I met Spike Lee for the first time in the fall of 1989 at the University of New Hampshire, where I’d recently transferred from, at an event in his honor hosted by the Black Student Union. Do the Right Thing had come out the summer before, and I was sufficiently amped up about asking him what his intentions were surrounding the film: Exactly what kind of message was he trying to send about race in America? What did he expect audiences would take away from a film that, arguably, endorses violence as a reasonable course of action against racial discrimination?
The black student body at UNH when I was there was about thirty-five out of ten thousand, and most were male basketball players on scholarship. Subsequently, when it came to recruiting members for my vision to reconvene the university’s Black Student Union, the result was a small assembly of very tall boys, and me. So there we all were, post-event—the boys clamoring around Spike to form the sort of team huddle you’d see in a locker room, hungrily exchanging tips and scores and strategies about the Knicks and other NBA teams; Spike, with loose-fitting jersey and jeans, and bright, mellow eyes, looking not much older than the college boys who surrounded him; and me, the girl ignoring the "no girls allowed" sign, hands on hips, trying to get a word in edgewise.
Finally, I was able to squeeze my way through. "With that scene where Da Mayor is being harassed by the black youth on the block for being drunk and shiftless, and Da Mayor says: ‘Until you’ve stood in the doorway and listened to your five hungry children crying for bread, you don’t know shit,’ and one of the boys counters by telling him he’s put himself in the situation he’s in—were you trying to imply, Mr. Lee, that black people have put themselves into the powerless economic situation that many find themselves in—that they have, in fact, brought it on themselves?"
"No. Next question." And that was that.
Three years later, I was working as a receptionist in the Department of Afro-American Studies at Harvard when Spike began teaching a spring semester class there. We quickly developed a straightforward, easy rapport, and later that summer when I moved to New York to take a job at Elle magazine, we remained friendly.
When I called Spike a few months ago about doing an interview for this article, almost on impulse he said, "I don’t want to talk about [race]." As the unofficial go-to guy for Things That Concern Blacks in Film and Media, Spike has weighed in, At-Large, on the issue of race in America, and it’s hard to begrudge him not wanting to talk about it during every single interview he gives for the rest of his natural born life. Spike told me that every phone with a line to reach him was literally ringing off the hook within minutes after Janet "accidentally" exposed her nipple during the Super Bowl halftime show earlier this year.
Instead, we talked about his new film, She Hate Me, which opens in wide release this month, his process and commitment as an independent filmmaker, how AIVF taught him to find money as an NYU grad, where he draws the line with Hollywood ("Put it this way, I’m not gonna do a Soulplane."), and finally, about race.
If not necessarily in theme, She Hate Me brings Spike full circle back to the beginning of his career when She’s Gotta Have It introduced a new style and aesthetic to independent film, in that it is, by commercial standards, non-commercial. "[She Hate Me] is definitely an independent film," Spike tells me when I ask him about his particular distinction between independent and studio films. "Here’s the thing," he continues. "This is the seventeenth or eighteenth feature film, and we barely got it made. It’s a film that cost nine and a half million dollars. No studio wanted to do it. Luckily, about this time last year, Tom Bernard and Michael Barker [both of Sony Pictures Classics] were on their way to Cannes. I called them up and said ‘Let me take you to lunch,’ and I pitched them the script. I gave them the script. I paid the check. And I said, ‘Look, why don’t you guys just read this on the plane to Cannes.’ When they came back they wanted to do the film. But that was only half the money. So we still had to scramble for the other half."
She Hate Me (and yes, the title is a reference to "the greatest sports nickname of all time"—"He Hate Me"—worn on the jersey of Rod Smart as a player in the now defunct XFL), which was shot in twenty-seven days in and around Brooklyn, is a story about "the melding of a lot of good dramatic stuff—sex, procreation, greed, money, you know, and politics," Spike says. He points to the recent debate over gay marriage, Martha Stewart, and ImClone as having influenced the script, which is based on a story by actor/screenwriter Michael Genet, and co-written by Genet and Spike.
Harvard- and Wharton-educated John Henry "Jack" Armstrong (Anthony Mackie) gets fired from the biotech corporation he works for when he informs on his bosses launching an investigation into their business dealings by the Securities & Exchange Commission. Branded a whistleblower, Jack suddenly finds himself unemployable and broke. Enter Fatima (Kerry Washington), his former fiancé, and her new girlfriend Alex (Dania Ramirez), both serious businesswomen whose biological clocks are ticking, and who are each willing to pay Jack $5,000 for his sperm. Jack’s morals pretty much go out the window, and by the end of the film, he has impregnated upward of fifteen lesbian women to the tune of $10,000 a go.
Upon further explanation, Spike says: "The key line we’re trying to incorporate [into press for the film] is: ‘Is God your money, or is your money God?’ Because when you pray at the altar of money, then no matter how moral and upright you think you are, when push comes to shove, you’re gonna do what you gotta do."
Spike prays at a different altar, and asserts that his goal is not and has never been money. "My goal is to continue making films," he says. "But it’s getting harder and harder, because really, to be honest, there’s such a blur right now between independents and Hollywood."
He acknowledges that there are and have been truly independent films being made, although Pulp Fiction, widely perceived as the film that set the independent renaissance into motion, isn’t one of them—"Was that really an independent film? I don’t think so." The landscape is different now, he says. "Back in the day, you could tell right away what independent was."
