THE POPCORN REEL IN BEVERLY
HILLS -- AT THE ROUNDTABLE: SPIKE LEE, RECIPIENT OF CHRYSLER LLC'S BEHIND THE
Spike Lee, Doing The American Thing:
Speaking His Mind
Spike Lee, filmmaker, author, educator and
humanitarian, listening to a question being asked of him during a press
roundtable, prior to receiving the Behind The Lens Award from Chrysler LLC.
(Photo: Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com)
Omar P.L. Moore/The
April 1, 2008
BEVERLY HILLS, California --
The other day Spike Lee was surrounded by a score of journalists in a small room
here at the Beverly Hills Wilshire. Wearing a shirt he said was given to
him by the reggae artist Yellowman, Mr. Lee, a Brooklyn-raised Morehouse College
graduate, exclaimed after each of the reporters, many of whom were from Detroit,
"WHAT'S UP WITH YOUR MAYOR?", Mr. Lee playfully snapped in a loud, mocking
voice. He was referring to Kwame Kilpatrick, the embattled mayor of
Detroit, who last week was indicted on charges of perjury regarding improper
conduct with his former chief of staff, with whom he had an extramarital affair.
The director himself wondered why none of the press assembled before him had
pointed out that more than a little unauthorized hanky-panky was committed by
the two most recent governors of Mr. Lee's Empire State -- former New York State
governor Eliot Spitzer and current governor David Paterson -- the latter about
whom the director made the following comment:
"BLACK AND BLIND!"
Everyone laughs now, one or two incredulously if not uncomfortably.
Governor Paterson, who had recently admitted that both he and his wife had
engaged in extramarital interludes during the earlier years of their marriage,
is the first black governor of New York State as well as the United States'
first legally-blind governor.
About the philandering politicians came an irresistible quip. "They're
coming out of the woodwork now!" remarked the director, who torpedoed one
reporter's suggestion that the topic of politicos being caught inflagrante
delicto would be tailor-made as a future Spike Lee joint.
"I'm not touching that one."
Mr. Lee was in town to receive Chrysler LLC's Behind The Lens Award, given to a
filmmaker or film producer who has pioneered or been a bellwether in the field
of film, as well as launched opportunities for aspiring filmmakers through their
humanitarian work and initiatives. The award had previously been
given to such filmmakers as John Singleton (in 2005) and producers as Reuben
Cannon, who received the inaugural award in 2002. (No award was issued
last year.) With Mr. Lee at the roundtable was W. Frank Fountain, Senior
Vice President for External Affairs and Public Policy for Chrysler LLC in Auburn
Hills, Michigan. Mr. Fountain must have felt that he was a spectator
rather than a participant in the roundtable, as question after question was
fired at Mr. Lee, with the press trying to out shout each other to get a
question to the outspoken director. Mr. Fountain actually got one or two
queries and was grateful to take them on, but when all was said and done, it was
Mr. Lee not surprisingly, who received the lions' share of questions, including
about what his next feature film would be.
"The new film is called "Miracle At St. Anna", said Mr. Lee. "It's coming
out mid-October (in the U.S. and Canada). It'll be a Disney/Touchstone
release here. And it's about World War Two -- my first World War Two film.
It's about the buffalo soldiers -- the black soldiers -- who fought in Italy
against the Nazis and the fascists." The director then rattles off a list
of several of the forthcoming film's cast members, which include Derek Luke
(last seen in "Lions For Lambs" and "Definitely, Maybe"), Michael Ealy, Laz
Alonso ("This Christmas"), Kerry Washington ("I Think I Love My Wife" and Mr.
Lee's "She Hate Me"), Omar Benson Miller ("Things We Lost In The Fire"), John Leguizamo (Mr. Lee's "Summer Of Sam"), John Turturro (five Spike Lee films
including "Jungle Fever") and Joseph Gordon Levitt, among many others.
The epic film was shot in mainly in Tuscany, Italy in October and November of 2007. Numerous
reports, true or false, have circulated on the Internet over the past few months
indicating that Wesley Snipes was supposed to be the lead player in "Miracle",
but that he had to pull out due to his tax trial that was set for the same time,
and that Mr. Luke had replaced him.
"So, World War Two," said Mr. Lee in his trademark halting monotone voice.
"Brothers in Italy kicking Nazi ass."
Again, those assembled in the room are laughing. (A ten-minute montage of
the new film, which included music from The Boys' Choir of Harlem that was also
featured in the 1989 film "Glory", would be shown later in the evening, made a
powerful and rousing impression on the more than 200 invited VIPs, guests and
media in the ballroom of The Beverly Wilshire.)
