Spike Lee In Conversation: On Hollywood, the NYPD, the Knicks, and Islam
The prolific Oscar-nominated filmmaker opens up about his Kickstarter-funded drama 'Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,' Eric Garner vs. Radio Raheem, the lowly Knicks, and more.
Just a stone’s throw from Fort Greene Park stands a brick building obscured by variegated signs, with each sign bearing the picture of a young black man slain by police. Ezell Ford. Tamir Rice. Akai Gurley. John Crawford III. Eric Garner. The centerpiece ornament is a banner draped over the garage dedicated to the memory of Ferguson teenager Michael Brown. Two red arms riddled in bullet holes rise up from the pavement accompanied by the slogan, “Hands Up Don’t Shoot.” They frame a portrait of Brown in a graduation cap clenching his high school diploma. The sign says, “Truth, Just-Us, & The American Way. We Are Mike Brown.”
This is the office of 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks—the production company of renowned filmmaker Spike Lee. Despite vacating his native Brooklyn for the Upper East Side, Lee has made this his base of professional operations since 1986, the year his debut feature She’s Gotta Have It took the indie filmmaking world by storm.
Once inside, Lee greets me. The 57-year-old director later takes me on a tour of his office, pointing out various props and invaluable merchandise decorating the walls. “This is the prized possession,” says Lee, motioning towards an ANC flag signed by Nelson and Winnie Mandela. He received it after shooting the final scene of Malcolm X, featuring the late Mandela.
We walk further and observe a signed jersey courtesy of his on-court nemesis Reggie Miller that says, “Spike, thanks for all your help,” as well as a signed plaque of Kobe Bryant’s 60-point game at Madison Square Garden with a handwritten note: “P.S. – This shit was all your fault.” Props from his own films—the silver gun from Clockers, Mookie’s jersey from Do the Right Thing—are mixed in with signed posters of his favorite movies, such as Apocalypse Now, Mean Streets, and 8 ½.
Along the entryway to his studio space is a Shepard Fairey poster of Barack Obama with the words “PROGRESS” on it, as well as an inscription saying, “Spike, thanks for the inspiration,” and signed by the president. I joke to Lee that he may be a little bit responsible for the Obama Family, since Barack took Michelle to Do the Right Thing on their first date.
“You could say that!” he says with a chuckle. “I said, ‘President, it’s a good thing you didn’t take her to see Driving Miss Daisy. Michelle would’ve cut you off right away!’”
We enter his studio space and sit down in a pair of chairs. We’re here to discuss his latest film, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, currently available on Vimeo on Demand and hitting theaters February 13. It’s a remake of Bill Gunn’s cult film Ganja & Hess that centers on Dr. Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams), a distinguished professor who’s stabbed with a ceremonial Ashanti dagger and awakens with a thirst for blood.
[Note: You can read the first part of our conversation here, on Selma’s Oscar snubs.]
So, congratulations on Da Sweet Blood of Jesus being out.
Well, it’s out now digitally but it comes out theatrically on Valentine’s Day.
You’re going up against Fifty Shades of Grey then.
[Laughs] We’re not competing against one another. But the project started with me teaching at NYU, and a lot of my students were talking about crowdsourcing with Indiegogo and Kickstarter and educated me a bit, and I thought, “You know what? Let me try it.” And I think this is the way it’s gonna go. There’s going to be a time where it’ll be the day the movie comes out and you can either buy the hard copy on DVD, stream it at home, or go to the theater. With Sweet Blood, I knew it was going to be a microbudget film, so I thought, “I’ll make a version of Ganja & Hess.” I contacted Chiz Schultz, who was a producer on it, and that’s the story.
The way I read the original Bram Stoker’s Dracula was that it was an allegory for Jews assimilating in England. And Da Sweet Blood of Jesus strikes me as a metaphor about black assimilation in America.
It’s a metaphor for addiction. And what are we addicted to as human beings? Sex, alcohol, money, and power. Assimilation might be there, but it’s not something that was at the front of my mind. African-Americans have been here for 400 years, so it wasn’t strange to me to have a prominent, wealthy, intelligent black man that drives a Rolls-Royce and has an apartment in Central Park West and a place in Martha’s Vineyard. That’s not an aberration to me.
