The cult of Spike Lee was born on March 26, 1990. At Los Angeles’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, an uneasy tension hovered over the 62nd annual Academy Awards ceremony. For the 33-year-old film director, the fix was in. Lee’s unsettling, powerful 1989 cinematic landmark Do The Right Thing was ignored by Oscar voters that year for the biggest prize of the night: Best Picture. Know this: Hollywood’s old guard elite was not ready for Shelton Jackson Lee. A much deserved nomination for Best Original Screenplay, which the Brooklyn, New York native would lose out to Dead Poets Society, was perceived by many as a consolation prize of sorts for the driven filmmaker.
Oscar presenter Kim Basinger—wearing a rumored Prince-designed, doing-way-too-much, asymmetrical dress with letters tumbling down the sleeve—very nervously addressed the elephant DABBING in the room. “We have five great films here,” Basinger said as she introduced the first of five films nominated for Best Picture that evening. “And they are great for one reason…they tell the truth. But there is one film missing from this list that deserves to be honored because, ironically, it might tell the biggest truth of all. And that’s Do the Right Thing.”
Indeed, most movie critics and fans showered revelatory praise on Lee’s Do The Right Thing, a brilliant, combustible, polarizing, racial powder keg on celluloid set in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. The film’s neighborhood crew screams racism at local spot Sal’s Pizzeria. Do-Or-Die neighborhood staple Radio Raheem is told to turn down the volume of his massive boom box, which blasts the film’s defiant, piercing theme song Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power.” A melee ensues and Raheem—an un-armed black man—is murdered by white policemen (sounds familiar?).
All hell breaks loose. Sal’s lone black employee Mookie, played by a simmering Lee, explodes and throws a garbage can through the window of the Italian-owned eatery. The ‘hood favorite is burned down; fire hoses are turned on black protestors. It’s a full-blown riot caught on film.
Do The Right Thing was praised for its barebones, no-easy-answer take on race relations. But not everyone was down with the film’s bold, unapologetic auteur. Some folks were all too eager to charge that Lee’s layered, no-happy-endings work would spark violent unrest in theaters; an excessive indictment of Do The Right Thing’s explosive climax. The most infamous critical shot came courtesy of The New York Magazine’s David Denby: “The end of this movie a shambles,” he wrote in his now infamous scathing review, “and if some audiences go wild, [Lee’s] partly responsible.”
Apparently Lee’s cinematic breakthrough was too much for Academy members as well. They chose the laughably milquetoast (and in some quarters, offensive) Driving Miss Daisy for Best Picture—a movie centering around the decades-long relationship between a prickly southern white woman Daisy and her loyal African-American chauffer Hoke. Even as future Spike Lee collaborator Denzel Washington took home a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his powerful role as a rebellious escaped slave turned Union army private in the black Civil War film Glory, the gaudy punch line was not at all missed.
Nearly 30 years later, when Lee is asked by VIBE for his take on the striking parallels between 1990 and the current fallout of the 2016 Oscar nominations being dubiously headlined by a virtual freeze-out of what many observers believe to be deserving African-American talent onscreen and behind-the-scenes, he initially doesn’t bite. It’s mid-January and an affable Lee is gearing up for the Showtime premiere of his latest directed work, Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall, a rich, surprisingly illuminating documentary on the making and underrated impact of the King of Pop’s boy-to-man, post-disco 1979 masterpiece.
Lee takes a more diplomatic tone on the Oscar night that served as a career trajectory for the iconoclastic visionary who today is held simultaneously with unbridled reverence and firebrand infamy. “Here’s the thing,” he says. “If you are really doing what you love to do your goal is to do the best work you can. You don’t say, ‘I’m doing this because I want to win an Oscar.’ That’s not to say that it’s not nice to have those accolades. But for me that was never my goal as a filmmaker.”
Yet it only takes a few minutes for Spike Lee, the defiant, tireless, no bullsh*t fighter and advocate for independent and black filmmakers, to emerge. “Who’s watching Driving Miss Daisy today?” Lee bristles. “Is that film being taught in colleges and universities and schools around the world like Do The Right Thing? No. Last year people were calling me about Selma and now they are calling me again. Just like I said when Ava [DuVernay]’s Selma didn’t get nominated. This is nothing new.”
