Playboy: You're not going to use them?
Lee: 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."
Playboy: So they deny any discriminatory practices?
Lee: The Teamsters, man, it's predominantly Irish. This particular branch I'm talking about here in New York. The Teamsters who work on movies.
Playboy: How long have you been talking to them about this? Since you started to use them?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: And there are just a handful of black people in the union?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: 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----
Lee: 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.
Playboy: Do you worry that history will repeat itself?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: 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?
Lee: This is something I've known all along. Every film maker has a weakness, just like athletes.
Playboy: But we're not talking about every film maker.
Lee: 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.
Playboy: We always thought one of the interesting things about Nola was that she lived her life the way she wanted to.
Lee: 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.
Playboy: How does this affect your personal relationships? Do women have preconceived notions about you?
Lee: 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.
Playboy: What about your relationships with white people? It's clear that a lot of white people are afraid of you.
Lee: I guess you fear stuff you don't understand. I don't think any white folks have anything to fear from me.
Playboy: Still, almost all of the movie industry is white. All they ever see are other white people.
Lee: 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.
Playboy: Do they really get sensitive when you say there are lots of Jews in the industry?
Lee: 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.