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“I’ve come to learn that timing has a lot to do with everything,” says Spike Lee, the iconic independent filmmaker responsible for acclaimed and controversial films — or “Spike Lee joints” — such as She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992) and Inside Man (2006), as we sit down at 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, his production company in Fort Greene (a part of what he calls “The People’s Republic of Brooklyn”), to record the 250th episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “And sometimes, to really get you over the hump, the stars have to align — and the stars aligned with this film.”
Lee, a small, scrappy, tough-as-nails New Yorker, is speaking of BlacKkKlansman, one of the most critically and commercially successful films of his 32-year career, and the one that could bring him his first-ever Oscar nomination for best director. (He was nominated for best original screenplay for Do the Right Thing and best documentary feature for 1997’s Four Little Girls.) The period dramedy recounts the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black cop who infiltrated the KKK back in 1978 — but it sadly seems as relevant as ever today, a point hammered home by Lee’s decision to close the film with footage of the August 2017 death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia. “This is a very timely film,” the 61-year-old says. “We were in preproduction [when that happened]. I was in Martha’s Vineyard. I saw it on CNN, and I knew that it had to be the ending.”
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below [starting at 55:44], following reflections by Scott Feinberg, the host of ‘Awards Chatter,’ about this podcast’s origins and evolution — and his 10 favorite episodes.
Check out our past episodes featuring the likes of Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, Justin Timberlake, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Carol Burnett, Will Smith, Lady Gaga, JJ Abrams, Emma Stone & Ryan Murphy.
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Lee, whose birth name was Shelton Jackson Lee, but who was nicknamed “Spike” by his mother because he was a tough baby, was born in Atlanta, but raised in New York. “My father [Bill Lee, a jazz musician] hated movies,” he says. “My mother [Jacquelyn Lee, a schoolteacher] was a cinephile.” Lee’s maternal grandmother was a schoolteacher in segregated Georgia who deposited her Social Security checks for 50 years and then used that money, and the interest it collected, to pay for Lee, her oldest grandchild, to attend Morehouse College and New York University’s graduate school, and to help him get started on his first student film and professional film.
Lee didn’t consider becoming a filmmaker until the summer of 1977, before his junior year at Morehouse. His mother had died during the preceding school year, a devastating blow to him, and he spent much of the summer aimlessly — until paying a fateful visit to a friend who had been gifted a camera and film and gave it to Lee. That summer, he shot a significant amount of footage, and when he returned to college he began turning it into a documentary at Clark College, across the street from Morehouse, at the encouragement of Dr. Herb Eichelberger, a professor there. After graduating, Lee headed to Los Angeles for an “eye-opening” eight-week internship at Columbia, at the end of which he headed to NYU’s graduate film program — having been rejected by AFI and USC.
At NYU, where Lee was a few years behind Jim Jarmusch (who would soon make Stranger Than Paradise and become “our hero”) and in the same class as Ernest Dickerson (the only other black student who would graduate from their year) and Ang Lee, the young filmmaker came into his own. His gravitation toward provocative material was established in the first of his three years there, when he made a short narrative film mocking The Birth of a Nation, which almost got him expelled. Then, in his final year, at 25, he made his student thesis film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads; the project — which was scored by Lee’s father, shot by Dickerson and with sound work by Ang Lee — cost just $13,000, but wound up being accepted at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s prestigious New Directors/New Films festival and earning Lee a Student Academy Award in 1983. As a result, Lee assumed he would be in high demand. “I had an agent,” he recalls, “but I couldn’t even get an ABC afterschool special.” He concluded that, for a young black filmmaker in the mid-’80s, the only path to a career as a director would be through indie films.
She’s Gotta Have It, a black-and-white — except for one color sequence — dramedy, was made in just 12 days for only $175,000, which was gathered through solicitations; the depositing of bottles and cans; and skipping meals (Lee, small to begin with, was thinner than ever at the time). Also, to save money, Lee himself played a prominent part in the movie — something he would do on nine other early films, even though he had no interest in acting. The pic grossed $8.5 million and helped Lee to land a deal with Nike making commercials in partnership with Michael Jordan. Suddenly, Lee was on the map.
