Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Talk with Spike Lee

This is a reprint of my interview with Spike Lee, printed in the Georgia State University's newspaper The Signal (as part of their features section Tuesday Magazine) on February 9, 1988. The interview was part of a promotional tour for Mr. Lee's then-new film School Daze, which was filmed in Atlanta, GA. The interview itself was conducted on a cold January day in a suite at Atlanta's Ritz-Carlton. 

Those who expect Spike Lee to be like Mars Blackmon, the affably clownish character he played in his directorial debut She's Gotta Have It, would be in for a jolt were they to come face to face with him. In reality, Lee is a reserved man on the sharp edge of cool. He makes few jokes and the laughs he does reach for come not from snappy one-liners, but from organic facial expressions, personal swagger and, occasionally, a juicy slang word.

Not that the 30-year-old Lee is sedate; he is simply considerate--a thinker. He sits back and lets ideas wash over him. If he doesn't agree, he'll speak his mind, but without raising his measured voice. He's shrewd enough to know that the first man who raises his voice has already lost the argument. He was also shrewd enough to realize, back in 1984 that, where black people were concerned, there was a bottomless void in the film industry. With few exceptions, their stories were not being told on cinema screens.

A year after he had graduated from New York University with his master's degree in film and a Student Academy Award for his thesis short film, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, Lee began to get antsy--he hadn't picked up a camera for months. So he cranked up the gears and began courting financiers for one of the two screenplays he'd written. When plans fell through for Messenger, a film about a Brooklyn bike courier's family life (possibly his next project), Spike Lee started over, swallowing the bitter hurt along with the weeks of intense rehearsal time he and his cast had spent on the movie.

Next time around, he penned a script he thought might be more appealing to investors--one that dealt with sex and the crippling double standard men place on women in that realm. That film, She's Gotta Have It, took six months to write. During that time, Lee was obsessed with getting the $175,000 he needed to complete the film. "It was a struggle trying to raise the money," Lee says. "I always had a lot of people telling me I could never do it, so I had to keep myself pumped up all the time." With a great deal of help from a number of New York arts councils and Island Films, the company that distributed the completed picture, Lee put the final touches on She's Gotta Have It on his 29th  birthday. That same day, he was invited to Director's Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival, where he was given the prize for Best New Director.

Now Spike Lee has finished his second feature, a musical comedy-drama titled School Daze. Shot entirely on the campuses of Atlanta University, Morris Brown College, Clark College, and Lee's own alma mater, Morehouse College (where he graduated with a degree in mass communications), the movie follows an ensemble of black students through homecoming weekend at the fictional Southern black institution called Mission College. Lee has no problem admitting the autobiographical nature of the film, which he wrote right after leaving NYU. "School Daze is my four years at Morehouse in a two-hour film. But the film is not really about Morehouse as much as the whole college experience."

Fraternities and sororities are part of that experience but Lee's portrayal of Greeks in School Daze is far from adoring. In the film, Lee plays Half-Pint, a scrawny Gamma Phi Gamma pledge who is made to endure a slate of degrading humiliations before being accepted by the Gammas and their leader, Julian "Big Brother Almighty" Eaves (Giancarlo Esposito). Through this probing, Lee gets to vent his ill feelings about the Greek system. "The whole concept and meaning of fraternities--I'm talking specifically about black fraternities because that's what I know--has been corrupted over the years. I mean, what do fraternities do? These people, they're full of shit. Y'know, they say they're supposed to do all this community work. My experience is, the only community work they ever do is they might collect a couple of cans at Thanksgiving. And that was it." The filmmaker doesn't even agree with the conviction--at least, not in principle--that fraternities give certain social advantages to those who pledge. "I think a person's gonna have to try to find in themselves the things that will make them a better person and not go looking in a an organization or another person. I mean, you think because now you're wearing purple and gold because you're an Omega or black and gold because you're an Alpha or red and white because you're a Kappa, all of a sudden you're a better person? That's a fuckin' lie."

