out, people are let down by it.
I don’t buy that. I don’t believe that. I was complaining about the Oscars because we should’ve got a Best Picture nomination.
A lot of movies that stand the test of time never get nominated for Oscars or they never win Oscars.
Oscars, they can mean money. You know, you get a Best Picture nomination and the studios, they can promote a picture, advertise. They can get more people to come out and see it. People were afraid to come see Do the Right Thing as it was, afraid there would be riots and shit.
Some people claim that you use racism as a tool to strike out at others, such as in your attack of New York Times critic Janet Maslin’s review of School Daze, when you said, “I bet she can’t even dance. Does she have rhythm?”
She didn’t get the point of School Daze, and the way she dissed it, talking about “my little musical.” Race is an issue, and I don’t always use it. You’d think I don’t like critics. I don’t like The New York Times. Well, I read Vincent Canby.
You’ve always had a dicey relationship with the press. Stanley Crouch, in his essay “Do the Race Thing,” discusses how you tried to have it both ways with Do the Right Thing, by quoting Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
That ignorant motherfucker. He has no idea what he’s talking about. Shit, what about all those motherfuckers like Joe Klein at New York sayin' Do the Right Thing would cause a riot, because it was released during the summer? Or David Denby callin' it irresponsible? That’s irresponsible. And it’s lazy. When the riots didn’t happen, when Dinkins got elected, neither one of them, none of the people who said that shit, said they were wrong in print or apologized.
What about the Nike Air Jordan controversy? New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick wrote that you and Michael Jordan glamourize expensive shoes and sometimes kids are killed in robberies over them.
Shit. What about it? It’s my fault, it’s Michael Jordan’s fault, that kids are buying those shoes? That’s just the trigger. There’s more to it than that. Something is wrong where these young black kids have to put so much weight, where their whole life is tied up–their life is so hopeless–that their life is defined by a pair of sneakers. Or a sheepskin coat. The problem is not the coat or the sneakers. I mean, we tried to explore that with Do the Right Thing with the radio. These young black kids who are lost. Radio Raheem [the character who’s killed by the police]–his life was that radio. That really defined his existence. I mean, without that radio, he’s invisible; people don’t notice him. But with that radio blasting Public Enemy and Fight the Power, you had to deal with him. It made people notice him. It gave him selfworth. And when Sal killed his radio, he might as well have killed his mother or his father, or himself. That’s why he tried to choke the shit out of Sal.
What about that Sports Illustrated article where Jordan was almost reduced to tears? He’s publicly remorseful, disturbed by what his endorsement may have caused.
What the fuck? You think I’m happy black men are dying over shoes? Hell, no! Hell, no! I’m upset about it, too. Is every black man who wears those shoes a drug dealer? Hell, no! You know how that is. Look at you. You’re wearing Pumps. Are you a drug dealer? Hell, no! They’re oversimplifying the issue.
OK, let’s ask an easy question: What is Michael Jordan really like?
Mike’s a down brother. Mike just had a lot of confidence in me. He was a young brother. He liked She’s Gotta Have It. He felt like I did, that it was important that we hook up. Mike pulled me to the side and said, “Look, there’s been some grumbling where Nike is trying to ease you out. But as long as I’m around, you’re around.” I said, “I hear you, Mike. Thank you for getting me back.” That’s why I did those commercials. I thought it was important that me and Mike do something together. Young black people in different fields, hooking up.
Did your parents encourage you to go into the arts?
Not really. Whatever you wanted to do was fine with them. They encouraged us, but they never pushed me in any direction. I will say that we had great exposure to the arts at a young age. We had to. My mother taught art; she liked the theater and liked music. My father is a jazz musician–he played with folk singers, too, like Theodore Bikel and Josh White–so music was always being played in the house. I remember my mother dragging me to The King and I with Yul Brynner when I was little. I started crying; I was scared to death. She had to take me home.
What was the first thing you remember sitting through and really enjoying as a kid, even if it didn’t make you want to be a film maker?
When I was real little, I saw Hatari. Remember that? John Wayne in a safari film, with the rhinoceros. And Bye Bye Birdie. My mother would take me to see James Bond films, Goldfinger and Dr. No. I remember her taking me to see A Hard Day’s Night.
Did you like that?
Yeah. I liked the Beatles when I was little. My father would turn down the radio when he came in the house.
He didn’t like the Beatles?
He didn’t like no music besides jazz. [Shouts] “Turn that bad music off!”
