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.
Someone wrote that you may have actually “captured the collective psyche of the moment” in including that material because there is a big rise in so-called conspiracy theories because there’s a lot of distrust.
Yeah. I included people — scientists, architects — who aren’t buying the story that, especially the third tower [at the World Trade Center] crumpled to the ground — that has never happened before in the history of steel structures, ever, so I did not see harm letting people decide their own mind. And what some of the media did, which I felt was truly not right, and some dirty, underhanded s—, was because I have this in the documentary, they’re aligning me with the motherf—ers that tried to overthrow the government at the Capitol. They tried to put me in the same bag as that! They said that what I was doing was the same as the insurrectionists and also the anti-vaccination people. That was just totally wrong. And that was done on purpose. And, in some way, they were successful. They aligned with me with the insurrectionists on January 6th and with the anti-vaxxers.
Do you feel like you can tell the stories you want to tell, make the films you want to make?
No. I mean, there’s some things that studios don’t want to make. And budgets are always a big consideration when you’re a filmmaker. So you got to fit in where you can get it. Because I’m not writing the check. I’m happy I just signed this deal with Netflix. Three-year deal. That’s going to be my cinematic home for the next three years. Maybe longer. We’ll see.
Can you talk about a specific moment or a favorite experience on one of your projects that was just really satisfying or really achieved what you wanted to achieve?
The final scene we did of “Malcolm X,” which was backbreaking. We were in South Africa — apartheid South Africa — with Nelson Mandela. And to end the rigorous, torturous production schedule with Nelson Mandela — there was no better way we could have ended shooting that film. It was actually the end of the movie, too.
And here’s what’s crazy: The United States of America had the ANC, African National Congress, listed as a terrorist group. Not the government. Not the Afrikaners, who had Black people in that condition. But the ANC, who were trying to get Black people out of that condition. And so filming the great Nelson Mandela in Soweto, South Africa, during this time and knowing, as he said many times, that Malcolm X’s autobiography — “Autobiography of Malcolm X” told to Alex Haley — was one of the things that got him through being imprisoned for 27 motherf—ing years. And he’s before the cameras.
I gave him the script, he read it, and he says, “Mr. Lee” — I said, you can call me Spike. The last line he had to say, as written, was, “By any means necessary.” And he says, “Spike, I cannot say that.” I knew why he could not say that. Because I knew, and it was well-known, that he was going to run — that apartheid was going to end, and he was going to run to be the president of the country. If he said, “By any means necessary,” the Afrikaners would twist the narrative — they’d use that clip in a commercial or whatnot, to say we will kill all White people if I become president.
I already knew that we had archival footage of “Malcolm X” saying that — and that’s the way the film ends. You go from Mandela to Malcolm saying, “By any means necessary.” True story.
It reminds me, in a less good way, about when you used footage of the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally at the end of “BlacKkKlansman.” So that people couldn’t just say, Oh, that was in the past.
You don’t have to work hard to go from Charlottesville to the state capitol of Michigan to insurrection day, January 6th. They’re all in line. And I’m not the first one to say this.
And how do you see threats to voting rights now fitting into that trend?
Oh. You know, these — can I curse? If these motherf—ers could roll back the clock, we’d be on the plantation. [Laughs.] If they had the power to roll back the clock, we’d be back where our ancestors were, working from can’t-see-in-the-morning to can’t-see-at-night.
And is that something that you’re motivated to tackle?
But here’s the thing — and thank you for the question: If you look at my body of work, it did not just happen, you know. I’ve been doing this. “4 Little Girls” came out a long time ago about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. “Do the Right Thing” I wrote in ’88, came out in 1989. I mean, it’s hard to watch Radio Raheem die, even today, with the NYPD chokehold. How can you look at “Do the Right Thing” now and see the murder of Radio Raheem and not think about Eric Garner, George Floyd and many other people? In “Do the Right Thing” we were talking global warming, gentrification — a whole lot of stuff. That’s why some people call me Negrodamus. [Laughs uproariously.]
I hadn’t heard that one yet. So let me ask, then, what do you see going forward?