That’s not an aberration to me, either. The reason why I read it as an assimilation narrative is, for example, an early scene where the protagonist, Dr. Greene, already feels out of place at an all-white Martha’s Vineyard soiree, but it’s compounded by the fact that he’s sipping a goblet of blood.
True. Although that scene would play out the same if it was set in East Hampton. I just like Martha’s Vineyard more, which is where we shot it. We had to pay for the jet, but locals donated all the nice cars you see in the movie.
The film is also rife with religious imagery, and Dr. Greene’s trajectory takes him from bloodlust to Christ.
I would take out “religious” and use “spiritual.” When you’re enslaved, you’ve got to pray to somebody. You need help. So black people have always had that in our DNA. This is just another exploration of that.
Is part of the attraction to helming microbudget, crowdfunded films that you have the luxury of full creative control—unlike, perhaps, some of your bigger films like Miracle at St. Anna?
The film where I had problems creatively was Oldboy, not Miracle at St. Anna. Oldboy was a bad look. The film that Josh Brolin and I agreed to do isn’t really what it turned out to be.
Did you lose it in the editing room?
I don’t want to get into specifics, but there are many things that Josh and I liked that didn’t make it into the final cut. But Josh and I have let that go, and we’ve moved on.
I look at your resume and you see a big critical and commercial hit like Inside Man followed by Miracle at St. Anna, which bombed, followed by a bunch of microbudget films, it seems—from an outsider’s perspective—like you whiffed once and that was it. And it seems like white filmmakers are given more chances to whiff than women or people of color.
That’s definitely true, but the marketplace has changed. Look at all the franchise and tentpole films studios are making. Studios don’t want to make movies that are going to be a slight profit; they want movies that are going to open worldwide on the same day. If your métier isn’t special effects-driven, IMAX, 3-D, comic book shit, then it’ll be tough.
International box office plays a large role in this, too. It was revealed in the hacked Sony emails that one producer felt international audiences were “racist,” which is why you have movies like Think Like A Man making $91 million in North America and only $4 million internationally.
See, I don’t really believe that. Will Smith plays globally. Denzel plays globally. When studios do their formula for budgets a big part of that is what it’s going to make internationally, so automatically when people believe in this mantra that “black doesn’t sell overseas,” you’re going to get less money for your budget. But if you go through the numbers, you’ll see plenty of Caucasian-American actors that don’t travel well overseas, too. A lot of white actors don’t pass Denzel, Will Smith, or Samuel L. Jackson overseas, so this myth that we don’t travel? I don’t believe it.
Speaking of Denzel, are you two going to work together soon?
I hope so. We did four movies—Mo’ Better Blues, Malcolm X, He Got Game, and Inside Man.
And the last one was the biggest hit, too. Weren’t you working on a sequel to that?
Tell Universal Pictures. That’s our biggest hit, me and Denzel. But tell Universal Pictures!
Malcolm X was the first film granted permission to film inside Mecca, right? We were the first, yes. We had many meetings with the High Islamic Court and hired an Islamic camera crew, and we got it done.
As someone who’s profiled a renowned Muslim leader, where do you feel we are right now as far as America’s relationship with the Islamic world goes?
Here’s the thing: the United States is always going to need a boogie man. The Native Americans, black people, immigrants, the Nazis, Russia and the Cold War, and now it’s Islam. You can tell by James Bond movies who the villain is!
The media coverage is fascinating, too. Right after the Charlie Hebdo shooting that left 12 people dead, you had Boko Haram wipe out a village in Nigeria killing 2,000 people and it got only a fraction of the amount of news coverage.
I’m not surprised. People are going to write about the stuff that they feel is important. That’s the way it goes. A country that’s far off like Africa where a bunch of people gets killed isn’t “Paris, France.” I don’t think it’s just, but that’s the way it is.
