Marketeer, provocateur, propagandist, genius, racist, humorist, writer, actor, director, producer, pitchman, chauvinist, homophobe, hoop fan, hype artist, egotist, entrepreneur, caricaturist, visionary, radical, reactionary: Spike Lee has been called all these things. What he wants you to know, though, is that he is a Strong Black Man. You can call him anything you like.
Born Shelton Jackson Lee in 1957, he was called Spike by his mother, a schoolteacher. His father, who’s scored many of his films, is a bass player and composer. They raised the family of five, uncomfortably middle-class, in Brooklyn — for a time in an all-white neighborhood. Lee’s sister Joie and his brother David have been fixtures on his pictures: Joie as an actress, David as set photographer. His brother Cinque is also an actor and aspiring filmmaker.
After being graduated from Morehouse College, Lee elbowed his way through NYU film school, along with Ernest Dickerson, his cinematographer. Lee’s hour-long thesis film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, was a sharp-witted and wholly convincing take on one man’s involvement in the numbers racket; a sort of spare, thoughtful gangster picture about choice and responsibility. His next project, The Messenger, fell apart for lack of funding in the summer of 1984, after which he redoubled his efforts. Begging, borrowing, pleading, and sweet-talking, he raised $175,000 and made She’s Gotta Have It, a black-and-white black-only sex farce that was bold but lighthearted. A blizzard of rave reviews and some $8 million in box office receipts later, Spike Lee was a star, as much because of his persona as because of his film. (He’d cagily cast himself as a wonderfully comic b-boy nebbish, which led to a lot of unfortunate “black Woody Allen” comparisons.) A hero to the black community, an intriguing character to white media (which embraced him), and a politically correct moneymaker to the hipper studios, Lee started making movies at a furious pace, and has not let up.
School Daze was a critical failure, but a commercial success. An ambitious if uneven musical airing the dirty laundry of color consciousness at a black college, its radical shifts in tone and style would become an integral part of Lee’s work: fascinating to his supporters, irritating to his detractors. Do the Right Thing, his best and best-known picture, focused on race relations during the hottest day of the year in one Brooklyn neighborhood, presenting a tragedy of Greek proportion and American character. Mo’ Better Blues was a retreat from the contentious terrain of race into the fragrant world of jazz, where a famous trumpet player (Denzel Washington) pursues and is pursued by two women — a suprisingly conventional, ham-fisted piece of work. He sprang back into racial politics (and also, this time, sexual and class politics) in his next film, Jungle Fever, which took a cold look at the crack epidemic over the shoulder of its main theme — interracial lust, love, and marriage. And Jungle Fever would be but a prelude to the full movement of Malcolm X, a film Lee feels he was born to make, but which he had to fight to make.
Strong though somewhat superficial, dramatic but often corny, combative yet humorous, his films have all made good dollars if not always good sense. While Lee’s refrain that he “wuz robbed” whenever one of his films fails to win a desired award grows tiresome, and his continual racial rationalizations cry wolf, his positive energy and impact on American film cannot be, and should not be, denied. At the very least, the visibility and profitability of his work helped open the floodgates for many other black filmmakers: Robert Townsend, the Hudlin Brothers, Mario Van Peebles, Julie Dash, John Singleton, Charles Burnett, Matty Rich, Bill Duke.
In addition to directing and acting in his feature films, Lee has been busy on many other fronts. His TV commercials for Levi’s 501 jeans and for Nike’s Air Jordan sneakers (which feature his Mars Blackmon character from She’s Gotta Have It) have been nothing short of fabulous. His ad for Jesse Jackson’s campaign in the 1988 New York presidential primary, however, was frighteningly shaky — indeed, almost disturbing in its political naiveté. Lee has published companion books to his first four commercial films (featuring journals, scripts, essays, interviews, storyboards, photos, and so on) as well as a restrospective look at his oeuvre, Five for Five, upon the release of his fifth. Lee has also shot more than a dozen music videos, often in connection with the promotion of a film. His relentless marketing savvy has found its ultimate expression not in his Brooklyn retail outlet, Spike’s Joint, which sells T-shirts, sweatshirts, buttons, books, postcards, posters, and hats advertising his work, but in the nationwide toll-free number set up to allow fans to access the “authentic memorabilia” and to discourage imitations. While Lee’s place at the forefront of American film may be debatable on strictly aesthetic terms, he’s certainly the only auteur in the history of cinema with his own 800 number.
We talked twice in April of 1991, in New York City. Our first session took place in the Brill Building, where he was mixing sound for Jungle Fever. For the second session, Lee strolled us down Broadway to a Chinese restaurant, where he ate his dinner and my questions.
I want to talk a little bit about your family, because that hasn’t been talked about very much. Yours was the first black family in an all-white neighborhood, Cobble Hill in Brooklyn. Was that a shaping experience in some kind of way?
No. I mean, we got called “nigger” on the first day, but after that we weren’t deemed a threat, because we were the only black family in the neighborhood.
How long were you there?
We moved there in 1961 or ’62, up until October of ’69, when my parents bought a brownstone in Fort Greene.
What were your friends like at that time?
You’ve been dealing with Scorsese’s group in the last couple of films more than he’s ever dealt with yours.
I gave him a book — when The Last Temptation of Christ came out — and I inscribed it, “Jesus Christ was a black man. Love, Spike Lee.” [Laughs.] He laughed.
You were a late bloomer. You’ve described yourself as looking like a thirteen-year-old your freshman year of college. How do you feel you were affected by that?
Well, when you’re like that — when you look that young — people tend to ignore you. So I’ve always been very observant, and quiet, also.
Was there any insecurity that came along with that?
No, because I knew that I would look my age eventually.
Let’s talk about your mom. Her death was pretty sudden.
Yeah, it was pretty sudden. She got sick, and went into the hospital, and she passed two weeks after that. We suspected that she was sick for a while and didn’t tell anybody.
What are your memories of going through that?
I was nineteen going on twenty, at college. And I remember they told me to come home, so I came home for a week. Then I went back to school, and came back the day she died. She was in a coma.
What was the connection between your mom’s passing and your being a filmmaker?
I don’t know. My mother was the one that really pushed us — all my siblings. My father, anything we wanted to do was fine with him. He wasn’t the disciplinarian, he wasn’t the one that really motivated us — it was our mother. She encouraged us to do well, whatever you wanted to do. She was the one that started taking me to movies when I was little. She took me to see Mean Streets.
But the whole process of making films was magical to you, you thought they just appeared in the theatre.
Yeah, I didn’t know that people — especially any black people — had a job making films.
Your maternal grandmother, whom you refer to in your journals, was quoted as saying that if your mom hadn’t died, maybe you wouldn’t have been a filmmaker. Where does that come from?
I don’t know. My grandmother is very religious, so maybe she felt her daughter had to be sacrificed for me to be successful.
Your first movie, Last Hustle in Brooklyn, came the year after her death, 1977. What was that like?
It was Super-8 mishmash. I didn’t have a job that summer. I walked around with a Super-8 camera and filmed New York City. That was the first summer of the big disco craze. Everybody was having block parties on the street, where they’d hook up their systems to street lamps. I filmed a lot of that. It was also the summer of the blackout, so I intercut a lot of looting with the dancing, and stuff like that. It was forty-five minutes.
Was there a story line, or was it kind of documentary?
It was kind of documentary, but I wrote some narration too. I haven’t seen it in a long, long time. I don’t even know where it is.
What moved you to pick up the camera?
I don’t know. I just bought a Super-8 camera.
Had you been taking stills?
No, not really.
Just out of the blue, you decided to get a Super-8?
Looking back on it, does it make any sense to you, when you made the move to film?
Well, it had to be something to do with the arts, because that’s just the environment in which we were raised. My father was a musician, and my mother taught English and art sometimes. For me it’s no accident that a lot of my siblings and myself are artists. It’s in the genes. You know, it comes with exposure, if you’re exposed to art at a very young age.
Now, your father remarried a woman named Susan Kaplan. Is she a black woman or a —
White woman, I assume. But of course, there are a lot of dudes in Ethiopia who think they are the original Jews —
She’s not a black Jew.
What’s that experience been like?
Well, I mean, that’s his wife, so I really don’t have nothing to say about it. [Pause.] We don’t get along that good, but that’s his wife, so . . . that’s that.
Since you were an adult by then, it’s not like she was your stepmother.
She hasn’t been nobody’s stepmother.
But you have a half brother by her.
Arnold, yeah, he’s five.
Did this figure at all into your consciousness in making Jungle Fever, the intermarriage within your family?
No, not because of my father. I mean, it wasn’t done solely because of my father. Intermarriage has been with us since slaves were brought over here from Africa. So that was not done as an answer to my father marrying a white woman at all.
What’s your relationship with your father like?
[Slyly.] Oh, we get along every now and then.
In your journal for She’s Gotta Have It, you wrote, “Daddy and I can barely speak without getting into an argument.’’
Well, sometimes that happens between fathers and sons. I was glad that we were able to do the four films we did together.
Your brother David takes stills for your films. Has he done others as well?
He did The Long Walk Home. And he is a free-lance photographer.
Joie we know about, and Cinque is a filmmaker and actor. What kind of films does he make?
He’s the black David Lynch. [Laughs.]
Do you like Cinque’s work?
He’s very avant-garde. He has a good cinematic eye, but he needs to learn how to tell a story better.
It’s interesting that because you work with your family as much as you do, there are some parallels between you and Francis Coppola.
Hey, [laughs] I love Francis to death, but I would not have cast Sofia in that role [in Godfather III]! I wouldn’t have done it. And luckily, I don’t think I’ve made a mistake like that using my family, my siblings.
Nonetheless, it adds another level of complication to dealing with aesthetic issues.
Well, not really, because I’m the director on my films, and what I say goes. They might be disappointed, they might bitch and moan, but what I say is gonna go. Not my father or anyone in my family has ever expected anything. They know that if they’re right for the part or the job they’ll do it.
As far as your being a filmmaker, you’ve said any number of times and in any number of ways that you were “put here to make films.” That suggests a sort of divine intervention: that you were chosen for it.
Oh, I believe it, because too many things have happened that just weren’t luck. I mean, a lot of things steered me in this direction. My father has great talent, but I don’t think we’re ever going to see the day where he’s going to get the kind of recognition he deserves. In a way, maybe that’s why I’ve been able to do what I’ve done — maybe that’s why I’ve gotten what I’ve got — because of what was denied him.
Your dad has an awful lot in the drawers and closets — eight or nine operas, two unpublished novels — and you’ve been able to realize a lot of the things that he wasn’t able to.
Well, that really just goes to show you that talent is not everything. My father is a terrible businessman. Terrible. If he would surround himself with people who know what they’re doing, who have some administrative skills and could utilize my father’s talent, it would work great, but he doesn’t want to do that. Opera is not opera if it stays undone. But talent has never been a factor. He has all the talent in the world. It’s the other shit.
He must feel a great deal of pride in you. He’s called you “the Charlie Parker of the movies.”
[Laughs.] He must have just cashed a check from me that day!
GIMDAD — “God is my defense and deliverance.” You would write that when you were really up against the wall trying to raise money to make She’s Gotta Have It.
Oh, that was given to me by a woman, one of my mother’s close friends, Amy
Olatunji, the wife of Baba, the African drummer. She’s a very spiritual person. You write it down — GIMDAD. It worked, and it’s been working.
What’s your spiritual hookup?
I’ve never been a very religious person, as far as going to church. The only time I really went to church was when I spent the summers down South, where we had to go to church with both my grandmothers. My parents in New York never made us go to church.
Nonetheless, you have some relation to —
Yeah, I do believe that. For me it’s a very personal thing. I do believe that there is something greater than us.
Greater than Spike Lee? You’re going to blow your image.
Greater than humanity. [Laughs.] You’re just fucking with me.
What were the prayers you were saying every night? You referred to them a number of times.
“Where are we going to get this money? Please, Lord, please.”
