Playboy: How does it make you feel to be a celebrity in the neighborhood where you more or less grew up?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: What do people on the street say? Do they tell you what they like or dislike about your movies?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: When you were a kid, did you know you wanted to make movies?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: Do you remember the first film you saw that made you want to make movies?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: Maybe it's a lie sometimes, but certainly, some directors see movies as kids and want to make films.
Lee: 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.
Playboy: Do you remember the first Sidney Poitier film you saw?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: What did you think when you saw Guess Who's Coming to Dinner--especially now that you're doing a movie about interracial romance?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: That aside, what were you thinking as you were sitting there watching it? Were you bored? Angry?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: You must hear that sometimes.
Lee: Sometimes? All the time. Black folks tell me all the time that my image is not a positive portrayal of black people.
Playboy: Did that start with She's Gotta Have It?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: But obviously, you understand the complaints.
Lee: 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.
Playboy: 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?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: 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?
Lee: Yeah, but a lot of the administration and faculty in these schools, these are old schools. To me, they're very backward.
Playboy: Did many of your fellow students rebel at middle-class traditions at Morehouse?
Lee: 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."
Playboy: How many films did you shoot when you were in school?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: It took you three years to get any work after you graduated from NYU. Did that bother you?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: What did it take for you to be ready to make it?
Lee: More maturity. And to be hungrier.
Playboy: Where did the money come from?
Lee: 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.