|Spike Lee answers questions from students at VCU (photo from vcu.edu)|
Welcome to Part 2 of Spike Lee’s recent visit to Virginia Commonwealth University. Yesterday, I chronicled the first part of Lee’s two and half hour discussion, in which he lectured the mostly young, black crowd about the importance of motivation, and the necessity of making education “cool” again. Lee’s words were inspiring, informative, and controversial, sometimes all at once. Thankfully, the Q&A portion of the evening allowed Lee to continue speaking his mind.
Plenty of questions were asked during the discussion, so I’ve split them into four distinct topics to help add separation to Lee’s thoughts.
For reference, feel free to check out my write-up about Spike Lee’s lecture at VCU. Enjoy!
VCU Campus – Richmond, VA
Feb. 21, 2013
|Spike Lee on set|
Question 1: I’ve heard that, in order to be successful, you have to be lucky. I’m wondering the best way to get to where you are. Was it hard work? Luck?
Spike Lee: First off, there’s no one way to do anything. On day one of all of my classes [Lee is a film professor at NYU], I tell my students that there is not a rulebook. I tell them how I do stuff, but it might not work for them. And I think you guys are handicapped, because you were born during all this gadget stuff. You have 900 channels on television, Twitter, Instagram – there are too many distractions. When my son was getting C’s in school, I snatched everything. Took it all. Too many distractions, he couldn’t focus. They’re listening to music, the TV is on, the computer is on, they’re on the phone, and they’re doing their homework! That’s insane. That’s too much shit. [Crowd laughs.] There comes a time when you have turn off the off button. Turn it off! You don’t have to be on call 24/7, you’re not a doctor.
Question 2: I’m in social work but I’m interested in getting into film, which I only recently realized. And I want to acquire skills, but also earn an income for myself. Did you ever have any barriers like that? And how did you get over them?
Spike Lee: That might be the best question I get tonight. This is something every artist must face. How do you survive when pursing your art? Wait tables. Drive a cab. Work little odd jobs. Substitute teacher. Do what you can, make it work. For me, I said I’m not getting married, I’m not having any kids – can’t do it. If it was a choice between me buying a roll of film and being hungry, I would go hungry. But you can’t do that if you have a family. You can’t do that if you have a spouse. So I remained only dependent on myself, and I would go hungry so I could buy film.
Question 3: I’m African-American and Native American, and I want to make films about what is happening in the Native American community right now. Now, a lot of your films address racial and political issues of their time, and I’m wondering how to best do that. Should I be sensitive to certain issues? How do you present those issues in your movies?
Spike Lee: Tell the truth as you see it. Simple.
Question 4: In today’s world, when there’s so much competition in the arts – in acting, music and filming – what personally catches your eye?
Spike Lee: I look for originality. One of the mistakes young artists do is they try to be a facsimile of somebody else. And as a young artist, you have to develop your own voice. That’s what gets you over. People perk up when they hear a new voice. When they hear that new insight. If you do something like somebody else, why are people going to mess with you? You gotta be original.
Question 5: What should I do to start preparing for applying to film school?
Spike Lee: If it’s a place like USC or AFI, start studying for the GRE. If it’s a place like NYU, work on your portfolio. Here’s the thing: more than half of my students at NYU have not made a film before coming to film school. But you have to submit a creative portfolio – painting, photos, drawings, films, art. So make sure your portfolio is tight. So what year are you?
Question 5: Freshman.
Spike Lee: So you got three and a half years. You applying to NYU?
Question 5: I want to, yes.
Spike Lee: I’ll look out for you.
Question 6: What’s the one piece of advice you would give to young aspiring filmmakers?
Spike Lee: Work on your writing skills. If you did a survey of the last 25 years of film, specifically independent films, I would say most first time directors wrote their scripts as well. That must tell you something. If you write a very good script, it has a better chance at getting made.
Question 7: I’m sure you’ve experienced this as well, but at some point in the filmmaking process, you may not feel confident in your work, so how do you stay true to your vision and keep it your own?
