[Editor's Note: Playboy.com continues to honor Black History Month by digging up some of our most controversial and candid interviews with prominent black leaders throughout the years. Today we bring you Spike Lee, the director who has devoted countless on screen and behind the scene hours towards bringing to light the real problems facing black America, both in reality and film.]
"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. Voguedubbed 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 Headswon 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."