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In the Room with Spike Lee

Interview

SPIKE LEE — Why would not a black person be obsessed with race, when his ancestors were stolen from mother Africa, brought here to build this country? I just find it very…amusing, when people say “Why are black people mad, or upset, or angry?” I think that if you put it into historical context, with all the shit that’s happened to us, we’re very calm!



OFFICE — It’s hardly an obsession.



SL — It’s not obsession. You’re reminded that you’re black every single day. When I can’t catch a motherfuckin’ cab in the morning, when their lights are on, and then they see me and turn the lights off, or when I say where I wanna go and they say “My shift is ending” and speed away… So as a black person you’re reminded every day that you’re black. Whether you wanna admit it or not. I love Jay’s new song, where he says “’I’m not black, I’m O.J.’…OK.” What Jay just did there, that’s amazing. So often there are African Americans who think that once they get some acclaim and status, then they’re no longer black—but sooner or later, they will be reminded.


O — Can you remember the earliest moments in your youth, when you were reminded of your blackness?



SL — Oh, yeah. I remember before our family bought our brownstone in Fort Greene, for $45,000 back in 1968, ’69, we lived in Cobble Hill. At that time it was a predominantly Italian-American neighborhood. I wanted to join the Boy Scouts, and I was told I couldn’t join because I wasn’t Catholic.



O — That’s a nice euphemism.



SL — Yeah. So look—it wasn’t a traumatic moment in my life, but just as an example of being reminded. We were the first black family to move into Cobble Hill, we lived in Crown Heights first, so me and my siblings got called nigger, but once they saw that there wasn’t a whole wave of black people coming behind the Lee’s, then we were alright. They got over that in like a month, but the first month they were like nigger this, nigger that.


O — At that point did you have people in your life, parents or teachers, who were very vocal about issues of race?



SL — My parents were woke. They would tell me and my siblings what was happening. So we were very aware of the world. I say this all the time, but I come from a generation where black parents told their children that they had to be ten times better than their white classmates. I would say, “Mommy, that’s not fair!” and she’d say “Fuck what’s fair, that’s just the way it is.” So we came up in a time where we were taught we had to excel. I would come home with a B on my test and be happy, and my mom would say “You know what? That’s not good enough, because I know your Jewish classmates are gettin’ an A+.” That’s the type of household I was in, where you were taught—again to quote Jay-Z—what Jay calls black excellence. So that’s the era. Mother and father at home, mom taught black literature at St. Ann’s in Booker Heights, my father was a jazz musician, but he started getting work as a top folk bassist, played with Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, Odetta. Puff the Magic Dragon, that’s my father on bass. There’s one album, the only instruments are Bob Dylan on guitar and my father on bass. When Bob Dylan started going electric my father stopped working, because he refused to play electric music. My mother wasn’t working, she was raising the kids, so she had to get a job. She started teaching at St. Ann’s because my father was not going to play electric bass, even though he had five kids.


O — What do you think kept him from switching over to electric?



SL — His values. As he called it, “tone as is.” Even when he played upright, he wouldn’t put a pickup on his bass. My mother wasn’t going to let us starve, so she had to work. All that is in Crooklyn, you ever see Crooklyn?



O — Mhmm.



SL — Well you see it again.

 

 

O — And you lost your mother relatively young?



SL — Yes, I was a sophomore at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.



O — Do you feel that loss informed your work, or redirected your path at all at that point?



SL —  Hmm. I don’t know, I mean I didn’t even know if I wanted to be a filmmaker until the summer of 1977, the summer of the blackout. First summer of disco. The Summer of Sam, David Berkowitz. But my mother was the one—my father hated movies, but he loved sports. So my love of sports I got from my father, my love of movies came from my mother. My father did not like movies, so I was my mother’s movie date. My mother was the one that introduced me to Martin Scorsese, Mean Streets, DeNiro, Harvey Keitel. She was also the one, my mother was driving me and my siblings to Broadway plays instead of museums. We didn’t want to go, but we had no choice. It was great, because every time we would go kickin’ and cryin’, and at the end we’d say “That was good, Mommy.” So my mother understood at an early age that you never know what gifts your children might have, what might interest them, but you’re not going to find out unless they’re exposed to it. I remember going to see the Bye Bye Birdie. It’s funny how it works, because the opening sequence of Bye Bye Birdie, where Ann-Margret’s dancing, that’s where I got the idea for Rosie to dance in the beginning of Do the Right Thing—it’s different dancing, different music, but that’s where it came from. My mother taking me to see the Easter Sunday show of Bye Bye Birdie.