Spike Lee: Well, you just made a great assumption, because I’ve always been confident about my work. Even when I was in film school. Now, that doesn’t make me right or wrong, but I was confident, and I knew I’d be a success. I had my friend, Ernest Dickerson in film school, and he was my guy. If something wasn’t right and he told me about it, I changed it, because I trusted him. One thing people do, which I don’t think is helpful, is take all this advice. You don’t hand out a script to 50 people and ask their opinion, you have to get a small group of people together and ask their opinion. If 50 different people are telling you 50 different ways on how to fix something, then how are you going to fix it? Keep a small circle of people you can trust.
|Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee on the set of Lee's Clockers|
About His Work
Question 8: Who is your biggest inspiration as a filmmaker?
Spike Lee: I have a lot of inspirations. John Coltrane, Willie Mays, Muhammad Ali, Gordon Parks, Elia Kazan, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jean-Michel Basquiat, James Van Der Zee – I’m inspired by a lot of people.
Question 9: What is your personal favorite film that you’ve made?
Spike Lee: I don’t have one.
Question 10: Did your documentary When the Levees Broke [about the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf region] change any policy?
Spike Lee: I don’t think so. But I think it brought a lot of issues to light that had been looked over. The only film I’ve done that had a direct impact was 4 Little Girls [Lee’s documentary about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama]. Up until that point, two of the four murderers had been running around free. After that documentary came out, the FBI indicted those men again and they went to jail. [Wild applause.]
Question 11: I just want to ask, what’s next for you? We see too many vampire movies now, too much dark stuff—
Spike Lee: [Interrupting] Dark?
Question 11: Yeah, dark.
Spike Lee: Oh my next film’s very dark.
Spike Lee: My next film is a film called Oldboy. Oldboy is a classic film, it was a Korean psychological thriller. But we’re not calling this a remake, we call it a reinterpretation. And the reason I say “reinterpretation” is because it’s very different. You’ve heard “The Star-Spangled Banner” sung so many times, but you’d never heard it the way Jimi Hendrix did it. You heard Julie Andrews sing “My Favorite Things” in The Sound of Music, but that’s not how John Coltrane did it. So, my Oldboy is a reinterpretation.
Question 12: My question is about Oldboy. Since you’re so interested in the representation of cultural identity in film, what was the biggest challenge of reinterpreting a movie that had such a strong culture identity in Korean culture?
Spike Lee: Here’s the thing about Oldboy: Oldboy was not just a Korean movie. The original source was a Japanese manga. Then it was a Korean film, now it’s an American film. I didn’t see it as a challenge. And we had the blessing of the original director [Park Chan-wook].
Question 12: Did you talk to him?
Spike Lee: No, Josh Brolin [the star of Lee’s Oldboy] did. And it’s good too. The movie’s good.
Question 13: Because today is the anniversary of Malcolm X’s death I’m wondering how you think your film has contributed to his legacy, for better or worse?
Spike Lee: That’s a good question. The reason we made that film was to get people interested in Malcolm X. We wanted people to pick up his autobiography and read it. Read other books about him. Get to know him. I had to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley for my eighth grade English class. Most influential book I ever read. Changed my life. I remember when Malcolm X was assassinated. I remember when Dr. King was assassinated. And JFK and Bobby Kennedy. I remember all that. Making Malcolm was one of the greatest experiences of my life. We were shooting all over the world. I’ll always remember Denzel’s performance – he got robbed. [Loud applause.] Making that movie, there wasn’t a day that would go by, that someone wouldn’t come up to Denzel or I and say, “Don’t mess up Malcolm. Do not mess this up.”
Question 14: Speaking of Malcolm X, what was your reaction to Manning Marable’s biography that caused quite a controversy?
[Marable’s 2011 book, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, asserts that, among other things, X engaged in a homosexual relationship with a white man.]
Spike Lee: A lot of that stuff was hearsay. For him to say that Malcolm X was a homosexual, and then not back it up with anything… how can you work with that?
Question 14: Have you read the book?
Spike Lee: [Long pause.] I didn’t finish it. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being homosexual. Nothing. But I don’t understand the purpose of asserting that someone is, when you can’t back it up.
|Lee promoting his Michael Jackson documentary, Bad 25|
Question 15: What have you learned and been able to apply to your films from making music videos?