Did you always know you were going to college?
Yeah. I mean, what else was I gonna do? My father and my grandfather, they went to college, so it was there for me, too. What else would I do, work at a McDonald’s? Go work for somebody else? I never thought about rebellin', not goin' to college. It was what I was gonna do.
You sound like you were a practical kid, not a troublemaker.
I grew up as the oldest, so I had to be practical. The oldest child has to take care of the younger kids. They’re always the most practical.
What was your relationship with the kids in the neighborhood?
I was always a leader. I was the one organizing stuff.
Did you like school as a kid?
Did you do well?
Just good enough to get by.
Which must not have made your mother too happy, since she was a teacher.
She was always on me. I’d get an eighty and I’d be happy, but she’d be like, “Well, you shouldn’t be content with an eighty. Them Jewish kids are getting ninety-five.” [Laughs] But she was right.
Do you wonder what it would be like if you were growing up now?
It would be frightening, with the violence and the access to weapons and guns, and the drugs. Before, we used to be terrified if we even saw somebody taking a puff on a joint. But now, if you’re a parent, you pray to God that’s all your child is doing is smoking marijuana.
Do you think there’s a lack of emphasis on education now?
Right. Half of the young black males here in New York City don’t even finish high school. But this is not to say that I’m blaming them. I’m not trying to point a finger at the victim. I think that the educational system has failed. At the same time, I’ve never been one just to blame white people for everything, for all of our ills. We have to take some responsibility. If stuff’s going to be corrected, it’s up to us. It’s up to the parents. What are these kids doing outside late at night? Eight years old and hanging out later than I am. Running in the streets at two, three, four in the morning. Where are their parents?
When we were growing up, people looked out after each other. Other parents could tell you something. If somebody else’s mother saw you doing something wrong, that mother would treat you as if you were her child.
But you also got straightened out in school, right?
Yeah. I think that discipline, that’s what’s really lacking. I’m not saying let’s go back to the Dark Ages when they were hitting kids in school with rulers, but discipline is really lacking.
Does it make you leery of having a family?
No, not really at all. When I do have a family, I don’t want to send them to private school, because I feel that’s too sheltered.
Even given the problems with the educational system?
I will be able to get my kids in the best public schools here. I mean, there are good public schools here, but there aren’t that many. I went to public school, my brother Chris went to public school. But David, Joie and Cinque went to private school. I always could tell a difference in them because they went to private school. Their negritude got honed or harnessed going into these predominantly white private schools. That’s where my mother was teaching.
Do you talk about this?
They know it. Most of their friends were white. Not that I have anything against that, it’s just that there is definitely an argument for being around your own people.
A lot of the parents who send their kids to private schools today went to public schools themselves. They fear their children won’t get a good education or be safe at a public school.
They’re justified in thinking that. People are getting shot and stabbed in school. That’s not supposed to happen in a school.
Did your mother try to keep you away from the bad kids in the neighborhood?
No. There were never any gangs. I don’t remember ever seeing any. There were people who would steal your lunch money, but that wasn’t no gang thing. I mean, now they’ll shoot you. When I was growing up, they might take a quarter from you. You give it up.
Yeah, but it’s not like “Give us your leather coat or I’ll shoot you.”
Since the educational system is so bad, why should kids be unemployed college grads when they could sell crack and make a lot of money?
That is something that is going to have to be dealt with, the economics. Forget about the moral issue, even though it should play into it. It’s not going to weigh when these kids are faced with the fact of making minimum wage at McDonald’s or making three and four thousand a week selling crack. Not everybody, but a lot of them are going to sell that crack and make that money. You’re not thinking about how you might end up dead, eventually, or end up in jail. That’s not the point. Now you can buy that BMW or whatever. Gold chains and gold teeth. Kangols [hats] and Kazals [glasses].
Where do you think that materialism comes from?
Well, when people don’t have anything, they have to try and show they do have something. And you show that by what you wear or the car you drive. “I’m not like all the rest of these poor niggers. I got something.”
Don’t some black kids view education itself as white?
There’s something very sick where if you speak well and you speak articulately, that’s looked at as being negative and speaking white. I remember when I was growing up, people used to tell me, “You sound white.” I’ve been reading of various cases where kids flunk on purpose so they’ll be considered “down” with the home boys and stuff. That’s crazy when intelligence is thought of as being white and all the other stuff is being black and being down. I think that one has to be able to navigate both worlds. You ought to be able to speak with your brothers on the street but at the same time be able to go to a job interview, fill out the application and speak proper English. You’ve got to have both. I don’t think it makes you any less black by being articulate.
