An Audience With Spike Lee

Legends. They sometimes walk, live and breathe amongst us but often times they are out of our reach even if we might walk past them on the streets, seat next to them in the cinema or dine around them in a restaurant. Rarely do we ever get the chance be in the same room aware of them and them aware of us and because of us. This past Monday, we got a treat of a lifetime to attend a conversation with Spike Lee, movie producer extraordinaire, maker of some of the most poignant movies of our time and one of my personal favourites, 4 Little Girls. The last time Spike Lee spoke in London was fifteen years ago so this was doubly fun.

The night began with a showing of a short movie he made about the current political situation in America, with the Clown in the White House before he took to the stage to have us in stitches and enlighten our minds with his take from social media to movies, of course, creativity and the essence of having people in your corner, community and that damn Pepsi commercial.

On movie making

Spike had no idea what he wanted to do, he attended Morehouse where his father did before him, and admitted to being a borderline C- student. In the summer of ’77 however everything changed for him. This also happened to be the summer of sam and the summer of the blackouts in New York that led to citywide looting and riots. It was whilst visiting a friend he was gifted with a camera and he recorded the goings on during the riots. This set him on a different path, upon returning to Morehouse he changed his major to Mass communication and enrolled at Clark College, a part of Morehouse. He then showed the footage to his professor who encouraged him to do more with the footage. Twice a week, said professor who still teaches in the university, would stay late so that Lee could edit his work. The Last Hustle in Brooklyn, which was shown to his class to rave reviews… sadly we’ll likely never seen this movie.

On support and creativity

His mother taught Black History and his father played jazz with the greats and has scored most of Lee’s movies so the understanding of his artistry was already in his family. When he told his grandmother he wanted to become a film maker she she too gave her support. His grandmother also attended Spelman college, the daughter of a slave. Lee also acknowledges his professor and the role he played in helping him become the person he is today. Everyone needs that one teacher who cares. Actually cares.

On gentrification and culture

You have to respect the culture of the community. Christopher Columbus did not discover shit, you cannot discover what is already there and there has to be a respect of the culture. Whilst everyone is free to live where they want there are communities with history and lineage and nothing changes just because…

On his early film making

She Gotta Have It, his first movie had to be shot in stages because of finance issues. It was inspired by the stories of his friends who’d been in multiple relationships but could not handle it when the script was flipped. Jungle Fever is about the effect of crack in the black community as opposed to the widely assumed inter racial relationship theme often levied. He Got Game is about the relationship between father and son. He has an unending desire to tell stories that matter to our culture not the slave master trope often desired in Hollywood but movies that matter to Black people that give us depth and tell our truths.

On Malcolm X

Firstly, if you haven’t seen Malcolm X- YOU SHOULD. If you haven’t read his autobiography, do yourself a favour and go read it now. It is truly illuminating, I hate to use the phrase, ahead of his time, but Malcolm X was way ahead of his time, Nostrademus of his time, he saw what is going on in the world today way back when, the media, the treatment of black women, etc. so please go read it. There is no doubt this is one of the works he is most proud of, because he talks at length about it and referenced it quite a bit. Shooting Malcolm X was either going to make or break him. Denzel Washington, who plays Malcolm refused other work for a year as he immersed himself into the role, mastered the Qu’ran, ate like him, lived like him. He became Malcolm X. And in shooting the moving, Lee says the spirit of Malcolm was on set. He talks about a scene in the movie which Denzel, in character, was giving a speech and when it came time to cut he wouldn’t stop so they continued shooting until they ran out of tap. When Spike asked Denzel why he did not stop, Denzel admitted to not being aware of what happened. The spirit of Malcolm. When Warner pulled its funds for the movie and fired his support staff he reached out to influential Black celebrities; Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan to name few, and they supported by donating funds to help with the movie and Spike was able to hire his staff back. Seeing the lauded support for the movie and the reaction from the public, it didn’t take long for Warner to change its mind and resume the movie.

On work and dreams

Do what you love and love what you do. very few people are able to do that but if you can you should. Michael Jordan has a clause in his contract which enables him to play basketball in the off season because of in love for the game. Prince often times has to wake his engineers up in the studio after working for 24 hours. You have to do the work, you have to show up and you have to give it your all, without which dreams are only just that.

On his time capsule movie sixty years on

Whilst he talked about Malcolm X quite a bit, 4 Little Girls is the movie he would put in his time capsule for people to watch sixty years on. This is a movie about the KKK bombing in a Black church, 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama, that killed 4 Black girls during Sunday service. This movie is sad, and painful but poignant and is my favourite movie of Spike Lee’s. It is a story that needed to be told, about these little girls, who they were and what they might have grown up to become. When the movie was released, the next day the FBI opened an investigation into the bombing and this led to the conviction of the only surviving bomber, Robert Chambliss.

On speaking out and other celebrities who don’t

“You have to learn to pick your battles.” 

One cannot always show up to every fight and there are times when you have to speak on things. He has learned to pick and choose and to not judge others who react or don’t react. But he does acknowledged the fact that he called bullshit on Tarantino and Eastwood two of the most bullshit people around, for utter bullshit behaviour and for talking crazy. “I had to speak on it.”

And on that bullshit Pepsi commercial

Black people are getting killed by police, it is being capture on video and the police officers are getting away with it and these morons exploit it to sell a soda. All types of bullshit. This is what happens when there is no diversity around the table because someone with half a brain would have called this out. It was the most ridiculous “exploitation of Black Lives Matter” and Black culture.

This was such a brilliant conversation, enlightening, funny and heart warming one I will not soon forget. Go watch the movies, go read the book and celebrate a legend amongst us. Shout to all involved in this wonderful evening.