The Other Side of Spike Lee
Martha Frankel had a history with Spike Lee before she interviewed him for the November 1992 issue of Movieline. Their previous interactions were heated. It’s pretty clear that she was not looking forward to meeting with the director, but this time things were different. While he was doing post-production work on his next movie, Malcolm X, Lee was much looser than he had been in the past. He laughs off a lot of questions which some might consider confrontational.
I figure there’s no point in beating around the bush with Spike Lee. “My editor wanted me to come in here, turn on my tape recorder and leave for half an hour,” I tell him.
“And go where?” he asks.
“Shopping, out to lunch, she didn’t care.”
Spike looks totally confused.
“She said that you just rant and rave anyway, and maybe after you’d had 30 uninterrupted minutes to vent your bullshit, we could have a real conversation.” Spike absorbs this information silently. “Why is it that everyone thinks you’re such a pain in the ass?” I ask innocently.
Here Spike doesn’t miss a beat. “It’s the media–” he begins.
I cut him off mid-sentence. “Don’t look now, Spike, but I am the media.”
At this point Spike Lee–the man whom writer Walter Kirn so astutely called an “ethnic inspector general,” the man known for being so Politically Correct that even those who believe in political correctness (and I’m not one of them) are embarrassed by his tirades, the man who would just as soon rant and rave as answer a simple question–bursts into a raucous laugh. Somehow, on the eve of releasing the biggest and probably most controversial movie of his career, Spike Lee is more relaxed and likable than I’ve ever seen him.
I have a modest history with Spike. In 1989, I was interviewing Branford Marsalis, and he took me downtown to the recording studio where he was working with Public Enemy on their song for Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Right before we walked in, he asked where my tape recorder was. I pointed toward my bag. “Just don’t be a fool,” he said. “Keep that in your pocket. You’re about to hear shit no white girl has ever heard before.”
Inside, Marsalis introduced me to Chuck D, Hank (the engineer) and Spike Lee, and then I became a fly on the wall. The talk that night ranged from Korean grocers who were taking profits out of the ghetto, to black men who couldn’t get enough white pussy (their word, not mine), to what By Any Means Necessary really meant–all themes that find their way into Spike Lee’s films.
A month later, I was sent by another magazine to interview Spike. We met at his production offices in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and spent well over an hour arguing about Do the Right Thing, which he thought was cinematically and thematically perfect, and I felt was flawed. He yelled, I yelled, he yelled louder, I screamed, we shook hands and called it an interview.
The next time I ran into Spike was about two months later, one midnight at the Chateau Marmont in L.A. I was waiting for the elevator in my bathrobe, on my way to get the Filofax I’d left in my car. I figured I wasn’t likely to run into anybody. But then I heard voices coming down the stairs. I faced forward, praying the voices would fade out, but they came nearer. And then I suddenly felt an arm around my throat. Terrified, I turned around and shoved, and sent Spike Lee smack into Magic Johnson and some other gargantuan ball player. Spike was grinning as he explained he had recognized my haircut, but his eyes accused me of something sinister: Fear of a black planet, they said. Yeah sure. How about fear of the universal dick!
So here we are in midtown Manhattan, at an editing room where the sound is being mixed for Malcolm X. For two weeks we’ve been trying to schedule this talk, and there have been at least 10 messages on my machine from Spike, assuring me that we were on, but hoping to delay it for another month, until more post-production work had been done on the film. When I convinced him that it was now or never, he couldn’t have been sweeter. This has me worried.
Spike is wearing brown suede loafers, gray chinos, a gray silk shirt with white polka dots (“It’s from my friend Al,” he says when I lean over to touch it. Huh? “Al-mani,” he says with a chuckle), a cap that says “Stay Black,” a gold ring, a huge watch, a silver chain with a cross, and a long thumbnail–something I’d thought (hoped) left with the ’80s. At 5’6″ and perhaps 120 pounds soaking wet, Spike definitely knows how to carry off an outfit.
I feel like a prizefighter who’s been preparing for a title bout: I’ve just reread both The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Malcolm X Speaks. I’ve talked to reporters who’ve filled me in on the problems Spike had getting this movie off the ground. I’ve gargled.
Spike starts right off. “We’ve made a great film,” he says.
“Don’t be so modest.”
“No, really,” he says. “Denzel [Washington] is phenomenal. About 10 years ago he played Malcolm onstage, in When the Chickens Come Home to Roost, so he was familiar with the material. He plays Malcolm so brilliantly. He decided that the only way to play Malcolm was to play him spiritually pure, because whatever he did would show up on the 70-mm print. For months before we began filming, he stopped eating pork, wouldn’t do anything that would show up on the film that shouldn’t be there, because everything would be magnified.”