Spike Lee: Good question. Whether it’s a 30 second commercial with Michael Jordan for Nike, or a Michael Jackson video in Brazil, or a feature film, the thing is: I have to tell a story. Once I put that in my mind, then it doesn’t matter what form it is. So that’s helped me keep a narrative in my music videos.
This reminds me of a funny story. One night I’m in Brooklyn, and the phone rings. I say “Hello. Who is this?” [In Michael Jackson’s voice] “It’s Michael Jackson.” I hang up the phone. Phone rings right away, I say, “Who is this?! Stop playin’!” [In Michael Jackson’s voice] “It’s Michael Jackson.” I hang up the phone again. Third time, he tells me, “Spike don’t hang up it’s me.” And it was. [Crowd laughs.]
So he came to my house and asked me to shoot a music video for his new album HIStory. I love Michael and it was very hard for me to pick one song. But he told me I couldn’t direct them all, so I settled on “Stranger in Moscow,” and he said, “No, you’re not doing that one! You gotta do ‘They Don’t Care About Us.’” And I said, “Well why didn’t you just say that?” [Crowd laughs.] He was slick, he was one of those people where he’d get you to do something that you thought was your idea.
But when that song dropped, all hell broke loose. There were lyrics in that song: “Jew me, sue me/Everybody do me/Kick me, kike me…” And because of that, Michael was labeled an anti-Semite. By everybody. I’d be out with friends, and they would cut the song off when it came on. In no way was Michael anti-Semitic. That man loved everybody. The lyric is about people who are oppressed, and it was in that manner that those lyrics were sung.
At the same time, there was a certain filmmaker who had a certain movie that had a scene between two certain actors where the N-word was used almost 80 times. In one scene. And I still find it amazing that certain so-called artists can use that word like that. I didn’t see the movie, but I paid my daughter $100 to see it. She said she stopped counting after 200 uses of the N-word. I can’t say the name of the film, but there seems to be a discrepancy here. Is Michael Jackson not an artist? When that song came out, the HIStory album was snatched off every shelf in the United States of America. Every single CD. Because of “Jew me, sue me/Kick me, kike me.” I think the N-word is just as much a slur as [Lee rattles off several racial slurs that I’m frankly not comfortable printing here] – you name it. A slur’s a slur. So why is one artist given the liberty to use the N-word excessively, but Michael Jackson’s shit got snatched off the shelf? We gotta start thinking about this stuff. A slur is a slur.
[I have no idea what film Spike Lee is talking about here. He’s been critical about Quentin Tarantino’s “infatuation” with N-word in regards to Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, but, according to IMDb, the N-word is said 38 times in Jackie Brown, which would seem far less than the 200+ Lee’s daughter reported hearing. Plus, Jackie Brown came out a year and a half after Michael Jackson’s HIStory album, so the timing doesn’t seem to match.]
Question 16: What was your biggest fear when you were filming Do the Right Thing?
Spike Lee: I didn’t have any fears. What fear do you think I might have had?
Question 16: How society would perceive it?
Spike Lee: I wasn’t worried about that. A lot of people in this room weren’t born in 1989 [when Do the Right Thing was released.] When it came out, there was serious maneuvering being done by Universal Pictures [who distributed the film] because people thought if the film were released during the summer, it would incite black people to riot. Don’t take my word for it, Google it. It’s fact. [Do the Right Thing was released in theaters on June 30, 1989.] It didn’t take a movie to incite a riot, it took Rodney King’s verdict to do that. Not Do the Right Thing.
|From Lee's He Got Game, which he made to highlight the corruption of the NCAA|
Issues Facing African-American Culture
Question 17: I’m a first generation college student, and I’m being labeled as “That One.” That one who is acting a certain way, acting educated – and I’m getting ridiculed for it.
Spike Lee: By who?
Question 17: My family, who are uneducated and not doing anything.
Spike Lee: You know what? [Throws hand behind him as if to say “Kick ‘em out.] They gotta go.
Question 17: So thank you for saying what you did about staying motivated and not letting your family get you down.
Spike Lee: You gotta do for you. Do you.
