Playboy: Do you wonder what it would be like if you were growing up now?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: Do you think there's a lack of emphasis on education now?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: But you also got straightened out in school, right?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: Does it make you leery of having a family?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: Even given the problems with the educational system?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: Do you talk about this?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: 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.
Lee: They're justified in thinking that. People are getting shot and stabbed in school. That's not supposed to happen in a school.
Playboy: Did your mother try to keep you away from the bad kids in the neighborhood?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: Or fight.
Lee: Yeah, but it's not like "Give us your leather coat or I'll shoot you."
Playboy: 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?
Lee: 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].
Playboy: Where do you think that materialism comes from?
Lee: 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."
Playboy: Don't some black kids view education itself as white?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: Where do you think that attitude comes from?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: 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.
Lee: 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.
Playboy: Do you think being educated means that you're not black?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: When did that happen?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: Is it because you think there are so many visible black people that----
Lee: 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.
Playboy: 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----
Lee: 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.
Playboy: You can't get that done?
Lee: 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.