You know, the first time I saw the Eric Garner video I thought of…
Radio Raheem. When I saw the footage I got my editor, Barry Brown, who was my editor for many of my films including Do the Right Thing, and we put a clip up on YouTube that intercuts between the real-life murder of Eric Garner and the movie murder of Radio Raheem. And it’s the same damn thing. When I wrote the script in 1988, it was based on the chokehold of Michael Stewart. But you have Michael Stewart, Ed Koch, The Central Park Five, Eleanor Bumpurs…
That was a very different New York City though. There was a lot of violence back then on both sides, and police brutality was pretty regular. Cops had rooms stashed all over the city where they’d beat the shit out of perps. But it’s 2015 now.
I don’t think we’ve progressed as much as we’d like to think. Those decisions by the juries in Ferguson and Staten Island are mind-blowing to me. But it’s important to also not have a short memory. Everybody also saw the Rodney King video, and what happened? It was moved to Simi Valley, and the cops got off at first. It was only when the Feds came in that they went to jail, and that’s what we hope will happen in Ferguson, and in Staten Island. The Feds have to come in. The precedent has been set already.
The district attorneys, the grand juries, and the police have to work together. These district attorneys depend on police to get their job done, so when cases like Michael Brown or Eric Garner come up, you have to be an idiot to think that district attorneys are going to work to put a cop or cops away. It’s not going to happen. I agree with what Rev. Sharpton says, which is that there needs to be a special district attorney who comes in who’s not in cahoots.
What are your thoughts on Mayor de Blasio’s current situation with the NYPD? He’s in a tough position. First of all, if the families say it’s OK for the mayor to show up to the funerals, to turn your backs to the mayor, and then Patrick Lynch says that there’s blood on the steps of City Hall, that’s not helping at all. So this is where we are.
On another somber note, I’m a Knicks fan as well…
If the Knicks were good, I’d be in London today. We’ve lost 15 in a row and 25 of our last 26 games.
I do think Phil Jackson has a plan though of torpedoing this year, getting a lottery pick, letting some of the bloated contracts expire, and picking up some prestige free agents.
That might be the plan, but Phil said publicly that the Knicks would make the playoffs this year. No one predicted that we’d be in the midst of the worst New York Knickerbocker team in franchise history.
Are you going to miss J.R. Smith?
I liked J.R. And I liked Iman [Shumpert], too. In my opinion, in order to get rid of J.R. they had to put somebody with him, so they sacrificed Iman. Now, we’ve just got to the get the No. 1 pick.
We can rig it again like with Patrick Ewing.
[Laughs] I’ve heard that story! That’s the lore. But man, that Bargnani trade… he’s bad news.
Gonna be glad when he’s gone. What are your favorite movies of the year?
I liked Birdman. I liked Selma a lot. You know what film I also liked? I liked Nightcrawler a lot. Jake did it. He’s great in the film.
I’m still not sure how he became such good friends with Beyoncé and Jay Z. There’s this great photo of Jake and Beyoncé talking courtside at a Knicks game and Jay Z is just sitting there in between them with the most confused look on his face. Have you seen it?
[Laughs] I haven’t seen it. He should’ve changed seats!
Speaking of basketball, I used to love those commercials you shot with Jordan. Do you two still talk? Of course, all the time.
You still think he’s the greatest, right? I think they’re wrong, but people have argued that LeBron might go down as the better overall player.
No question. Better than Michael Jordan?! LeBron would call you a liar! He ain’t winning 6 rings!
I see the Off the Wall poster over there. What do you have cooking after the Michael Jackson documentary?
There’s a short film called Cronies that’s going to be premiering at Sundance by Michael Larnell, who’s one of my students at NYU. I’m an executive producer of the film and presenting it.
It’s amazing how many good filmmakers NYU churns out.
We’ll kick USC in the muthafuckin’ ass any day, any time. Yeah that’s right Spielberg, that’s right George Lucas, that’s right Singleton! What!
What about School Daze 2, starring Kevin Hart and Drake? And I heard Drake’s character has a special name… What, “P*NIS?” Well, it’s “P*NIS,” so you get to make up your mind about what that is. And we shall see, we shall see. Other than that, it’s all writing, and teaching. It’s all about time management. You gotta utilize all the time you have here on Earth. You can’t waste it, because you don’t get that shit back.