Where do you think that attitude comes from?
I think all this stuff you could really trace to our hatred of ourselves. Everything we do, eventually, if you keep going back far enough, you’ll see that we’ve been taught to hate ourselves. And until we stop that, all this other shit we’re doing is just going to continue to happen.
Comedian Franklyn Ajaye said that one of the things he didn’t like about In Living Color when he was a writer there was that everybody talked like they were down. He didn’t see any kind of reflection of articulate black life in the show, and that bothered him.
Me and Keenen [Ivory Wayans] talked about it. He was on the cover of New York magazine, and in the article, they said they had thirteen writers and only three or four were black. The rest were all these Jewish kids that went to Harvard. So I just asked Keenen what’s up. He explained to me all he’s done for black people, as far as the show is concerned. I’m not going to dispute that. I’m not saying it’s because they did the skit on me, but if you have some white kid from Harvard joking about Malcolm X-Lax–I don’t think that shit is funny. I don’t think they’d allow a black person to make a joke about Golda Meir.
Do you think being educated means that you’re not black?
In a perverse kind of way. Everything has been kind of turned upside down. I think we’ve just got a lot of things turned around.
When did that happen?
A lot of things happened after the civil rights movement, where we thought we were making strides and progress. Somewhere from the end of the Sixties up to now, we got off the path. Or we were led off the path. I think that we really haven’t advanced a lot. For me, the biggest problem is that people get tricked. Because of the visibility of a couple of African Americans who are able to split through, mostly in entertainment or the sports industry, it gives off the perception that black people have made great strides and that everything is all right. But the reality is, we’re not all right. You look at all the black people who are dying of cancer, hypertension, AIDS. The permanently unemployed. The black underclass now is larger than it’s ever been. But people are tricked into not really taking that stuff into account. I’m not blaming these people. They’re tricked because they see Oprah Winfrey, they see Bill Cosby, they see Spike Lee, they see Eddie Murphy, they see Michael Jordan, they see Bo Jackson, Paula Abdul, M. C. Hammer, Janet Jackson, Arsenio Hall. But we’re just a couple of people. We were the exception, not the rule. We were able to slide through that microscopic crack that was open for a second.
Is it because you think there are so many visible black people that—
Wait. If you look at the context of all the shows that are on TV and all the movies that are made, and then look at the percent, it’s not that many. It’s just the perception that there’s a lot of us.
Based on that perception and the fact that you can say there may be more successful, visible black people than ever, the perception is that—
We’ve arrived. And that’s not the case at all. I mean, there’s not one person outside of Eddie Murphy, really, not one African American in Hollywood who can green-light a picture. Who can say, “I want this picture made,” and that’s it.
You can’t get that done?
No matter what? For me to get a film made, I have to present a script, and they either do it or they don’t. But every studio has people who are the guardians of the gate. They’re the ones who say this picture gets made and this picture doesn’t. And there are no black people in that position in Hollywood. I mean, we’re getting ready to have a big fight with the Teamsters here in New York because they don’t have no black people. We used the Teamsters on Do the Right Thing, Mo' Better and Jungle Fever, and the amount that we paid for the Teamsters for all three films is like three quarters of a million dollars. And there are only three or four black Teamsters in the whole union, here in New York. I refuse to give money to organizations that are openly into hiring practices that may exclude blacks. So we’re about to go toe to toe with them on Malcolm X.
You’re not going to use them?
If they don’t get some more black people in it, they can kiss our ass. We told them that. They even refused to sit down with us and meet. They said, “We will let no one dictate to us who to hire.”
So they deny any discriminatory practices?
The Teamsters, man, it’s predominantly Irish. This particular branch I’m talking about here in New York. The Teamsters who work on movies.
How long have you been talking to them about this? Since you started to use them?
Yeah. They’ve been appeasing us. They might give us one or two, but we told them we wanted a black Teamster captain and we wanted five black people to get their books. They trick you sometimes. Let me not use the word trick, but they might put black people on your film, but they don’t have their books. Meaning they’re not full-fledged members of the union and don’t receive the full benefits of the union. If you’re a Teamster here in New York, they have the best benefits of any union in the country. Any of their children, they can go to college–free. Whatever college you choose. The union will pay for it.