There was a time when Lee, who became a critical darling with his irreverent, black and white debut—the witty and controversial 1986 sex comedy She’s Gotta Have It—was hailed as the black Woody Allen. Like the seminal filmmaker, Lee was unapologetically New York. And like Allen he was celebrated as a dynamic, hilarious, bantam-sized force-of-nature (screenwriter, director, actor) who could hold his own onscreen with “real” thespians, often times getting the biggest pop as lovable, Jordan-rocking, 10-speed bike riding B-boy Mars Blackmon. But Lee wanted more than just quirky hijinks.
Not since the great African-American film pioneer Oscar Devereaux Micheaux has a director been so doggedly ambitious, polarizing, self-contained and, well, unapologetically BLACK as Lee. After establishing his 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks production company in the mid-‘80s, Spike Lee went on to tackle inside-baseball racial politics amongst African-Americans at an historically black university (1988’s School Daze); dissected the complexities of black love through the soundtrack of jazz (1990’s Mo’ Better Blues); and side-stepped Warner Bros. studios, personally raising $5 million when the suits balked at providing him with more funding for what was perceived to be a very risky $33 million biopic about the most controversial civil rights icon of the ‘60s era (1992’s Malcolm X).
Lee won. Never mind that Oscar voters fronted on him once again, excluding the provocative lensman from the Best Director category for his Denzel Washington-headlined Malcolm X epic. Or that an in-the-zone Washington lost to sentimental favorite Al Pacino for Best Actor. For up and coming black filmmakers like John Singleton, Julie Dash, the Hughes Brothers, and F. Gary Gray, Lee wasn’t just some cliché beacon of hope. He was a bold, loud change-agent who didn’t ask to be seated at Hollywood’s exclusive table. He barged in, grabbed his own seat, leaned back, and placed his feet on the damn thing.
“I can’t overstate the impact that Spike and his success as a filmmaker—who looked like me—had on my drive to be a part of this industry,” praises in-the-zone Hollywood producer Will Packer. Counting the $200 million domestically grossing smash Straight Outta Compton, Packer’s top lined stable of films, which include Think Like A Man, No Good Deed, The Wedding Ringer, and Ride Along and its recently released no. 1 box office sequel, have combined for $1 billion worldwide. “He let a lot of my generation know that it wasn’t impossible,” Packer continues.
When we met up with Lee we found him to be in jovial spirits. Our conversation ranged from the Oscars’ woeful diversity issues and the Presidential campaign circus of Donald Trump to the respectable return of his beloved New York Knicks. But first things first…Lee’s Off The Wall film—which features an embarrassment of riches of interviews including the Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, fellow movie director Lee Daniels, new age R&B crooner the Weeknd, British music man Mark Ronson, and super producer Pharrell Williams as well as MJ’s family Katherine Jackson, Joe Jackson, Marlon Jackson, and Jackie Jackson and iconic Off The Wall producer Quincy Jones.
It’s the second installment of what Lee hopes will be his definitive documentary trilogy on the world’s greatest entertainer (Spike wants to tackle the making of MJ’s 1982 commercial juggernaut and best-selling album of all time Thriller following Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall and 2012’s Bad 25). For Lee, it’s quite simple. Michael Jackson is the standard for all who dream of making their mark on this world and beyond.
VIBE: The defining theme of your Off The Wall documentary is the demystification of Michael Jackson. We have this idea of MJ as this otherworldly performer who was beamed down from another planet. But you present Michael as a gifted singer who also happened to be pretty hardcore when it came to perfecting his own craft and studying the greats. How important was it to get the idea across that Michael Jackson wasn’t just getting by on natural ability and that he was arguably pop music’s most obsessive worker?
Spike Lee: With this Off The Wall documentary we definitely wanted to show how much of a hard worker Michael was. There’s a note that he wrote that we featured in the movie. Michael said: “To be great, study the greats.” Let me just say that I really hope that younger artists see this film because Michael had otherworldly talent, but he worked at his craft. And I think that is something that’s being lost to young artist.
I’m not trying to sound like some old fuddy duddy grandfather, but it’s about the work ethic; that elbow grease; that get-up-and-go. I think we are losing craftsmanship because everybody wants to get to their destination over night without putting in the motherfucking work. You gotta work. Like Verdine White (of Earth Wind & Fire) said in the documentary: If you love what you do, it’s not work. That’s something that the writer Dream Hampton also emphasized as well in the film.