Spike Lee, who had his 51st birthday on March 20, also fielded questions about
politics and race. A reporter mentioned his landmark film "Do The Right
Thing", which will turn 20 years of age come June 30, 2009. At the time of
its original theatrical release, several prominent critics and pundits, led by
New York Magazine's Joe Klein (now of Newsweek) went so far as to
say that Mr. Lee's film, which won Oscar nominations for Mr. Lee's original
screenplay and Danny Aiello's supporting performance as Sal, a pizzeria owner in
Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, would cause violent outbursts and
"rampages" across America by black people who went to theaters to view it that
summer. Not only did such a thing never occur, it turned out that in
August of that same year during the film's release a group of white male
teenagers and 20-somethings killed a young black man named Yusuf Hawkins in
Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, then a predominantly Italian-American neighborhood.
Mr. Hawkins was in the neighborhood that summer evening to buy a used car in
response to a newspaper ad. Mr. Lee dedicated his 1991 film "Jungle Fever"
to Mr. Hawkins, who was just 16 when he was murdered, shot in the heart at
The same reporter who had used "Do The Right Thing" as a bookmark in the
discussion of race and racism by the press in 1989 asked Mr. Lee about
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's recent speech on race and
racism and the way the mainstream press has responded to it. "Well, I
think that for the most part, it's not just the media," said Mr. Lee, who is
also a professor at New York University Film School, his alma mater. "We
never look at race until there is a O.J. or one other flashpoint incident.
Then it gets debated, dissected and then goes off and then something else
happens. But this whole race thing, really, you have to really thank the
Clintons, because I think for the most part Obama was really trying to stay
clear of this, but you know, with the discussion and the Reverend (Jeremiah
Wright) he had to, he had to talk about it. But if you saw -- I think what
this demonstrated to me is the power of a ten or fifteen-second sound bite.
Because if you look at the sound bite and then look at the two minutes that they
took the sound bite out of it's -- I guess it's much more understanding," the
director said of the embattled Reverend Wright's comments, which had been aired
by the mainstream media in the U.S. repeatedly on over a thousand occasions
during an eight-day period on various 24-hour cable news channels and news
broadcast on network television. (Mr. Lee would later say that "what
killed me though -- when that picture came out with the former president
(Clinton) shaking hands with Reverend Wright. And Clinton was smiling
too in that picture!")
Continuing his response, Mr. Lee commented: "I don't understand, you know these
white folks say, 'why, why, why are they angry?' I mean, they're just out
of touch. I mean, not just black people (are angry). Many people.
And if anybody can be angry it should be the Native Americans, because if you
want to talk about genocide, they've almost been wiped off the face of the
earth, relegated to some casinos or Indian concentration -- Native American
concentration camps. So race is gonna be with us, and it's hard to have
people that for the most part -- a lot of white Americans don't have an
understanding of the language to even, you know, discuss this."
Unlike most filmmakers and celebrities who tend to dance gingerly around such a
combustible issue, Mr. Lee has never been reluctant to speak about race, and
each one of his feature films and documentaries chronicle the heartbeats of the
black experience in America, in all of its forms -- positive and negative.
In the early 1980's during his time at NYU Film School, he directed a short film
called "The Answer", about a filmed response to D.W. Griffith's "Birth Of A
Nation" (1915), a film that in numerous parts of America, including such states as
Indiana, was responsible for a 20-30% increase in membership in the Ku Klux Klan
in the early 1900's during the film's initial release, according to numerous
reports. A number of esteemed
American film critics to this day hail Griffith's film as a classic and a
masterpiece, a film which depicted white men in blackface polish pretending to
be black men who would maraud white neighborhoods looking to kidnap and rape
white women -- a depiction of white racial fears about the post-Reconstruction
era in the U.S., an era in which numerous black politicians populated Congress as senators
and House members, with a few as governors as well.
From left to right: Matteo Sciabordi, Omar
Benson Miller, Michael Ealy, Derek Luke (center) and Laz Alonso, in Spike Lee's
forthcoming film "Miracle At St. Anna", which opens in October in the U.S. and
Canada. (Photo: David Lee/Touchstone Pictures via
Soldiers/On My Own)
As Mr. Lee continued his
response to the question about race, Obama's speech and the media, those who may have thought that with age that the
renowned auteur had somehow mellowed regarding the chronicle of race in his films or his outlook on the
harsher aspects of American society will have to postpone such notions.
If asked, the director would most likely say that when the conditions of racial
injustice and discrimination cease, he will cease talking about them. "My grandmother lived to be 100 years old. She died two years ago.