Question 18: The Texas Board of Education is who sets what goes into textbooks that are distributed around the country. Lately, they cut down the amount of pages on Civil Rights and they’ve made slave owners to be in a more positive light. How do you think African-Americans can overcome that when they go through school?
Spike Lee: It’s going to be hard, especially if they see films like the one with the silent D [Djagno Unchained] – with people swinging in trees, eating in the big house with Massa. That’s just making up stuff. “Slavery wasn’t that bad. They had it kinda good.” It’s criminal. No pun intended, it’s a complete white wash. And I know I get in trouble when I say this, but it was a holocaust. The only holocaust did not happen in World War II. And everyone has to do their part to try and tell the true story. When I went to school, I was told George Washington chopped down the cherry tree. I wasn’t told he owned slaves. I wasn’t taught that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. I don’t know the exact number, so excuse me, but a good number of the first Presidents of the United States owned slaves. The Founding Fathers owned slaves. That’s why they wrote the Three-Fifths Compromise in the Constitution. Do your research. Google. Slaves were not considered human beings. They were considered Three-Fifths of a human being. And until we deal with slavery in an honest way, we’re not going to get any real movement on race in this country. And a lot of black people don’t want to deal with slavery, because it’s too painful. But we have to.
Question 19: How to do feel about society labeling art created by African-Americans as “black art”? For instance, some may see you as a black filmmaker, but I just see you as a filmmaker.
Spike Lee: I never caught up in this trick bag of whether I’m an artist or black artist. But, the reality is, there are times I’m trying to catch a cab in New York and… [he mimics cursing a cab as it drives by him] it’s because I’m black.
Question 19: So what is your definition of black? Because there are a lot of African-Americans in here tonight, but we’re all different.
Spike Lee: Brother, we don’t have time to talk about what is the definition of black!
Question 20: I was wondering if you could talk about the fact that college athletes aren’t paid, even though—
Spike Lee: [Interrupting] Oh yes. I think the NCAA are the biggest pimps around. [Crowd applauds.] Pimps! These student athletes make billions of dollars for their colleges and universities. A system has to be put in place where some money gets put in Escrow, or something. There’s a famous line from The Godfather [Part II] that I love, when Don Fanucci says, “Can I wet my beak a little bit?”
You can be a student athlete and the school can sell a jersey with your name on it. They can put toilet tissue with your name on it. You can’t receive one red cent, not one nickel. That old argument that athletes receive free tuition and board; that might’ve been okay at one time. But not when CBS and others are signing billion dollar contracts for March Madness. Those Final Four games aren’t even in basketball arenas now, they’re in football arenas. They’re packing 60,000-70,000 people.
People are paid top dollar, but not the students. They have to come up with a system to pay these students. I don’t know what it is, but they have to be paid, because they’re being pimped. Also, when you’re a student athlete, it’s a job. Practice, weight room, watch film, then you got class. I’m not talking about VCU specifically, because I haven’t been here long, but it’s historic that black athletes are deterred from choosing challenging majors, so they can focus on their sport. They’re not hear to pick a challenging major, they’re here to run up and down that court, or on the gridiron. They’re here to play ball. And that’s backwards. These kids are promised that they’ll make it to the NBA, but how many teams are there? They’re not enough teams! There aren’t enough spots. So college is done, and now what are you gonna do?
That’s the main reason I made He Got Game: college sports are corrupt. And schools are just as corrupt as the NCAA, as well as others. From the sneaker pimps, agents… girlfriends like Lala. [Crowd erupts with laughter.] Lala in the movie! Played by Rosario Dawson. It’s dirty. A dirty business.
Question 21: In what direction to you see the portrayal of blacks in the media heading in the next five years?
Spike Lee: Bleak. Thank God they cancelled that show. What was it called?
Question 21: All My Babies’ Mamas.
Spike Lee: Who was the rapper in it?
Question 21: Shawty Lo.
[All My Babies’ Mamas was a reality show set to air this spring in Oxygen. It was to chronicle rapper Shawty Lo’s trails and tribulations with the 10 women who have given birth to Lo’s 11 children. After the announcement of the show, public outcry was immediate. Many felt the show would propel stereotypes of black people.]