Now, you weren’t asking the blond, blue-eyed Jesus Christ for that?
Hey, Buddha, Allah, Jesus — we weren’t risking anything! [Laughs.] I think if She’s Gotta Have It had been a failure I still would have been successful, but it would have taken another three, four, or even five years to rebound from that.
What’s your feeling about organized religion? A lot of religious themes bubble up in Jungle Fever.
Well, that’s really because of who I wrote it for. Ossie Davis is an ordained minister. So I really wanted to bring that flavor to this film. You see that more in older black people. That’s all we did: get on our knees and pray, and sing to the high heavens. But I’m not too up on organized religion.
You think the Church was used to hold black folk down in this country?
All over the world. The Bible in one hand and the gun in the other.
But it kind of backfired, because —
Because in some ways the white Southerners, who forced Christianity down the slaves’ throats, didn’t realize that the personal empowerment Christianity gave the slaves led to a kind of self-esteem that the white people themselves didn’t get from the religion, because they didn’t take their religion as seriously as the slaves did.
Well, it gave us something. It gave us the strength to go on. I don’t know that it backfired. But it also kept us praying to Jesus and worrying about the hereafter instead of what was happening now: getting our asses kicked! We were worrying about trying to get into heaven. Malcolm said the white man’s heaven is the black man’s hell. We want our heaven here on earth! So in a lot of ways religion has been used to oppress people.
Speaking of saviors, one of the things you wrote even before She’s Gotta Have It became a hit was that you were “determined not to let other people turn you into a savior.”
Well, that just happens when any black person is successful in any field — there’s so few of us that when we do break through, the weight of the whole race is thrust upon our shoulders. And it can’t be done by one person.
Do you feel the burden of that responsibility?
Not as much as I used to, because now I’m not the only one out there. I’m so happy that everyone else is coming up now. I never wanted to be the only black filmmaker, because no one of my films can satisfy thirty million African-Americans. Our taste is just as diverse as anybody else’s. A lot of people do not like my films but nonetheless still want to go to see movies. Black parents talk to me all the time, and they wish I would make children’s movies — movies they could take their children to — but that’s not the type of movies I’ve made up to this point. I mean, the Hudlins’ House Party was made specifically for black teenagers. That was a need that should be fulfilled and it was. That’s why it made $29 million.
[A young white woman comes over to us and says, “I know you guys are doing an interview, but thanks for Do the Right Thing. It’s one of the best movies I ever saw.” Lee thanks her and I ask to move to another room to get away from the traffic. We move to a booth in the mixing room.]
What does it say on your passport?
Shelton Jackson Spike Lee.
Some filmmakers feel that they are first and foremost writers, and the way they realize their writing is with cinema.
I’m a filmmaker.
Do you ever think you’ll write not specifically for the screen?
Like a novel or something? No. I’ve written essays, but I’m a filmmaker.
And a Harvard professor.
[Laughs.] Assistant professor.
What will you be teaching?
Contemporary American Cinema.
In the film department or the Afro-Am department?
In Afro-Am. Dr. Henry Louis Gates is taking over the department, so he asked me to teach a course there.
Let’s talk about your relationship with women, outside the frame. You fairly self-consciously wrote in your journal on Mo’ Better Blues that you knew everybody would be asking how muck of you was in this Bleek character [Denzel Washington], and you wrote, “All I can say is I love film more than Bleek loves jazz.” Which would lead me to believe that you experience the same kind of difficulty maintaining —
No, not true at all. Because I don’t let relationships get to the point where it’s a problem, where it starts to deter your work. That’s something that Bleek had trouble balancing. But I don’t think I do.
Do you still look forward to having a family?
All boys! [Laughs.]
What is this “all boys” stuff? Nola in She’s Gotta Have It wants “five rusty-butt boys.” Bleek wants a boy in Mo’ Better Blues.
Well, I wouldn’t throw a girl back in the ocean. But I want all sons. One girl would be all right.
Is it that you like boys more than girls?
I think there should be definitely more black men, that’s for sure. Start to even it up.
Why, because there are more black women than black men?
Yeah, but also the assault on black men, where if they live to be twenty-five, that’s a feat.
The life expectancy of young urban black males is frightening. It’s like in a Third World country.
[Pause.] It’s true.
Would a family slow down your pace of work? You talk about wanting to make another thirty-three, thirty-four films.
I know myself I can’t keep up this pace. Jungle Fever will be the fifth film we’ve done in the last six years. I can’t keep that up, nor do I want to.
Have things ever gotten rushed on account of this pace?
I don’t think things have ever gotten rushed. There was an opportunity to get these films done, I was given the money; I felt these films should be made at that time, on the subjects that we did. Most black filmmakers, in the past, might get that first film out, but the follow-up took forever. I was determined not to let that happen to me.
When people have accused you of doing a “love story,” as in the case of Mo’ Better Blues, you’ve responded by saying, “I don’t do love stories.”
Well, I don’t like that word.
Just the whole image of love stories in my mind — I never liked it. It’s a relationship film.
What about in your own life? Are you comfortable with the idea of love, or being in love?
Yeah, if that’s what it is. But if it’s not, I don’t want to delude myself or anybody else.
Do you fall in love, hard?
Yeah, it’s happened once in a while.
When was the last time?
When was the lunar eclipse? [Laughs.]
I mean, the end of Mo’ Better is like a —
A Hallmark card? [Laughs.]
Well, it’s certainly a celebration of love — the affirming, redemptive qualities of love.
Well, also family. I think that’s it.
But if love’s not there, then “family” can be a horror show — it can make everything worse.
Do you still feel, as you once did, that you get too emotional for your own good?
One should hold in his feelings, sometimes. I happen to have more self-control. Instead of blowing up all the time, just listening. But I don’t want to get ulcers either. You’ve got to pick your battles. You can’t have a war every single time out.
Do you feel you’re an angry person?
Not at all. [Pause.] The funny thing to me is when white people accuse blacks, when they see somebody black who’s angry, they say, “Why are you so angry?” [Laughs.] If they don’t know why black people are angry, then there’s no hope. I mean, it’s a miracle that black Americans are as complacent and happy-go-lucky as we are.
Malcolm said, “Yes, I’m an extremist. The black race in America is in extremely bad condition. You show me a black man who isn’t an extremist and I’ll show you one who needs psychiatric attention.”
Or is dead. But I don’t think I have that much anger. I don’t think I’m angrier than I have a right to be.
You get angry on a personal level though — like at Cannes when you said Do the Right Thing was “robbed” of an award.
It was really anger at Wim Wenders, that’s who.
“I have a Louisville slugger baseball bat deep in my closet with Wim Wenders’ name written on it,” is what you wrote.
[Laughs.] I just said that. I would never hit him in the head with a bat. What I was talking about was that it got back to me that the reason Wim Wenders didn’t like the film was that he considered what Mookie does [throwing a garbage can through the window of a pizzeria and triggering a riot] as unheroic. But the James Spader character in sex, lies, and videotape, what’s heroic about jerking off with an 8-millimeter camera? I didn’t understand that thinking. [Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape won the award.]
Yeah, but that wasn’t a movie about heroism. I mean, that wasn’t even an issue in that movie.
But why have two separate rules?
Do the Right Thing, even in its very title, sets up a moral universe and a code, so it’s going to provoke a kind of scrutiny on the action that a movie in which things are more relative will not.
See, I never buy that shit. Because I want my shit — I mean, if you’re going to critique my work use the same motherfucking standards for everybody. Don’t let shit slide and call me anti-Semitic every single way and then the shit goes by and nobody says nothing about the other stuff, work that’s just racist in general.
I was trying to say that the film itself, within its own universe, sets up an expectation of moral action and heroism, and —
All I’m saying is that they gave out twelve or thirteen awards. Thirteen films got awards that year and we didn’t get one.
I know you’ve complained about not receiving Oscars as well, but don’t you ever feel that your work is more validated by not receiving the awards than if you were everybody’s favorite?
I understand that. See, I’m not saying that awards are validating my work, saying it’s great. But if you win an Academy Award, you know how much money a film makes after it wins one? That’s it. Studios don’t spend a million dollars on a campaign just to get the award, but because they know the award will bring in a lot more revenue. That’s why I wanted it for Do the Right Thing.
But don’t you think that if a conservative, regressive body like the Academy embraced your work —
Nah, I don’t think that people would have liked it any less had we gotten an Academy nomination.
It’s like, if an artist prides himself on doing work that is anticorporate, but the work is being supported by a grant from Exxon, maybe he’s got to wonder if the work is threatening anybody. America always sucks up its most radical appendage.
I don’t know about that.
As far as your image, people think of you as a hustler. Now, we know that everybody has to hustle to make it as an artist —
Do people accuse Madonna of hustling? I’m asking.
But it’s got a different spin with you. In other cases it’s, “So-and-so is hardworking,” or “So-and-so has so much energy,” but when you do it it’s —
Are you conscious of that?
Look, I know there are two sets of rules. So, that’s just the way it is. I just have to keep doing what I do best, and know what I have to do, and pursue that. I can’t let other people dictate the agenda.
Would you say you’re pedantic, Professor Lee?
Assistant Professor. [Laughs.] I don’t know. I don’t try to put labels on myself saying I’m this way or that way.
Cynda Williams, the young actress opposite Denzel Washington in Mo’ Better, said you gave it to her pretty heavy: “Do you know who Marcus Garvey is? Do you know this? Do you know that?” She felt like she was being tested all the time.
I mean, if black people don’t know . . . it’s not like I was asking her who someone ten million years ago was. I felt, with Cynda, she had just moved from Indiana, and she didn’t know anything. She had never been to any movies, hadn’t really read any books. And I don’t see how you can be an artist in any field without reading, or being exposed to as much stuff as you can. That’s what that was about. I wasn’t testing. It could make her acting better if she knows something. Not to say that she was a complete imbecile, but she just grew up in Muncie and she didn’t know. John Coltrane was a big influence on that film and she didn’t even know who the guy was. Trying to educate her, steer her. So I gave her a list of books to read, a lot of videotapes from my library.
Maybe she was reacting more to your manner than to her need to learn?
Well, that could have happened. [Laughs.] “What are you, an idiot? Are you retarded? You haven’t heard of Marcus Garvey? What are you, a retard?” That’s probably what she was talking about. I will admit, I could’ve probably been more diplomatic.
Diplomacy may never be your strong suit.
Some of us don’t have patience!
Do you feel that you are held for so much more accountability, both within and outside the frame, by white folk and by black folk, than a white director would be?
I agree. We got the most negative criticism out of the black community on School Daze, for airing the laundry. And white critics try to impose a higher moral standard on me than on others. They use the same tired line. “Well, you’re a better filmmaker, so therefore we should have higher standards for you than for everybody else.” That’s bullshit! As I said before, there’s two standards and two rules. It’s not that I accept it, it’s just that’s the way it is.
Do you think you can change it in any way?
What do you think could change that?
Just the way white people think. [Pause.]
So you try to operate within the double standards and create as much elbowroom for yourself as you can?
That’s it. You ask any successful black person, and they’re all doing the same thing. They all know when they embark on what they’re doing they can’t be as good as the white person — they have to be ten times better. It’s not fair, but that’s just the way it is. When I went to film school, at NYU, me and Ernest Dickerson knew that we’d have to bust our ass, that we’d have to be head and shoulders above the rest of these motherfuckers. That’s just the way it is.
That’s a pattern that a lot of minority groups have gone through in this country.
Yeah, it’s not exclusively black.
Let’s turn to your writing now. You’re fast, very fast. You do a lot of preparation, but you write quickly [ten to fifteen days for a screenplay]. Has that changed at all?
No, it hasn’t. It’s gotten faster. More disciplined. I block out four, five hours a day, and that’s all I do.
How personal is the act of writing for you?
That’s the most personal thing I do under all the heading of filmmaker. Everything else is really a collaborative effort.
I mean, do you search your soul a lot, when you sit down to write a film?
Search my soul?
