WAKE UP. Spike Lee keeps repeating this. Watch any of his movies, or ‘joints’, as he calls them, and at some point you’ll start to feel that you’re missing the point, or that there isn’t one, or that there are too many to grip. He admits that he doesn’t make films about “just one thing” – he’ll throw five or six basketballs on the court, and you’re free to play with as many of them as you can. But essentially, he is telling you to wake up. “Wake up.” It was the key line of dialogue in the first film he directed, a student documentary called Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads.
“Wake up.” It was the final battle cry in School Daze, his early film about warring black factions on a university campus. “Wake up!” The first words in Do The Right Thing, his resounding breakthrough movie of 1989. Okay, Spike. But wake up to what exactly? “Wake up to yourself, is all I ever meant,” he says today, sitting in a London hotel room. “Everyone. Black America, White America, around the world, every single individual needs to always be looking around and looking at how they act. All my films are about the choices people make without really thinking, and the ramifications on themselves and those around them.”
My question, then, is what makes Spike Lee think that he’s the only one with both eyes open, while everyone else is asleep? Coming from Do The Right Thing, a furiously ambivalent film about race-relations in New York, you could hear Lee’s motto as a well- intentioned warning or a call to arms. He caused his first burst of anger and confusion when he ended that movie with a riot and two conflicting epigraphs, one from Martin Luther King, declaring that “violence ends by defeating itself, creating bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers”, and beneath that, from Malcolm X: “I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defence, I call it intelligence”.
Mixed messages provoke mixed reactions. Rightly admired and respected for single-handedly beating a path to Hollywood for African- American filmmakers, Spike Lee might also be the most divisive director in cinema history. He splits critics, audiences, Americans, Europeans, blacks, whites, men and women. Deeper and sharper than that, Spike Lee movies split the individual viewer. Personally, I find his films exciting, annoying, crude, beautiful, thoughtful, hectoring, clumsy and didactic. I watched them all again when I was offered the chance to interview Lee, and I’m not sure how much I like any of them, or if I can even work out where they’re coming from.
The background characters, particularly Italians, women and Jews, are often loud-mouthed and roughly sketched, and they’ve left Lee wide open to accusations of racism, sexism, intolerance and hypocrisy. He’s always been aggressively defensive when challenged about this. He never apologises and only explains under pressure. For better or worse, his truculence has done as much to make his reputation as the work itself. Put on the spot, for example, about the verbal abuse of gay characters in one of his movies, he once argued that “my characters are real, and if homosexuals think that people don’t call them faggots and homos, then they’re stupid”. There are sheets full of similar quotes in the Spike Lee files.
Sitting on a sofa in this tastefully nondescript room, I’m apprehensive about this interview. Everything I’ve seen and read has prepared me to meet, and maybe argue with, an intelligent, prickly, difficult man who’s often bluntly dismissive of journalists, particularly white ones. Then Lee arrives, looking cool, smart, lazy and short in loose jeans, black trainers, deep blue basketball shirt and those square, academic glasses. He walks over slowly, shakes hands slowly, and sinks right back into the sofa. “How you doing?” he asks, slowly. “You look tired.” Look who’s talking. “Hah. Yeah, well, I came all the way over from New York this morning. You came from where, Glasgow?”
There follows a protracted discussion about the distance between London and Glasgow, and my epic Railtrack delay. Lee is apparently sympathetic, and we’re agreed that we each have a right to be tired. Looks like we both need to wake up, I quip, being so terribly clever. Lee is indulgent. “Yeah. Wake up. That’s what I’m always telling people, right? It’s hard to do sometimes, ha ha.”
Talk of his new joint seems to liven him up, although his voice never quickens and his posture doesn’t change. The 25th Hour is his most consistent, satisfying film. Based on David Benioff’s novel and script, it trails mournfully around after a broken Manhattan drug dealer (Edward Norton) on his last day of freedom before a long jail sentence. He says goodbye to friends, puts his house in order, and regrets everything he’s done to doom himself. It’s a sad song for bad decisions, misdirected youth, and personal accountability. And for New York itself, the southern tip of which suddenly became a graveyard not so long ago.
Lee is not a native New Yorker. He was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1957, just before the Civil Rights movement rose up around the American South. But his father Bill Lee, a jazz musician who played bass on early Bob Dylan albums, took the family to live in Brooklyn when little Shelton was still a baby (they called him Spike because of his bad temper in the crib). They’ve lived and worked there since. His father, brothers and sisters all have homes “within a block of each other” (his mother, a schoolteacher, died of cancer in his teens) in their old neighbourhood of Fort Greene, where Spike is a local hero. But now he lives in Manhattan. “My wife Tanya said we had to move. So we live on the Upper East Side, with the other rich folks. But we get back to Brooklyn a lot. My son plays little-league baseball there.”
