Spike Lee Interview, May 2004

Even the best of Spike Lee's films are short on subtlety and gloriously self-indulgent. Yet warts and all, I love all of them except for Girl 6 (1996) and She Hate Me (2004). Having seen fewer movies in recent years, I’ve avoided two potential stinkers: Miracle at St. Anna (2008) and 2012’s Red Hook Summer.

At times, She Hate Me plays like a male sexual fantasy—one of film’s many, many storylines revolves around a stud knocking up a gaggle of hot lesbians for cash. Lee addressed the film’s sexual politics during our interview. He also discussed the Dixie Chicks/Clear Channel controversy, Halliburton, Soul Plane, R. Kelly’s post-sex tape comeback, Kobe Bryant’s legal problems and Janet Jackson’s nip slip. It is all very 2004. Hopefully, it’s still a good read.

(Originally published as a 750 word Q&A in The Source magazine’s August 2004 issue.)

May 12 2004

After receiving this assignment, I went straight to Blockbuster to rent Mo Better Blues, She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, Crooklyn and Girl 6 since I hadn’t seen them in years. They didn’t carry them.

I know. I’m not the only filmmaker affected but they go by strictly Hollywood releases. She’s Gotta Have It has never come out on DVD. We’re working on that. We’re also working on a 10-year anniversary of Malcolm X on DVD.

10 years? It came out 12 years ago.

Yeah, we’re working on it for the 15th year anniversary. They probably only have two or three copies per store of 25th Hour, so it’s a little unfortunate. You probably had to go to Kim’s Video.

I went to three Blockbusters to get all of them.

Well, I’m glad you put in that effort. It’s sad though. Their stuff is mostly current. They don’t have a vast catalogue of older films.

Does it bother you that independent, low-budget films have sort of vanished from rental stores?

That’s the way it is. My films don’t get into a thousand or two thousand theaters so I am really on the fringes of Hollywood. Blockbuster orders their films based on what they do into theaters. To break it down, how many record companies are there now? Clear Channel almost owns all of the radio stations in America. That’s why the playlists are the same. One guy is programming music for millions of people. Two companies are going to own the whole world, that’s what it’s coming to. If you’re a studio, you have to deal with Blockbuster. They are the only game in town.

Most people don’t know about the Clear Channel monopoly.

One of the first things George Bush did when he came in office was he deregulated. There was a lot of deregulation in business. Before, nobody could own that many radio stations and this guy was one of the biggest contributors to his campaign—they are golfing buddies. So when the Dixie Chicks say they are ashamed about being from the same state as President Bush, what happens? Clear Channel organizes a boycott on all the Country Western stations and they start these Dixie Chicks CD-burning rallies and pull their records from the playlists. It’s dangerous.

So then, this film has pretty good timing.

We hope so. We hope so. This is an election year. The convention will be here in August and we open on July 30.

The convention will shut down New York.

You saw how they are going to have the whole area around Madison Square Garden on lockdown? You won’t be able to get within blocks of the Garden. It’s going to be crazy Gestapo.

People complained about Giuliani. This is a whole other level of political gangsters.

[Laughs] It’s gangsterism.

You’ve touched on corporate culture and money before like in He Got Game. It always seems to be this theme of money corrupting the pure.

I think there is a way to be an honorable upright corporate citizen, be on the up-and-up and not rip people off. It that means, you got to make one less billion and don't have to lay people off…The whole thing now is cut the work force to the bone and maximize profits, no matter what you have to do. You got to lie, cheat, steal, cook the books, sell your momma on 42nd Street, anything. That’s what you got to do because you have to deliver the bottom line. And what’s amazing is that a lot of these guys have graduated from Harvard Business School. When people ask me what She Hate Me is about and I want to give them the short version, I say, It’s an examination of the moral, ethical and maybe cultural decline of America. Here you have this whistle blower, John Henry Armstrong, who is appalled by the actions of his bosses and because he blows the whistle, the squeeze is pulled on him. Because his financial situation is in dire straits, he is forced to compromise his scruples and morals for money.

There’s that one line in the movie, ‘We are all a bunch of hypocrites.’

And that’s what I love about this film because I feel like if people come to this film, which I hope they do, everybody can recognize this. It’s not just about a guy being a VP at a pharmaceutical company, everybody, no matter who you are, you are faced with the decision to make a choice and the choice you have to make goes against your morals and standards. But because there might be a raise or some perks to it, they put that aside and do what they have to do. But you always have to deal with the repercussions of what you do. Now, if you asked Martha Stewart to rethink what she did, of course so. How much was she trying to save $50,000?

That’s nothing to her.

She buys chairs and vases for $50,000.

Did they go after her as an example?

