Spike Lee doesn’t want to tell people what to think about race and the movies, but that doesn’t mean he’s without opinions. “I don’t want to sound like Amiri Baraka or something,” he says, “like I’m the gatekeeper of black cinema, but c’mon. A lot of these films that are coming out are just bullshit. Bulllll-shit.”
It’s a true enough assessment, and one that probably pains Lee more than he lets on. With his 1986 debut, She’s Gotta Have It, Lee helped inspire and solidify a number of trends that are still doing good box office—mental and otherwise—12 years later: a commercially viable independent cinema, an aggressive rhetoric of black filmmaking as political or public good, a guerrilla-warfare take on indie movies where any unknown with a few dollars and a dream can envision leaping into the national consciousness, and an artist-as-brand-name philosophy where black filmmakers want to scale not only the heights of their own profession but also the worlds of ready-to-wear, record production, and advertising. That’s a hefty list of “created”s and “inspired”s, but despite breaking all that ground Lee sees a messy, woefully incomplete construction site, the list of black films since 1986 including a few good entries but many, many more that are deeply flawed.
“Booty Call. How To Be a Player. I like Ice Cube, but I didn’t like Players Club. Ride. B.A.P’s—I mean, did you see B.A.P’s? I don’t understand how some of these films get green-lighted. It’s just not a good thing when you look at someone’s résumé and you see one of those films on the first line. You can be as talented as you want, but if you compromise in the beginning, you’ll still have a hard time getting any other films made.”
Lee says he still faces a fight getting his own films made, but he’s managed to finish two in the last year, the Oscar-nominated documentary Four Little Girls and his upcoming 12th feature, the Denzel Washington basketball drama He Got Game. And that’s just the filmography, as Lee never forgets to cite being a husband and father, running an ad agency (SpikeDDB), teaching directing at New York University’s graduate film school, and, of course, “getting the Knicks in.”
He Got Game is the long-awaited Spike Lee Sports Film. “I didn’t plan it like this,” he says. “I always thought my first sports film would be the Jackie Robinson story, but we’re still looking for the funding on that. After Get on the Bus, my wife, Tanya, told me, ‘You should write another original screenplay,’ that she’d been missing my voice. My first thought to myself was ‘And what do you know?’ But after some reflection, I realized she was right. Once again. Jungle Fever had been my last original screenplay, and that had been six, seven years ago. So I started writing, and basketball was the first thing that came to mind.”
Lee didn’t want “Sportscenter addicts” to be the only people to see the film, and he didn’t want to do “that hokum Hoosiers, Rocky kind of sports movie. No underdogs, no team from the sticks. No glorious return to the days when teams were teams and there was no such thing as the fast break, when we didn’t have all this fancy nigger shit with behind-the-back passes and jams, when basketball was ‘pure.’ I also didn’t want to do one of those fake schoolyard films. No stunt doubles, trick photography, or lowered baskets like they did for Above the Rim. It’s like a karate movie the way they have bodies moving through the air, like they’re on wires and trampolines.”
Directing the picture was akin to coaching basketball. “I didn’t want to be like a lot of these coaches in the league that are just like, plod plod plod. So some court sequences were choreographed, but mostly we gave the players the leeway to create and improvise. That’s the way I’ve always directed my films. You have directors out here where an actor can’t change one single word. That’s one way of directing, which is fine. You have your coaches like Pat Riley, and you have your Phil Jacksons. I want input from actors and I don’t treat them like robots. Some of the best moments in Game came completely from Denzel.”
Craft is clearly important to Lee, which is why, try as he might, he can’t stay away from Amiri Barakasounding comments once he’s been asked to talk about other people’s films. “I’m happy people are getting work and opportunities,” Lee says. “But I’m not happy with most of these films. You have to raise the bar eventually, at least try to. You can’t pitch or green-light a film on the possibility of selling a hip hop sound track. You have places like New Line and Miramax that are cornering the market on certain segments of the black audience, companies with no black people in the top executive ranks.”
He knows black folks aren’t rejecting these movies. “That’s the sad thing. The black audience is going for the bullshit. You’ll have a stampede for Booty Call, and no one’ll go see Rosewood. And black people’ll be the first ones kicking and screaming about b.s. black movies. You can’t just keep blaming Anglo-Saxons, though,” he says, “because there’s also a whole Matty Rich syndrome where filmmakers are like, ‘I’m real, I didn’t go to film school, this is the first time I’ve ever picked up a camera.’ I don’t understand how you can tout your ignorance as a badge of courage.”
When offered bell hooks’s line, “White people worship at the altar of black mediocrity,” Lee laughs. “My biggest fan. But it’s true. A lot of times when white people are in a position of power and there are two black people, a competent person and an incompetent person, the incompetent one will get the job. That’s how they view us as a people. Incompetent. But where’s Matty Rich now? Where are those lack of skills that he was championing? They’re busy not getting him any more work. Black people, kids especially, almost seem to fail on purpose because they want to be real, because they don’t want to be ridiculed as acting white. Now that’s seeping into the arts.”
Lee’s version of keeping it real means having feet planted in both independent filmmaking and Hollywood. “I maintain complete creative control of my films, but I use Hollywood for their money and distribution. So I have complete control to make a film, but it’s not like I can do anything I want. I can do anything I want under certain budgetary constraints. Which is fine. It teaches you to find new ways of solving problems. I’m just not getting $50 million.”
Asked to look ahead, Lee says he doesn’t know what he’s working on next, but “whatever it is, we start shooting in July.” Other projects are floating in his head: a musical (“Don’t have a story yet, but it’ll be all singing and dancing”), as well as a redoubled effort to get The Jackie Robinson Story made. He also wants to break into television, “but that’s a tough nut to crack. Forget how we are in the movies, look at those sitcoms on the U Peoples Network and We Brothers.” Asked to look back, he declares himself a man with no regrets, but after a pause he reaches all the way to the beginning for one thing he wishes he could do over.
“I would take the rape scene out of She’s Gotta Have It.”
Asked why, Lee responds, “Rape is obviously a very violent act, and I just wish I hadn’t put the scene in. It brought a lot of things into the picture that didn’t belong there, and it just wasn’t necessary. It was my ignorance at the time that put it there.” Lee bristles just a little when he’s asked if he’s reevaluated it because of long-standing criticisms. “No, nobody TOLD me. I’m 41 now. I was 24 when I wrote that script. It just didn’t belong in the movie. You grow and you learn.”
All of which goes to show why, if black film is going to have a gatekeeper, it might as well be Spike Lee: When was the last time you heard Amiri Baraka, or any other self-appointed defender and definer of anything black or white, admit they made a mistake?