Spike recalls how early on, there was no cachet that went along with being an "independent filmmaker"—it wasn’t hip then, agents wouldn’t let directors near certain name-actors, and you had to find money wherever you could to get your films made. He remembers many days and hours at the AIVF resource library fresh out of NYU film school. "Back when [AIVF] was on Broadway, I used to spend a lot of time doing research, and trying to find the most obscure grants from whoever had money," he recalls. "AIVF does a lot of things, but for me, its best purpose was that it helped me find money."
That lesson has served him well, and though he surely recognizes that the bulk of his previous films have been produced and distributed by major studios, he does not consider himself a Hollywood filmmaker. "I’ve always looked at it like this: I’m an independent filmmaker who gets financing from Hollywood when they want to finance the film, and when they don’t, I gotta scrape."
|Dania Ramirez with Kerry Washington|
Because Spike and I have both talked about race for years—together and in our own individual work—it seemed inevitable that we would come around to talking about it at some point in our conversation. And as usual, we kept things lively.
Rebecca Carroll: You’ve said that the current gatekeepers of the film industry, who are mostly if not all white, are not ready to see black America as it really is—tell me more about that.
Spike Lee: It’s like with Bamboozled, you have this white boy [a white television executive played by Michael Rapaport] who thinks that because he knows Eddie Murphy, not to disrespect Eddie Murphy, or some famous rapper or whoever, that he knows black people—that he’s an expert in black culture.
RC: Right, but what would be the preferred role for white executives in the industry who do business and spend time with black people—that of deference?
SL: No, the preferred role is to have someone in there that knows black culture—not someone who thinks that black people are one monolithic group.
RC: To be fair, though, there are a lot of black folks who perpetuate that notion as well. For example, Barbershop, which I know you didn’t like, was written by a black screenwriter.
SL: I was appalled that a black writer could write a joke that called Dr. King a ho, or a joke that says Rosa Parks didn’t mean to start a movement, but that she just didn’t want to lift her fat black lazy ass.
RC: There is the sense, though, that all black people should find that appalling, or find it funny—nothing in between. Either opinion has tribal implications.
SL: But the way that film was set up—in our community we give respect to the wise old man, or the griot, and the joke about Dr. King and Rosa Parks comes from the character situated as that figure. They could’ve gotten away with it if they’d had one of the young hip-hop motherfuckers say something stupid like that—someone who doesn’t know better, who didn’t go through Jim Crow.
RC: Why do you think they wrote it that way? Who stands to gain?
SL: The movie made a lot of money. And there’s Barbershop 2, and Latifah’s spinoff, Beauty Shop. I love Latifah, but that Bringing Down the House movie she did was bordering on Aunt Jemima.
RC: But how is that different from the imagery in this Kevin Willmott film CSA: Confederate States of America that you exec produced (see page 49)?
SL: You see it?
RC: Yeah, I saw it. I have a lot of trouble with minstrel imagery in films.
SL: So you didn’t like Bamboozled.
RC: No, I didn’t like Bamboozled that much, because I don’t find minstrel imagery entertaining, and I don’t find it funny.
SL: It’s not supposed to be funny.
RC: I don’t find it useful.
SL: It is useful.
RC: When I saw Bamboozled in the movie theater, people were laughing and eating popcorn, amused and entertained. How is their reaction in 2000 different from their reaction in 1903?
SL: You have to put it into context—at the end of the film we show all those real black artifacts as a way of doing that.
RC: As a way of showing people that minstrel imagery looked the same then as it does now? I don’t get it.
SL: People don’t understand that we are still putting on a minstrel show—half these motherfucking rappers don’t know that they are repeating the same history. If somebody came down from space and turned on BET, and looked at black people in music videos, they’d think it was a minstrel show.
RC: So you think if these rappers realized that they were repeating history then they’d suddenly stop wanting to make a ton of money?
SL: Yes. I think they would change their approach.
RC: OK. So if these rappers go to see Bamboozled, you think they’re going to make the connection?
SL: Some might, some might not.
RC: But that would be your hope.
SL: All an artist can do is put the shit out there.
RC: But the larger point is…
SL: That we have to look at these images from our history because they’re still with us, just in a slicker way. We don’t have to wear black paint and red lipstick anymore, but we’re still playing the roles of minstrels and coons.
RC: Let me just say, so as not to universally dismiss the film—there were some great performances in Bamboozled, it’s just that I have a hard time with recycled imagery that seems to have not taught anybody anything in the first place. I feel the same way about that famous image of a black man during Jim Crow bending over a water fountain with the "colored only" sign above it.
SL: What a photograph.
RC: Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of other archival photographs being used in documentary film especially, and I feel like they are used as an appeal to white audiences—to shock or guilt or manipulate. It seems to me that it’s our responsibility as artists and writers of color to find new images and ways to convey as hard-hitting a message without using the same painful, derogatory, dehumanizing images from our past.
SL: I disagree. There are so many young black people today who don’t know shit about our history—they’ve not been taught anything by their parents or their grandparents.
RC: So how long do we have to keep looking at pictures of a black man hanging from a tree by his neck? How long until we can look at some new pictures?
SL: It doesn’t have to be an either-or thing.
RC: I didn’t say that.
SL: Then we should just forget about slavery?
RC: No, of course not, but I recently saw a clip from a documentary dealing with the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education that used those kinds of images for the first ten minutes of the film. I happen to know the filmmaker is white.
SL: That’s the fault of the filmmaker, then—there are more images out there to use. But I’m still thinking we need to keep seeing the original images. Young black people always want to be so quick to forget all the stuff we went through.