Her mother was a slave. So -- I'm four generations removed from slavery .
. . and if you think about it that's not a long, long time, you know . . . that
was not long ago. So at the same time as Obama (whom Mr. Lee supports for
president) says we've made great strides, there's still a whole lot of stuff
that we have to continue as far as understanding. But if things have
changed, I think that if you look at white America, they're much more -- a lot
of stuff you're not looking at, and I think a lot it has to do with the music,
whether you like hip-hop or not, but I think that's done a lot to -- look at
stuff differently than their parents. And I think if you look at the
(Democratic) primaries, young white American kids, they're all behind Obama,
It may have been a surprise to hear Mr. Lee, who sometime in 2008 or 2009 will
try his hand at directing on the theater stage on Broadway for the first time
with an adaptation of Billy Wilder's film "Stalag 17", attribute Senator Obama's
successes with the younger white population in the U.S. to hip-hop music and its
influence among that segment of American society. What is not surprising
about the filmmaker, who in October will have been married for 15 years to
Washington, D.C. tax attorney Tonya Lewis Lee -- they have two kids, Satchel
(now a teenager) and Jackson (who is ten) -- is that he has endured through a
career that began in 1986 with the release of "She's Gotta Have It", financed
entirely by credit cards and largely by his late grandmother Zimmie Shelton,
whom he spoke of earlier, a Spellman College graduate of 1929. Mr. Lee,
through the courage by his tenacious mother (who passed away due to liver cancer
when Mr. Lee was a sophomore at Morehouse) powered on, against the odds, with
SGHI making $7.1 million. The film cost approximately $160,000 to make.
The Atlanta-born filmmaker and educator, who has lectured and spoken at hundreds
of college campuses around the world went full steam ahead with "School Daze"
(1988) and "Do The Right Thing" the following year, establishing a vigorous work
rate and financial successes with these films that made Hollywood sit up and
take notice. In numerous interviews he has credited his persistence, drive
and uncompromising attitude to his late mother and grandmother. Mr. Lee's
platform and visibility gained him respect and the kind of credibility that it
normally takes years to achieve in Tinseltown. And at an early time in his
career, Mr. Lee became one of the select few American directors -- outside of
Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and the
late Stanley Kubrick -- to get final cut privilege on his films.
Still, Mr. Lee has suffered some setbacks -- the Warner Brothers episode in
1992, where the studio pulled its funding for "Malcolm X" and threatened to shut
down production because it said, that Mr. Lee's film had run over budget.
(Mr. Lee called on Oprah Winfrey, Tracy Chapman, Prince, Michael Jordan, Magic
Johnson, Bill Cosby, Janet Jackson and Peggy Cooper Cafritz, all of whom
collectively donated an additional $11 million to the director to finish the
film, which won Denzel Washington an Oscar nomination for the title role.)
In a rare show of emotion, Mr. Lee shed tears on the Bravo cable network television
series Inside The Actors' Studio as he talked to interviewer James Lipton
about the pain of the Warner Brothers ordeal -- he also said he would never make
a film with the studio again. The director, who runs Spike/DDB, a Madison
Avenue advertising and marketing agency, also lost out on directing "Ali", which
Michael Mann ended up directing. Mr. Lee was also disappointed at not
getting the funding or the rights for a feature film version of Negro League
Baseball and Brooklyn Dodgers legend Jackie Robinson, which Robert Redford has
the rights for. Most interesting of all, was that his "Inside Man" (2006),
with Mr. Washington, Clive Owen and Jodie Foster, which grossed over $200
million worldwide, did not get Mr. Lee financing for two of the films that he
desperately wanted to make, one about the Los Angeles riots of 1992 in response
to Rodney King's beating and the acquittal of the four L.A. police officers who
were videotaped beating Mr. King, and a film on James Brown, which was to star
Wesley Snipes. Mr. Lee was particularly incensed about "Inside Man", his
most successful film to date, not translating into opportunities to receive the
financing that he wanted for the two films.
Instead, Mr. Lee is working on
an ESPN sports documentary.
Much worse than those setbacks however, were the less-than-veiled death threats
he received from none other than "Son Of Sam" serial killer David Berkowitz, via
the front page of a New York Times article in June of 1999, less than a
month before Mr. Lee's "Summer Of Sam" film was released. Mr. Berkowitz,
serving a lengthy prison sentence for his murderous rampage in New York City
during the mid-1970's, was not happy with the news of Mr. Lee directing the
film. The sixth paragraph of the Times story, written by Blaine Harden,
reads: "Mr. Berkowitz said that from prison he monitors "everything there is"
about Spike Lee and his family. "I pray for Spike Lee and his family, his
wife, Tonya, his two children, Jackson and Satchel," he said. "God does
not want me to be angry with anybody."
