For more than three decades, Spike Lee has been one of the most vital forces in film-making.
His latest movie, Da 5 Bloods – about four African American veterans who return to Vietnam in search of the remains of their squad leader – is a blast of satire and emotional agony about the fact that black deaths matter.
Last week Lee released a new short film that spliced footage from his classic 1989 movie Do the Right Thing with the arrests of George Floyd and Eric Garner, both of which led to their deaths – proof that, even after three decades in the business, his work remains relevant.
On Wednesday the 63-year-old director spoke over video chat from his office in Brooklyn, New York. He was ebullient as he answered questions sent in by readers and famous fans, often prefacing his responses to his peers with enthusiastic expressions of respect and affection.
You've always set an example of being outspoken about the things that matter to you in the film industry and beyond. Do you feel you've ever been penalised for that?
What’s up, David! Yeah, but when you speak truth to power there’s going to be resistance. You know that going in. Whatever they’ve dished out has not stopped me from what I’ve wanted to do for the past four decades. Thank you for the question.
Do you ever get tired of people asking you your views on race relations in the US?
Yes. I don’t mind being asked; it’s how I’m asked. Many times, reporters are working on the assumption I’m speaking on behalf of 40 million African Americans. Which is not the case at all.
What is the most challenging part of working with actors?
They start acting crazy. Hahaha! I love you, Halle, love you, love you. Jungle Fever was Halle’s first film!
If you could describe yourself in five words, what would they be?
That’s very hard. I can’t do it. Now, my wife could, but not me. What would she say? I don’t wanna know. No – I do know, I just don’t wanna hear it! Hahaha! No – I know, I just don’t wanna hear it again! Hahaha!
Reality sometimes overcomes fantasy and the pandemic is a perfect example. Do you think future movies will be able to ignore an event of this magnitude, or will their authors be forced to deal with it?
Lina, I love you, I love you, I love you. Be safe, because I wanna see you and give you a big hug when we get over this thing. I think artists are gonna respond in many different ways to this pandemic. Movies, documentaries, novels, paintings, photographs, books: there’s gonna be great art coming out of this. And historians many years from now will specifically go to see how artists commented.
Where would you be if you weren’t in the US?
If I couldn’t live in America, I would live in the People’s Republic of Brooklyn. Hahaha!
British Labour Party MP
When I watch the protests in the US, the sense I get is one of overwhelming tiredness. Tired of being shot in the street. Tired of waiting for progress. Tired of the never-ending struggle. How do you cope with weariness when injustice never sleeps? And what is the role of art in keeping us awake?
David, that’s a great question. I was very impressed when I met you more than once in London. You’re doing a great job, you’re fighting the good fight. You know the answer. The struggle continues and you just gotta keep fighting. So keep fighting!
Given slavery was the norm in all human civilisation until the 19th century, why do you think the US in particular struggles to deal with the consequences?
Let me answer this question with a question for this person they can’t answer right now. What other countries have handled racism or slavery better than the US? I’m not saying that waving the red, white and blue; but so often people look at America and all they see is blatant acts of racism and then they are deaf, dumb and blind to racism in their own country. I understand why the US gets the scrutiny, because supposedly it’s the cradle of democracy, and we do [racism] better than anyone else!
Also, because of Hollywood. Because of television. It is my belief that the US is not a leader in the world because we have more nuclear weapons than anybody; it’s the export of culture. Music, dance, Apple, Nike – that’s how America dominates.
Why do you think we are impelled to tell each other stories?
First of all, I gotta give love! My man’s not only a doctor, he’s a film-maker! That’s the only time I’ve heard that combination; for me that’s like two sides of the brain. But I gotta say, love your films, love your films, love your films and one day I hope to meet you in person.
This may sound like a trite answer, my brother Dr George Miller, but storytelling is just part of being a human being. It’s what we do, from the very beginning, when we were writing shit on caves and whatnot. That’s how we communicate.
What moment or moments of all those you put on the screen most surprised you with its cultural impact?
Do the Right Thing. People still going back to that film, especially today. How can you look at the NYPD’s murder of Radio Raheem without thinking about Eric Garner and now Mr Floyd? It came out 31 years ago.
I'm curious – since directors have no idea how any other director directs, because we're never there – when you're in that intense groove during weeks, months of shooting, what do you do to maintain your vision for your film off the set? Do you prep, defocus to clear your head for the next day's possibilities, socialise, stay isolated and meditative?
Michael Mann! Thank you for your question. Big fan of your work. It depends on the film, the scene, how I’m feeling that day. How the actors might be feeling, hahaha! You know what I mean! You know what I’m talking about! You just gotta go with the flow and the vibrations. You know better than me, Michael: this whole thing’s about vibrations that we give back and forth.