Yeah, they wanted her. But that is the whole thing. That’s why in this film we have the perp walks. It’s all publicity to restore confidence in the American investor in Wall Street. So they wake up whatever the guys name was at Adelphia and they drag him out at 6 a.m. in his pajamas. Now what TV crew is going to be there at 6 a.m.? You know they were tipped off. So a lot of these perp walks are just for show. People think that all people on Wall Street are crooks. Ken Lay hasn’t spent one day in jail yet? Why? Well, maybe because he was one of Bush’s golfing buddies. Halliburton. Who was the president of Halliburton? Dick Cheney. How did Halliburton get that contract for Iraq without a bid for $8 billion? The motherfucking vice president was the president of Halliburton. And then you read every day about how they are ripping off the American government. They are ripping them off for the price of gas—crooks! So these things, I think people can look at this film and connect it to stuff that is in the newspapers. It’s all really dealing with stuff that is in the air now.

There was that one scene in 25th Hour where Monty says, ‘Send those Enron assholes to jail for life.’ That line got a pretty big roar in my theater.

That scene was in the book but it wasn’t in the script that I read. I went back, read the book and then went to Dave [screenwriter David Benioff] like, ‘Where is this scene Dave? It’s great! How come it’s not in the script?’ ‘Disney doesn’t want it. They think it will make Monty Brogan too negative of a character.’ ‘Fuck that, we’re putting it back in.’ So we expanded and put in all the 9/11 stuff. We wanted this film to take place after 9/11 and reflect post-9/11 New York City.

Did Barry Pepper’s character in 25th Hour inspire the idea for She Hate Me? He kind of represented that loathsome Wall Street asshole.  

No, She Hates Me comes out of the In Clone, Martha Steward, Enron, Tyco and Adelphia stuff—these people who worship at the alter of money. There is a key line in the song that plays over the end credits, ‘Is God your money or is money your God?’ Because if money is your God, you can do anything. You have no morals and no scruples. If money is your God, you will do whatever it takes to get that money. You will have your momma out in the street hoing on Forty Doo Wop. We used to call 42nd Street, Forty Doo Wop.

Isn’t it ironic though that you are making that point in this film but you are working for the studios, who, like these corporations, are all about profit?

That’s really the irony. But Sony Classics really cares about film as an art form and they were the only ones that wanted to do it. They were getting ready to go to Cannes and the next day I called them up and said I got a script. We had lunch at Tao, I gave them the script and they read the script on the way to Cannes. Then they said, Let’s do it. This film barely got made—barely.

Your lead, Anthony Mackie is a young guy, kind of an unknown. He was great in 8 Mile. You worked with so many recent Oscar winners right when they were starting out: Denzel, Halle Berry, Adrien Brody…

I didn’t pluck Denzel but here are the people: Do the Right Thing was Martin Lawrence and Rosie Perez’s first film; Jungle Fever was Halle Berry’s first film; Clockers was Mekhi Phifer’s first film. We’ve been able to work with some really talented people. I think being a director is like being a GM for a sports team. The great teams have a good blend of your seasoned, grizzled veterans and youth. I felt that it was always good to have some roles for some young people. There is a ton of talent out there but what there isn’t a ton of is opportunity. We always try to have a couple of springboards in the script so if people are up to the task…There have been others who have had that opportunity but they slept on it and you haven’t heard from them or they didn’t blow up like these other people who realized the opportunity.

[Writer’s Note: Okay, where the hell is the obvious follow-up question?]

I remember when Summer of Sam was cast, people were shocked that Adrien Brody got the lead. All he had was like five minutes in The Thin Red Line.

Here’s the thing about it: He was telling everybody he was the lead actor, but Terrence Malick…[Laughs]

Most of his performance wound up on the cutting room floor.

He was telling us and everyone on the set that he was the star in the movie.

After Denzel and Halle won Best Actor and Best Actress at the 2002 Academy Awards, you said that the importance of their victories was overrated. Do you still believe that?

Yeah, because when they won, I was reading these articles that said it was a watershed moment and that the climate had changed in Hollywood towards African-American talent. I knew that was bullshit. People were just caught up in the euphoria of the moment. People were also elated for Denzel because they know he was robbed for Malcolm X, The Hurricane and Philadelphia. But caught up in that euphoria, I think people really lost reality. They thought these two awards were symbolic that we were going to be delivered and Hollywood was finally going to recognize who we are. But it might be another forty years. What people don’t realize is that Halle and Denzel won these awards but the people who make the decisions, the people I call the Gatekeepers, have not changed. There is not one person of color in a Hollywood studio that could green light a picture. I got all the love for Denzel and Halle but the real victory is going to come when we get in those positions of the Gatekeepers. Because if we do and if I’m a Gatekeeper at MGM, I’m going to say, ‘Wait a minute. We’re not making this motherfucking film Soul Plane. We’re not doing that.’ The original title was N.W.A. Niggaz With Airplanes. Hydraulics on the plane. The plane has rims. And people said we made shit up with Bamboozled.