Black artists, especially, are viewed as having some magical, natural gifts…
Right. So often with black artists and athletes there’s this crazy notion that we just—to coin a phrase my sister Beyonce—woke up like this [laughs]. Nobody didn’t wake up like this. We didn’t come out of the womb dunking or singing or dancing. People put in work. They had the talent, but they put in the work. And Michael embodied that. He was working, perfecting his craft.
You were able to get your hands on some pretty rare archival concert footage from the J5 days and the Jackson’s Destiny and Triumph tours. Can you talk about how open John Branca and John McClain were in terms of opening up the Jackson estate’s vast video collection to you for the Off The Wall documentary?
We did a documentary before this on the Bad album, which was called Bad 25. Hopefully, God willing, I get to do one on Thriller. But that’s the appeal of these films. It’s not going to be a very interesting documentary if we show videos that people have seen a million times already. You want to see stuff for the first time.
How did the experience of filming the Off The Wall documentary differ from the Bad 25?
With the Bad 25 documentary, you are dealing with an artist following the best selling album of all time. Off The Wall is a very different time. People weren’t sure about Michael, but he was. There is more of an innocence of Michael hooking up with Quincy [Jones] during the making of The Wiz going into his first adult album apart from his brothers. So there’s a lot of new milestones and I think that is definitely reflected in the music. Off The Wall is so joyful and free, whereas Bad 25, which I love as well, was basically Michael saying, “We are going to sell more records than Thriller!” [Laughs] It’s two different mindsets.
Are you in the camp that believes Off The Wall is Michael’s finest artistic statement?
I love them all…but there is such an innocence that you hear on Off The Wall that you don’t hear on Thriller or Bad.
Michael was very ambitious and even at times quite cutthroat when it came to breaking away from brothers. Did that aspect of Jackson come through for you?
I wouldn’t say Michael was cutthroat. He just wanted to fulfill his artistic vision. And that vision was not going to be singing and writing songs with his brothers, who he loved dearly, for the rest of his life. He wanted his own individual expression of who he was. I don’t think that’s cutthroat to me.
Contrary to reports, Lee is NOT joining Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s boycott of this year’s Academy Awards. He just doesn’t have any interest in attending. A week later after our interview, a perturbed Lee told talk show host Steve Harvey: “I’m tired of the media calling my office asking me my reaction to Oscar nominations. “They need to start calling up these white nominees. Ask them their feelings about it.”
If Lee at times comes off as a bit frustrated with having to play the defacto spokesperson for black Hollywood, it’s not without merit. Often times his immense talents, on screen innovations (no one utilizes a dolly shot quite like Spike Lee), and instinctive eye for talent gets lost in his at times intimidating rebel rousing reputation.
“He is one of the greatest, most innovative and influential directors of all time,” lauds CBS’ Limitless star Hill Harper, who got his big screen break playing a UCLA Film School student in Lee’s 1996 Million Man March ensemble drama Get On The Bus. “Spike does not get the credit he richly deserves for literally creating the careers of so many working actors and stars today. From me, to Rosie Perez to Samuel L. Jackson to Mekhi Phifer, Rosario Dawson…the list goes on and on. I and many others owe Spike Lee so much!”
And yet Lee’s cinematic journey has had its share of bumps and outright stumbles. You get the artistic highs that reach for the greatness of Do The Right Thing and X (Jungle Fever, Clockers, He Got Game, and Five Little Girls). The underrated gems (Crooklyn, Bamboozled, and 25th Hour); and populist box office triumphs (The Kings of Comedy and Inside Man).
But then there’s the messy 2008 World War II film Miracle of St. Anna. Frequent Lee champion and late respected film critic Roger Ebert said of the director’s 2011 Brooklyn return, 2011’s Red Hook Summer, “Here is Lee at his most spontaneous and sincere, but he could have used another screenplay draft.” Lee’s static remake of the 2003 South Korean cult classic Oldboy (2013) failed to entice moviegoers and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2013) had people questioning his viability as consistent, bankable force.
