Spike Lee, Doing The American Thing: Speaking His Mind

Spike Lee, filmmaker, author, educator and humanitarian, listening to a question being asked of him during a press roundtable, prior to receiving the Behind The Lens Award from Chrysler LLC.  (Photo: Omar P.L. Moore/

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

April 1, 2008

BEVERLY HILLS, California --

The other day Spike Lee was surrounded by a score of journalists in a small room here at the Beverly Hills Wilshire.  Wearing a shirt he said was given to him by the reggae artist Yellowman, Mr. Lee, a Brooklyn-raised Morehouse College graduate, exclaimed after each of the reporters, many of whom were from Detroit, introduced themselves.

"WHAT'S UP WITH YOUR MAYOR?", Mr. Lee playfully snapped in a loud, mocking voice.  He was referring to Kwame Kilpatrick, the embattled mayor of Detroit, who last week was indicted on charges of perjury regarding improper conduct with his former chief of staff, with whom he had an extramarital affair.  The director himself wondered why none of the press assembled before him had pointed out that more than a little unauthorized hanky-panky was committed by the two most recent governors of Mr. Lee's Empire State -- former New York State governor Eliot Spitzer and current governor David Paterson -- the latter about whom the director made the following comment:


Everyone laughs now, one or two incredulously if not uncomfortably.  Governor Paterson, who had recently admitted that both he and his wife had engaged in extramarital interludes during the earlier years of their marriage, is the first black governor of New York State as well as the United States' first legally-blind governor.

About the philandering politicians came an irresistible quip.  "They're coming out of the woodwork now!" remarked the director, who torpedoed one reporter's suggestion that the topic of politicos being caught inflagrante delicto would be tailor-made as a future Spike Lee joint. 

"I'm not touching that one." 

Mr. Lee was in town to receive Chrysler LLC's Behind The Lens Award, given to a filmmaker or film producer who has pioneered or been a bellwether in the field of film, as well as launched opportunities for aspiring filmmakers through their humanitarian work and initiatives.   The award had previously been given to such filmmakers as John Singleton (in 2005) and producers as Reuben Cannon, who received the inaugural award in 2002.  (No award was issued last year.)  With Mr. Lee at the roundtable was W. Frank Fountain, Senior Vice President for External Affairs and Public Policy for Chrysler LLC in Auburn Hills, Michigan.  Mr. Fountain must have felt that he was a spectator rather than a participant in the roundtable, as question after question was fired at Mr. Lee, with the press trying to out shout each other to get a question to the outspoken director.  Mr. Fountain actually got one or two queries and was grateful to take them on, but when all was said and done, it was Mr. Lee not surprisingly, who received the lions' share of questions, including about what his next feature film would be. 

"The new film is called "Miracle At St. Anna", said Mr. Lee.  "It's coming out mid-October (in the U.S. and Canada).  It'll be a Disney/Touchstone release here.  And it's about World War Two -- my first World War Two film.  It's about the buffalo soldiers -- the black soldiers -- who fought in Italy against the Nazis and the fascists."  The director then rattles off a list of several of the forthcoming film's cast members, which include Derek Luke (last seen in "Lions For Lambs" and "Definitely, Maybe"), Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso ("This Christmas"), Kerry Washington ("I Think I Love My Wife" and Mr. Lee's "She Hate Me"), Omar Benson Miller ("Things We Lost In The Fire"), John Leguizamo (Mr. Lee's "Summer Of Sam"), John Turturro (five Spike Lee films including "Jungle Fever") and Joseph Gordon Levitt, among many others.   The epic film was shot in mainly in Tuscany, Italy in October and November of 2007.  Numerous reports, true or false, have circulated on the Internet over the past few months indicating that Wesley Snipes was supposed to be the lead player in "Miracle", but that he had to pull out due to his tax trial that was set for the same time, and that Mr. Luke had replaced him.

"So, World War Two," said Mr. Lee in his trademark halting monotone voice.  "Brothers in Italy kicking Nazi ass."

Again, those assembled in the room are laughing.  (A ten-minute montage of the new film, which included music from The Boys' Choir of Harlem that was also featured in the 1989 film "Glory", would be shown later in the evening, made a powerful and rousing impression on the more than 200 invited VIPs, guests and media in the ballroom of The Beverly Wilshire.)

Spike Lee, who had his 51st birthday on March 20, also fielded questions about politics and race.  A reporter mentioned his landmark film "Do The Right Thing", which will turn 20 years of age come June 30, 2009.  At the time of its original theatrical release, several prominent critics and pundits, led by New York Magazine's Joe Klein (now of Newsweek) went so far as to say that Mr. Lee's film, which won Oscar nominations for Mr. Lee's original screenplay and Danny Aiello's supporting performance as Sal, a pizzeria owner in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, would cause violent outbursts and "rampages" across America by black people who went to theaters to view it that summer.  Not only did such a thing never occur, it turned out that in August of that same year during the film's release a group of white male teenagers and 20-somethings killed a young black man named Yusuf Hawkins in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, then a predominantly Italian-American neighborhood.  Mr. Hawkins was in the neighborhood that summer evening to buy a used car in response to a newspaper ad.  Mr. Lee dedicated his 1991 film "Jungle Fever" to Mr. Hawkins, who was just 16 when he was murdered, shot in the heart at point-blank range. 

