The Other Side of Spike Lee
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.
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