And there are just a handful of black people in the union?
A handful. I mean, they just admitted one who got his book recently. But the last time one got admitted before that was 1962. There’s too much money being made. I refuse to give money to an organization like that that’s just so overtly racist in their hiring practices.
There is obviously now a big trend toward trying to increase the African-American inclusion in the movie mainstream. We’ve heard that people are already expecting a backlash. Remember when The Wiz and Ragtime failed—
That was it. They said, “Black people don’t support these films. Let’s stop making black films.” The blame was never put on Sidney Lumet, or the score, or the casting of Diana Ross. That is not to disrespect any of them, but the blame was put solely on “black people who failed to support this film.” Whereas, if a white film doesn’t work, it would be the director or whoever. Playboy: In some ways, there seems to be a renaissance of black participation in popular culture. There’s you and Robert Townsend, In Living Color and the enormous effect of rap. Lee: Yeah, that’s true. They’ve finally realized black people contribute, and black audiences are a power in the entertainment market. Studios know there’s just too much money to be made now from black audiences. And that people wanna see us, too.
Do you worry that history will repeat itself?
I think that this is a very crucial time. Every film studio, if you’re black and even look like you’re a director, they’re signing you. And it’s very important that all these people who are getting opportunities really be serious. I’m not trying to speak like I’m the grandfather of black cinema. But I think that there are a lot of people who are getting deals now–and more power to them–but I don’t know if they’re going to last. They just think that you can just walk off the street and direct a movie–and it is not true. This ain’t just no bullshit; “Well, I’m just directing a film. I don’t need to know nothing about film grammar or film history,” or any other thing that one needs to know to become a film director.
You talked about being attacked for the Nola Darling character in She’s Gotta Have It. Do you think you’re becoming more enlightened about your portrayals of women?
This is something I’ve known all along. Every film maker has a weakness, just like athletes.
But we’re not talking about every film maker.
No, I’m saying every film maker, every athlete has weaknesses. If you come into the league hitting fifty percent at the free-throw line, you’ve got to do something about your foul shooting if you want to be a complete ballplayer. My female characters were something I needed to work on. It was lacking. It’s something I’ve tried to concentrate on.
We always thought one of the interesting things about Nola was that she lived her life the way she wanted to.
Yeah, but that wasn’t the only film where they talked about the female characters. School Daze–they weren’t as multidimensional as the male characters. There weren’t enough of them in Do the Right Thing. And in Mo' Better, all they wanted was the man; they didn’t have a life of their own–which I don’t agree with for that particular film.
How does this affect your personal relationships? Do women have preconceived notions about you?
I don’t really think you can break that question down to a sex thing, as far as male-female. I think that’s just in general. Any time you’re out in the public eye, people, when they meet you in person, they expect you to live up to that expectation of what that persona is. A lot of people expect me to be more animated, and they’re kind of disappointed. “I didn’t know you were quiet.” So that really has nothing to do with male-female.
What about your relationships with white people? It’s clear that a lot of white people are afraid of you.
I guess you fear stuff you don’t understand. I don’t think any white folks have anything to fear from me.
Still, almost all of the movie industry is white. All they ever see are other white people.
With a small smattering of Jewish people. [Laughs] I don’t know why some Jewish people get upset when you say that there are a lot of Jewish people in the movie industry. That’s the truth. That’s like saying there are blacks in the N.B.A. That’s not making a judgment, that’s just a fact.
Do they really get sensitive when you say there are lots of Jews in the industry?
Yeah. The New York Times, there was this whole black-Jewish Hollywood thing. It was sparked by the convention the NAACP had in Hollywood where they said that Hollywood is racist and so on, and that it was run predominantly by Jewish people.
You must get a lot of calls whenever something like that happens.
Hooo, from around the world! The phone rings off the hook at our office. I think that this is what happens when the media appoints their so-called spokesperson for black people. This is something I have never wanted to achieve. It’s not something I’ve chased after. And, for the most part, I don’t say anything. But there are instances where stuff has to be spoken on. But, for the most part, I only answer about five percent of their questions.
What do you think about the future for African Americans?