In spite of his innate feelings towards the Greeks, Spike Lee (who, of course, never pledged a fraternity) made a concerted effort to be fair in the film. He even went so far as to hire what's billed as a "Fraternity Life Technical Advisor” ("His name is Zelmer Bothic III--Z-Dog," Lee says, smiling. "We had a mass communications class together at Morehouse and I remember him not being able to sit down in class because he had hemorrhoids from all the paddlings. He also has twelve Omega brands on his body.") Clearly, to Lee's thinking, the attempts at even-handedness panned out. In fact, the director thinks his treatment of the Greeks in School Daze might even be a bit lenient. "There was a lot of stuff we put in this film about the nasty stuff they do, but we left it out. You got guys tying other guys up to chairs and pushing them down stairs and all that kind of stuff. I mean, that shit's crazy."

But while part of the controversy surrounding School Daze is directed towards the film's anti-frat attitude, the more potent portion of criticism will probably be pointed towards Lee's exploration of the differences that separate blacks from other blacks--those of a financial, class-based, educational or political nature. And, yes, it's the internal schisms related to skin color that will most likely inform white audiences and inflame black ones. Lee wrote two rival groups into the film: the Greek-oriented, blue-eyed, light-skinned blacks called the Wannabees, and the independent, nappy-headed, dark-skinned blacks called the Jigaboos. The former represents the black person's striving for success in a predominantly white world, even if that success means giving up authentic beliefs and background. The latter reflects the mirror image of that attitude: the retaining of the black heritage, even at the expense of mad economic success. Lee kept the actors playing the Wannabees and the Jigaboos in separate hotels during filming “so they wouldn't get chummy with each other." The tactic worked; an on-screen fight between the two factions was totally spontaneous.

Perhaps the film's most amazing feature is its refusal to take sides, regardless of its subject matter and the strong opinions of the man behind the camera. Lee, however, says that he, himself, does take sides. "I just don't put it up on screen. I don't hate anybody, either." Still, he believes that School Daze is going to upset a lot of black people. "We touch on taboo things that a lot of people think shouldn't be discussed, especially not in a film for the whole world to see."

That, in fact, is exactly the attitude that the Atlanta University Center administration took when they decided to bar Lee from filming on campus a few weeks after production had begun. The now-retired president of Morehouse, Hugh Gloster, had heard rumblings that the film was derogatory towards black colleges and contained, as Lee says he called it, "the M-F word." Gloster called Lee into his office and delivered an ultimatum: either he let him read the script or risk being thrown off the campus. Lee, thinking it would be futile to let Gloster judge his screenplay, refused. The production promptly ground to a halt long enough for a shift to Atlanta University, which was the only campus that had signed a location agreement. Lee says that the decision hurt him "but only for a minute." He then had to get down to the nagging business of finishing the film. Months later, he regards the decision with a mixture of humor and puzzled anger. "What they really wanted me to do was a documentary about black colleges that would have no cursing, no sex, students who look like they just walked out of Mademoiselle and GQ, talking very proper. That's not the school life. President Gloster really showed me how much he was out of touch with reality and with his students for him to think that students don't curse. And to think that parents wouldn't send their children to Morehouse just because they heard “motherfucker” in School Daze! I don't understand that kind of thinking. It's backwards."

At present, Spike Lee is trying to build up a new relationship with the AU Center's faculty. Nonetheless, he still harbors ill feelings towards many administration officials. "The woman who was acting president of Spelman last year was so ignorant, she wouldn't let us set foot on Spelman's campus. She hadn't even seen She's Gotta Have It 'cause people told her it was pornographic.” Even the students at AU Center now incur Lee's wrath. "They're asleep, for the most part. They didn't say nothin'. When I went there, if a young black filmmaker would've come to Morehouse and the administration shut them out, we would've had a fit. But people were a lot more active then. Right now, it's just about graduating, getting a corporate job, getting an M.B.A., a BMW, and making $35,000 a year."