I’m about to mention that I can’t remember the last time I watched a performance and thought, “Whoa, this guy’s been eating pork!” but Spike is virtually uninterruptable. “This was the part of a lifetime for an accomplished actor. Malcolm X wasn’t just one man: he went through at least three or four different transformations in his life. I don’t know what Denzel’s gonna do next…”
“What are you gonna do next?”
“Take a well-earned rest. This is the sixth film we’ve done in seven years. And it’s not only doing the films, it’s the promotion of them that’s tough.”
“Well, you’re the master of that shit,” I say, having seen firsthand.
“Madonna’s the master,” he says without a pause. He’s definitely given this some thought.
“Okay,” I agree, “but you’re next.”
“When Malcolm X comes out, I’m taking the belt from her,” Spike says mischievously. “I’ve decided.”
“She doesn’t do it herself,” I say. “She has Liz Rosenberg. I can guarantee that if I was interviewing her, she wouldn’t have left 10 messages on my machine saying ‘call me later,’ ‘do this, do that,’ like you do all the time.”
“Well,” says Spike, “I consider her a friend, and she sure knows how to work that publicity machine. Of course, I don’t have breasts.” He slumps over on the couch, laughing and holding his stomach. “If I did have titties, I’d be in the number one spot over Madonna.”
This is a frightening thought.
“I interviewed Annabella Sciorra, and she said that she never had an experience like working with you on Jungle Fever, because afterwards, people were always calling her and telling her that you said this or that, all kinds of bad shit, and that when she spoke to you, you said that that’s just the way it is when people worked with you, that rumors run rampant.”
“Really?” asks Spike, “because some of that stuff was true.” Big laugh. “I’m gonna be honest, we didn’t get along. And the reason is that Annabella was in a different movie. She was not in concert with what Wesley [Snipes] and I wanted to do with this role. This film was about two people, an interracial couple, who come together for all the wrong reasons. The reasons being based on sexual mythology. I think that during the course of the film, Annabella’s character, Angie, learns to love Flipper. But, at the beginning of the film, she’s attracted to him because of all the things she’s heard about black men having blig dicks…”
“You said ‘blig dicks.'”
“Jesus Martha, okay, I meant big dicks. And that they know how to fuck. And Flipper’s attracted to her because, growing up, the white woman has been the epitome of beauty. That’s what he’s been told by the media. This is not to say that all interracial couples are like this. Of course not. The couple played by John Turturro and Tyra Ferrell, I think that couple had genuine feelings about each other. But Annabella chose not to play it that way.
“Maybe she didn’t buy into the jungle fever mystique,” I say, coming to her defense.
“Then she should have told me earlier, because I stressed from the beginning that this was what I wanted.”
“Well, she told me she liked you and got along fine with you.”
Spike is having none of this sisterhood. “I’m amazed the film turned out as well as it did, because she was in another film entirely. Me and Wes were telling her about how black men got lynched in the South, they also got castrated. That it was this whole sexual fear. And she would look at us with her eyes all big, she didn’t know nothing about this shit. It was all news to her. She was her own worst enemy …”
“That’s funny,” I say, “because that’s what so many people think about you. That you spend so much of your time answering your critics that it’s amazing you ever get anything done.” When he starts to deny this, I take out a copy of a message Spike supposedly left on the answering machine of an editor at The New York Times.
“Hey,” he says in his own defense, “they’re supposed to be the paper of record, and they write this bullshit about me. I taught this class at Harvard, called Contemporary African-American Cinema. And one of the school correspondents wrote an article about me that ended with the statement that some of the administration was concerned about my teaching at Harvard without a degree. And The Times picked this up in the Campus Life section. So I just wanted to call and straighten this shit out.”
The message he left was: “This is Spike Lee. How you doing? Look, how in the hell are you going to write some bullshit that I don’t have a fucking college degree? I got a fucking master’s from NYU and an undergraduate degree from Morehouse College. How’s the fucking New York Times gonna write some bullshit that I don’t have a fucking college degree? You know you motherfuckers ought to do some fucking research or whatever you call that shit before you write some fucking bullshit, all right? I got a f*cking master of fine arts from f*cking NYU. I want a motherf*cking retraction. All right, motherf*ckers?”
Somehow, the talk turns to the New York dailies, and how they can’t leave certain people (like Spike Lee) alone.