Spike Lee: Is that the best we can do? It’s pitiful.
Question 22: How can we reach out to our youth? Youths who aren’t in school, they aren’t fully-grown, and are raised by a single mother?
Spike Lee: Very difficult question. A lot of our youth are lost. And I can’t blame them. The education system is broken down, and… here’s the thing: we have young black men who think they won’t live past 18-years-old. They tell people that they’ll be surprised if they’re still alive then. That’s a problem. No expectation to live past 18? If you think like that, then you have no value on life, and life is the most valuable thing we have.
I love President Obama. My wife and I gave a fundraiser for him at my house, raised $1.5 million for him. I love him. But it was only recently that he spoke about what’s been happening in Chicago. Last year, 500 young black people were murdered in Chicago, and it wasn’t until that little girl who performed at Obama’s inauguration [15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton] was shot and killed that Obama started talking about it. We’re killing each other like it’s all right. But it’s not. Back in the day, if you had a beef, you’d throw fists. Someone would get a black eye, a fat lip, you’d shake hands and that’s it. Now? You look at somebody the wrong way, you get shot. And all this stuff is glamorized through the music and the movies and the video games. We’re just a very violent society, and hopefully we’ll do something about this gun control. And also, to be honest, a lot of the guns that end up in New York City come from Virginia. Because of your lax gun laws down here. Virginia and Florida. But your question, I wish I had an answer to it, but I don’t. I wish I did.
|Lee with his wife, Toyna Lewis|
Question 23: What’s a quote, words of wisdom or advice that you have come to live by?
Spike Lee: I just did a feature length documentary called Bad 25, about the making of Michael Jackson’s Bad album. I’m gonna use a quote that Michael used to put around his home to keep him fired up. And it was, “Study the greats, be great.”
Question 24: My dad always taught me to look up to people like you, people who take a stand on things. A lot of people have negative things to say about what you have to say—
Spike Lee: [Interrupting] Oh yeah they’re on my ass about that film with the silent D. You’d think I was talking about Jesus Christ himself! “Spike’s a hater, he’s jealous!”
Question 24: I think you have a strong critique of our culture and it shows your deep love and appreciation for us. I think anybody who really cares about something will have something to say, and I just want to thank you for that.
Spike Lee: Thank you.
Spike Lee: I want to follow up. When I say stuff, it is my own motherfuckin’ personal opinion. I’m not speaking on behalf of you, on 40 million African-Americans – no! It’s my opinion. I’m not a spokesperson. In regards to that film with the silent D, I have a right to voice my opinion.
Question 25: They say behind every great man is a great woman, so I’m just wondering how much of your sanity is invested in your wife.
Spike Lee: [Lee gets up to give her a pound, but his microphone cord doesn’t reach. So he offers her a polite bow.] I’m glad you asked that question, because my wife says I don’t talk about this enough. [Crowd laughs.] Been married 20 years. She makes it possible for me to do what I’m doing now, because we have kids. Somebody has to be home and take care of the kids. She went to UVA law school, found out she wasn’t really feeling law, and now she’s a film producer. She’s very kind, very loving, very supportive. Artists are selfish. You’re not going to meet someone who’s successful and driven, who isn’t selfish. I’m not making an excuse for it, that’s just the way it is. And so, she’s had to work with me so I don’t just think about films only. It’s a process.
Funny how everything is connected. Today is the assassination of Malcolm X. I met my wife at the Black Caucus, where I was to show my trailer for Malcolm X. I wasn’t there with her, I was there with somebody else. [He shrugs his shoulders playfully.] I excused myself to go to the restroom, and I see this woman walking toward me and I say, “Who is this?!” And I smiled at her, she smiled at me, and that was that. So the rest of the night, I was checking for her but I couldn’t find her. So I’m leaving with my date, we’re going down the escalator, and I look over, and this new girl is going up! So I told my date: “I—I left something,” and I took off running. I went up and found her, asked her her name, got her phone number, and the next day when she went to work, she had a dozen roses waiting for her. That’s a free tip, fellas. Take that, and have a good night, everybody.”