How did you get Nelson Mandela involved in Malcolm X?
I knew people that were close to Mandela and while we were shooting in Cairo we made arrangements to go to Soweto to film him. One of the greatest experiences ever. His only feature film is Malcolm X!
Francis Ford Coppola
I feel the most effective way to bring about change to the key areas of criminal justice, health care, education equality and childcare/nutrition is by allocating enormous funds; do you agree?
That’s the director of Apocalypse Now, which has two homages in Da 5 Bloods. And the Godfather trilogy. I’m not gonna disagree. And his wine is great, too. That’s my brother.
You strongly supported Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020: are you going to vote for Joe Biden?
Nina Simone said that it is an artist's duty to reflect the times. For the first time, it feels as though people of all races from all over the world have seen the light and are demanding an end to this evil. What role do artists and the arts in general play in this unique time, where we have the world's attention and true change seems like it might be in our grasp?
Thank you for your questions. I think the role that artists take is the role they choose. All art is not the same and many artists refrain from politics in their work and feel it’s their job to entertain. This is something I’ve learned as I’ve got older: it is an artist’s individual choice to do what they want to do. Any artist who says they’re not going to comment? That’s their choice.
Actor and director
You have given voice to so many issues over the years that haven't gone away; how do you feel about where we are and are you hopeful for the future?
John and I go way, way back. Our first film together was Do the Right Thing. John is one of the most beautiful, sincere human beings I’ve ever met in my life. I love John. That’s my guy. You know, a lot of the time, sh*t’s f****d up, but you just gotta fight the good fight. You know that better than me, John.
The long and terrible exploitation of black people lies at the heart of continuing brutal racism, not only in the US, but here as well. Christopher Logue wrote this in his poem Know Thy Enemy: "He does not care what colour you are / Provided you work for him." How do we unite people of all races to know their real enemy?
Ken Loach?! The heavyweights! Ken, my brother, I’m honoured. Ken, as you know, you are one of the great film-makers. So thank you for taking time out. I wanna meet you. Everybody who’s asked me questions who I’ve never met before: when this thing is over, I wanna sit down with you guys and talk and vibe. We don’t have to talk about cinema; we can talk about football.
But Ken, this is a great question. You gotta hold the mirror up. They gotta see what they look like, what they sound like and the hate they’re representing.
Why did eight years of Obama fail to make substantial enough change to race relations in the US?
Very good question. But you have to understand: race relations – which have gotten worse – are a direct response to having a black president.
Has anything fundamentally changed for the good since 1965?
That’s a hard question. We just buried King George Floyd.
Did you think race would still be such an issue in the US when you made Do the Right Thing?
Yes, but I never imagined this. What’s made it worse for me is the cameraphones. Before, you just read articles about it. Now, you are seeing these horrific murders. That makes all the difference in the world. The image of King George Floyd being suffocated for the last eight and a half minutes of his life went global and that is why we’ve had marches globally. People round the world saw a human being with this cop’s knee pressed against our brother’s neck, crying out for his deceased mother. You know what? As he was dying, I believe he saw his mother. His mother came to him in his last breaths.
That image hit people’s hearts all round the world and that’s why people took to the streets in England. Get a globe, spin it and, wherever you stop, there’s a good chance people were marching.
We need a new Do The Right Thing now.
No. As long as I’m alive, there will be no remake and, if they try, I’m coming back from the dead to stop it. Hahaha! I promise you, I will come back from the pearly gates, from the upper room, to stop a remake. So help me God. I will bring him with me, and Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Bill Nunn, Frank Sinatra. Anybody that’s passed; we’ll all come back to stop a remake.
Bamboozled didn't just stun critics, it stumped them, like Sly Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On, or Kara Walker's work. Like those pieces of black art, they couldn't quite figure it out, because there was no spot in there for them to feel comfortable critiquing it. So, too many just attacked it with this "you've made the wrong kind of black art" response. At least, that's my take. Why do you think the same white critics (and a few black ones) who praised Do The Right Thing were outright dismayed by (in my opinion) one of your best films?
I guess they felt guilty watching it. They might have felt they were being targeted by Spike Lee. They weren’t – unless they were running around with blackface at a very young age. Which is what’s now coming out: all these politicians in the US who are blacked-up in college photos.
Which of your films are you most disappointed by in terms of their critical and commercial reception?
People missed Bamboozled. 25th Hour. Miracle at St Anna. The biggest one is Chi-Raq. I think that film is gonna find an audience who’ll understand what I was doing 20 years from now.