Do you get confused?
Writing? I don’t think so. Because when I sit down it’s really thought out, by that time.
Is it your goal to make great art or to make massive entertainments?
I think what I’ve done is always a combination of the two. For me, it’s not a conflict. I don’t want to make mindless entertainment, but at the same time I don’t want to make shit no one understands either.
Who’s making shit nobody understands?
Uh, I’m not going say anything bad about anyone. There was a time when I did. But a lot of this has come with maturity. If you don’t have anything good to say about people, for the most part don’t say it.
Now, if you made what you felt was a beautifully realized film, but it did at the box office only what Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger did, and you could remove from the mix any negative repercussions this would have on the budget of your next film, could you still be happy with the piece?
With the piece, yeah. But there’s plenty of artists who think they made a great record, a great movie, a great play, but it just didn’t connect with the audience.
Do you still see your function as a filmmaker, as you once did, as one of “shedding light on problems” so they can get discussed and understood?
Not every film, not every film. It depends on the subject matter. I think we start to get in trouble if we expect the artist to have answers all the time. For instance, School Daze was the examination of petty, superficial differences that still keep black people apart. To me, we are the most un-unified people on the face of the earth. Skin differences, hair types.
Yet there are the same differentiations within a lot of cultures.
Yeah, but they ain’t in the shape that we’re in. We’re not in the same boat. We don’t have the same liberties as other people. And to me, we are the most un-unified people in the world.
There’s a struggle, a tension, maybe a fundamental contradiction, between unification and diversity. How do you deal with that?
I think Jewish people are very diverse but they are very unified, on a lot of things. You talk about Israel: Jewish people are unified on the State of Israel.
You’ve never heard people argue like Jews argue about what to do about it, or how to deal with Israel.
I know Jewish people are more unified than black people, I know that.
Why do you think that is the case, historically?
I don’t want to get into the whole Jewish-black thing.
I’m not asking about Jewish-black relations, I’m asking why you think Jews are more unified than black people.
As far as America is concerned? Because I don’t think Jews have ever been taught to hate themselves the way black people have. I mean that’s the whole key: self-hatred. That’s not to say that Jewish people haven’t been persecuted. I’m not saying that. But they haven’t been taught to hate themselves to the level black people have been. When you’re persecuted, it’s natural for people to come together; but when you’re also taught at the same time that you’re the lowest form of life on earth, that you’re subhuman, then why would you want to get together with other people like that? Who do you hate? Yourself.
What do you think is the most interesting thing about your life?
That I’m making the art that I want to make, with a freedom that very few filmmakers have in general, let alone black filmmakers. Filmmakers period.
I’d like to walk through each of the films, starting with your student work.
The Answer was my first film, about a struggling black screenwriter who’s hired to direct the $50 million remake of Birth of a Nation.
What about Sarah?
Worst film I made in my entire life. Too sentimental! I really did it for my grandma. She was saying, “Why don’t you do a nice little film?” That’s what I did. That’s the only time I ever did something I didn’t want to do.
Do you keep your defenses up against sentimentality?
Not if it’s real. But when it’s manufactured, I don’t like that.
Let’s talk about Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, your thesis film. There’s a line in it: “Brother Homer, wake up, the black man has been sleeping for four hundred years.” That “wake up” theme is going to keep coming back in your films, over and over. How did you engineer that theme into that piece? In other words, how does the action of that story —
Well, that was really just put in the mouth of Nicholas Lovejoy, the numbers man, who’s a pseudo black freedom fighter: one of these guys who give turkeys away at Thanksgiving and is received as a hero. Like Nikki Barnes; people in Harlem thought he was a hero. Big car, gave away turkeys, real successful. I guess people didn’t think about all the damage he was doing with the drugs he was selling.
Though I must say Nicholas Lovejoy doesn’t come across too badly in the film: his manner, his calmness, his level of articulation, his strength.
Do you agree with him when he says, “We’re ninety-nine percent consumers. We don’t produce anything.”
“Color TV in every room.”
That’s a slight exaggeration, but black people do watch more TV than anybody.
A study was just published that showed the average black household watches over seventy-seven hours of TV a week. The average white household watches fifty. It’s a race —
And we’re winning it, hands down! And it’s not a race you want to win either. TV is the cheapest form of entertainment, but it’s definitely detrimental. I believe that figure; it’s true.
And not only that, but sixty percent of white households have cable, but only forty percent of black households, which means that blacks watch for more hours while receiving less information.
And you know cable is going to come to black neighborhoods last.
Joe’s Bed-Stuy brings up the problem of economic self-reliance. What kind of economic —
I don’t really have a program. All I’m saying is that black people for too long haven’t really thought of owning businesses. That’s the key. Because when you own businesses, you have more control. That was one of the key things about Do the Right Thing: the whole thing about Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, between Sal [Danny Aiello] and Buggin’ Out [Giancarlo Esposito]. Buggin’ Out rightfully felt that Sal should have the decency to at least have some black people up on the Wall of Fame, since all his income is derived from people in the community, who are black and Hispanic. Sal had, to me, a more valid point: this is my motherfucking pizzeria and I can do what I want to do. When you open your own restaurant, you can do what you want. Of course, now Buggin’ Out countered by trying to organize a boycott of Sal’s, which has always been one of our ways of fighting that type of thinking. But in the case of Buggin’ Out, it didn’t work.
A boycott takes patience, organization, determination —
And more than rhetoric, and that’s something that Buggin’ Out didn’t have.
It’s sad that the fight is over a symbol when the economic realities are so much more significant. You can spend all your time trying to boycott a Korean fruit stand in Brooklyn —
Black people should have their own fruit and vegetable stands in Flatbush. I’d be crazy to spend a year out there boycotting that one Korean place! That doesn’t make any sense to me.
Let’s go to She’s Gotta Have It. The film is set up to answer a question that you were continually asking yourself, during the writing of it: “Why does Nola do all this loving?” In your journal, a couple of times you write: “I better know the answer.”
Well, I don’t know that I ever really found out the answer. She was really just trying to explore. All she was doing was living her life as men lead theirs. And in most circles, women cannot do it without being labeled a prostitute or a whore or a nymphomaniac.
But what she does is make love to men, and not much more.
She does other things, [laughs] but this is what we showed! I mean, sex is a large part of her life. That’s what makes her happy. And doing it with different men, not just one same old guy.
But do you feel the film ever does answer the question why? Why that’s true for her, true for her character?
I think people make up their own minds on a lot of my films. It’s very rare where there’s one answer that explains everything or satisfies everybody.
Well, there’s ambiguity, but there’s also vagueness, the downside of having underwritten characters.
I don’t think she was underwritten.
There were some black feminists — I know you’re very popular with them — who felt —
[Sarcastically.] I got a lot of friends! [Laughs.]
Now, you were on the edge of pornography in She’s Gotta Have It.
Yeah, you think so?
Well, you said you wanted to be on the edge of it, because that was the only way a film like this was going to get noticed: to sidle up to the edge of porn.
Well, I don’t know if we were that close, but there was more sex in that film than in any other film I’ve done to date. And I’ll probably never do another film that has as much as that film. But we had to get noticed. I wanted the sex to be tasteful, not pornographic.
How do you respond to the criticism that the three men, although they are not as central to the film as Nola, are actually more definite characters, whereas she is more of a body to be explored and fought over?
Well, I don’t see it like that. For me, the film is about how men react to a woman like this. And I don’t have any problem if there was a female filmmaker who could write better female characters, more developed than the male characters. Every filmmaker has a weakness, and this is something I’ve had to work on since She’s Gotta Have It. I feel there has been growth on my part, as far as the female characters in my films.
Why did you feel that you would be “in the mud” with black women when that film came out?
Because there would be a section of black women who would think that I was saying that all black women were like this, therefore I’m just reinforcing the stereotype that black women are loose. Period.
The Rolling Stones’ “black girls just wanna fuck all night” stereotype.
Eddie Murphy, in fact, said to you that if he had done that exact film, he’d be accused of perpetuating that myth, but that the context was different with you doing it.
[Laughs.] Every artist brings their own particular baggage. But he’s done that anyway, in his films!
Michelle Wallace, the black feminist, wrote that “the film is about a black woman who couldn’t get enough of the old phallus and who therefore had to be raped.”
She couldn’t get enough, so she had to be raped?
When she refused to marry Jamie, he punishes her with violent sex.
For me that scene is not a stamp of approval of rape. Hopefully, it was my intent to show how horrible it is. So if people have problems with it, you could say it was in the execution of it, but it was never my intent.
But if it was so horrible, why did you write in your journal that “it’s there that she decides it’s Jamie she truly loves.”
So what does that mean?
So a woman who is being raped decides at that point that it’s the rapist she actually loves?
I always wanted it to be ambiguous whether that was a rape or not anyway.
She calls it a “near-rape” in the following park scene.
But I don’t think she decides she loves him because of the rape, though. This is something she’s been thinking about. When you’re dealing with that many people, you are always judging — each person up against the other. She felt that he was the one that cared about her the most.
Why did you decide not to actually have a lesbian sex scene?
That would have been too much. Nola Darling was wild enough. The reason we had the lesbian things was that we wanted to show that Nola had that much going for her — that women were after her too, not only men.
Now, at the end of the film, after the credits, come the words, “This film contains No Jheri Curls! No Drugs!” Why?
Because we made She’s Gotta Have It like it was going to be our last film. So we put everything in there. That statement was mine and it still is mine. That’s the way I feel about drugs and Jheri curls, and blue contact lenses and nose jobs.
Let’s turn to School Daze. A rape functions as the climax of that film as well. Uh-huh.
Were you conscious that you had done that on your first film and here, on your second, it was going to be the climax again?
Yeah, I was conscious of it, because that whole film, a lot of it has to do with sex. And the way this particular fraternity was using women. That was my experience in college. We could have shown guys running a train on her.
I know at one point you considered doing that.
That would have been too much. But that stuff happened all the time, so it wouldn’t have been like we were making that up.
Let’s talk about the “wake up” ending, where Dap [Larry Fishburne] calls out those words, and people walk towards him from all across the campus.
The whole ending is surreal.
Did you feel there was a risk to the film from changing tone so much at the very end?
I didn’t feel that.
Did you get a difference of opinion on it in the script stage and during shooting?
Some people felt the ending didn’t work, but it worked for me and that’s why it’s in.
You wrote: “People get out of bed not because he’s calling them but because they realize something.” What is it they realize?
For me, the whole film is about the petty, superficial differences that keep black people from being a more unified people. And we’re using the black college campus as a microcosm of black society as a whole. And that whole ending was shot in a blinding light, using the metaphor of light being the truth and saying, “Look, we got to stop this shit, this dumb, ignorant shit we’re doing.”
You got criticized by some who felt the film wasn’t so much a critique of sexism and color-consciousness as a display of it.
No, I think it was definitely a critique. It was showing how stupid it is. Numbers like “Straight and Nappy,” where the two factions sing a song about which hair is better; it was definitely a critique of these petty, superficial differences.
But you got criticized by some women saying that the men in the film were concerned with ideas and politics, divestiture and what have you, while the women were concerned only with looks.
I wouldn’t say that. I would say that the balance was more in the male parts, not the female parts, but I wouldn’t say that they were complete bimbos, the females.
I know you think there’s self-hatred in black women wearing colored contacts and hair weaves. Does a white woman who gets a fat-lip operation evidence self- hatred by doing that?
No, she just wants to be black. She wants those full lips. [Laughs.] See, but that’s not my major concern, what white people are doing to themselves. I can’t worry about that.
Silly-ass white people!
[Laughs.] If they want to sit in the sun and bake themselves and get skin cancer to get black, let ’em! That’s not my priority. Black people, for me, that’s a priority. Any race is going to say that their own race is a priority. Now, at the same time, it doesn’t mean that you should do that by oppressing other people.
Did you feel the film was anti-gay, or were you just portraying what you felt was real?