Filming The 25th Hour in New York before and after September 11, 2001, Lee wasn’t about to pretend that nothing had happened, having “hated and loved” the city for most of his life. He let the story play out amid the mood and images of the aftermath – the hallowed firehouses, the tribute of light, the constantly churning public exhumation, are all part of the movie. Some American critics say that this is exploitative and risible, channelling real grief into unrelated fiction, equating the murder of thousands with the downfall of a minor criminal.
But to others it seems that Lee is trying to deal with things the way they are, not the way we wish they were, which fits with the theme of the film, and with his work in general. “Absolutely right,” he says. “I live in New York, the stories of my films take place in New York, I’m a New York filmmaker. And doing this movie gave me the opportunity to say something about New York City, post 9/11, and it would have been wasteful and shameful of me not to take that opportunity.” But say what, exactly? That it was wrecked and frightened? “Yeah, all that. But also that it was a time of incredible reflection. That whole thing was the ultimate wake up call. People started thinking about the direction of their lives, their families, their responsibilities, their place in this city. Their place in this country that some people hate so much they will attack it on that kind of unbelievable scale. Something so bad happens, you gotta wonder if maybe you did something to deserve it.”
There’s a concussive scene halfway through the film, when Norton stares into a bathroom mirror and releases a rolling screed of hate for everyone – from every ethnic group in New York City, all the way out to Osama bin Laden, and finally back to himself. In the end, he admits, there’s nobody to blame but himself. It’s a fierce bit of writing, acting and direction, also more subtle and gracious than a similar sequence in Do The Right Thing, where representatives of various minorities fire angry, ignorant slurs at each other. Does this signal any change in Lee’s own attitudes?
“Hmmm. That’s a question. Maybe. I mean, I didn’t write it, but that montage was the thing I loved in this script. At one time, the studio didn’t even want us to shoot that fucking scene. They wanted Ed Norton to be a likeable character. But that’s the heart of the whole movie, where he becomes an honourable man. “I guess that idea might appeal to me a little more than it used to, being honourable, facing your own shit. I was still a young man when I wrote Do The Right Thing. Real angry. I was just looking at things the way I saw them in the neighbourhood, not really looking inside too much, you know?”
Which doesn’t mean he accepts claims that The 25th Hour is his best, or “most mature” film. He doesn’t like the implications. “I’m happy when people like it, but when they call it my best film ever, an antenna goes up. I look at that person and think about why they’re saying that. Why is it better than Do The Right Thing, or Malcolm X? I’m not going to argue, but let’s be honest. There are going to be people who like this film, who did not like my other films, because of the story and the complexion of the cast.” To put it very simply, this is the ‘whitest’ movie Lee has made in terms of characters and environments. But I don’t really like his implication. Surely he doesn’t think that I only like this film, and dislike some of his others, on the basis of my colour? He smiles and redirects the question. “Which of my movies don’t you like, ha ha ha?” I laugh too. Ha ha ha. “Seriously, which ones don’t you like? We’ll be ending this interview right now.”
He’s still laughing, so I decide it’s safe enough to say I’ve got problems with Jungle Fever (Lee apparently decided that lead actress Annabella Sciorra’s character’s only motivation was her curiosity about “big black dicks”), Mo’ Better Blues (the Jewish jazz club owners are hateful caricatures), Summer of Sam (the whole Italian- American cast are presented as bigoted buffoons) and so on. And it’s not just about racial politics. These movies are all visual shouts – loud, colourful, full of ideas, but overlong, badly paced, sloppily written and tediously disorganised.
But Lee is a pretty good sport, and doesn’t ask me to elaborate. “I understand. I’ve done 16 films. How could I presume that somebody is going to like all 16? That’s not reasonable.” Do you like all of them yourself, I ask. “Yes I do. Not all of them came to the full realisation of what was in my mind. But there’s nothing I’ve done in films that I’m ashamed of.”
I think maybe there should be, but I say nothing. He gets back to the issue in his own time. “I wasn’t saying anybody was racist or prejudiced before. And I think you guys from the UK don’t think in colour the way people do in the States. I was just saying that for some people, this new movie is going to be a lot more accessible, or …” Palatable?
“Great word. I’m going to steal that from you. Yes, palatable.” He smacks his lips to indicate an agreeable taste. “Whereas my other films made these people …” He coughs and yaks as if spitting something out. “I think it’s important that I know, and that other people know, that I did not make this film to be palatable.” This seems pretty characteristic. Lee is not a born filmmaker, he only got into it when he majored in Mass Communication at college, studying the most effective ways to speak to people. He’s his own man, but he needs and wants the appreciation of an audience.
“Well, ultimately, I make movies for myself. I know that sounds like a selfish, conceited artist’s statement, but that is the truth. I tell the stories I want to tell, I make the movies I want to see. But every time I make a film I pray to God that there are people who feel the same way as me. The audiences for some movies are bigger than for other ones.”