The same reporter who had used "Do The Right Thing" as a bookmark in the discussion of race and racism by the press in 1989 asked Mr. Lee about Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's recent speech on race and racism and the way the mainstream press has responded to it.  "Well, I think that for the most part, it's not just the media," said Mr. Lee, who is also a professor at New York University Film School, his alma mater.  "We never look at race until there is a O.J. or one other flashpoint incident.  Then it gets debated, dissected and then goes off and then something else happens.  But this whole race thing, really, you have to really thank the Clintons, because I think for the most part Obama was really trying to stay clear of this, but you know, with the discussion and the Reverend (Jeremiah Wright) he had to, he had to talk about it.  But if you saw -- I think what this demonstrated to me is the power of a ten or fifteen-second sound bite.  Because if you look at the sound bite and then look at the two minutes that they took the sound bite out of it's -- I guess it's much more understanding," the director said of the embattled Reverend Wright's comments, which had been aired by the mainstream media in the U.S. repeatedly on over a thousand occasions during an eight-day period on various 24-hour cable news channels and news broadcast on network television.  (Mr. Lee would later say that "what killed me though -- when that picture came out with the former president (Clinton) shaking hands with Reverend Wright.  And Clinton was smiling too in that picture!")

Continuing his response, Mr. Lee commented: "I don't understand, you know these white folks say, 'why, why, why are they angry?'  I mean, they're just out of touch.  I mean, not just black people (are angry).  Many people.  And if anybody can be angry it should be the Native Americans, because if you want to talk about genocide, they've almost been wiped off the face of the earth, relegated to some casinos or Indian concentration -- Native American concentration camps.  So race is gonna be with us, and it's hard to have people that for the most part -- a lot of white Americans don't have an understanding of the language to even, you know, discuss this." 

Unlike most filmmakers and celebrities who tend to dance gingerly around such a combustible issue, Mr. Lee has never been reluctant to speak about race, and each one of his feature films and documentaries chronicle the heartbeats of the black experience in America, in all of its forms -- positive and negative.   In the early 1980's during his time at NYU Film School, he directed a short film called "The Answer", about a filmed response to D.W. Griffith's "Birth Of A Nation" (1915), a film that in numerous parts of America, including such states as Indiana, was responsible for a 20-30% increase in membership in the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1900's during the film's initial release, according to numerous reports.  A number of esteemed American film critics to this day hail Griffith's film as a classic and a masterpiece, a film which depicted white men in blackface polish pretending to be black men who would maraud white neighborhoods looking to kidnap and rape white women -- a depiction of white racial fears about the post-Reconstruction era in the U.S., an era in which numerous black politicians populated Congress as senators and House members, with a few as governors as well. 

From left to right: Matteo Sciabordi, Omar Benson Miller, Michael Ealy, Derek Luke (center) and Laz Alonso, in Spike Lee's forthcoming film "Miracle At St. Anna", which opens in October in the U.S. and Canada.  (Photo: David Lee/Touchstone Pictures via Buffalo Soldiers/On My Own)

As Mr. Lee continued his response to the question about race, Obama's speech and the media, those who may have thought that with age that the renowned auteur had somehow mellowed regarding the chronicle of race in his films or his outlook on the harsher aspects of American society will have to postpone such notions.  If asked, the director would most likely say that when the conditions of racial injustice and discrimination cease, he will cease talking about them.  "My grandmother lived to be 100 years old.  She died two years ago.  Her mother was a slave.  So -- I'm four generations removed from slavery . . . and if you think about it that's not a long, long time, you know . . . that was not long ago.  So at the same time as Obama (whom Mr. Lee supports for president) says we've made great strides, there's still a whole lot of stuff that we have to continue as far as understanding.  But if things have changed, I think that if you look at white America, they're much more -- a lot of stuff you're not looking at, and I think a lot it has to do with the music, whether you like hip-hop or not, but I think that's done a lot to -- look at stuff differently than their parents.  And I think if you look at the (Democratic) primaries, young white American kids, they're all behind Obama, Barack."