If you could go forward or backward in time to witness a historic or personal event, what would you want to see or experience first-hand, and why?
Well, first of all, I have to give my love to Rosario. The first time I saw her was in Larry Clark’s Kids and I’ve been very lucky to have her in two of my films: She Got Game and 25th Hour.
Rosario, I love you, I love you, I love you. That’s a really good question. I would have liked to have been at Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in Washington DC in 1964. I was alive; I was seven years old. To have heard those words with my own ears …
Would you cast an implausible person of colour in a historical drama for the sake of diversity, eg casting a black soldier in Custer's seventh cavalry? What were your feelings about Ryan Murphy's alternative history Hollywood, which placed persons of colour, gay people and women in positions of power they never achieved? When I cast two black actors and a white actor as best-friend factory workers in Blue Collar, I knew it was an unlikely pairing, but not implausible – therefore worth doing.
Oooh! My brother! Hollywood: I’ve yet to see it, but I’m gonna check it out.
Were there no black soldiers in Custer’s seventh cavalry? Also – and I love Paul; that’s my brother – I would do that film, but Custer would not be the hero. He would be the villain and I would tell it from the viewpoint of the Native Americans. One day!
Does the recent win for Green Book, and that for Driving Miss Daisy 30 years ago, reflect the inability of the liberal, white US to confront the seriousness of racism in the US?
I’m gonna pass on that question. It does me no good to talk – especially in this time we’re living in – about stuff which is insignificant. People are dying every day.
Do you think Michael Jordan will ever let anyone make a movie about his life and times … and would you do it? I ask while shaving my head …
Hahaha! You’re a great actor, but I don’t know if you could handle “the rock”, my man. Two separate skills. You can’t do Mike on the court without some special effects from ILM [ Industrial Light and Magic]. I don’t think he’s gonna allow anybody to play him in a narrative film while he’s alive – and he might put that in his will, too.
I love you, Idris. I wanna commend my brother for telling the world that he tested positive [for coronavirus] and telling the world that this thing is no joke. It was so important. There were some crazy ghetto rumours that black people could not be affected by – as we call it – That 19. You did a great service to squash that lie. People might have died or not proceeded with care because they thought their black skin made them immune.
Jackson, Tyson, Jordan: which Michael has been the greatest influence on you?
I’ve worked with all three and all three I consider good friends. I’ve been blessed.
Did you ever have political conversations with Michael Jackson? Was he knowledgeable and engaged about such things beyond a surface level?
Oh, Michael knew what was going on! Look at that film we made in Brazil: They Don’t Care About Us. It was an anthem when he was alive; it’s even more of one now. We had some deep conversations. He was very aware. All you have to do is listen to the music and read the lyrics. As a grown man, he’s not talking about ABC. He’s saying whole different stuff.
When did you first decide to cross from fiction to nonfiction? Why?
For me, it all falls under the umbrella of storytelling. Love your documentaries, Asif, keep doing your thing.
I realise this is very general, but I'm wondering: why are movies such a powerful and magical form of expression for you?
I love Jim. We were at NY grad school at the same time. He was three years ahead; for my class – which included Ernest Dickinson and Ang Lee – he’s our hero, because with Stranger than Paradise he provided a blueprint of how we could crack into this industry. Jim was living proof it could be done.
Presenter and politician
I strongly believe that prejudice is learned from an early age and that childhood lasts a lifetime. So, do you agree in order for children to grow up with empathy, more films should be made, specifically aimed at children, that address critical life issues such as racism – and would you consider making one?
I agree 100 per cent. No embryo is racist. No human being that’s being formed in their mother’s stomach is full of hatred. The moment that child pops out – excuse the terminology, I’ve been there with two of my own children and they just popped out, hahaha! – they learn from their parents the good and the bad. Racism and hatred is learned; you’re not born with it. So, I agree. Let’s start teaching our children peace and love at a very early age.
Which actor from the past would you have liked to direct the most?
I would have loved to work with Paul Newman. And Marlon Brando. I’m sorry I never had a chance to work with Sidney Poitier. I did work with Harry Belafonte. I would have loved to work with Dorothy Dandridge.
Why do so many white people teach their children to fear black people?
You’ve created balanced, compelling and humane white characters in many of your films. Why do many similarly talented white film-makers not create compelling black characters?
They probably didn’t grow up around black people. Also: the minorities know more about the majority and it’s not vice-versa because we’re swamped by the majority culture.
Occasionally, I get mistaken for you; have you been mistaken for me?
What’s up, Mike, my brother! I haven’t had the honour yet! Peace and love. – Guardian
Da 5 Bloods is streaming on Netflix