“Poor John Kennedy Jr.,” he says. “He can’t even park his bike outside his job anymore. I’m very lucky, ’cause I don’t have that shit, like Michael Jackson and his bodyguards. I don’t have nobody around me. Those other people, they’re prisoners.”
“I think some people rise to their own celebrity,” I say. “Did you read what Eddie Murphy said in GQ, about how he wouldn’t walk out without his bodyguards, because there’s a recession on and they see him, and they think that he must be walking around with crazy money?”
“Well, I wish he didn’t have to feel that way. Maybe he worries that someone is gonna try to pick a fight–”
“Which you don’t have to worry about,” I say, waving a hand to take in his small frame.
“What?” he shouts. “What the fuck you mean?” He puts up his dukes, but he’s laughing again, and not about to swing at me. “It might all change after this film,” he says more solemnly, “but I sure hope not.”
Suddenly Spike switches tacks, coming to land on the very things I’ve been steeled against in this interview. “It’s a miracle,” he says, “that Malcolm X has not been damaged by all this backstage shit that went on with the financing, and with me and [Amiri] Baraka at each other’s throat, with Warner Bros, and me raising hell like we did.”
Okay, here we go.
“What happened with the Completion Bond Company?”
“Well, from day one with Warner Bros., we told them, this is a David Lean type of movie, epic in scope and length. It’s a big picture, spanning four or five decades. We told them that it was gonna cost over 30 mil. In February, the Completion Bond Company fired my editors, because they said I was over budget. I wasn’t sure how long it would take to get this all straightened out, so I appealed to people to help me out. Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Magic, Michael Jordan, Janet Jackson, Quincy Jones, Tracy Chapman and Peggy Cooper–all those people gave us money. It wasn’t a loan or an investment, it was a gift, pure and simple. I put two of the three million I got for directing into the film, too.”
“There are some people who would say that anyone who gave you millions of dollars as a gift is out of their minds.”
Spike, incredibly, starts to laugh again. “Let them say it. On November 20th, in this year of our Lord 1992, Malcolm X is gonna open. And it’s gonna be big. So, let them say whatever the fuck they want.”
“And what about Amiri Baraka?”
“Well, even before we started to shoot the first frame we had him and his crew on us. He has his own opinions. I just wish that he would have come to me first to voice his concerns. He said that I was too middle class and too bourgeois to direct this film. And that I was going to concentrate too much on the Detroit Red period of Malcolm’s life. Both things untrue. There was a service in February that Dr. Betty Shabazz, Malcolm’s widow, organized. And Baraka spoke for an hour, and he had ample opportunity to blast me and he didn’t. Afterwards he said, ‘Well, I’m just going to reserve my judgment until I see the film.’ And I said, ‘Thank you.’ I just wish he would have said that from the beginning.”
For the first time, Spike may have found a subject that’s more controversial than he is. And he’s just thrilled about it. “Yeah, Malcolm X was perhaps the most controversial figure of the 20th century. That’s why the film is gonna be three hours and 20 minutes, because we take the time to show the audience how he became what he was. We approach it like the epic it was. It ends in the present day, in Soweto. I got to meet Mandela, all the people in the ANC. It’s one thing to read about apartheid in the papers and to see it on the news, but when you go there, when you go to the townships, it’s something else entirely. When you see the conditions black people are forced to live in in Soweto… I see them as concentration camps. When you watch the news, and you see these little kids playing with AK-47s, ‘one bullet, two settlers,’ and you think what a shame it is that these little kids are thinking about killing the white South Africans … But when I got there,” Spike stops just long enough for a rifle-fire round of laughter, “I was looking for my AK-47, too. I understood how these eight- and nine-year-olds felt. Apartheid is brutal.
This thing is not going to be settled peaceably. Never in the history of the world has a people in power handed over the government to someone else. I’m not happy to say that, but South Africa is the richest country in the world, as far as natural resources, and Botha and de Klerk, they’re not gonna give that shit up. Like Malcolm said, the ballot or the bullet… and that’s why they’re not gonna give it up. They don’t want that one-man, one-woman vote in South Africa. It was a great experience to be there.”
Spike is getting ready to go to the dentist, so I only have time for one more question.
“What about you and John Singleton at the Oscars?” I ask. “How come you both looked so bored?”
“I was there to support John Singleton,” he says by rote.
“So, why’d you have to look like such a schmuck?”
“How can you say that?” he says in typical Spike fashion. “You don’t think we looked good?”
“Yeah, you both looked terrific. But …”
One last little laugh. “Well,” he says, “maybe this year I’ll have a chance to get up there at the Oscars and atone…”
Martha Frankel interviewed Tim Robbins for our October issue.