Portraying what’s real. How is it that Martin Scorsese can sit in the back of a cab in Taxi Driver and say, “See my wife up there. She’s up there with a nigger. You ever seen what a .44 Magnum does to a pussy?”? I have never read one article saying Martin Scorsese is a racist because he played that character talking about his wife up there in the apartment with the nigger and he’s going to blow her pussy up with a .44. I mean, I like his films a lot, but nobody ever says nothing about that.
But you would defend his right to play that character —
Yes! And I didn’t say he was racist because of that, either. But nobody has ever written that. I presented the way it is with a lot of black males, but I don’t think I’m a homophobe.
Why do people have that idea?
[Laughs.] Because I have a character saying “fag.” All my thoughts don’t come out of every single character I write.
Let’s go to the main issue: color-consciousness among blacks. Why do you feel that black men are more interested in light-skinned black women?
Why? Because they’re closer to white. It’s common sense. I mean why, why, why do little black kids — if they have a choice between a white doll and a black doll — why do they pick a white doll? Same thing.
What would you say about a fair-skinned white man who’s interested in dark white women or black women?
I can’t answer that question.
Dap has that speech about going through the ghetto on a bus, and that if you say “Free chicken! Free drugs!” all the black people will get on the bus.
Larry Fishburne ad-libbed that, I didn’t write it.
So we’re left with the question, at the end of that film, given the “wake up” ending: How do you get off that bus?
[Long pause.] That’s what we’re all trying to find out. That’s what everybody has been trying to find out. I don’t have the answer. But the first step is to realize that there’s a bus you’re on! [Laughs.] The second step is you got to realize you’ve got to get off, and then you’ve got to figure out how to do that. But people don’t even know they’re on the bus.
Do you think your films are part of the way people might find out they’re on the bus?
Hopefully. First you got to get them into the theatre, and then when they’re in the theatre, hopefully they’ll get it.
How many people have asked you, “Does Mookie do the right thing?”
[Laughs.] How many people are there in New York City?
And what’s your answer to them?
Black people never ask me that. It’s only white people.
Because black people understand perfectly why Mookie threw the garbage can through the window. No black person has ever asked me, “Did Mookie do the right thing?” Never. Only white people. White people are like, “Oh, I like Mookie so much up to that point. He’s a nice character. Why’d he have to throw the garbage can through the window?” Black people, there’s no question in their minds why he does that.
Yeah, but why one does something and whether what one does is right are very different things. I know why he does it, but —
But only white people want to know why he does it. I spoke at twenty-five universities last year and that’s all I ever got asked. “Did Mookie do the right thing?”
What do you tell them?
I feel at the time he did. Mookie is doing it in response to the police murdering Radio Raheem, with the infamous Michael Stewart choke hold, in front of his face — also knowing this is not the first time that something like this has happened, nor will it be the last. What people have to understand is that almost every riot that’s happened here in America involving black people has happened because of some small incident like that: cops killing somebody, cops beating up a pregnant black woman. It’s incidents like that that have sparked riots across America. And that’s all we were doing was using history. Mookie cannot lash out against the police, because the police were gone. As soon as Radio Raheem was dead, they threw his ass in the back of car and got the hell out of there so they could make up their story.
What about attacking Sal?
I think he likes Sal too much. For Mookie, in my mind, Sal’s Pizzeria represents everything, and that’s why he lashed out against it. It was Mayor Koch, it was the cops — everything.
That’s “the power” to him?
It’s the power at the moment. But when it’s burnt down, he’s back to square one, even worse. Look at all those riots: black people weren’t burning down downtown, they were burning down their own neighborhoods.
You end up with no place to have pizza; that’s the net effect of the whole action. You haven’t stopped the police, you haven’t —
That’s the irony. Because that’s the only way they can really fight. They felt very powerful that moment, but it was fleeting.
There’s great empowerment when normally alienated people come together for a purpose.
They all saw Radio Raheem get murdered by the police, New York City’s finest. Which is one of the reasons we get very little cooperation from the movie cops here in New York ever since that film. They don’t do shit for us.
Malcolm X said that whether you’re using ballots or bullets, your aim has to be true, and you don’t aim for the puppet, you aim for the puppeteer. Isn’t everybody on the corner there in Do the Right Thing aiming for just a puppet, and not a very powerful puppet at that?
That’s true. But Mayor Koch is not in front of them. Rarely do you get a chance where you get to actively engage the enemy, and the closest there was was Sal’s Pizzeria.
One of the disturbing things to me about the reaction to that film is that people focused on the burning of the pizzeria and not the death of Radio Raheem, and there might be a reason for that other than just hog-calling racism.
The thing I liked about Do the Right Thing, especially for critics, is that it was a litmus test. I think you could really tell how people thought and who they were. And if I read a review and all it talked about was the stupidity of burning the pizzeria, the stupidity of the violence, the looting, the burning, and not one mention of the murder of Radio Raheem, I knew exactly where they were coming from. Because people that write like that, who think like that, do not put any value on black life, especially the life of young black males. They put more importance on property, white-owned property.
I’m going to assume that that’s true, that those people don’t put the value on black life. Let me suggest, though, another reason why the burning of the pizzeria becomes the centerpiece of the picture and not the death of Raheem. I think there are aesthetic, as opposed to racial, reasons. For me, the most dramatic thing is the taking of a life, that’s much more important than a pizza oven going up in flames, and yet when I left the film, the riot stood out in my mind more than the death. Two reasons: one, Radio Raheem is not a fully-drawn character — he’s a caricature. He’s a type, albeit a new type for many people. But the audience doesn’t really develop an empathy for him.
I don’t know if I agree with that. I think a life is a life.
It is, but Mookie’s life would have meant more to the audience because they knew Mookie better. The second reason is that the burning reads as the climax of the film in terms of the way it’s shot and structured.
You know, what you’re saying are both two good points. What you just explained makes sense. But I’m talking about people who don’t even think about the death of Radio Raheem. What’s important to them is that the pizzeria was burnt. For them, Sal is the cavalry. Fort Apache, among savages. That’s who their interest is with.
Let’s look at something else. You gave Spielberg’s The Color Purple a great deal of criticism, but couldn’t it be argued that the neighborhood you paint in Bed-Stuy is as unrealistic a portrayal of Bed-Stuy — in terms of material conditions, if not behavior — as Spielberg’s portrayal of black Southern life was, where the house was too big, everything was too clean . . .
We did not paint the grass, we did not paint the flowers.
But you did get asked, and I know you felt the questions were racist, “Why weren’t there any drugs in this movie?”
Why do you have to have drugs in films about black people? Why am I the only filmmaker in the history of cinema that’s been asked, “Why are there no drugs in your films”?
You yourself wrote, Spike, that it might be “a serious omission,” to use your exact words, a serious omission, not to deal with drugs in that film; and then you backed off for aesthetic reasons — you felt it might be too much to handle for that film, and didn’t want to pay lip service to the problem. But when people asked questions about it, rather than admit that it was an issue, you were very defensive and said that the question was racist.
I didn’t say that all the time. I can tell how questions come. And how questions are asked, how people are thinking. So that’s where that came from.
Does the ending of the film — I know it was much discussed in production, Sal and Mookie in front of the burned out pizzeria — does it ring true to you?
Yeah, I think it rings true. I mean, some people at Universal felt that Mookie shouldn’t pick up the money.
I felt that Mookie would be too proud to go ask for his money, or that if he did do it because he needed the bread, there would be no way in the world that Sal would give him his money! He’d just provoked the destruction of Sal’s entire business.
Well, I saw otherwise. I felt that to belittle him, he could hurt Mookie more by giving him the money and throwing it in his face.
“You’re a rich man, Mookie! You’re a real Rockefeller!”
“This money means nothing to me. I have the business, what do you have?”
Where’s the sliver of realization?
The sliver of realization.
I used that phrase?
You know that. Yes, you said you wanted Sal to have a sliver of realization, you wanted his consciousness advanced to some degree and you wanted us to see that.
Oh, Sal. I think that everybody in the film, except for the cops, is not the same person they were the day before. I think that Sal’s grown and Mookie’s grown also. I think that Sal will think twice before he takes a Louisville Slugger to somebody’s box, that’s for sure.
What does Buggin’ Out learn?
Maybe he might not have learned anything. He has good intentions, but he’s not focused.
Did you feel you were making a comment on the dearth of responsible black leadership by making the only leader on the block a guy who is a misdirected hothead?
Yeah. You know what that was alluding to? When the whole Howard Beach incident happened, there were some black leaders here in New York City who wanted to boycott pizza — which I thought was idiotic. That ain’t doing nothing for nobody to boycott pizza because of Howard Beach.
With the quotes at the end of the movie, aren’t you making almost a false opposition between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X?
I don’t think it was a false opposition. The most important thing for me about Martin Luther King and Malcom X is that they both wanted the same thing for black people, it’s just that they chose very different routes to arrive there. This has always been a choice that black people have had to make: which way to go to achieve our freedom? It doesn’t have to be either/or; it can be a synthesis.
Right. But the way it reads in the film is that it’s either/or.
All I can say is, that’s your interpretation. But I always saw it as a synthesis of both.
But the way you close your journal on the film is with the words: “We have a choice, Malcolm or King. I know who I’m down with.”
Right, I’m leaning more toward Malcolm X because my thing is more in line with what he was trying to do. But that does not negate what Martin did either. He did a lot too.
Who would not agree that self-defense is —
Martin Luther King would! He did. Kiss ’em.
You sure that’s not strategy, instead of ideology?
No, there’s no strategy in just standing there and getting whupped upside the head with a club. I’m sorry.
There were gains that came because of it.
Not merely because of that, though.
Not merely, no. But in certain cases nonviolence can work as a strategy, no?
[Surprised.] Oh, I agree with that.
It wasn’t going to work against the Nazis, because they were going to throw your nonviolent ass into a cattle car.
Yeah, but when black people are trying to achieve their freedom, we’re always saddled with, “Why don’t you be nonviolent?” Well, how come we always got to get stuck with the nonviolent tactic? [Laughs.] While everybody else is doing what they have to do.
Yet the quote you use from Malcolm is something that Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson could have said themselves.
Yeah! If you would have Wited-Out “Malcolm X” and put “Abraham Lincoln” or “Thomas Jefferson,” people would have had no problems with that. Like I said, it depends on who’s saying what, or who’s doing what.
Would you call the burning of the pizzeria “self-defense”?
I don’t think that quote was alluding in particular to the burning and looting of Sal’s pizzeria, just in general.
Some felt the turning of the firemen’s hoses on the people involved in the rioting, which brings up a conscious association with Birmingham and Montgomery, Bull Connor and all that, really did a disservice to the people who had the hoses turned against them in the South.
Because they were fighting for something that was positive, hard-won, and often going down on account of it, whereas the people on your block, all they were doing was rioting, stealing cask, and burning down a pizzeria.
But what sparked that, though?
Thank you. And this is the only way they could respond to it.
How can the response become more efficacious?
What? I don’t know what you mean. [Laughing.] Look, I’m an assistant professor at Harvard, not a professor. You got to use that in the article: “I’m an assistant professor at Harvard, I don’t got the full shit yet.”
Okay, you would admit that the burning of a pizzeria is not the most effective means of combatting injustice. How could the response be more effective in authoring some kind of constructive change?
That’s a very difficult question. I don’t have the answer to that. I guess when people feel they’re getting adequate housing and employment and health care and their vote means something — they’re not getting fucked around — then I guess that’s when we won’t choose the other avenues of “artistic” expression. When people feel they’re getting a piece of the American pie.
One of Malcolm X’s favorite quotes was by Goethe: “Nothing is more terrible than ignorance in action.” If Malcolm was watching that scene go down, would he have felt it was ignorance in action?
[Pause.] He might. But he would have perfectly understood why they were doing what they did. See, Malcolm never condemned the victim. And the people who were burning down the pizzeria were the victims, in that film.