Lee subsequently made a musical, School Daze (1988), which wasn’t promoted well, and then what many regard as his masterpiece, Do the Right Thing, a $6.5 million film about racial tensions boiling over on the hottest day of summer on a single block in Brooklyn. “New York City was racially charged under the leadership — the non-leadership — of Mayor Ed Koch,” Lee says, and he wanted to make a movie that called attention to that, as well as to global warming and gentrification. (He says that his own interactions with the NYPD have always been “cordial.”) The film was cheered by many after its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, but it wasn’t awarded the Palme d’Or (sex, lies and videotape was), something that Lee is still angry about nearly 30 years later, mainly because, according to jurors Hector Babenco and Sally Field, jury chair Wim Wenders objected to the morality of behavior featured in the film. Lee was subsequently further aggrieved by the Academy’s treatment of the film — the organization nominated only Lee’s script and Danny Aiello for his portrayal of a racist pizzeria owner, while awarding best picture honors to Driving Miss Daisy, which Lee still refers to as “Drivin’ Miss Mothafuckin’ Daisy.”
Lee has since been known as a controversial figure. Mo’ Better Blues (1990) — the first of four films on which Lee teamed with Denzel Washington, and also the first on which Lee and Dickerson introduced “the Spike Lee signature shot,” which makes it look like someone is floating when walking by putting both camera and person on dollies — was intended to show black jazz musicians who weren’t addicts or cheaters; instead, Lee was accused of anti-Semitism for the movie’s depiction of shady Jewish club owners. Jungle Fever (1991) took heat for its focus on interracial relationships. And Malcolm X, which Lee wrangled from fellow director Norman Jewison, with Washington playing the title character, was nearly taken away from him by its studio and bond company because Lee insisted that the $33 million biopic run longer than three hours — until, that is, he recruited wealthy black friends to help him come up with the money to finish it on his own terms.
But Lee cannot be dismissed as merely a provocateur — indeed, he has consistently put out quality films every year or two for more than three decades. These include Crooklyn (1994), a semi-autobiographical, sensitive look at a family in Brooklyn; 4 Little Girls, his first post-college doc feature, for which he interviewed a dying George Wallace, and which led to the arrest of perpetrators of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing; He Got Game, an ode to the sport Lee famously loves, basketball; 25th Hour, an ode to the city with which he is so closely associated, and one of the first major post-9/11 films; Inside Man, a heist-pic homage to Sidney Lumet‘s Dog Day Afternoon, and Lee’s most commercially successful film ever; Miracle at St. Anna (2008), a tribute to the black “Buffalo Soldiers” unit who fought during World War II; and now BlacKkKlansman, the portrait of Stallworth.
“I hadn’t heard of him [Stallworth] until Jordan Peele called me with the pitch,” Lee says, noting that the Get Out Oscar winner felt Lee was the ideal director for the project that Peele and Get Out producer Jason Blum wanted to produce. He continues: “It has to be one of the greatest pitches of all time. Six words: black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan.” Lee, who has worked four times with Washington, decided for this film to hire Washington’s son John David Washington, a young actor who Lee knew “before he was born” and to whom Lee gave a cameo in Malcolm X when the younger Washington was just six. “I knew he could do it,” Lee says of the larger assignment 25 years later, and critics and audiences have agreed. The pic premiered at Cannes, where Lee told audiences it was okay to laugh even though it deals with dark subject matter; where audiences applauded Lee’s signature shot; and where this time, unlike any before, Lee left with hardware, namely, the Grand Prix.
Lee, now in his seventh decade and a tenured professor and the artistic director at the same NYU film program he once attended as a student, approaches the world skeptically, especially when it comes to matters of race. “I never thought it would happen — ever,” he says of the 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama. “I did not drink the post-racial Kool-Aid.” The election of Donald Trump to replace him, and Trump’s subsequent attitudes towards race, have not surprised Lee. “I knew about him way before,” Lee says, “when he took out a full-page ad with a million dollar reward for clues leading to [conviction for the Central Park Five]. He might have got somebody else to pay for that — never uses his own money.” But Lee finds that the best way to work through his thoughts about the world is still through films. “I’m doing what I love,” he says, noting that even after all these years, he’s still an independent filmmaker. “I was doing Kickstarter with She’s Gotta Have It,” he cracks. “They just didn’t have the technology. I mean, I was making phone calls, writing postcards. So the principles of Kickstarter, I was doing in ’85.”
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