Spike Lee carted School Daze to Columbia Pictures during producer David Putnam's short but productive reign as its chairman. Independent outfit Island Pictures was originally set to finance and distribute the film, but the financially-troubled company pulled out when budget estimates for the film zoomed towards $6 million. In his move to the Columbia roster, Lee brought with him two of his longtime collaborators, photographer Ernest Dickerson and jazz artist Bill Lee, who also happens to be Spike's father and, by admission, one of his top influences (Spike Lee doesn't acknowledge any filmmaking mentors, though he does admire Martin Scorsese's style). Lee is quite adamant, but still realistic, about his relationship with both artists. "I've done small stuff without Ernest," he says, "but I'd be very leery to do a feature film without him. We were classmates at NYU and, since we met, he's shot all my stuff, plus Brother From Another Planet and Raw. He's a fine cinematographer. Now, my father I want to use as much as I can, but there's going to be times where the type of music that he does best won't be the right music for that film. He's a jazz purist. He won't do any kind of electronic or rap music at all." It's Bill Lee who provides most of the music for his son's newest movie, including the exuberant songs that are performed by the young cast (although the movie's hit party song "Da Butt" is not an example of his work--that spirited number was penned and performed by Experience Unlimited, aka EU).

Spike also brought to School Daze an energetic cast, divided evenly between veteran actors--like Ossie Davis, Art Evans, Samuel Jackson, Joe Seneca, and Larry Fishburne--and newly minted performers. Lee was especially eager to work closely with his actors. The 15-day shooting schedule for She's Gotta Have It was usurped with technical problems, so time spent with the cast was strikingly limited. As a result, Lee thinks the acting in that film was "a little shaky in spots." Now, with the luxuries of Columbia's time and money, Lee was finally able to bear down on directing his actors. That explains his enthusiasm for the performances in School Daze. "I don't think there's a weak one in the movie."

Since he's currently filling that abyss-like lack of black-oriented movies, Lee is naturally more concerned with how this movie is going to hit black audiences. For years, he's been disgusted at the treatment black stories have gotten from white writers and filmmakers (one of his most abhored  targets has been Steven Spielberg's 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker's The Color Purple, with Richard Attenborough's Stephen Biko biopic Cry Freedom standing as a new offender). Yet, Lee still speaks encouragingly when advising white screenwriters or directors on making films about black people.

"I think the number one dilemma that a lot of filmmakers have to face is the fact that you shouldn't write or make a film about something you don't know. If you know the subject and you know the people, go ahead and do it. And if you don't know about it, learn all that you can. That knowledge will be exemplified in the work. But if you don't know it, black audiences just sit there and go 'Black people don't speak like that'--'Get off my back, you jive turkey.' You hear dialogue like that, you know no black person wrote that. Just be truthful and you'll be all right."

Even though whites often achieve accurate portrayals of blacks in films, Lee says that often the converse of that statement is not true. "I think every black person is qualified to talk about white people because that's all you see all your life—in television, movies, commercials--everything. Yet you really can't say the same thing goes the other way around." Lee says he's considered doing a film dealing exclusively with white people, but that the right script has not come along yet.

But the black audience, and black stories, are still Spike Lee's main focus. He walks the high wire hoisted between activism and dispassionate observance. That's the limbo he's been caught in ever since he first rampaged onto the cinema scene two years ago. It's also an attitude with which he's soaked every frame of School Daze. He's hoping that that attitude will payoff when audiences of any racial background leave the stunning final scenes of his new film. "I think there's going to be a lot of conversation about the film, pro and con, which is good. Today, there's an awful lot of films, you sit there for 90 minutes or two hours, and it might even be a good film and you might laugh, but it's so generic that five minutes later you don't even remember what you just sat through. If you can make a film that raises some issues and gets people to talking, then you've done all you can do."

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