I mean, the unfortunate thing about Do the Right Thing were the people, the critics, that said it was going to cause riots and stuff. It stopped a lot of people from seeing the film in the theatre where they could have enjoyed it the most. Instead, they saw it on videotape.
Specifically white people, you are talking about?
Yeah, because no black person was afraid of going to the theatre.
Have you talked to white people who were afraid?
A lot of white people told me they were scared for their safety because of what they read, so they waited until it came out on videotape. People did predict that it was going to cause riots across the country.
What did you learn from that whole experience?
That the media can fuck you up. [Laughs.]
Don’t you feel in some way it made the film a bigger cause célèbre?
Nah. That hurt us. There is nothing positive that came out of that at all.
You had a PR firm doing “damage control” for the film when that whole thing went down.
I’m totally ignorant of this. Who are these people? Maybe Universal hired them, I don’t know. I don’t remember. Tom Pollack did not want a repeat of Last Temptation of Christ.
Was Universal supportive when this happened?
Very much so. They stood behind the film all the way.
Are you happy with the commercial success you’ve had?
I’m very happy. I would not have been able to make the films I’ve wanted to make if my films had not achieved some level of commercial success.
They don’t pay you to lose money.
Not young black filmmakers. That’s for sure.
How do you feel you take criticism?
That depends what kind of criticism it is and who it’s coming from.
I know you wrote a letter to the New York Times in response to Janet Maslin’s review of School Daze.
She used me as an example of filmmakers who, as long as they are given a limited budget and are able to make films with relatives and friends, are all right; but when they’re given some real money, then they don’t know anything about the craft. I used other examples. The motherfucker who directed Leonard, Part VI — that was his first film, too. That film cost $27 million.
At the end of your letter you suggested that she might not have rhythm and could not dance.
I said she couldn’t even dance. Because she was trying to tell me that the musical numbers weren’t staged well.
Did you stop reading the criticism that came with School Daze? After the overwhelmingly positive response to the first film —
Well, I knew there was no way we were going to duplicate the reviews for She’s Gotta Have It. That’s human nature. Whether it’s music, or athletes’ rookie season, second season they start looking for the chinks in the armor.
Have you ever learned anything from criticism about your own work?
Well, I think the best criticism I’ve read has been about my female characters.
You’ve taken that to heart.
You know, that was on the mark.
How would you assess your strengths and weaknesses as a person?
You talking about filmmaking?
No, first as a person.
Hmmm. Weakness. I probably don’t have enough patience. I should have more. On the other hand, a lot of times I give people too much slack, so it goes either way. As far as a filmmaker, as far as a weakness, I try to concentrate on having stronger female characters. I think the strength I have is not just filmmaking ability but the ability to market my films, to promote.
How would you say you’ve grown as a filmmaker, from She’s Gotta Have It to Jungle Fever, in terms of the craft?
It’s evident if you look at the work. If you screened the films in a row, it’s evident. The thing that’s most visible is that there’s better acting. I work better with actors now.
You’re known for being pretty open with actors, not very controlling, giving them a lot of room to invent their own stuff.
It depends on the actor. Not all actors can do that. Not all actors can improvise. If they can’t improvise, you’re wasting time keeping the camera rolling; they’re coming up with one dead line after another.
Do you feel you go as deep with the actors as some other directors?
I can’t comment on that. Some directors — you’ve heard about Mamet and Sayles — don’t let actors change one word. That’s what I’m told. I’m not as possessive of the words. A lot of times once an actor puts in his own words, it’s better.
And their creation of a back story for themselves can make the role a lot richer than you may have originally thought.
I’m thinking, in Do the Right Thing, of what Roger Smith did with Smiley, and Danny Aiello did with Sal.
[Testy.] What did Danny Aiello do with Sal?
Well, I don’t know exactly, but —
But according to Danny Aiello he wrote the whole role himself.
I would not suggest that at all —
Danny Aiello . . . we were friends, we talked about this numerous times — he tells people that he wrote that role himself.
Well, he didn’t write the script. You think he was trying to cop more credit for it, making the character more sympathetic, less of a racist?
See, if Danny had his way totally, Sal would have been the most sympathetic pizzeria owner in the world. And that was not the character I envisioned. I mean, in the climactic scene in the movie, he didn’t even want to call Buggin’ Out a nigger. He was having trouble saying the word nigger, and I knew, we all knew, that he had used that word before. [Laughs.] It’s only when Buggin’ Out called him a fat guinea bastard, that’s when Danny opened up and all these words became familiar to his tongue again.
Annabella Sciorra [Angie in Jungle Fever] was just quoted talking about the work that he had done on that character. I was broaching this as a positive, not a negative thing.
Let me ask you, what great actor, what good actor worth their salt is gonna come to a film and not add anything? You think I want to hire directors [Freudian slip] who are going to do exactly what is written and bring nothing else? That’s . . . I don’t understand it. What did Annabella say?
That you kept things fairly simple in dealing with actors.
With actors, or with her?
Maybe she was just sharing her own experience. And she referred to the Danny Aiello character.
Well, God bless her, that’s all I have to say.
Is there not a warm vibe between the two of you?
Oh, we love each other.
Come on, man, who are you kidding? I know you’ve got to do publicity for the movie, but —
No, I think she did a very good job. All that matters is performance up on the screen. And I’m very happy with her performance and that’s it.
Sometimes if you don’t get along with someone, it can bring something else to the work.
Yeah, but I don’t suggest that way of working.
Do you have time still to study and to read?
I read all the time.
What are you most curious about?
History. Of all my shortcomings, I feel my biggest one is that I can’t speak another language. And I’m never going to learn another language. I’ve been taking Spanish and French since third grade and I still don’t know a word. Americans get so wrapped up in thinking everything revolves around America, everything revolves around English. I love to travel. It’s my loss only being able to speak English. That’s the one regret I have. But history, everything I learn, is going to end up helping me in some form or another, in some movie maybe fifteen years down the line. That’s why I can’t understand any artist not being on top of things: reading, just being alive in the world, not being shut off and holed up in some cavern.
Your inspiration comes very much from the real world, whereas some artists are primarily inspired by other art, the imaginative world.
See, I wasn’t really raised on movies. I went to see them, but I wasn’t like Spielberg and the rest of these guys. They wanted to be filmmakers when they were still in Pampers. That wasn’t my case. And in a lot of ways this might be an advantage, because for a lot of these guys, their films are about films they’ve seen. Their films are about films. Not to say that’s bad all the time.
It can be. Unless you’re Spielberg.
What’s your opinion of your own work? There is a retrospective book of photos and essays on your first five films, Five for Five. Now, nobody bats 1.000.
Well, I have my own Elias Sports Bureau, you have yours. [Laughter.] I have my own statistician.
That’s why they call them “fantasy leagues,” Spike! I’m just curious about how you look back at your work. Some artists find it painful to look at their early work.
For me, the only film I can’t look at is School Daze — I mean, She’s Gotta Have It. It’s painful for me to watch that film. The filmmaking, the acting. Any time you see bad acting in a film it’s the director’s fault. And at that stage I was really not at ease working with actors. [To waiter.] Can I have some rice please, brown vegetable rice.
Uh oh, this Muslim thing is starting to happen.
[Playing along.] I haven’t eaten swine in nine years!
Are you comfortable delineating influences? Scorsese is an obvious influence, but other than that?
That’s about it, as far as filmmaking. A great film for me to see was Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise. It opened up to me what the possibilities could be. ’Specially since I knew Jim; he was ahead of me in film school. I knew I could do this now.
Do you enjoy the whole process of filmmaking, or just the finished product? There’s a quote about writing: “I don’t like writing, I like having written.”
I like, I love filmmaking. But making a film, even though I love it, is still murder. It’s absolutely murder: when you’re in production, doing a movie, the toll, the physical toll; and really it’s more your mind that gets tired, because a director is asked five million questions every single day. And you’ve got to make all these decisions, very fast. And over the course of eight, nine, ten weeks, an accumulation of the wrong choices and your movie is fucked up! [Wild laughter.]
Do you feel there’s evolving in your work a kind of Afro-American aesthetic?
In my work? I don’t get into stuff like that.
We could make parallels with music. If you look at bebop, bebop was a language, a change in the language from swing. So I’m wondering if you think some of the structural or stylistic things you do are becoming a certain kind of grammar.
I have a style, I think. I don’t know that you can call it an Afro-American aesthetic. For me there is no Afro-American style of filmmaking. First of all, there’s not enough filmmakers doing it.
There’s a compelling difference between the way blacks have dominated music and sport, and their contribution to our visual culture, and I wonder now, with the rise of these black American directors, if there will be a similar influence on the visual, in film art?
I think so. I think there are so many young black kids out there now that want to get into TV, that want to get into films, that want to get into the visual arts, because now they see young black people like themselves doing it — where before there were no role models. I think there’s a whole lot of black kids playing golf now just because Michael Jordan plays golf!
It takes that.
It takes that. “Oh, Michael Jordan’s playing golf. Hey, it must be cool then.” In a way, it’s kind of stupid, because you’re waiting for somebody else to put the stamp of approval on it.
Why do you think historically there’s been less black presence in visual arts in this country than in music or in sport?
We have a lot of great black painters. But for film, there’s a very simple answer: film costs millions and millions of dollars. It would be very hard to have a Motown in film. Berry Gordy, who’d he borrow money from, his sister?
We know where he got the money from . . .
Well, I like my kneecaps! [Wild laughter.] See, he started Motown with like five hundred dollars. You can’t start a movie company with five hundred dollars. The economics of movies are just astronomical.
Have you thought about a black studio?
It’s killing me just to keep the little shit I got going myself.
But in the interview you did with Eddie Murphy, you talked about attempting to unify the very powerful, increasingly wealthy black entertainers and athletes for some purpose — which you left vague.
Well, you have to realize filmmaking is a very risky business. Now, if I was talking about all of us going in on a liquor store, it’d be different. [Laughs.]
What were you thinking about, all you sitting down and talking?
I think the battle, the great thing would be to get everybody sitting down to talk. It’s going to come.
What do you hope would come out of it? Anything tangible?
Alliances. Unity, you know.
In your own work, there’s frequently conflict within a single film between different styles, which is unusual for mainstream, narrative American cinema —
I wouldn’t use the word “conflict.”
Yes, that’s better.
— Between a presentational style and a dramatic style, between a documentary style and a realistic style, or even between a kind of romantic tone and a satirical, edgy tone.
It doesn’t bother me to mix stuff like that up, because I don’t think I make genre films. I don’t think I make films that can be classified in one specific cubbyhole. I think the better question might be: do you think you’ve been successful with the juxtaposition? I really couldn’t do a film that’s one thing all the way through. That wouldn’t be very interesting for me.
It does create certain kinds of collisions that people are not used to.
Most of the movies that people are used to suck anyway! They’re the same old tried and true formula, and at the end of the movie everything is wrapped up in a nice little bow. And very rarely do those movies ever make you think, and once you leave the theatre, by the time you’re back on the subway or driving home, you’ve forgotten what you watched. It’s like disposable entertainment. You sit there for two hours, and it washes over you and that’s it.
You like your endings to be really open-ended.
Not all the time. I just don’t think everything has to be resolved.
Do you feel that’s the work for audiences, to build a resolution in their heads?
Yes, I feel that. But not just to build a resolution, but to think. I think we don’t demand enough of the audience. No subtlety, playing down to the lowest common dominator all the time, making films for an intelligence level of retarded twelve-year-olds.
Well, there’s something about narrative itself that conditions people to want a period at the end of a sentence.
The condition comes from Hollywood and people who’ve been force-fed films like that. Not narrative.
Let’s talk more about black film. You said, in the documentary on the making of Do the Right Thing, “The number-one concern is to try to be the best filmmaker you can be and not be out there bullshitting, saying you’re a black filmmaker.”
I think it holds true more now than when I said that.
Are there people out there bullshitting, saying, “I’m a black filmmaker, love me!”