It may have been a surprise to hear Mr. Lee, who sometime in 2008 or 2009 will try his hand at directing on the theater stage on Broadway for the first time with an adaptation of Billy Wilder's film "Stalag 17", attribute Senator Obama's successes with the younger white population in the U.S. to hip-hop music and its influence among that segment of American society.  What is not surprising about the filmmaker, who in October will have been married for 15 years to Washington, D.C. tax attorney Tonya Lewis Lee -- they have two kids, Satchel (now a teenager) and Jackson (who is ten) -- is that he has endured through a career that began in 1986 with the release of "She's Gotta Have It", financed entirely by credit cards and largely by his late grandmother Zimmie Shelton, whom he spoke of earlier, a Spellman College graduate of 1929.  Mr. Lee, through the courage by his tenacious mother (who passed away due to liver cancer when Mr. Lee was a sophomore at Morehouse) powered on, against the odds, with SGHI making $7.1 million.  The film cost approximately $160,000 to make.  The Atlanta-born filmmaker and educator, who has lectured and spoken at hundreds of college campuses around the world went full steam ahead with "School Daze" (1988) and "Do The Right Thing" the following year, establishing a vigorous work rate and financial successes with these films that made Hollywood sit up and take notice.  In numerous interviews he has credited his persistence, drive and uncompromising attitude to his late mother and grandmother.  Mr. Lee's platform and visibility gained him respect and the kind of credibility that it normally takes years to achieve in Tinseltown.  And at an early time in his career, Mr. Lee became one of the select few American directors -- outside of Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and the late Stanley Kubrick -- to get final cut privilege on his films. 

Still, Mr. Lee has suffered some setbacks -- the Warner Brothers episode in 1992, where the studio pulled its funding for "Malcolm X" and threatened to shut down production because it said, that Mr. Lee's film had run over budget.  (Mr. Lee called on Oprah Winfrey, Tracy Chapman, Prince, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Bill Cosby, Janet Jackson and Peggy Cooper Cafritz, all of whom collectively donated an additional $11 million to the director to finish the film, which won Denzel Washington an Oscar nomination for the title role.)  In a rare show of emotion, Mr. Lee shed tears on the Bravo cable network television series Inside The Actors' Studio as he talked to interviewer James Lipton about the pain of the Warner Brothers ordeal -- he also said he would never make a film with the studio again.  The director, who runs Spike/DDB, a Madison Avenue advertising and marketing agency, also lost out on directing "Ali", which Michael Mann ended up directing.  Mr. Lee was also disappointed at not getting the funding or the rights for a feature film version of Negro League Baseball and Brooklyn Dodgers legend Jackie Robinson, which Robert Redford has the rights for.  Most interesting of all, was that his "Inside Man" (2006), with Mr. Washington, Clive Owen and Jodie Foster, which grossed over $200 million worldwide, did not get Mr. Lee financing for two of the films that he desperately wanted to make, one about the Los Angeles riots of 1992 in response to Rodney King's beating and the acquittal of the four L.A. police officers who were videotaped beating Mr. King, and a film on James Brown, which was to star Wesley Snipes.  Mr. Lee was particularly incensed about "Inside Man", his most successful film to date, not translating into opportunities to receive the financing that he wanted for the two films. 

Instead, Mr. Lee is working on an ESPN sports documentary.  

Much worse than those setbacks however, were the less-than-veiled death threats he received from none other than "Son Of Sam" serial killer David Berkowitz, via the front page of a New York Times article in June of 1999, less than a month before Mr. Lee's "Summer Of Sam" film was released.  Mr. Berkowitz, serving a lengthy prison sentence for his murderous rampage in New York City during the mid-1970's, was not happy with the news of Mr. Lee directing the film.  The sixth paragraph of the Times story, written by Blaine Harden, reads: "Mr. Berkowitz said that from prison he monitors "everything there is" about Spike Lee and his family.  "I pray for Spike Lee and his family, his wife, Tonya, his two children, Jackson and Satchel," he said.  "God does not want me to be angry with anybody."

While that episode shook up the director and his family it did not stop them from moving forward, and additional protection was offered to the Lee family after the story by the Times, which the director had criticized, was published. 

After all of his landmark films and the success of "Inside Man", Mr. Lee said he had to get on a plane to Italy to obtain financing for his new film -- as virtually none of it came from Hollywood. 

"Now if I was doing some coonery and buffoonery, they (Hollywood) would give me all the money I want," the director said. 

Another reporter attempted to bait Mr. Lee into answering the question, "why is Tyler (Perry) having such success?", but Mr. Lee wasn't about to stir the pot any further. 

"I'm not answering that question," he said, as knowing laughter abounded around the room.

 "Why'd you ask me that question, man?", the director said.  The smile that had spread into a grin across Mr. Lee's face was now part of a full-fledged mischievous laugh.

