The Other Side of Spike Lee
Had it with the prickley, preachy, self-righteous, self-promoting guy who wrote and directed prickly, preachy stuff like Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever? Meet the new laughing, self-effacing auteur behind Malcolm X.
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."
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