The director talks about movies, race, and Will Smith.
Ever since the romantic comedy-drama She's Gotta Have It antagonized black women and black men in 1986, Spike Lee's films have enjoyed the outrage of various groups. Between Do the Right Thing's racial and ethnic provocations, however, and last year's She Hate Me—a sexual farce that offended lesbians and feminists—the social context for Lee's films has changed. In Hollywood, the bar for racial provocation has been raised to wearying heights. At the same time, nakedly commercial entertainments—blackbusters?—from Barbershop to Get Rich or Die Tryin' appeal to a black audience that barely existed 20 years ago. Lee's recently published autobiography, Spike Lee: That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It, offered an occasion to talk with the sometimes inflammatory director about movies, money, race, and the gentle art of making enemies.
Slate: I wanted to talk to you about your book, which I've been reading. Why do you call it That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It? I mean, do people think that you're making stuff up?
Lee: No, I just thought it was a good title. It's not really to rebel or anything. I just liked the title.
Slate: Of course, I was particularly interested in what you have to say about the situation of blacks in Hollywood. But also in your statements about the Holocaust. You pretty much said that any movie about the Holocaust is going to carry all the prizes.
Lee: Whoa, whoa! What I was speaking of specifically was the feature-length documentary branch of the academy. I mean, there was a time—you could do the research, I don't have the chart in front of me—but for a period of over 10 years, almost every film that won best feature-length documentary was about the Holocaust.
Slate: That is an issue, right? It's followed you throughout your career, the relationship between blacks and Jews.
Lee: It's not an issue for me.
Slate: No, it's an issue for everyone else.
Lee: I have nothing to do with that. But I remember thinking when we were nominated for 4 Little Girls and then finding out that a rabbi was a producer for the other one: We're not gonna win.
Slate: Next time you have to get a minister.
Lee: I don't think we'll need it.
Slate: You know, I go to a Clint Eastwood movie, and I see that time after time, Morgan Freeman is playing Clint Eastwood's sidekick. Everyone loves these movies; they always win awards. But nobody complains about that. There's no black group that complains and asks, "Why can't Clint Eastwood be Morgan Freeman's sidekick?" Would you like to see a black uproar over that?
Lee: Oh, man. We have more things to have an uproar about than Morgan Freeman. But the point that you make is true, that we just don't have the lobbying power that other groups have, and it has to do with political and financial clout. So, that's that.
Slate: You've said that things will change when there are more black producers.
Lee: I used the word gatekeepers. I said that I really want to see a wider, more sweeping change in the breadth of subject matter and stuff, which is only going to come when we get those locked positions of the gatekeepers.
Slate: But then you look at a lot of these movies that make so much money: Barbershop, Beauty Shop, and Marci X, which I know is not a big favorite of yours.
Lee:Marci X didn't make any money.
Slate: OK. But can you be so sure that if the gatekeepers were African-American they would promote films that are in the social or aesthetic interests of black audiences?
Lee: Look, you get into that position and you know that first of all your films have to make money no matter who you are. But I can confidently say that if there had been a gatekeeper at MGM, I don't think Soul Plane could have gotten made. I'm confident in saying that.
Slate: So, if you were the head of one of these studios for example—
Lee: No, that's not something I want to be or aspire to be.
Slate: But if you were, you wouldn't give a green light to projects like that.
Lee: Well, all I'm saying is that there would be more variety and diversity as far as subject matter. And I would hopefully see a greater picture of African-Americans' experience vs. one that's limited to comedies and hip-hop, drug, gangsta, shoot 'em up films.
Slate: You say in this book that you were really surprised that Damon Wayans could go from Bamboozled to Marci X.
Lee: That was a surprise to me. Look, I'm not in Damon's shoes. Everybody does what they want to do for their own specific reasons, but nonetheless it was still a surprise. Because Bamboozled [Lee's film about how blacks are represented—and how they represent themselves—in American entertainment] is really an indictment of that type of film.
Slate: Do you think there's a difference between a black acting style and a white acting style?
Lee: No, I'm not gonna—no, no, no, no, no, no. I'm not. Nope.
Slate: Because I look at a great actor like Jeffrey Wright—do you like his stuff?
Lee: Yeah, I love Jeffrey.
Slate: And I see that he's not an actor in the mold of, say, Brando, or Sean Penn. Wright disappears into his characters like a British actor, and I see a lot of African-American actors doing that—Cuba Gooding, I think, does that also.
Lee: You're putting Cuba Gooding in the same league with Jeffrey Wright?
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: Oh, I think they would. I don't think it's the audience's fault. I'm putting that on the studio.
Slate: But people don't seem to like discord.
Lee: There is that part of the moviegoing segment, but I'm still convinced that a larger segment wants to be stimulated. People are getting tired of seeing TV shows remade, or movies from the 1950s, and comic books, and sequels. People say, well, it can't be the films; it's the video games, it's the 900 channels, it's this and that. All those things are a factor, but I think the biggest factor is that films aren't connecting with the audience. I mean, look. March of the Penguins. How much did that movie make?
Slate: A fortune.
Lee: I'm telling you, it's my belief that people went to see that film because there was nothing else to see. If there were good movies in the theater, they're not going to see a documentary about penguins.
Slate: I think you've remarked on the fact that black filmmakers like the Hughes brothers, and John Singleton, and Matty Rich all end up being pushed into the crime-action genre.
Lee: I wouldn't put Matty Rich in that category.
Slate: Well, the other guys.
Lee: Yeah, but it doesn't make me angry, because all these guys get the money to do films that aren't necessarily African-American based, which is good. They're seeing them as just filmmakers. And there's nothing wrong with doing genre films. The film I'm doing now is a genre film, you know, heist films is a genre. So you know you just try when you get those opportunities, and just hopefully you make the best films you can.
Slate: Would you like to make another film like Bamboozled, something that really just takes an issue and explodes it?
Lee: Yeah, I'm going to make films like that again, but that's not the only thing. There are many different things I want to say, I want to do, so it's not just going to be one type of film. It'd be hard to get a film like Bamboozled made, though. That film barely got made.
Slate: To come back to this, I have to say, I really don't like these movies like Barbershop and Beauty Shop. I just don't. I think of what you were doing—yet you made these films possible, right?
Lee: Don't put that on me.
Slate: No, but you created an open field for black filmmakers.
Lee: Yeah, but it morphed into something else. But no, you can't put Barbershop on me.
Slate: Still, don't you find it ironic that you created the atmosphere that made these films possible, and now they're more popular than more serious movies?
Lee: I never said that those films should not be made. I just think that they shouldn't be the only type of films that are made. But I'd take Barbershop over Get Rich or Die Tryin'. In Barbershop, you're not trying to kill anybody.
Lee Siegel is Slate's art critic.
Photograph of Spike Lee by Charley Gallay/LEP/Splash.