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This story first appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It’s the only awards show this season during which Spike Lee will share the stage with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Both will receive special honors Feb. 6 at the NAACP’s 46th Image Awards, hosted by Anthony Anderson, but only one recently funded a vampire movie on Kickstarter. On the eve of the event — sparking extra interest thanks to Selma‘s snub and Black-ish‘s heat — THR spoke with Lee about the state of black cinema, racial politics in Hollywood and how the Academy messed up with Driving Miss Daisy.
How do you feel about winning the NAACP President’s Award?
A great honor — just look at the people who’ve won [including Muhammad Ali, Bill Clinton and Kerry Washington]. And Attorney General Holder will be honored. His wife and mine are friends, so it’ll be a good night.
Is it becoming more conceivable that black movies can succeed overseas? Or are they international box-office poison?
That’s one of the biggest lies Hollywood has perpetrated. Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson: Their numbers are comparable to those of any white movie stars — it’s a fact. To say blacks don’t travel internationally is a bald-faced lie. Ask studios why they do it, not me.
In the U.S., your 1989 film Do the Right Thing remains topical: The character Radio Raheem dies in a police choke hold, as did Eric Garner in July.
June 30 was the 25th anniversary [of the film’s release], but it got into hyperdrive when I saw the murder of Eric Garner. I called up my longtime cinematographer and said, “We got to cut that in with Do the Right Thing and get it up on YouTube.”
Some say Selma got “swift-boated” out of Oscar nominations it deserved because of race-inflected historical controversy, though it is up for best picture. But in 25 years, don’t you think that’s the 2014 movie people still will be watching?
We don’t have to even use Selma as an example. We could use Do the Right Thing versus Driving Miss F—ing Daisy [which controversially won the Oscar for best picture in 1990]. But Do the Right Thing wasn’t the only thing the Academy messed up. My point is, it’s not a new problem. And great art is going to prevail.
You wouldn’t recommend some type of protest about Selma‘s snubs at the Academy Awards?
People are protesting about stuff that really matters, sir: the jury decision in Ferguson [and] Staten Island. That’s why people are storming the streets — not because of what the Academy says. There are more serious matters in this country than how the Academy votes.
Have the doors that once barred black filmmakers been knocked down?
Let me tell you, sir: The door is not knocked down. It’s cracked open a little bit. I wish the door was wide open. I’m just being honest.
Your next movie, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, was funded on Kickstarter, and Cronies, which you produced from one of your student theses at NYU, debuted recently at Sundance. Do these movies suggest hope for indie film — new technologies and economies giving filmmakers new opportunities?
I was criticized for being on Kickstarter, but people have got to understand the principle of crowdsourcing, which I utilized in 1985 to make She’s Gotta Have It. We shot that in 12 days.
Cronies is about male friendship, and Sweet Blood is about vampirism as a metaphor for addiction, so they’re not exactly “black films.”
For me, I never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever have seen or thought or taken the attitude that something black is not universal. It’s not like if there are blacks, only black people are going to go see it. That’s not the case in rap or rock ‘n’ roll. The founders of rock ‘n’ roll were Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Louis Jordan, not Elvis — you know? What we do in art is universal; it’s the other people who characterize it as “race music” or “black films.” When I was at NYU, I got introduced to Kurosawa — I’m not Japanese. People stigmatize black films but never Fellini or Rossellini or De Sica.
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