If you look at the eight years of Reagan and maybe another eight of Bush, and the way they’re dismantling affirmative action and all that stuff we fought for and died for, or the Supreme Court that’s being appointed–Bush tried to pull this thing where it’s discriminatory for schools to have scholarships for black students, and then they get this Uncle Tom handkerchief-head Negro to announce it as assistant secretary [of the Education Department]. Nobody even heard of this motherfucker, but the moment that this program has to be implemented and an announcement has to be made, they pull this Negro off the shelf. How are we supposed to go to school? It’s a shame that we’ve still got Uncle Toms like this around. That guy should be beat with a Louisville Slugger in an alley. He got used. That’s the only reason why they hired him, for something specific like that that was going to affect black people. So by the Bush Administration having this black person make this announcement, it can’t be racist–we got a black person saying it.
Do you wonder if there has been some complacency since the civil rights movement?
I think America just really arrived at the point where it said, Look–and I think the mandate was handed down by Reagan–where it said, Look, we are tired of you niggers. You’ve got about as much as you’re gonna get from us, and that’s it. Period.
Some black people say they don’t want special consideration.
Special? I don’t think it’s special, the fact that we were brought here as slaves and we’ve been robbed of our heritage and everything else. I mean, I don’t consider that special.
So we take it you don’t have much truck with black conservatives.
They’ll sell you out in a minute. They sold us out. I mean, they’re trying to make a big deal out of this what’s-his-name, Colin Powell.
You don’t think that he’s a formidable figure? He’s the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff-that shows black progress, doesn’t it?
So what? So we’ve got a black general that’s going to be head of the Army that kills black people in Panama? Kills black people in Nicaragua? People of color in the Middle East? How come every war now is against people of color in Third World countries? They talk about fighting for democracy: Is South Africa democratic? I know it would be too farfetched to ask Bush to send troops into South Africa to fight for black people, so let’s not talk about that. But how about sanctions? He’s trying to lift the mother-fucking sanctions! Saddam does not compare to what De Klerk and all them crooks down there in South Africa are doing and have been doing. But they’re white, so it’s not perceived as that.
So you think it’s another instance of racism?
Yes. I’m not going to say that Saddam might not be a maniac, but if you just study the way the press portrays Noriega, Ortega, Hussein, the ayatollah and the way they portray people like Botha, De Klerk, Cecil Rhodes–I mean, it’s the difference between night and day. I have to give in, they have a point on Hitler and Mussolini, but since World War Two, there is a difference in the way they portray dictators.
But look at the way the Soviets were portrayed.
That was really during the Cold War. They didn’t send no troops into Lithuania and shit. They bogarted that country the same way that Hussein bogarted Kuwait. For me, the United States is not on the moral ground to judge anybody, because it’s the most hypocritical country in the world. So, to me, they really can’t say shit about nobody, because they got a lot of shit with themselves.
Do you think that after the civil rights movement lost its figureheads–Martin Luther King and Malcolm X–it lost momentum?
It did, but that’s a mistake of putting emphasis on personality and people instead of the movement. As long as we continue to do that and make cults around our leaders, all they have to do to stop it any time we’re making ground is just kill us off, kill off that leader.
What have you learned in your research for the Malcolm X movie?
That Malcolm was a very complex person. There were three or four different Malcolms. He was constantly evolving, his outlook and his ideology, and always trying to seek the truth. If he found it, he was not scared of being called a hypocrite. If he found a higher truth, he would say, “I was wrong. All that stuff I said before is wrong, and this is what I believe.” That’s something that very few people do.
Have your feelings about him changed since you started doing the research?
I think that I’ve really grown to love Malcolm more. What he stood for and what he died for.
What did you think when you first read this autobiography?
It was just a revelation. I have deep respect for Dr. King, but I’ve always been drawn more to Malcolm. I just cannot get with Dr. King’s complete nonviolence philosophy.
Malcolm was moving in that direction himself, wasn’t he?
No. Malcolm never moved away from defending oneself, the right to protect the self. He never moved away from that. Malcolm would never say, “Go to a march, get hit upside the head, and hopefully, after you get enough knocked upside the head, the white man will see how evil he is and will stop.” He never said that, and he was never moving toward that. He’s always been about the right to protect oneself. Malcolm never advocated violence. He said one should reserve the right to protect oneself.
Doesn’t it seem interesting that there has finally come a time when a major studio will give you—
Yeah, twenty years and more since he’s been dead and buried. He no longer seems such a threat. This film would not have been done in 1966, the year after he got assassinated. No way.
But look at what you get a chance to do now.
It’s a great opportunity.
Are you up for it?
Yeah. Everything I’ve done has really prepared me for this film. It’s led me in this direction. I’ve got no intention of dropping the ball.