O — You referenced the summer of ’77, when you took footage of New York during the blackout on a camcorder—


SL — Camcorder?! No, no — Super 8.



O — Super 8, sorry. But do you remember the feeling that inspired you to go out and document that? Was there a sense of urgency?



SL — No. I mean, New York City was broke that summer. There’s a very famous front page of the Daily News, ford to city: drop dead! Ford being President Ford. So there were no jobs. I went over to a friend’s house one day during that summer, someone had just given her a Super 8 camera and a box of film, and she said “You can have it.” So I didn’t do that to be a filmmaker, there was just nothing else to do! I just did it to not be sitting on the stoop all summer.



O — So what happened after that when you returned to Morehouse?



SL — I declared my major. I went to Morehouse College but my major I took across the street at Clark College, which is now Clark Atlanta University. There was a teacher there, Dr. Herb Eichelberger, who was very instrumental in me being a filmmaker. I declared myself a mass communications major, which was film, television, journalism, radio…and something else. Dr. Eichelberger really pushed me to do something with that footage I shot over the summer. So I made this documentary about that summer, which had the looting, the blackout, the block parties, DJ’s with their turntables and speakers. It’s called Last Hustle in Brooklyn. That first film was just something to do, and it sparked my interest. So after graduating from Morehouse in ’79, I got into NYU grad film school. But first I had a summer internship at Columbia Pictures in Burbank, California for eight weeks, I spent every week in a different department.



O — Do you remember the films they were working on at that time?


SL — I do remember …and justice for all., with Al Pacino.



O — Was that the first time you witnessed that full Hollywood experience?

I come from a generation where black parents told their children that they had to be ten times better than their white classmates. I would say, “Mommy, that’s not fair!” and she’d say “Fuck what’s fair, that’s just the way it is.”

 

 

SL — Oh yeah, I’d never been on a lot before. Actually that was my first time in LA too.



O — You like it out there in LA?



SL — To visit, not to live. I take JetBlue, leave at 5:50 in the morning, get there at 8:30, and then I’m back on the redeye the same night. In and out.



O — Speaking of Hollywood, I recently saw video of you speaking about Moonlight’s win at last year’s Oscars, how you felt it was just a reaction to the previous year’s outcry over #OscarsSoWhite, and that attention on black actors and directors, and black stories in film, should be constant. But was part of you happy to see Moonlight win?



SL — Oh, yeah. Here’s the thing though—I’m happy, but I don’t think it’s indication that the world has changed. I’d be much happier if a person of color was head of the studio, because that’s where the power is. That’s when you have power, when you’re in the room. When you’re the gatekeeper. Winning the Oscar, that’s not going to change the landscape. The landscape changes when we’re in the room. I mean, look at the fiasco of that Pepsi commercial. We weren’t in the room! Someone would’ve said, “You know what? This is a misappropriation of the Black Lives Matter movement. This is very serious subject matter. Black people are being shot down on video, the cops are walking free.” To trivialize that to sell soda? Come one now. We weren’t in the room! If there was somebody of color in the room, they weren’t woke. It just appalls me. The United States Census Bureau said by as early as the year 2035, 2040, that white America is going to be in the minority. There are studies that say the more diverse you are, the more profitable you will be.


O — You connect with more people that way.



SL — Exactly. But here’s the thing though, it also means that your workforce should be diverse. They say “OK we’ll do that, we’ll market to those people, but we’re not going to have any of those people work with us.” But there are specific insights that you’re not going to know, and you have to have people in the room to teach you. To enlighten you. ‘Cause you just don’t know it all. Sorry, you just don’t know it all.



O — Even with our magazine, it’s a new magazine, we feature a lot of black artists in our pages, and our masthead is predominantly white. It’s a constant conversation.



