’The struggle continues’: Spike Lee on racism, conspiracy theories and storytelling

Spread the love

Spike Lee, 64, is an award-winning filmmaker, cultural icon, social critic and die-hard New York Knicks fan whose career includes directing, producing, writing and acting in feature and documentary films, most recently the HBO documentary “NYC Epicenter: 9/11➔2021½.” His vast body of work — close to 40 films — has won numerous awards, including an Academy Award (best adapted screenplay) for “BlacKkKlansman” and an Emmy Award for the documentary “When the Levees Broke.”

Through his bold and provocative storytelling, Lee has been an important voice on race, racism and other social issues for three decades, and he will receive the Director’s Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in March. Lee’s company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, is based in his home borough, “Da People’s Republic of Brooklyn,” and he lives in Manhattan with his family.

The following is based on two conversations, which have been edited and condensed.

Can you talk about what shaped your desire to become a filmmaker? When did that first take root?

I grew up in a very artistic household. So you might say the seeds were planted there. My late mother was a cinephile, so she would take me to films. My father hated Hollywood films. So I was my mother’s movie date — I’m the first child. But my father loved sports, so he was taking me to Shea Stadium, Madison Square Garden. I’m a perfect example of how parents can influence their children. In a good way. In a positive way. I think the biggest reason why parents can have a negative effect on their children is when they kill their children’s dreams. You can’t make any money — especially being an artist. You can’t do that. You can’t do that.

And I had a film professor, Dr. Herb Eichelberger, who encouraged me to make a documentary out of the footage I had shot [one] summer. The summer of 1977, New York City was broke, so there weren’t any summer jobs. So I just spent the whole summer shooting stuff on a Super 8 camera: the blackout, first summer of disco in New York. And it was Son of Sam. I shot all this stuff on a Super 8 camera given to me by a friend. Vietta Johnson. That’s when it really started. That’s when, I say a lot of times, that film chose me. Because if I had not gone to see Vietta that particular day, my life would be completely different. I mean, the whole summer up to that point, we were just sitting on our stoop playing Strat-O-Matic baseball. But the spirit — whatever you want to call it — let me go see Vietta, see what she’s doing.

But once I started, I wanted to do this. I wanted to build a body of work and not just be a one-and-done, a flash in the pan.

In 2019, you won an Oscar. Many would say it was overdue. But it wasn’t as a director, for which you’re known. How do you think about that recognition, and what does it mean to you to be recognized by the Academy?

Well, I mean, I wasn’t giving it back! The people know what the deal was. I mean, it’s obvious with the body of work. I’m not the only one. I won’t be the first that didn’t win that should have. What are you going to do? I mean, I was mad, you know? But it was no need for me to hold that in. You let it go and keep moving. I did not stop making films after “Do the Right Thing” when motherf—ing “Driving Miss Daisy” won. [Laughs.] You know? I kept it moving.

Who inspired you? Who was a mentor, whether in film, or just in general?

For me, I have to go to the grandfather of cinema — Black cinema — Oscar Micheaux. Sidney [Poitier], who left us. Melvin Van Peebles just left us. I mean, there’s a ton of people — and not necessarily in film. Malcolm X. My Morehouse brother Dr. Martin Luther King. So there were a whole lot of people who inspired me. And I look at them every day in my office here. I have all the pictures of — movie posters and stuff — of my pantheon.

And when young filmmakers come to you for advice, what do you tell them?

You bust your ass. At work. That’s the thing I harp on. Work ethic. Work ethic. Work ethic. You got to work.

When envisioning your projects, your joints, how much do you think about the audience: who your audience is, who you want it to be, what they will tolerate, what they won’t?

The first thing is: Do I want to make this film? For me. What’s the next film I want to do, what I’m going to say? And then the audience. I’m not arrogant, like, I don’t care, I don’t give a f— what the audience says — I’m not going to say that. But making a film is hard AF. And a year out of my life, or more. So I want to have that passion, drive and desire to get it done. And hopefully that will align with the audience.

I could not have done the work I’ve done if I worry about what the audience is going to think. Now, everybody’s different; other filmmakers have their own way to work. So I’m only speaking for myself. As an artist, I think you put your work out there, and that’s that. And they’re going to react to it the way they react to it.

The original cut of [your recent documentary] “NYC Epicenter” reportedly featured debunked 9/11 conspiracy theories, and you caught a lot of flak for including them. So I wanted to ask you about why you chose to include them in the first place — and then why you decided to cut them?

Thank you for asking that question. First of all, just because somebody says it’s debunked does not mean it’s not true. The Warren Commission said the motherf—ing magical bullet did a 360-change midair and killed — that was the bullet that assassinated JFK! It defies physics. Bullets don’t do that. So just because somebody says “debunked” does not mean that it’s false. I mean, I was taught in school that that motherf—ing terrorist Christopher Columbus discovered America!

So where do you fall on that? Do you think those [9/11 theories] are true? Or do you think that they may be true?

I think that there’s things that need to be discussed. In all my work, I put the information out there, whether it be documentaries or feature films, and I leave it up to the audience to decide. Simple. They make up their own minds. People, before they come to my theaters, they’ve lived a life. They’ve been impacted where they grew up, the education — all those factors. So I don’t expect everybody to have the same reaction to the film. People today still stop me in the street and say, “Spike, who did the right thing in ‘Do the Right Thing?’ ” And I say, “Who do you think?”

I would not be the filmmaker I am today if just because someone says it’s not true you can’t do it.

So then why did you decide to make the cuts, ultimately?

Well, I really wasn’t given a choice, to be honest.

By HBO, or …

I wasn’t given a choice. But, that too shall pass. I’ll leave it at that.

Source link