Spring, 1991: at the Cannes Film Festival, Spike Lee is in ebullient form. The writer-director-actor is in the south of France to promote his fifth feature, Jungle Fever, a typically provocative exploration of multi-racial relationships in New York. Also in the pipeline: a book of essays on his movies, Five For Five, which includes portraits taken by his brother David Lee, one of which was used in the feature printed in the magazine that October. But it’s his next film that most interests FACE editor Sheryl Garratt when she sits down with Lee on the Croisette. Malcolm X is an in-production biopic about the Nation of Islam leader who was assassinated, aged 39, in 1965. Two years later, when the film finally opened in the UK, the FACE ran a feature, Malcolm and Me, in which the great American journalist Playthell Benjamin recalled his Sixties meetings with the man himself – you can see scans of that feature here, too. Critically acclaimed on its release – and with Denzel Washington nominated for an Oscar for his riveting portrayal of the civil rights leader – the epic, angry, political and vital Malcolm X remains one of Spike Lee’s towering achievements.
“Have you seen that shirt that sells in England, that has the Nike swoosh with Spike on it? Who’s making those?” Spike Lee leans forward in the huge sofa that has swamped him for the first five minutes of our meeting, suddenly animated.
I tell him about the bootlegged shirts that were on sale all over Britain a year or so ago, about the “Air Jesus” rip-offs and the difficulties multinationals have in tracking down small backroom operations turning out a hundred or so silk-screened shirts, and he chuckles with appreciation before remembering that he’s a businessman with a merchandising line of his own.
“Let me find them,” he says, picking up my tape machine and shouting for emphasis. “Hey, if I come to London and find you making them, I’m gonna break your neck!” This is not the Spike Lee we’re used to. The Spike Lee that is currently bouncing around the room, making breakfast coffee while laughing loudly and asking as many questions as he answers is a new, more relaxed model – some say due to his relationship with Veronica Webb, the model turned actress who plays Lee’s wife in his fifth film Jungle Fever.
Or maybe he’s still on a high from the night before. It’s early morning in Cannes, before the packs assemble for group interviews, and this is an informal one-on-one interview. Just five hours ago, Spike was still at the launch party for his film, all but ignoring celebrity guests like Madonna, Sean Penn and Robert De Niro, while Stevie Wonder played an impromptu set in the tiny, crowded club.
Spike sat next to him on the piano stool, mouthing along to the words, grinning like a schoolkid who’s the lucky winner of a contest to meet his hero. The party was an unqualified success; the film had more mixed reactions, with Lee failing once more to win the Palme d’Or.
It’s a measure of his ability to create a buzz for his work that, in the month Jungle Fever opens in the UK, the controversy is all but forgotten – stories are already filtering into the press about his new, and perhaps most controversial film to date, his version of the life of Malcolm X.
You seem good at hype. Do you enjoy this part, the interviews?
I wouldn’t say I enjoy it, but I do consider it part of the film-making.
Is critical approval important?
I know I do good work. But people take guidance from critics, so I must have some concern about how I’m reviewed. Luckily, my black audience, which is my base, they’re gonna go regardless. But like, some people said that Do The Right Thing was gonna cause riots when it came out in ’89, and so a lot of white cinema-goers stayed away. But what you gonna do? I can’t give myself an ulcer worrying whether I’m gonna get the thumbs up.
I’ve heard there are five or six other movies on the theme of interracial sex at the moment.
Why now? Basically, they think: “If Spike’s doing one, let me get one.” I mean, why are they making two Christopher Columbus movies? I don’t understand it!
The women in Jungle Fever were stronger than in your other films.
Every filmmaker has his weaknesses, and mine is my female characters. Not because I don’t care about them, but the work I’ve done up to now has been male-dominated. That’s what the stories were about. But when opportunities arise to have female characters and make them strong, I do.
When you were at film school, you asked a lot of women this question: are all men dogs?
No, not all men, but a lot.
How about you?
Me? Well, I’ve been on the straight and narrow recently (huge laugh).
Why did you fight to do Malcolm X, yet turn down an offer to do a Martin Luther King biopic?
Let’s just say that my personal philosophy is more in line with Malcolm than Martin, and it’d be stupid to do both. King was a great man also, but filmmakers have to be passionate about their work, and the same kind of passion wouldn’t be there for me.
Why didn’t you want the Teamsters on set?
The Teamsters are a union. Of drivers. They get paid an enormous amount of money, and they don’t do anything but sit around and drink coffee. And there’ve been ties to the Mafia, the underworld. If a film’s shooting in New York, it’s almost impossible without the Teamsters. Y’know, they just… do things. And, historically, they’ve had very little Black or minority representation in their ranks. So I just told them, if you don’t start recruiting more Blacks, then I’m not going to use you for Malcolm X. But we worked it out before I left New York, and I’m glad because y’know, these guys, they can get some rough stuff.