For the uninformed, writer-producer-director and actor Tyler Perry, who within the last 14 months in the U.S. has had Lionsgate, the mini-major studio, release three of his films ("Daddy's Little Girls", "Why Did I Get Married?" and "Meet The Browns"), and has a cable television series entitled "House Of Payne", has what some would argue is a blackface caricature or buffoon of sorts in Madea, played by Mr. Perry, dressed in drag.  For the record, Mr. Perry, whom last year signed a long-term deal to make films under the Lionsgate studio banner, has been remarkably successful.  Two weekends ago, "Meet The Browns", which did not screen for the press' film critics in advance -- as is a Perry and Lionsgate custom where his films and some of the studio's other releases are concerned -- opened in the U.S. and Canada with a weekend gross of $20 million, good for second place, just five million behind top film "Horton Hears A Who".  It is this kind of consistent success that has eluded Mr. Lee at the box-office (with the exception of "Inside Man", which opened in the U.S. in March of 2006 with more than $28 million in its debut weekend, a first place finish.) 

[Incidentally, former National Basketball Association player Rick Fox, he of the mid-1990's Los Angeles Lakers, happens to star in "Meet The Browns" and was on hand for the ceremony honoring Mr. Lee here.  Mr. Fox had appeared in the director's 1998 film "He Got Game".]

Mr. Lee elucidated further about the studio business framework for box office success for a film.  "So they read the script.  They look at who's in it.  And then they punch numbers into an equation.  They look at what they think it can do domestic.  They look at how much it can do foreign.  And that foreign is a bigger number than domestic.  And historically -- and I don't think it's true, but they still say it -- that black does not travel overseas.  Whether it's true or not, they believe that.  And so in doing their equation, the number for foreign is always lower than it should be.  And so that -- if the foreign number is low, you're not gonna get the money you need for the film.  Like with "James Brown".  They told me that they didn't know how much they could do foreign with "James Brown".  I said, 'the man's music is known all over the world!'  So, it's the okey-doke.  And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because if they don't think black (can) travel -- so they're not gonna really work hard to prove that, well of course there are exceptions, Will Smith, Denzel -- depending on the film -- but they just have these rules they write up.  And I don't know who writes these rules, but they go by it," said Mr. Lee, who mentioned that he needed $60 million each to make both "James Brown" and "L.A. Riots", but that the studios would only give him $40 million per film. 

"So I said, 'f-you guys, I'm gonna get my money from Europe.'  That's how "Miracle At St. Anna" came about."

"Miracle At St. Anna" is based on the novel by James McBride, and Mr. Lee said he was motivated in part to make the film because "my brothers and I always liked war films, and for the most part we were never in them.  Of course you've got a couple of exceptions, most notably Jim Brown . . . in "The Dirty Dozen".  And in doing the research for the book, James talked to a whole lot of brothers who fought in World War Two who were part of the Buffalo Soldiers, and they always talked about they were sick and tired of John Wayne.  A million Negro men fought in World War Two.  And that's not reflected in the films (made about that era in Hollywood).  Of course you had 'The Tuskeegee Airmen' but that was a cable movie for HBO," the director said when speaking in relation to "Miracle", which looks to have the kind of scope and gravity that could make it an Oscar contender early in 2009.

"So, another reason why I wanted to do it -- I've been going to Italy since 1986 and Italian journalists and people are always asking me, 'when are you gonna make a film in Italy?'  So . . . James McBride's book gave me an opportunity to shoot something in Italy and also do World War Two.  But I want to make a distinction.  One of the main reasons I wanted to do this is that World War Two in my opinion, is the last war the United States was right about.  Korean War to stop communism?  Bullshit.  The Vietnam War, the same thing."  He added to that the Gulf War, and the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as invasions in between.  "World War Two, that was democracy against fascism, against the Nazis.  So that was another element.  People are not divided about going to war against not just the Nazis, (but) Japan and Italy.  And these guys (the black men who fought on the U.S. side as buffalo soldiers) always talked about how they felt more free in Italy than in their own country.  And a lot of people don't know during World War Two a lot of German P.O.W.'s were sent back to America, and they were imprisoned on the same camps where the black soldiers were being trained in the South.  And on every one of those camps the Nazi P.O.W.'s got better housing, better food and better health, medicine and stuff than the Negro soldiers who being trained to kill those motherfuckers.  And this is something those guys (the buffalo soldiers) to this day have still have not been able to get over."

Spike Lee then mentions a scene in "Miracle At St. Anna" that takes place in Louisiana that features the character played by Derek Luke who approaches a white U.S. military police officer who is feeding the Nazi P.O.W.'s ice cream.  "Why are you feeding those Krauts?", the director recalls Mr. Luke's character asking in the scene.  The military officer says to Mr. Luke's character, "well you have to go around back and I'll feed you." 

"And this stuff happened all the time."

Here is the Chrysler LLC Behind The Lens Award photo gallery

"Miracle At St. Anna" is scheduled to open in the U.S. and Canada on October 10.  It will be released in North America by Disney/Touchstone Pictures.

Note: The release date has since been changed to September 26.

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2008.  All Rights Reserved.