Not “love me,” but a lot of people are getting deals now to make films, and I’m not begrudging anybody, but we’ll find out the contenders from the pretenders.
You were quoted as saying, “If you’re black and have a camera in your hand, you can get a deal now.” The subtext of that sounds almost a little bitter, like you had to struggle, and now —
No, no way. That was taken totally out of context. It was a funny statement, an exaggeration. I’m ecstatic if any black person gets a chance to direct a film.
Do you feel that this surge of black film could crest, like a wave?
If the films aren’t good and people don’t go, definitely. We’ll be back to square one.
Hence your concern for how good these films are and for filmmakers taking their position very seriously.
Yeah. And also how well these companies market them. I don’t think Fox did a good job on [Robert Townsend’s] Five Heartbeats. That was a big blow, to all of us. The film never opened. You open on eight hundred screens and you average six hundred per screen, in Hollywood they say you never opened.
Do you still want to be seen as a “black” filmmaker, or a filmmaker first, who happens to be black? It’s a subtle but important distinction.
To me, I don’t think there’s ever going to be a time in America where a white person looks at a black person and they don’t see that they’re black. That day ain’t coming very soon. Don’t hold your breath. So that’s a given. So why am I going to get blue in the face, worrying about that? For me that’s one of the most important things Malcolm X said: “What do you call a black man with a Ph.D.? ‘Nigger.’” That’s it. So why am I going to spend time and energy saying “Don’t call me a black filmmaker, I’m a filmmaker”? I’m not getting into that argument. I’ll leave that to the other Negroes. [Laughs.] The other so-called Negroes.
Do you still feel that when you write, you are writing for a black audience? Right up front you said, “Look, Woody Allen writes for intellectual New York City Jews and I write for blacks.”
Yes, but that does not exclude everybody else. I like Woody Allen’s films, but there’s stuff in those films I don’t get, and the person next to me is dying!
I don’t get it. But that does not detract from my enjoyment of the film. I think the same is true of me. Black people be rolling in the aisle, and white folks don’t understand it. They may not get everything, all the nuances, but they still enjoy the film. So I don’t think there’s any crime in writing for a specific audience.
I think people were surprised, maybe because of their own naiveté, that you would do that, that you would want to —
See, that’s that whole crossover motherfucker that motherfuckers fall into. That’s because any time they see the word black, they see a negative connotation. I wasn’t raised like that. That wasn’t my upbringing. So I’m never going to run from the word “black.”
“Walk on stage and act-like-a-tree shit. That’s what white people call art.” What is that walk on stage and act-like-a-tree shit you’re talking about?
[Laughs.] You have to realize a lot of these statements are not indictments of every single white person. But it’s just . . . you know that avant-garde stuff people call art. Damn, what is that? You know what I’m saying.
Like Robert Wilson’s “the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down” and that kind of shit?
Andy Warhol movie of a man sleeping for eight hours.
“Conceptual art” I think is what white folks call it.
That’s the name for it? [Laughs.]
And then there’s “performance art,” too!
Oh, I don’t like that shit, either. Is Laurie Anderson a performer artist?
Come on, you haven’t seen Karen Finley take off her clothes and smear herself with chocolate? You haven’t lived, my man!
The Knicks were on that night! [Wild laughter.] I got season tickets, so I missed that. The Miami Heat were in town. I don’t even know who that artist is, the one you just mentioned, because I don’t want her sending no letter-bomb to my house.
You’ve written: “Black people are the most creative people on this earth.”
I agree. I think so. I still agree.
How can you say that one race of being is more creative than another race?
Easy, I just said it. But I guess that makes me a racist now.
We’ll get to that. Are you speaking of all black people or American blacks?
Black people. Africans. Everybody black. Not just American blacks.
You’ve stated, though, that you think “black people have let black artists get away with too much.” Go to it.
Well, I think that a lot of times black artists are not held accountable as they should be. I don’t feel that just because we are successful artists we should be let off the hook, to do whatever we want to do pertaining to some matters: performing in South Africa, or like Eazy-E, having lunch with President Bush and being a member of the Inner Circle and donating $2500 to the Republican party and at the same time being a member of a rap group [NWA] that says “Fuck the Police.” What kind of reasoning is that?
Do you feel that all art is political?
I think so. I think even the absence of politics in a piece is a political move: we got to make as much money as we can so let’s leave all the politics out. That’s a political move. That’s a political decision. Let’s not rock the boat.
Let’s hit sexuality for a second. Probably other than race, sexuality is the dominant concern of your work. I’d like you to speak about how you would define male sexuality. In the first film you have the “dogs”; in the second, you have Dap, who’s “snakin’” because that’s his “nature” as a man; in the third, Mookie presents a glorious objectification of Tina’s gorgeous body parts, but at the same time pretty much ignores Tina and what she needs; in the fourth film, we get Bleek’s famous statement, “It’s a dick thing”; and in your fifth, the women sit around and one says that if a man sees a pussy he looks around and then has to get it. So male sexuality —
What about it?
Is it just “a dick thing”?
No, that line is definitely not the way I feel. I don’t feel Bleek feels that at the end of the movie either. He ends up messed up because of thinking like that. I don’t know how else to answer that question. [Pause.] I think that when you grow up black you never see people kissing on the screen. It’s something I wanted to have, just have some type of sexuality in my films. And have the characters think the way people think; now, whether this is right or wrong the way they’re thinking, now that’s another matter.
One of the things I asked Coppola about is his work’s reticence when it comes to sex —
Come on, Sonny was boning that girl standing up [in the classic James Caan scene in The Godfather]!
And that’s about it. You ain’t gonna find many other scenes in his work.
And what did he say?
He said because he takes sex so seriously and is so sensitive about it, it’s very difficult for him to show.
Oh, and he’s not sensitive about murder so he can do that all the time? Just have bodies riddled by bullets? See, the thing about it for me is I just want to have characters in my films that are real, and sexuality is part of your being.
In 1986, you wrote about racism: “We’re all tired about white-man this, white-man that. Fuck dat! It’s on us.” No more excuses. But if you ask white people if you had said that, given your persona, they would be surprised.
Yeah, but where are they getting their perceptions from? [Laughs.] From TV, magazines, and newspapers.
And are you coming across in a way that’s not truthful to who you are?
Yeah, because the way the media portrays me is as an angry black man. See, that statement is not a complete statement. You got to have a two-part program. On one hand, you have to say you cannot deny the injustices that have been against you as a people. On the other hand, you cannot use as an excuse, “Well, I really would have liked to have done that, but Mr. Charlie was blocking me every single time.” I think that’s the more complete statement.
You’ve said you don’t think blacks can be racist.
Are you speaking of black Americans?
In this case, I am speaking of black Americans. And then, what I always say, and people never print, is that for me there’s a difference between racism and prejudice. Black people can be prejudiced. But to me, racism is the institution. Black people have never enacted laws saying that white folks cannot own property, white folks can’t intermarry, white folks can’t vote. You got to have power to do that. That’s what racism is, an institution.
Institutionally hindering an entire people.
Yeah. Me calling you “white motherfucker,” I don’t think that’s racism, I think that’s prejudice. That’s just racial slurs. That ain’t gonna hurt nobody.
Prejudice itself can come as a reaction to the racism that engenders it.
That can come as a reaction, but anybody can be prejudiced. That’s the complete statement. But that never gets printed.
I see racism all over the world: one tribe to another tribe, the Japanese to the Chinese, and so on. It’s incredibly complicated and incredibly sad, and so I can’t buy your statement, “White people invented racism.”
Where did it start, then?
I don’t know where it started. What do you think caused it?
They wanted to exploit people. Colonization. Why do you think there’s no Native Americans? Why do you think they’re on reservations?
You think that was the beginning of racism? The 1600s?
No, way before that.
We’re talking about history now, and I’m curious as to whether you’ve thought about what the origins of prejudice, the origins of racism are. I assume before there was the institution of racism, locked into place to keep certain people from realizing their potential as individuals and their goals as a group, that there was prejudice. It had to come out of thinking that the “other” was not as good as you; or out of being afraid of the “other”; or out of scarcity, where there was not enough to go around so you had to fight the “other” for it; or tribal shit. But to me, “White people invented racism” makes it seem like you believe there was a grand conspiracy to deny the fruits of the planet to everybody else by a group of unified people sitting in a room in Amsterdam in 1619.
You don’t think there was a plan to wipe out the Indians?
I think that’s certainly what happened, but I don’t think it was drawn up like the Magna Carta.
Look, that shit had to be planned. There’s no way. They saw the riches this land had, and they took over. And that’s what the Afrikaners did in South Africa. And before that, that’s what all of Europe did when they split up Africa into colonies. I mean, [pause] maybe white people didn’t invent the patent on racism, but they sure perfected that motherfucker! They got that shit down to a science and it’s being implemented now, full throttle.
You don’t see any decline in it, do you?
What, racism? No. I don’t smoke crack. [Laughs.] If anything, it’s on the upswing — with eight years of Reagan, and now Bush. And now this Gulf War, America’s in this patriotic fever. I went to the Super Bowl, man, I wish I hadn’t gone. I was nauseous with all that flag-waving and airplanes flying overhead. God bless America.
It was like being in Nazi Germany at that Super Bowl game! Instead of Leni Riefenstahl —
— you had NFL Films!
You had NFL Films and “Up with People.” [Laughs wildly, then to waiter:] More tea — and make it hot! And Whitney Houston lip-synching the national anthem. That marred the game for me.
When there’s economic contraction, which there is now, people’s prejudice comes to the fore, and racism stiffens, because if the pie is shrinking no one wants to give a bigger piece to anybody else. And I think it might get worse, because this is the first generation of middle-class white Americans that actually figures to live worse than their parents did.
[Long pause.] Welcome to the Terrordome!
Where do you think it comes from, Spike? Prejudice.
Where? I can’t answer. I’m not a theologian.
You think it’s a theological answer?
It might be. But who’s to say that there’s ever really been true peace on this earth? It’s something we hope will happen some day, maybe in our grandchildren’s children’s time.
God knows there are tribes in Africa that loathe other tribes, and always have, predating the white man’s arrival.
That’s true. But did you ever read a quote or a statement from me saying that black people don’t fight among themselves? We kill, we kill each other — shit, white people don’t even have to do anything. I mean, black males are killing each other at an alarming rate now. White people can just sit back and watch.
And keep score. You talked yesterday about the assault on black men. For every Los Angeles police idiocy, there are fifty black men assaulting other black men.
So that makes it all right what the cops do?
No, no, no. But the amount of black-on-black crime must be a bitter pill for you to swallow, as a black man.
You bet. I mean we’re killing each other.
Do you care that some people feel you hide behind the shield of racism, that you’re quick to call people racists to deflect criticism of yourself?
No. That doesn’t bother me, not at all.
When you opened your retail shop, some dude from MTV asked you, “Spike, what are you going to do with the profits from this store?” And in what didn’t get bleeped out, you said, “You don’t ask motherfucking Robert De Niro what he does with the profits from his restaurant.” So you were assuming that he was asking you because you’re black and you were opening your own business. I won’t come to his defense, because I don’t know what was in his mind asking the question — but look, Robert De Niro is not at all a political guy, but there are white artists who —
That is bullshit! That is complete bullshit. No White person who’s opened up a motherfucking business has ever been asked, “What are you gonna do with your profits?”
But people like Sting and Bono, who are political —
That is bullshit, that is bullshit. You’re telling me people ask Sting, if his album goes triple platinum, “What are you going to do with your profits?” This is motherfucking America. When black people start to make some money then it becomes a fucking problem. [Very upset, yelling, standing up beside our table.] No . . . tell me a time when a white artist was asked, “What are you going to do with your profits?”
I’ve asked white —
That is bullshit! No one would ever come to someone’s restaurant opening, book coming out, building, and say, “Mr. White Person, what are you going to do with your profits?” I don’t care what you say, that shit don’t happen.