Has anything changed since Bamboozled?

Not at all, c’mon. African-Americans say, ‘Look what Hollywood is doing to us.’ The reason why we could say that is because these scripts were being written and directed by white filmmakers. But today, we’re doing it. It is people of color writing and directing these films. The studios can say, ‘Look, we’re not writing them, just putting up the money.’ And then, ‘We wouldn’t make them if the films weren’t making so much money.’ They are poised on the success of Soul Plane and gearing up to do the sequel.

It’s opening Memorial Day Weekend, which is a huge weekend.

Oh, they’re spending money on this and it’s going to make money. I’m not even talking about the actors because they do what they gotta do. If any of the actors read this, my beef is not with you, it’s with the studio. I understand you got to do what you got to do but we are reverting back to the 30’s and 40’s with imagery. I feel this is really coonery and buffoonery at the utmost.

Do you think that’s worse now that 15 years ago?

I think so.

When Clockers came out, you said you wanted it to be “the nail in the coffin for hood movies.”

That was a very naïve statement on my part. At that time, we were just in a rash of hip-hop shoot ‘em up drug films in the ghetto. I always kid John Singleton about creating that monster.

What about New Jack City? That came out before Boyz N the Hood.

Nah, I think Boyz N the Hood had a greater effect. I also kid my cousin Malcolm Lee for being Dr. Frankenstein with the romantic comedies because he made The Best Man. But when you’re a filmmaker, you’re just trying to do the best you can do. I was naïve when I said, ‘If we’re successful with Clockers, this will put the final nail in the coffin of this hip-hop, drug, shoot ‘em up so and so.’ And here we are how many years later?

Nine years.

Still going on. But the shit hasn’t evolved and the films back then were better. They have not done it better. If you look at Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society, what films better than those have come out in that genre?

Belly [Laughs]

[Laughs] They’re still making them.

I had to watch Belly a few months ago before interviewing DMX.

Did you see his new film?


How was it?

It looked good.

The guy who shot that also shot She Hate Me. He also shot Requiem for a Dream and Pi.

Is Aronofsky ever going to make another film? It’s been four years since Requiem.

He’s trying.

Back to She Hate Me. There were some scenes where it seemed like you were speaking through your characters. Do you do that often?
Not all the time.

John Turturro’s character…

Oh, that was me. John Turturro was talking about how all these rappers have a.k.a.’s. Who is that guy that has Murder Inc.?

Irv Gotti.

I don’t understand what he said. ‘People have such negativity about the word murder. I don't understand why people would put negative connotations on the word murder. Because of that, we’re not going to be Murder Inc. We’ll just be The Inc.’ He don't understand? Murder Inc., he didn’t make that up. That was real. Why did they call them Murder Inc? Because they killed motherfuckers. They were murderers. They just didn’t pick the name out of a hat. Maybe it was the way I read it, but he had this disbelief that people were upset with Murder Inc. as the name of his company.

Do you still listen to hip-hop?

I love hip-hop but I don't like gangster rap. I can’t get with that, sorry. Bitch, ho, suck my dick, Cristal, my rims, my platinum…

In Chris Rock’s latest stand-up special he said, ‘I love rap, but I’m tired of defending it.’

How can you defend, ‘til the sweat drips from my balls?’

Lil Jon was on our cover a few months ago.

Let me ask you a question: as a human being, you shouldn’t grow? You should definitely grow as an artist. If your subject matter is the same on your first album as you rap on album’s one, two, three, four or five, the shit is stagnant. You’ve got to grow, and you can’t grow if you don’t fucking read. I love Russell Simmons but my beef with him was for a while in interviews he’d always say, ‘I never read a book in my life.’ I used to say, ‘Russell, even if that’s true, why would you say that shit?’ He doesn’t say it anymore. How many young kids saw that and said, ‘If Russell never read a book, shit, it worked for him.’ Did you guys cover what happened at Spellman College?

Kind of.

[Writer’s Note: Off the record conversation about The Source. I do not remember the details.] I think the public, the consumers who buy records and movies have to be more demanding of the artists and the companies. If you are a woman and you see a video that is insulting to your womanhood, you have the right to say, ‘Fuck it, I’m not buying that artist’s records.’ It is your right. If I’ve done a film that you feel was insulting, it is your right to say, ‘Fuck Spike.’ Me? I can’t buy another R. Kelly record. I have a nine-year-old daughter. And I believed him until he said it wasn’t him and due to some Industrial Light and Magic special effects they put his head on his brother’s body. That’s when I bought the DVD from in front of The Wiz for $10 and that shit was him. I’m sorry, some people can separate the artist from their personal life but when I saw that video, I saw somebody’s daughter. I know for a while Black radio was like, ‘I’m appalled by R. Kelly, we’re not playing it.’