But just as the movie industry was ready to write Lee off he inked a deal with Amazon, after being turned down by a myriad of studios, and released his most ambitious work in over a decade: Chi-Raq. Billed as the e-commerce giant’s first original film, the December 2015 musical-drama is a relentless, surreal take on Aristophanes’ 2,426-year-old play Lysistrara, which Lee uses to address Chicago’s epidemic of shootings in the city’s majority black South Side. Chi-Raq was met with both unbridled enthusiasm and a lightening rod of criticism. Just like old times.
“Chi-Raq is a shout of joy and a cry of anguish, as well as a bridge between the ancient world and the modern one,” praised Time Magazine film critic Stephanie Zacharek. Lee’s comeback vehicle also scored a positive 82 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Some voices, however, were beside themselves upon its release, charging Lee with making light of Chicago’s tragic cycle of violence (in the film, women abstain from having sex as a means to stop their men from going to war, i.e. ending gun violence).
“Let me be the one from Chicago to personally tell you we not supporting this film out here,” wrote acclaimed hip-hop artist Chance The Rapper on Twitter of Chi-Raq. “That sh*t get ZERO love out here. Sh*t is goofy and it’s a bunch of ppl from NOT around here telling u to support that sh*t.”
But Will Packer says Lee’s ability to still engage and provoke audiences three decades into his career is an inspiration for today’s new breed of filmmakers. “I’m not surprised one bit,” he says of Spike’s unbreakable passion. “We spoke briefly while he was preparing to shoot Chi-Raq and he had this drive, this singular sense of purpose in his voice that you expect from a young hungry filmmaker just starting out. Spike is still hungry and I expect him to remain that way for years to come…for our sake I hope he does.”
Indeed, the children of Spike Lee are following in the master’s persistent, ride-or-die footsteps, most notably actor Nate Parker, who most recently made headlines after writing, directing and starring in his passion project The Birth of a Nation. Parker’s two-fisted Nat Turner biopic, which follows the legendary preacher and slave who, in 1831, led an historic slave rebellion in Virginia—recently became the toast of the Sundance Film Festival, selling for a record-setting $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight following a much publicized bidding war.
Like Lee, Parker found a way to make a film that practically no one in Hollywood wanted to touch. He raised The Birth of a Nation’s $10 million budget himself at a time when a chorus of African-American filmmakers and actors declared Tinsel Town as a non-inclusive club. “My brother [email protected] showed up to the edit to support,” Parker posted on Instagram. “Grateful. #NatTurneriscoming. #BirthOfANation #It’sTime.”
The trending photo of Lee and Parker accompanying the message is striking, emotional and ironic. You see, Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is a middle finger to D.W. Griffith’s infamous 1915 white supremacist, Klu Klux Klan-featured, silent propaganda film of the same title. In the early ‘80s during Lee’s first year in NYU film school, he wrote and directed a 20-minute movie called The Answer after he grew tired of his professors lavishing praise for The Birth of a Nation’s groundbreaking artistry.
“They talk about all the ‘innovations’—which he did,” Lee said of Griffith in a 2008 New Yorker interview. “But they never really talked about the implications of Birth of a Nation, never really talked about how that film was used as a recruiting tool for the K.K.K.” In The Answer, an out-of-work black screenwriter reluctantly agrees to pen a remake of The Birth of a Nation. The man changes his mind and decides he cannot in good conscience go through with the project. He is then attacked by the Klu Klux Klan (they burn a cross in front of his house), the same racist terrorist organization celebrated as the “heroes” in the original The Birth of a Nation.
Burn Hollywood Burn? Nah. Spike Lee wants to rebuild it in his people’s own image.
Let’s switch gears, Spike. You made this statement when you received your honorary Oscar in late 2015: “Everybody here probably voted for Obama. But in [Hollywood] offices, I see no black folks except for the man who’s the security guard who checks my name off the list as I got into the studio. So we can talk ‘Yabba yabba yabba,’ but we need to have a serious conversation about diversity and get some flavor up in this.”
Your words have proven to be prophetic with the current controversy involving the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar race. Were you shocked when this year’s nominations were announced?
I didn’t look at it that way. I was never, “I’m doing this to win an award!” When you do the great work, the awards are gonna come eventually. I just got my honorary Oscar this past year [laughs].
But your past comments were not as diplomatic. You were really upfront over your disappointment that the Oscars were far from welcoming when it came to African-American talent.