I’m telling you, I’ve asked white artists, who have political points of view, okay, whether it be on the rain forest or the Irish problem, if they’re doing something about it. I’ve asked them.
That is not the same thing, David. I’m talking about the first day the store is open, and he has a microphone in my face, “What are you going to do with your profits?” It was a racist question. The night the motherfucking Tribeca Grill opened, they do not ask Robert De Niro, “What are you gonna do with your profits?” It’s plain and simple.
Are you comfortable saying you’re a capitalist?
[Pause.] Am I a capitalist? [Pause.] We all are over here. And I’m just trying to get the power to do what I have to do. To get that power you have to accumulate some type of bank. And that’s what I’ve done. I’ve always tried to be in an entrepreneurial mode of thinking. Ownership is what’s needed amongst Afro-Americans. Ownership. Own stuff.
Politically, do you favor a more socialistic framework?
I think that would be better, for everyone concerned. But that’s never going to happen in the United States.
The most overt political thing you’ve done is the commercial for Jesse Jackson in the 1988 New York presidential primary.
I think Do the Right Thing had a lot to do with Ed Koch losing [the New York City mayoral election]. I think it helped David Dinkins a lot. I’m not saying that the film put him in office, but I think we had a positive effect on that mayor’s race.
You offered to do a commercial for Dinkins. What happened?
I just put it out there, I never asked him. I did the commercial: Do the Right Thing.
What did you learn from doing the Jesse Jackson ad?
What did I learn? [Pause.] Where the secret servicemen hide their machine guns.
Would you like to do more political, commercial work in the future?
It depends on the candidate.
Your least political film is Mo’ Better Blues. You had a kind of negative motivation for making that film, two-pronged. One was the jazz films that had come just before, which you had found grossly lacking: Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight and Clint Eastwood’s Bird. Two, you heard Woody Allen might be making a jazz film and you had to beat him to it.
That was a joke. I’m not going to do a jazz film so I could beat Woody Allen. The reaction to the other films was not the main impetus, though. The number-one thing was that my father was a great jazz musician and I grew up around the music. Also, after Do the Right Thing, I didn’t want to do something that was overtly political, that was confrontational, or had to do with racism, with racial politics.
It seemed that part of your take on those two films was that they didn’t get it right; they didn’t get what the experience of being a jazz musician truly is.
No, that is not it. With Round Midnight, it was the romanticism it had, with Dexter Gordon’s character, and him being alcoholic, and the sincere French man taking care of him like he’s a little child. And with Bird, of the three main characters, how are two of them going to be white? How is Red Rodney going to have more screen time than Dizzy Gillespie? But at the same time I was glad that Tavernier and Clint Eastwood made those films because otherwise those films wouldn’t have gotten made.
Your film didn’t suffer from those shortcomings — the nice white character who clears the path for the black genius — but there were elements of your film that were not particularly realistic, as far as what the jazz scene is, in New York City.
Like the club.
First of all, that’s a stylistic choice. Most clubs —
It was a realistic film, Spike.
[Excited.] Who said anything about realism?
No, no, no. Any director should be able to make stylistic choices. If I want to shoot a film that’s very stylistic, that has grand sweeping camera movements, I cannot have a fucking club the size of a cubbyhole. You just can’t do it. “Oh, Bleek Gilliam, no jazz musician has a loft like that!” Have those people ever been to Wynton Marsalis’s house or Branford Marsalis’s house?
There are a couple. Very, very few jazz musicians — the skinny top of the pyramid — live like that, even among successful jazz musicians; dress like that, live like that, have that kind of rehearsal loft. The jazz musicians I know thought it was funny Bleek was trying to renegotiate his contract at the club: who did he think he was, Patrick Ewing?Jazz musicians are not usually in a position to renegotiate a deal, nor would they be playing a club for however long Bleek was playing there. Musicians don’t play clubs for six weeks. Something else struck a wrong chord: a musician as proud as Bleek, who was very much a “Wynton type” and had that kind of carriage and demeanor, would not trade sets with a chitlin circuit comedian. I couldn’t imagine Wynton trading sets with that guy.
You’re wrong, because there’s been a long history of jazz and comedy. Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby used to open up for jazz musicians all the time, in the Village.
Yeah, a long time ago!
Why am I not given the same artistic leverage other motherfuckers are given?
Because it’s set in the present!
How many motherfucking white heavyweight boxing champions are there? Rocky is the most motherfucking Walt Disney movie, ever.
And that’s fantasy. And maybe what you’re saying is that you wanted to make sort of a jazz fantasy —
See, where was it printed that Spike said I was going to make the number-one realistic movie about jazz, ever? I never said that. If I said that, we wouldn’t have that jazz club. [Exercised.] I’m not gonna shoot a scene where I don’t have room — where I can’t get a Louma crane in, and it’s all gonna be static shots of people playing on the bandstand. That shit is boring! That’s boring! Let’s talk about facts. Martin Scorsese, ask him the fucking size of the ring in Raging Bull. They had a fucking ring that was huge because that’s what they needed to get the shots the way he wanted. Okay! “Oh, there’s no jazz clubs that big in New York.” So what? So what? So what? But the same people won’t say diddly-shit about Bird: “Why is Red Rodney in this movie more than Dizzy Gillespie? How come there’s no mention of Charlie Parker’s other black wives? Why does it seem like this woman Chan is his only wife?” Shit like that is like over everybody’s head.
Certain parts of the movie are very realistic and other parts are less realistic, and —
All you can say is —
And other parts are —
Look, let me finish —
Go on! You’re building up steam, man.
[Laughing.] Nobody said —
[Laughing.] Tie me to the tracks!
All I can say is, this is the way I saw the film and if somebody doesn’t believe it, if it rings false to them, then in their eyes I was unsuccessful. But, what I’m saying is, people got two different standards, though. For other shit, for other motherfuckers, that shit goes by . . .
You hate corniness. You say you hate corniness, and fight to keep it away. To me, a lot of stuff in that movie felt corny.
Like the “happy family” montage at the end, the musician names, the two-women-in-the-same-dress scene. A lot of stuff seemed like 1930s, 1940s. Bleek calling out the name of the wrong woman while making love. Those are such clichés I was surprised they showed up in a Spike Lee movie.
I didn’t see them like clichés. What names were clichés?
A drummer named “Rhythm Jones.” Modern jazz musicians don’t have names like that. Left-hand, Rhythm. Very 1940s, very pre-bebop, sort of swing era stuff.
And how were they dressed?
There was definitely a retro thing happening there too, so it was blended. Now the montage at the end: you hammer on Disney, the love-can-conquer-everything shit, but that ending! Yesterday you talked about “earned” sentiment rather than “manufactured” sentimentality. I didn’t feel that the movie, built up through the characters, had earned those moments. I wasn’t moved by those moments.
Look, that’s your opinion, I can’t argue with that. I don’t think the montage “A Love Supreme” was corny at all.
The music they were playing was pretty conservative — 1960s hard bop music, essentially. What was your thinking, making the music very mainstream jazz as opposed to music pushing the boundaries, like Parker in his time?
I was thinking about people coming to the film who don’t know anything about jazz. That was the main consideration. The people who are jazz enthusiasts make up a very small number of the movie-going audience.
The club owners, Moe and Josh, got a lot of attention. I’m not saying I expected them to be like Max Gordon, beloved owner of the Village Vanguard, but in your romantic ideal of a jazz world (which is I think the phrase you use), the owners of the club are certainly no romantic ideal for anybody. There’s a clash here between one kind of tone, one kind of film going on, and these guys, who fly in from what seems like a different movie, an over-the-top satire — the tight-fisted, money-grubbing, Jewish businessmen. It was discordant. Not because I think you were making an anti-Semitic broadside (because we know jazz musicians often have been taken advantage of, I accept that), but the style in which you did it struck me as discordant, and curious. What was behind it?
What’s behind what?
What’s behind the way you presented them, where the manner and mode of characterization was so different from anything else in the film?
But David, there’s not one type of thing in the film. The two guys who beat up Bleek were different from everybody else in the film. The band. The two guys who work for Moe and Josh. It’s not like the whole movie is complete here and then out in left field you got Moe and Josh. I just don’t see it like that.
You wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times in response to accusations that you were anti-Semitic. Will you share what you related in that?
I’m trying to remember. I just gave various examples of double standards. I just listed several recent instances where no charges of being a racist were leveled against these films and these filmmakers, and why is it you can never have any negative Jewish characters in a piece of art? [Pause.] I forget what I wrote, most of it.
Were you aware as you wrote and shot those scenes that you were playing with a stereotype that was going to inflame people?
To me, I did not see that as a stereotype. First of all, that’s like when the NAACP came out with that statement that most of Hollywood is run by Jewish people. Jewish people were upset. I don’t see what the big deal was. It’s the truth. Now the Japanese are buying it up, but the people that run things are Jewish. The entertainment industry, and particularly the film industry. And in this particular case, Moe and Josh, these guys owned the Beneath the Underdog club, were Jewish, and were tight, and they exploited artists. And this was not to say that every single Jewish person exploits artists, or that every single Jewish person in the world is like that. In this case, these guys were. And that’s all there was to it.
Did they strike you as caricatures, more than characters?
Not to make it overly simplistic, but did you feel there was a message in Mo’ Better Blues about the demands of art?
That the great artists probably have a very hard time with their personal life. ’Cause a great artist is going to devote every single waking minute to their art, and that family is always going to suffer for it.
Present company excluded?
Well, hopefully, it won’t be the same for me. Knock on wood. [Raps the table.] With the whole Moe and Josh thing: if people want to say that the characters were flat, you know, that’s all right. But to say that Spike is anti-Semitic, and “Don’t you know that Jews walked side by side with Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement?” and all that other shit, that has nothing to do with the movie. I really didn’t want to be swept up in that whole black-Jewish relations thing.
You know, I think there’s a thinking among a lot of Jewish people that there’s some great black conspiracy against Jewish people. First of all, black people don’t see it like that: it’s not just Jewish people, for the most part it’s just white people. Because how do you know who’s Jewish? You just can’t look at somebody.
A yarmulke is usually a tip-off.
That’s not always the case.
That’s a nice segue into Jungle Fever. You shot film, to start the movie, of you on a crane, talking to the camera and saying: “People say I’m anti-Semitic. They can kiss my black ass, two times.”
But that was not the whole statement. That was the end of it.
The rest of it was more about not having answers.
Yeah. The statement was really like a prologue to the movie.
It’s not there anymore. How come?
Well, you know, over time I saw it didn’t need it.
What taught you that?
I mean, it’s like any other scene in the film. The first cut was two hours, forty-five minutes. Now it’s 2:03. We see what works, what moves the film forward, and stuff that doesn’t, hopefully that’s what you take out.
Did your research screenings give you a feeling about the Spike-talks-to-the-camera shot?
A lot of people laughed at it, thought it was funny.
The focus of Jungle Fever is not so much on the interracial relationship itself as on the environment in which they have to operate. Why did you make that choice?
Because in this case, these two people came together for probably the wrong reasons. It really wasn’t love. Even though Angie I think grows to love Flipper [Wesley Snipes]. But that’s not the same case for him. And it’s the two neighborhoods they’re from, Harlem and Bensonhurst, and the boundaries that are crossed, and what happens to you when you cross those boundaries — how you’re looked upon by friends, family, and the two neighborhoods they come from.
It’s pretty despairing in that regard.
It is. Again, this is not to say that is going to be the case, or is the case, with every interracial couple, but I think that with the dynamics today — especially here in New York City, and again, with those two neighborhoods — it’s fairly accurate.
I loved the chain-link backgrounds in the parallel scenes where each tells their friends about the relationship. It’s such a beautiful metaphor for the sense of being fenced in by your surroundings.
I think that’s true, but I think Angie is much more fenced in than Flipper is. She’s trapped. She’s trapped in that neighborhood, that environment of Bensonhurst. And Flipper is her one way out.
Flipper can move more fluidly than she can. Is that a function of class? He’s upper middle class, and she’s lower middle class.