And then ‘Ignition’ came out.

Yeah. [Laughs]. Once he came out with ‘Step’ it didn’t matter.

One of my co-workers wouldn’t let anyone in the office play R. Kelly after the scandal broke. But he played the new album front-to-back.

[Laughs] Once this thing comes out, they will probably make this decision about Michael Jackson, Kobe…People probably made their decision about Janet. She probably thought that would help her record sales, but in hindsight, it might have hurt her. That’s another thing. What I would like to see artists do is get back to the work. Let’s really concentrate on the work vs. how we are going to sell the work. It’s crazy. I feel like they were looking at what Madonna and Britney did like, ‘Okay, they did that, that lowered the bar. What’s going to be the next thing underneath the bar?’ So they cooked up this crazy scheme to flash a nipple.

You think it was planned?

I don't know who did but that shit wasn’t an accident. Someone is going to do something crazier than that like whip their dick out. What about the work? Put the energy in the work and let the work sell itself. There have to be some boundaries to how we are going to sell out work.

The Kobe thing is so crazy.

I was telling my wife Tonya that I don't think Kobe is going to come back to the Lakers and he might come to New York. She was like, ‘Why should the Knicks get him?’ There will be a lot of people like, ‘Fuck it. I don't care what he did, that motherfucker can play and he can play for the Knicks too.’ It’s just complicated.

If he’s not convicted.

Well, if he’s found guilty, he’s playing for no one. He’ll be playing for the hoosegow.

Didn’t Jim Dolan ship Sprewell out because of ‘character issues?’

That would be a thing. He shouldn't have said that because he said we wanted character people. What is he going to say about Kobe?

Sorry to break the news to you man, but I think Kobe will stay with the Lakers.

[Laughs]. They came back and won those last two games. [Game 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals.]

What do you think about the playoff schedules?
I think those games are spread out too far. I couldn’t believe it when I saw that NASCAR has better ratings than the NBA. The play is not as good as it used to be.

Most guards have shaky jumpers.

And you know why? They don’t show jumpers on Sportscenter. What do they show on Sportscenter? Dunks.

Even thought the Nets swept them, are you happy the Knicks made the playoffs?

I agree with Isiah that we had to get there. We made the playoffs, that was a goal. Everybody would like to see the season end better than it did.

I know we only have a few more minutes. Let me get back to She Hate Me. Do you fear a backlash from the lesbian community?

No. I’m not going to rule it out. I mean, you always have the fringe, the 'Feminazis." Hopefully there isn’t a large contingent but there are lesbians who think that any lesbian who is within 10-feet of penis isn’t a lesbian.

This film is almost like a male’s sexual fantasy.

I know we have been accused of that but I really don't think that because of the way it is constructed. This wasn’t his idea, it was brought to him by his ex-fiancée and she’s one that’s driving it. She wanted that 10% cut.

Any cuts made to get the R rating?

There were some cuts but they were not that severe. We are very happy with the MPAA. Other films were back and forth.

Summer of Sam?

Oh yeah. [Laughs] I think it’s well documented that the MPAA is more lenient on violence then they are on sex though. You can shoot somebody in the head and it’s an R. Look at Private Ryan and what Steven did in that opening sequence. That is the greatest representation of war is hell ever—that should be an X? That was great filmmaking. That’s what war is. If you show two consenting adults making love, it’s X-rated.

Well, we are a violent society.

We were founded on violence.

Couple more quick ones: John Singleton just did 2 Fast 2 Furious. Would you ever do a blockbuster action film?

If I liked the story. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be a sequel.

What happened with Ali?

I wanted to do Ali. It wasn’t meant to be. It wasn’t meant to be. The powers that be said, No Lee.

Michael Mann did Ali. Spielberg did Amistad. Does it bother you that white men are directing these epic films about the Black experience?

It’s always been like that. Amistad was Steven Spielberg’s film. It was his script. Ali was something I thought I was going to do. Will and Columbia Pictures just weren’t feeling me.

Are you doing the Jackie Robinson film next?

Nah, now it looks like Robert Redford is going to do that. His company is producing it and he’ll play Branch Rickey. Rachel Robinson owns the rights.

What about the Joe Louis film?
That, I have the rights to. I’m hoping to get that made with Vin Diesel playing Joe Louis.

What happened with Rent?

That never happened. Miramax and Harvey Weinstein fucked things up.

So that won’t get made?
Not by me.

Is Joe Louis next?
Don’t know yet.

Do you watch Chappelle’s Show?

Oh yeah. I want him to be in my next film.

Why don’t you act in your films anymore?

Really no need to. We got better actors. Let me concentrate on behind the camera.