Playboy: 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.
Lee: 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?
Playboy: Marked for Death?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: What did you think when you saw it?
Lee: I didn't see it.
Playboy: One of the best things in your films tends to be their improvisational quality, the way you handle the interplay between people.
Lee: Yeah, it helps to have actors who know how to improvise. Not everybody's good at it.
Playboy: Like who?
Lee: I don't wanna say.
Playboy: 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.
Lee: 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?
Playboy: Fred Schepisi? What about him?
Lee: You know, the one who did Driving Miss Daisy?
Playboy: You mean Bruce Beresford.
Lee: 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.
Playboy: 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.
Lee: 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.
Playboy: A lot of movies that stand the test of time never get nominated for Oscars or they never win Oscars.
Lee: 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.
Playboy: 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?"
Lee: 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.
Playboy: 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.
Lee: 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.
Playboy: 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.
Lee: 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.
Playboy: 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.
Lee: 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.
Playboy: OK, let's ask an easy question: What is Michael Jordan really like?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: Did your parents encourage you to go into the arts?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: 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?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: Did you like that?
Lee: Yeah. I liked the Beatles when I was little. My father would turn down the radio when he came in the house.
Playboy: He didn't like the Beatles?
Lee: He didn't like no music besides jazz. [Shouts] "Turn that bad music off!"
Playboy: Did you always know you were going to college?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: You sound like you were a practical kid, not a troublemaker.
Lee: 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.
Playboy: What was your relationship with the kids in the neighborhood?
Lee: I was always a leader. I was the one organizing stuff.
Playboy: Did you like school as a kid?
Lee: Not really.
Playboy: Did you do well?
Lee: Just good enough to get by.
Playboy: Which must not have made your mother too happy, since she was a teacher.
Lee: 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.