Class. Yes. The difference between this film and Do the Right Thing is that was mainly about race, and in this you add class and sex to that. For me, that’s a much more combustible combination. Race, class, and sex.
In the Italian neighborhood scenes, with the counterpoint of Sinatra singing so sweetly while all the verbal violence and other violence is going on, there’s a heavy tension between image and reality.
Three great songs by Frankie baby! Old Blue Eyes! “Once Upon a Time,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” and “It Was a Very Good Year.”
Did you have any trouble getting permissions?
We had a little difficulty, because we used Frank Sinatra’s picture on the “Wall of Fame” in Sal’s Famous Pizzeria in Do the Right Thing. So they reminded me of that when I called to ask permission for these three songs. [Laughs.] I talked to his daughter, Tina Sinatra, and she was very gracious, and hopefully Frank will like it. [Wild laughter.]
There’s a whole kind of “in-group”freedom Scorsese has in depicting Italians, or you have in depicting blacks.
I understand it. I understand exactly what you’re talking about.
The myths you’re basically dealing with are —
Right. The myths that the white woman is the ideal of beauty —
The epitome of beauty.
Okay, the epitome of beauty, and that the black man is the epitome of sexual performance. So that works for black men and white women. But what about interracial couples where it’s a white man and a black woman? They’re not operating with those myths.
Yeah, but we were only handling that in this film.
Do you think there are equivalent myths operating for those couples? You take pains to show, at Bloomingdales, two consecutive interracial couples: white men, black women.
[Happy.] You picked that up! After only one showing! Well, I think that for black women, today, it has become more of necessity. Because they just can’t find — there are no black men out there for them. With all the black men in prison, or not on their economic or social level, black women can’t find mates! And they’re stepping outside, you know. On the other hand, why wouldn’t a white male want to have a beautiful black woman! [Laughs.] I don’t blame ’em for that. They know it’s good!
Does the film not want to allow for the possibility that there could be love between Flipper and Angie, or is it just Flipper that doesn’t want to allow for that?
I think it’s Flipper. But you have to realize, Flipper is the one who’s married. I really do think there comes a point in the film where Angie loves Flipper. She’s younger than him, too.
In your own personal life, you’ve had a little experience with some of the dynamics here, with your infamous lunch with Kim Basinger. [Lee laughs.] The quote was, “I wouldn’t want fifteen million black women to think I had gone astray.”
I said that facetiously. Let’s talk about the whole incident, so we don’t take it out of context. The 1989 Academy Awards, Kim Basinger is naming the five films for best film. She felt the best film wasn’t mentioned, and she called out Do the Right Thing. And I was shocked when she said that. Nobody knew she was going to do that. So I thought it was a very courageous act for her to do. She caught a lot of flak behind that. Then her agent called me and said, “She would like to meet you.” I said, “Fine, next time she comes to New York I’ll meet with her.” So she comes to New York — and I know how this stuff is, so I make a point of bringing a black woman with me. [Laughs.] So it’s me, my friend, Kim, and her assistant. So there’s four of us sitting at a restaurant. Two days later, there’s a column in the Daily News: “Spike Lee! Kim Basinger! Sitting across from each other, miking goo-goo eyes! Romantically linked!” All kinds of shit. There were four of us at the table! So, I called the columnist and said that was not the case at all and I explained. Anyway, sort of like a tag line, I said, “I don’t want the wrath of twenty million black women on my ass, thinking I had went astray.” And that was the end of that; it was a joke.
I just wanted to focus on the words “going astray.” Is it your personal feeling that to marry outside the race is “going astray”?
I wouldn’t do it, I wouldn’t do it. But if two people are in love with each other, that’s it. But I don’t think I would marry anybody other than a black woman.
For political reasons or because you’re simply not attracted to white women?
This movie is the first time you’ve dealt with drugs. The film ends with more focus on that than on the racial relationship. Were you ever afraid that the drug sub-plot was going to come up and eat the rest of the movie because it’s so strong?
No, because I saw it as one unified unit. Now, some other people might not see it that way. It did not bother me that the last note of the film was not about Flipper and Angie, the relationship. For me, the film is not really about this interracial relationship, and not drugs, but about this particular person: Flipper Purify. And we’re looking at his life in this very specific time frame, where a whole lot of stuff is happening to his life.
What about the name “Purify”? Are we to make too much of that as a metaphor?
No. It was there for that reason.
Both wives of the black men in the film are mulatto. Is there anything positive about mixing, blending black and white?
I think that mulatto children are very interesting. I know a whole lot of them.
Some think they’re one hundred percent black, and you may find somebody as white as this tablecloth, and they’re “blacker” than anybody. And others, you know, they go the other way: they’re passing. Then you have the ones who say, [silly advertising voice] “I’m not black, I’m not white, I’m a combination of the two!” I think it really depends on how people see themselves. Some people might think that they have the best of both worlds.
That’s what Quincy Jones told me about his children.
Well, how many white wives did Quincy have? He would answer like that. The reason why I did this in this film is that this color issue is dynamic. In the dialogue in the movie, Flipper’s wife says to Flipper, “White people hate black people because they aren’t black.” Then Flipper answers, “Does your black father hate your white mother?” And she says, “Are you talking about my family?” And he says, “See, color has you fucked up too.” And that’s a big dynamic right there: the issue of blood and color. That’s something we wanted to have in Jungle Fever.
Do you think the idea of a “colorblind” society is something that’s even positive to shoot for, or is just stupid?
I don’t think Utopia is going to be a society where everybody’s blood is mixed up. Hopefully, we can live a peaceful existence, and people can still have their distinct nationalities or backgrounds or races or whatever.
Would you call yourself an integrationist?
Not necessarily. I’m not going to break my neck to piss in the same urinal next to some white guy. That battle’s been won. I don’t think the battle anymore is living next to a white person, or going to the same school. The battle to me should be on the economic front.
What about the revived Black Nationalism today?
What, move back to Africa?
Not necessarily that, but it doesn’t really advocate mixing; it advocates mixing as little as possible, even in a social way.
Do I advocate that? I think you should be around who you’re comfortable with. I’m very comfortable around white people, so I have no qualms about it. I’m not calling for no separate state, or nothing like that.
If America gave black people a separate state it would be North Dakota.
It’s never been feasible anyway.
I’m thinking of Sterling Brown’s line in favor of integration: “An integer is a whole number.”
I think that at a time that was something we had to fight for, to sit at the same lunch counter. But that stuff is over with now. You got to move on, progress.
One more thing about the film. One of the interesting things about your handling of the Italians is that Vinny is very dark, has kind of kinky hair —
And listens to Public Enemy!
Yeah, he’s really confused.
I wouldn’t say that. Because those kids in Bensonhurst love Public Enemy. They like the music, but I guess they’re definitely not listening to the lyrics. The beat is there. When I went to Bensonhurst on the invitation of this writer from Newsday, three or four days after Yusuf Hawkins was murdered — you wouldn’t believe all those Italian kids come up to me, “Yo, Spike, can you sign an autograph? Woo! Bring Michael Jordan! Where’s Flavor Flav! Where’s Chuck D?” They love rap. But at the same time [laughs] they will take a baseball bat to a black kid’s head, if they feel he’s not supposed to be in that neighborhood.
I mean, that’s the crazy thing. That’s the paradox about racism. America. They could hate black people, yet at the same time they will buy Michael Jackson, they will watch Bill Cosby, they will love Michael Jordan to death. They don’t classify those particular people as black, they are classed as exceptions. The perfect example is that scene in Do the Right Thing between Pino and Mookie. Pino loves Prince, Magic Johnson, Eddie Murphy — they’re not niggers, they’re different. That shit is true.
There’s a sense that Vinny may be secretly terrified of having some black blood in him. There’s a real sense —
I’m not a psychiatrist, but I think that’s one of the reasons that there’s always been a lot of static between black people and Italian-Americans. Italy is very close to Africa. Hey, you know what’s up! [Laughs.]
Now, as to Malcolm X, you were quoted as saying that you would be “crazy to let white people determine the outcome of this film.” Even if you had black producers, wouldn’t you still think it would be crazy to let them determine the outcome?
Yeah, but I produce it myself. It’s white people at the studio. We’re talking about Hollywood today. No black people run Hollywood. So what are you talking about?
I was trying to understand exactly what you meant by —
I’m talking ’bout the real world, not some make-believe shit. No black person runs a motherfucking studio. There’s no black studio executive who can green-light a picture.
I’m aware of that.
So when I make a statement like that, that’s what I’m talking about.
If there were though, I’m asking you a theoretical —
Oh, now let’s talk about the theoretical world.
Yes, let’s. If there were, wouldn’t you still insist on complete control?
Okay. That’s all.
But that’s not the point though.
That’s not your point. I get it, I’m not that slow. [Pause.] When you said, “Only a black should be able to write and direct Malcolm X,” did you get flak about that?
No. You know, August Wilson got a lot of flak when he wrote an article about it. There’s always been that debate. James Earl Jones, [laughs] he’s made several comments saying that it doesn’t matter. But I still feel that way. I feel a film like this . . . even Norman Jewison told me that he always felt a black person should direct this. At the time he was going to direct it, he says he didn’t see any black people out there qualified to do it.
Can you appreciate how that argument could be turned against you, against blacks, by racists?
That doesn’t bother me, because you could turn anything any which way you want to.
What does Malcolm X represent to you? Why was the project so important to you?
[Pause.] Because I want this film to do justice to his legacy. I feel, Denzel feels, everybody that’s working on it feels, this has to be a great film. It can’t be all right, it can’t be a good film. It has to be our obligation, our duty to make a great, great, great movie. Because he deserves it. And it would be a great testimony for what he stood for and what he died for, and what we still have to do as a people.
Are you fighting over what kind of film Warner Bros. will let you make?
There’s never been any debate on the content, it’s the length. I told them from the get-go, from jump street, this is a three-hour motherfucking movie.
Are they nervous about it?
Yeah, they’re nervous about it. Yeah, they’re nervous about a three-hour movie. This movie can’t be done for under $30 million.
Do they accept that, yet?
[Pause.] Well, they can believe what they want to believe, but it can’t be done for under thirty.
Because this is a big jump in the history of black cinema. It would be the first time that kind of major money —
You’re right! That’s why they’re nervous about it! This is the same studio that did you-know-what, Bonfire of the Vanities. They lost a bundle on that. So they’re kind of nervous.
The producer, Marvin Worth, used to road-manage Billie Holiday, didn’t he?
That’s what he says. I believe him.
He also did a documentary on Malcolm X.
In the early seventies. He bought the rights directly from Betty Shabazz, Malcolm’s widow, and Alex Haley, back in 1969, and has been trying to get the film made ever since.
Would you feel more comfortable with a black producer?
It don’t matter now. I try to keep grounded in the real world. The fact is, I produce my own films and I’m gonna have the same creative control I’ve had on all my films.
So will he be co-producer, or executive producer?
I haven’t really decided what the terminology is, but I know the way it’s going to run, though. [Laughs, sly smile.] I know what the program’s gonna be.
There have been five scripts.
Five or six.
David Mamet —
He wrote his for Sidney Lumet.
You’re working off the original, with Baldwin and Arnold Perl. Who was Perl?
He was a writer who got blacklisted in the 1950s. See, James Baldwin started out, but he was having trouble, so Marvin brought Arnold Perl in. They’re both deceased. That’s what I’m rewriting.
You felt that was the best script?
In my opinion, it was.
Do you plan to act in this film as well?
Yeah, I might.
That will be a trip, to see you in a historical film.
Yeah, with my conk. [Laughs.]
You’ve appeared in all of your films, and have such a persona now outside them, don’t you worry that —
I think it’s worked to my advantage. If I thought it would be a deterrent to the movie, I wouldn’t do it. But I don’t think it will be.
Good luck with it. Is there anything else on your mind?
Yeah, hire some black writers at Rolling Stone. Now I got to try to get a cab to go to Brooklyn.