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It was 28 years ago that Spike Lee brought his trailblazing film Do the Right Thing to Cannes, marking one of the most controversial debuts in the festival’s 70 years (then-New York Magazine critic David Denby was among those suggesting it would spark race riots). The film ultimately lost out on the Palme d’Or to Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Adding fuel to the debate, jury president Wim Wenders explained his vote by calling Do the Right Thing’s protagonist Mookie “unheroic,” prompting Lee to declare that he had a Louisville Slugger with Wender’s name on it.
Lee is back in Cannes this year for a conversation with his longtime collaborator Roger Guenveur Smith (Lee directed Smith’s one-man show Rodney King, which began streaming on Netflix on April 28, and the two are being honored here with a special gala presented by luxury concierge service WanderLuxxe). He also is in town to moderate a Q&A with Elton John on Monday at the Cinema Olympia following the world premiere of John’s The Cut. The outspoken filmmaker sat down with The Hollywood Reporter at the American Pavilion to talk about the Netflix backlash in France, his festival memories and the real reason why Donald Trump should be impeached.
Netflix has taken a lot of heat here from the French. As a filmmaker with a Netflix movie, do you think the criticism is fair?
No one is above being criticized. Especially in the White House. And to the French, cinema is life and death. So I understand why they feel the way they do. But I like Netflix very much. I like people who are visionary. Phil Knight selling sneakers out of his trunk. Ted Turner. Everyone thought he was crazy. Who’s gonna watch news 24 hours a day? Steve Jobs. I like innovators.
Speaking of the president, any thoughts?
He’s not my president. I call him Agent Orange. There was some clip I saw yesterday of him dancing with the Saudis that was just ludicrous. Not only is he not a good president, he can’t dance either. (Laughs.) He could be impeached on his rhythm. He’s the clown with the nuclear codes.
What do you remember from the Do the Right Thing premiere?
I remember being mad as a motherf—er. But me and Steven Soderbergh are cool. It was never, ever directed toward Steven. I’ve always had respect for him as a filmmaker, as an innovator, we’re cool. As for Wim Wenders, when he did Buena Vista Social Club, I let it go. Giving the Cuban brothers some love. But the thing that got me mad was [Wenders’] quote that Mookie wasn’t heroic. I was like, “James Spader masturbating to a videotape, that’s heroic?” Here’s the thing, though — you go around the world and you see images of Mookie, graffiti all over the world. Not James Spader, 30 years later.
Why is Rodney King’s story still important today?
I think history’s important. History is how the world, the future, is shaped, and a lot of times, looking back 25 years, you see things you didn’t see. I mean, look at O.J.: Made in America. That piece was amazing. And I’m also glad that Roger and I did something, that John Ridley did something. So yeah, there’s the perspective on what happened 25 years ago.
You were once attached to direct the Ridley-penned script about the Los Angeles riots for Universal. Are you frustrated that the film never got off the ground?
Well, I think that for me, it’s sad that I didn’t get to make Jackie Robinson. I think it’s sad that I didn’t get to make Muhammad Ali. This is stuff I was involved with, too. James Brown, too. So you just gotta keep stepping.
You also are here to moderate the conversation with Elton John. Are you a fan?
Oh! Way back! Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. That’s my man. I saw Elton probably when he first played Madison Square Garden. Love his work. I’ve only met him one time.
You were a passionate Bernie Sanders supporter. Did you eventually migrate to Team Hillary once Bernie was out?
Have you read the book Shattered? Great book. Hillary comes with entitlement. They thought they were entitled to this and despite what you might think, you gotta work. If you’re chilling at Martha’s Vineyard, and think “It’s a done deal.” But it wasn’t. There’s one thing you can learn from sports. To quote Yogi Berra: “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” They thought it was theirs. Shit don’t work like that.
Did you vote for her?
Shit don’t work like that. (Laughs.)
How about The Rock in 2020?
No. Well, I’d need to know how he stood on issues. The thing is, everyone thinks they can be president. Like, “Look, that guy did it.”
With her term coming to a close, do you think Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs ultimately moved the needle?
She did a great job. And I’m sorry that she had to go.
What were you thinking as La La Land was named best picture and then it was corrected as Moonlight?
I wasn’t watching. I’m happy for Barry [Jenkins]. But the best thing I saw last year was O.J.: Made in America.
What’s next for you?
Right now, postproduction on [Netflix series] She’s Gotta Have It. Ten episodes. It’s been great revisiting my first film.
What would you do to fix the New York Knicks?
Phil Jackson’s gotta go.
They need a Tom Brady?
Please. All I know is Mr. Tom Brady has two losses in the Super Bowl. Two losses to the New York Giants. I’m happy about that. And he supported Trump.
We don’t know that for a fact. We only know there was a MAGA hat in his locker.
C’mon. Bob Kraft put that hat in his locker? Wait, Putin put that Trump hat in Tom Brady’s locker! (Laughs.)
A version of this story first appeared in the May 22 Cannes daily issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
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