Do you literally pray to God? “Nah, I’m not part of any structured, organised religion, goin’ to church and that type of stuff. But I do believe in a higher being and I’m trying to be spiritual.”
As far as enlightenment goes, Spike has always seemed a little vengeful to be Christian, and more egotistical than the Buddha would prefer. When Do The Right Thing didn’t win the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989, Lee insisted that he had been “robbed” because he was black, and said he would be “waiting” for competition judge Wim Wenders with a baseball bat. Throughout the late Eighties and early Nineties, particularly as he battled publically with white directors like Norman Jewison over who was to make the definitive Malcolm X movie biography, Lee said things like that all the time. To be fair, he was under levels of pressure and scrutiny that other filmmakers would never have to face. Through his “very very tough”, but successful struggles to get his early movies She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze financed, shot and distributed, Lee found himself with growing armies of loyal fans, obstructive enemies, and anxious onlookers, uncomfortably divided along race lines. He felt he was being held responsible and accountable by all sides.
“Instead of getting all intimidated, yeah, I shot my mouth off a lot,” he recalls. “I said things some white people didn’t want to hear. Black folks too. People who were just acting their parts, pretending everybody was equal and everything was all right. I believed all that and I still do. But I always tried not to be put in the position of being presented as a spokesperson for all black Americans. Anything I ever said was my own opinion, I’m not trying to be Jesse Jackson or anyone else.” In Lee’s early days, the critic Terrence Rafferty said that “Spike must feel as if he were sprinting downcourt with no one to pass to and 500 towering white guys between him and the basket.” Since then, black filmmakers haven’t followed his lead in quite the way he would have hoped – directors like Ernest Dickerson, Bill Duke, and John Singleton have all become tradesmen behind disengaged, dumb, generic, violent movies.
“It’s disappointing, but inevitable. Only certain kinds of movie get financed these days. Basically if you don’t work in those ghettos, then you’re not going to get work. So people get caught up in what’s commercial.” Hip hop is now part of the same problem. Lee’s friend Chuck D led Public Enemy on a charge into brilliant, innovative, aggressively politicised music, but found himself alone. Now the rich rappers rap about getting rich.
“Once the industry saw how much money could be made from urban music, it changed the landscape. It all became about consumerism. Kristal, Bentley. Back in my youth your only aspirations to wealth was a new pair of Adidas.” He casts his eyes down to my battered footwear. “You got your Adidas toe-shells on there I see. But they’re pretty dirty man, you need to keep them box-fresh, ha ha ha.” Yeah, that’s pretty funny Spike, but I don’t get a lifetime supply of free trainers by making commercials for Nike, do I? Lee’s promos with basketball icon Michael Jordan became the most successful campaign in advertising history, and he’s also worked for Jaguar, Levi’s and Coke. So isn’t it extremely rich for him to complain about a world “dominated and controlled by American culture and exports – TV movies, McDonalds, Disney, Coke, Nike”?
Isn’t that blatant, gobsmacking hypocrisy? “I wasn’t complaining. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, but its reality, and you have to be aware. You’re not the first person to say I’m a hypocrite, but I think of all of those commercials as filmmaking. All of them are art. And I can use the money to make more films and maybe do some good. I sleep easy at night.” This is frustrating. How can he be so easily reconciled? Doesn’t he ever, on reflection, realise that he can be a dickhead, just like everyone else?
“A dickhead? Ha. Sometimes, sure. Everybody can be, like you said. But I’m always myself. I’m always honest. I have my point of view, other people have theirs and that’s how it works. We all have to accept each other and live with each other.”
I suggest to Lee that he tends to come across like he’s got all sorts of things to teach but not much to learn. “It might seem that way I guess. But of course, I’ve learned a lot. Filmmaking gives you a knowledge for everything. To be on top of stuff, you have to know sex, psychology, music, dance, photography, economics, crime. It makes you better as a filmmaker if you’re gaining and using a knowledge of these things. This is my medium, it’s how I investigate people. I’m definitely not a musician, or a painter.” But by investigating people, do you become a better person yourself? More understanding? “Yeah, it does you good, all that experience and exposure. I’m more tolerant of people, I’ve travelled a lot, had world experiences. But if you’re asking if I use my work as therapy, I don’t do that. Rid myself of my inner demons, work ’em out on film like Woody Allen does. That’s not my approach. I just want to tell a good story.” Don’t you have inner demons?
“Nah, not really. I got outer demons. Lots of things to do. The same things as everybody. All these problems that we all have to do something about. Got to do something about the genocide of these Native Americans.” Eh? Do what exactly? “Make a movie, man. Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Geronimo, all that stuff. Get people to think about it and talk about it.” Wake up to it? “Exactly right.” Time up, he ends the interview with a yawn, inscrutable, casual, completely unfazed. “Get home safe, man. Get some sleep.” So I leave, entertained, impressed, mildly infuriated, and not completely convinced. Like walking out of a Spike Lee Joint