The best way I can say that is: The struggle continues. The struggle continues.
How do you describe the change in people’s approach to race, police brutality from then to now?
Now there are cameras. People have cameras on their phones. That was a game changer. People — and not just Black people — marched, protested, all over the world behind the murder of George Floyd. All over the world. Here in the United States, a lot of those marches were predominantly White. We haven’t seen that since the civil rights movement. You know, in the ’60s.
Did that give you hope that there might be broader systemic change? There’s been a bit of a backlash now, but …
I was not a very good student, but I love history. And history, in this country, I think you could say that it’s two steps forward and another step back. So again, that’s why I used the phrase: The struggle continues. There’s always going to be backlash when you’re trying to move forward from the powers that be. So we shall see what we shall see. But I think that the White citizens of this Earth that we live on, when they saw that brutal, vicious tape of brother George Floyd, I mean, it hit people hard. And they took to the streets. Images can be powerful.
Here’s the thing, and you just made me think of this: I remember when Obama, my brother, put his hand on the Bible. Overnight you started hearing the phrase “post-racial” whatever. Like, racism, which is the thread that’s woven into the American flag, would, like, hocus pocus, abracadabra, disappear because we have a Black president. Post-racial. Man, that’s some — I’m not going to curse; I’m going to use another word. That’s some malarkey. [Laughs.] Malarkey. That’s the most ludicrous thing I ever heard of. That because we have an African American president, the history of this country, of racism, was evaporated in a poof of smoke. As one of my Italian friends growing up in Brooklyn would say, “Geeeeet the f— outta here!” Post-racial.
Do you think this country can ever get to a point …
In my opinion — and I’m not speaking for 40 million-plus African Americans; I’m speaking for myself. In my opinion, until we start to have serious discussions about racism in this country, it’s never going to happen. We need to discuss how this country was formed. The foundation of the United States of America is the stealing of the land from the Native people, genocide against Native people, and the stealing of our ancestors, my ancestors, from Mother Africa, and landing in Jamestown, Virginia, 1619. That is how this country is built, that is what this democracy is built upon. Fact! Indisputablebleble. [Laughs.] So let’s keep it real. One hunit. H-u-n-i-t-t-t-t!
Like in architecture, how can a foundation be sturdy when it’s not built correctly? I always got mad — still do — when people use the phrase “our Founding Fathers.” The Founding Fathers owned slaves. So right away, this s—’s shaky. How can a foundation be just and strong and moral when it’s built upon the murdering of the Native people, the stealing land from Native people, and slavery? It doesn’t work! In my opinion.
And is it possible to rebuild that foundation? Do you think we have the capacity?
Look, you got to ask somebody smarter than me. I don’t got the answers.
And that’s another thing: One of the biggest criticisms I got from “Do the Right Thing” is that, Oh, Spike showed all this stuff. But at the end of it he didn’t have the answer for racism. I don’t think that’s the artist’s job. Artist’s job — in my opinion — is to hold the mirror up to what are the ills of society. That’s our job. And until we recognize those things, how can we even think about what the answers are?
I mean, people are saying [the insurrection] never happened. That it was a peaceful thing. Like, We just were having a picnic at the Capitol. There was no violence, nobody died, no Metro Police committed suicide. We were just having fun. Just lies. Lies. And the whole backlash against [the] 1619 [Project]. This s— happened. Like our ancestors came here on their own accord. People just lie, and they change the narrative. That’s part of the narrative in this country.
So criticism of “Do the Right Thing” because I didn’t have the answer for racism. WTF? [Laughs.] OMG! [Laughs.] You got me laughing this morning. I mean, when Bob Dylan wrote that great song “Blowin’ in the Wind,” when Sam Cooke wrote “A Change Is Gonna Come,” do we criticize them because, in those two great anthems, you might say, they did not come up with the answer to the injustices they were singing about? It doesn’t work like that. So I don’t have the answer, to answer your question. But before we look for an answer, we got to acknowledge there’s a problem.
All right. You just got the world according to Spike Lee. All right. Pray for my New York Knicks.