SL — I appreciate you bringing that up. Because, you’ve gotta be about it, you can’t just talk about it. So if you talk all this stuff, wanna be diverse and all that, and then you go in your office…[] For years, when I would have my meetings in Hollywood, at the studios, the only black person I’d see was the brotherman at the gate, that would check my name off the list and pound me up, and that would be it. So for me, that is the next battle. We cannot get caught up on awards. In my opinion. The battle is to get in those positions where you can make a difference. Where you have a say. Where you have a vote that counts for whether this gets made, or this doesn’t get made. That’s where it is. Otherwise, all this stuff is trivial. It’s amazing, I still have these meetings, pitching stuff, and there’s nobody black in the room. You might have a black secretary, but other than that, it’s totally white. Therefore, you see that vision played out in the programming. It’s like, is this 1917 instead of 2017? Do you understand that pretty soon white America’s gonna be the minority? Here’s the thing I’d also like to say—forget about it being the right thing to do. Alright? Forget about whether it’s righteous, let’s just go to the bottom line. You will make more money! Studies have shown. Fast and the Furious, everyone knows it’s the diversity of that cast that has made that series a juggernaut. That film would not have made that money if that cast was all white. 

 

 

O — What about subject matter as well though? Take a movie like Get Out, which was by all accounts a huge success.



SL — That was some sneaky shit.



O — Tell me what you mean by that.



SL — That was the hidden ball trick, the misdirection. It was great. People thought they were getting one thing, and they got another thing.



O — But that appealed to a wider crowd…



SL — Nah, that appealed to a wider crowd because people thought they were coming to see a horror film, and they got a horror horror film. So it was a bait and switch, it was a fantastic move, where people thought they were seeing something, and they got a lot more. That’s one of those films, you’ve gotta see it with a white audience, and see it with a black audience. It’s two totally different responses. Just the title, Get Out, you have to be black to understand that. Because historically, in horror films, the black character is always the first to get killed. That’s where the title comes from. We as a people speak to the screen, so we’re watching that movie and we’re like “GET THE FUCK OUT!” “DON’T GO IN THAT ROOM!” “WATCH OUT BEHIND THE DOOR!” Because we know we’re the first to get killed. So that’s the genius, using that call and response of black audiences calling out to the lone black character running in horror films, like “Get out! Don’t stay in that house, don’t go in that room, don’t open that door.” Because we know we’re always the first killed. The Shining. Scatman Cruthers, Jack Nicholson gives him a fuckin’ hatchet in the chest! So I think people aren’t even hip to the title. That’s where it comes from. There’s only one black person in the horror film, then you know he’s dying first. He’s dead!

 

O — Do you think it can be a perilous thing when something like “wokeness” becomes a trend?


SL — I don’t think it’s a trend, because I wouldn’t say black power was a trend. You could say that being “woke” is a reconfiguration of black power, from the ‘60s. I don’t think Black Lives Matters is a trend. What’s a trend is black people being shot, murdered, and cops getting away. That’s a trend. But you could also say that’s always been happening, but people didn’t have their phones to record it. So I would say that. I would say it’s not a trend.



O — Who are you looking at in the younger generation of filmmakers and artists that excites you right now?



SL — I’m a teacher, I’m a tenured professor at NYU, so my students excite me. I always look out for young voices, and understand that it’s a continuum, it keeps going. My students are very enthusiastic, very dedicated. I try to instill a work ethic. It’s hard work, but I’ve always had this philosophy that if you love something it’s not really work.



O — Do you consider yourself a workaholic?



SL — Oh, yeah.



O — That why you’re in here on a Saturday?



SL — Yeah, we’re in the final stages of finishing She’s Gotta Have It for Netflix.



O — Can you tell me a little bit about the project?



SL — Well, She’s Gotta Have It was my first feature film, shot in twelve days in July of 1985. My wife was the one who gave me the idea to try and make it a series, the thought had never really occurred to me.



O — So what’s on the docket today?



SL — Well, I gotta go over some stuff, do credits, make sure names are spelled right. And it looks like a nice summer day in New York.

— END

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