Yeah…but here’s the thing though. We talk about the lack of diversity at the Oscars almost every year. Last year people were calling me about Selma and now they are calling me again. Every 10 years we get the nominations….but the other nine years we get a drought. But I had to learn the hard way. If your sh*t is good it’s going to stand the test of time. I have to draw up my own history with Do The Right Thing. You know what film won Best Picture in 1989?
I believe it was Driving Miss Daisy, right?
Driving Miss Motherf**king Daisy! That’s another lesson we can learn from Michael Jackson. You could make the argument that the enormous success of Thriller was fueled by Michael knowing that the Grammy’s snubbed him with Off The Wall. It’s the same thing with Michael Jordan. Any perceived slight he would use that as fuel like, “Alright motherf**ker…” [Laughs]
Did you use your Oscar snub as fuel?
I think any good artist can use a snub. They can use negativity and turn that into positivity. I would say that to any of the young brothers and sisters who felt they were overlooked in the Oscar nominations this year.
Let’s talk about your last big screen project Chi-Raq. Being from Chicago, I was well aware of the historical cycle of gang violence and police corruption that has loomed large in parts of my hometown. Is it time for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has been at the center of an alleged administrative cover up following police shootings of unarmed blacks, to step down?
Oh yeah. And that’s not just my opinion. It’s many people’s opinion…the people protesting outside of [Mayor Emanuel’s] house. They are telling him to step down. It’s not a good time to be mayor in Chicago especially after seeing that Laquan McDonald tape.
Since then there have been other police connected shootings in Chicago. Quintonio LeGrier, the 19-year-old who was gunned down inside his own home and hung up on by a 911 operator as he was asking for help. And his neighbor Bettie Jones, 55, who was mistakenly shot and killed by cops after she opened her apartment door to let police in…
[Spike jumps in] My question is how many more of these cases are they sitting on?
You caught a lot of heat from some Chicago politicians and artists who charged that Chi-Raq was making light of the gun violence plaguing the city. There was even pushback from Mayor Emanuel over the title of the film; criticism that Chi-Raq, a play on war torn Iraq, was glorifying the South Side’s violent reputation. How do you respond to that?
People can get mad if they want, but we told the truth with Chi-Raq. Ain’t no lying in that film. Sometimes the truth hurts. The young people did not come up with the name Chi-Raq for no reason. The whole thing with calling us out for using that name was just a misdirection play like in football. They were trying to get people focused on something that wasn’t really that important. It’s the subject matter that’s important. I’m proud of Chi-Raq and I stand by it.
Moving on to a more lighthearted topic, you wear your fandom rabidly on your sleeve as the ultimate New York Knicks fan. Are you shocked at how good Kristaps Porzingis has been as a rookie?
Well, we are going to make the playoffs. And we are going to have the rookie of the year—Porzingis. He’s no joke. He can play. The [Philadelphia] 76ers chose [Jahlil] Okafor. No one knew Porzingis was going to be this good, but thank God Phil Jackson picked the right one. (As of this posting, the Knicks have dropped out of playoff contention. Same ol’ Knicks? Spike is right on one point. That Porzingis is a keeper.)
I can’t let you get away without asking you about Donald Trump, who continues to lead in the Republican primary polls. Are we going to have to accept the realization that an a**hole billionaire and reality show star is going to be America’s next President?
[Laughs] No. That not happening. (Most recently, Spike gave his fully throated endorsement to Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. And that’s the truth Ruth.)
So no Trump, huh?
[Laughs] It just ain’t gonna happen.
Spike Lee is free.
Maybe that’s why it’s damn near impossible to pin him down. Is he a Kurosawa, Fellini, Scorsese worshipping film nerd? An agenda-pushing, shoot-first race-man who once balked at Oscar winner and The View co-host Whoopi Goldberg when she said that Steven Spielberg was the only person in the world who could direct the black ensemble drama The Color Purple (1985)? “Does she realize what [Goldberg] is saying,” Lee said in a back and forth. “Is she saying that a white person is the only person who can define our existence?” Is Lee a dizzyingly diverse music head who can go from speaking on the artistic virtues of jazz giants Ella Fitzgerald and John Coltrane, the Beatles, the aforementioned Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder to hip-hop royalty Public Enemy and Gang Starr? Or is he just a shameless sports nut who rarely misses a Knicks home game and boos any team that’s in his squad’s division?
Answer: It’s never that simple with Spike Lee.