The director talks about movies, race, and Will Smith.
Lee: Oh, thank you.
Slate: What are you working on now?
Lee: We're doing the score for my new film. The film is called Inside Man. It's about a bank robbery that becomes a hostage situation. Denzel Washington is a New York City detective; he runs a hostage-negotiation team. He has to match wits with the mastermind behind the bank robbery, who is played by Clive Owen.
Slate: I remember you got very angry when you were talking to Will Smith about directing Ali, and Smith said to you, "Well, I want someone with a broader vision." You said you knew right away it wasn't going to be you.
Lee: The reason I was so mad at that statement was that it seemed to me that Will was just saying something the studio told him. You know, "So, what about Spike?" And they go, "Well, he's not that broad," and then he comes back to me and says the same thing they said. That's why I was mad.
Slate: Did you sense that "broader vision" was code for not being so African-American?
Lee: Well, that's what it means. Appeal to the widest margin and, you know, you all saw how Ali turned out, so there you go.
Look, my films have to make some money. But I still think that it was unfortunate. I wanted to do Ali, Will and the studio didn't want me, and that's that. I moved on a long, long, long, long time ago.
Slate: A friend of mine has started using the word "business" as a verb, and I think that's right. Everything's "businessed" these days. Do you think a movie like Do the Right Thing could be made now?
Lee: It would be really hard.
Slate: Would audiences even respond?
Lee Siegel is Slate's art critic.
Photograph of Spike Lee by Charley Gallay/LEP/Splash.