What does Malcolm’s story have to say to people now?
The problems he talked about in the late Fifties and early Sixties are still as true today – the Black youth needs education, and Malcolm was a fierce advocate of education. He taught himself how to read and write in prison, and when he came out, he was a totally educated man. One time he said: “Every person should stay at least one year in jail to educate themselves.” He was joking, but in New York City half the African-American pupils going to public high schools don’t even graduate. That’s not to say that once you go to college you’re home free, because it’s going to take an attack on a lot of fronts to get things right. But I feel one of the key fronts is education, and that’s something that we’ll stress.
Since the Cold War ended, Muslims seem to be shaping up to be the new enemy.
I don’t think the United States will ever fight another war against white people. All their wars are going to be fought against people of colour: Nicaragua, Panama. And the most ironic thing is that the US armed forces are almost 30 to 40 per cent Black and Hispanic. It is my hope that we’ll finally wise up and see we’re being used. I mean, the reason we joined in such numbers is that there are no other opportunities, and nobody thought there was ever going to be another war. You see this guy on TV flying helicopters, climbing rocks, using computers, and you think: “Oh, that’s exciting, let me join up.” A year later you’ve been shipped to the Gulf and you’re dead. Just because of some commercial you saw on TV.
How about the Nike ads?
Every year they sell more sneakers, and people like the commercials even more, and I ask for more money…
How do you choose which ads to do?
It depends on the money a hell of a lot, how much time it’s gonna take, and the product. I won’t do any alcohol. I’ve done Nike, Levi’s and Diet Coke. When I go back, I’m gonna do a second lot of Levi’s 501 spots.
Tell me about your record deal.
We’ve been successful with the music we’ve used in my films – Da Butt from School Daze and Fight The Power from Do The Right Thing – so Sony got smart and gave me a label. We’ve signed Youssou N’Dour, an R&B group called State Of Art, and Lonette Mckee, who played Wesley’s wife in Jungle Fever. She’s a great singer. We want to find real musicians and real singers instead of this play-by-numbers, press-a-button type of stuff. We’re looking for a rap act too, but we don’t want it to be just holding their crotch and talking about gold and my car is bigger than yours, that kind of stuff.
Isn’t that fading now?
(Shouts) Thank God!
So will the Sony link mean you’ll be doing Michael Jackson videos?
He’s never asked me. Prince has, so I might do a clip with him.
Now you’ve made your peace with each other, will you be working with Eddie Murphy?
We both want to, but it has to be on the right project. I think Eddie is at the crossroads now, because he doesn’t know what to do next. He doesn’t want to do a Beverly Hills Cop 3 or Yet Another 48 Hours… 72 Hours! I’d really like to write something for him, because he’s a great talent. But when you’ve been that successful, you want to continue to be successful so you repeat what you’ve done already. And, sooner or later, you’re gonna find yourself trapped. That’s my opinion. I might be wrong.
Is this new wave of Black filmmaking going to be allowed to last?
We have to ensure that it’s not a fad by dedicating ourselves to learning the craft of filmmaking, becoming better filmmakers. If we can repeat in film what we’ve done in music, in sport… It’s not going to happen overnight, but I do see a time when we’ll have people of the stature of Duke Ellington or Stevie Wonder in the cinema. And we have to find alternate ways of financing and distribution, so that if Hollywood decides it doesn’t want to make any more Black movies, we’ll have money from Japan, Europe, cable TV, and we can continue. I’ve never been deluded about why Hollywood is doing all this. It’s not because they’ve become socially conscious, they’re doing it for dollars. Distribution is something which I’ve never had time to look after, but I’m going to. I have a good following in the UK, but it has to get bigger all over Europe, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve been to Cannes for three years – but, besides Cannes, I have to spend more time here. Also, we have a store in Brooklyn that sells clothes, T‑shirts. We’re thinking of opening one in London. We’re not going to give Jazzie B any competition, though. There’s room for both of us.
If you could remake any classic movie, which would you choose?
There’s a Billy Wilder film called Ace In The Hole, starring Kirk Douglas. It’s about this unscrupulous newspaper reporter who’s been barred from every major newspaper across the country. He stumbles upon a job in Arizona, where nothing happens for a year, then this man gets trapped in a mine. They can get the guy out straight away, but he convinces the people drilling to take the long route instead, and he starts making a circus out of it, building this guy up into a hero. And the guy gets pneumonia, and once they see he’s dying they try to really get him out – but it’s too late, and the guy dies.
Are you ever going to do a happy ending?
Mo’ Better [Blues] had a happy ending! He can’t play the trumpet any more, but he had a wife, he was happy… Why did you think the ending of Jungle Fever was bleak?
They didn’t all hold hands and skip down the street singing.
(Laughs) Well, I think that Malcolm X is going to be very uplifting.