While that episode shook up the director and his family it did not stop them
from moving forward, and additional protection was offered to the Lee family
after the story by the Times, which the director had criticized, was published.
After all of his landmark films and the success of "Inside Man", Mr. Lee said he
had to get on a plane to Italy to obtain financing for his new film -- as
virtually none of it came from Hollywood.
"Now if I was doing some coonery and buffoonery, they (Hollywood) would give me
all the money I want," the director said.
Another reporter attempted to bait Mr. Lee into answering the question, "why is
Tyler (Perry) having such success?", but Mr. Lee wasn't about to stir the pot
"I'm not answering that question," he said, as knowing laughter abounded around
"Why'd you ask me that question, man?", the director said. The smile
that had spread into a grin across Mr. Lee's face was now part of a full-fledged
For the uninformed, writer-producer-director and actor Tyler Perry, who within
the last 14 months in the U.S. has had Lionsgate, the mini-major studio, release
three of his films ("Daddy's Little Girls", "Why Did I Get Married?" and "Meet
The Browns"), and has a cable television series entitled "House Of Payne", has
what some would argue is a blackface caricature or buffoon of sorts in Madea,
played by Mr. Perry, dressed in drag. For the record, Mr. Perry, whom last
year signed a long-term deal to make films under the Lionsgate studio banner,
has been remarkably successful. Two weekends ago, "Meet The Browns", which
did not screen for the press' film critics in advance -- as is a Perry and
Lionsgate custom where his films and some of the studio's other releases are
concerned -- opened in the U.S. and Canada with a weekend gross of $20 million,
good for second place, just five million behind top film "Horton Hears A Who".
It is this kind of consistent success that has eluded Mr. Lee at the box-office
(with the exception of "Inside Man", which opened in the U.S. in March of 2006
with more than $28 million in its debut weekend, a first place finish.)
[Incidentally, former National Basketball Association player Rick Fox, he of the
mid-1990's Los Angeles Lakers, happens to star in "Meet The Browns" and was on
hand for the ceremony honoring Mr. Lee here. Mr. Fox had appeared in the
director's 1998 film "He Got Game".]
Mr. Lee elucidated further about the studio business framework for box office
success for a film. "So they read the script. They look at who's in
it. And then they punch numbers into an equation. They look at what
they think it can do domestic. They look at how much it can do foreign.
And that foreign is a bigger number than domestic. And historically -- and
I don't think it's true, but they still say it -- that black does not travel
overseas. Whether it's true or not, they believe that. And so in
doing their equation, the number for foreign is always lower than it should be.
And so that -- if the foreign number is low, you're not gonna get the money you
need for the film. Like with "James Brown". They told me that they
didn't know how much they could do foreign with "James Brown". I said,
'the man's music is known all over the world!' So, it's the okey-doke.
And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because if they don't think black
(can) travel -- so they're not gonna really work hard to prove that, well of
course there are exceptions, Will Smith, Denzel -- depending on the film -- but
they just have these rules they write up. And I don't know who writes
these rules, but they go by it," said Mr. Lee, who mentioned that he needed $60
million each to make both "James Brown" and "L.A. Riots", but that the studios
would only give him $40 million per film.
"So I said, 'f-you guys, I'm gonna get my money from Europe.' That's how
"Miracle At St. Anna" came about."
"Miracle At St. Anna" is based on the novel by James McBride, and Mr. Lee said
he was motivated in part to make the film because "my brothers and I always
liked war films, and for the most part we were never in them. Of course
you've got a couple of exceptions, most notably Jim Brown . . . in "The Dirty
Dozen". And in doing the research for the book, James talked to a whole
lot of brothers who fought in World War Two who were part of the Buffalo
Soldiers, and they always talked about they were sick and tired of John Wayne.
A million Negro men fought in World War Two. And that's not reflected in
the films (made about that era in Hollywood). Of course you had 'The Tuskeegee
Airmen' but that was a cable movie for HBO," the director said when speaking in
"Miracle", which looks to have the kind of scope and gravity that could make it an Oscar contender
early in 2009.
"So, another reason why I wanted to do it -- I've been going to Italy since 1986
and Italian journalists and people are always asking me, 'when are you gonna
make a film in Italy?' So . . . James McBride's book gave me an
opportunity to shoot something in Italy and also do World War Two. But I
want to make a distinction. One of the main reasons I wanted to do this is
that World War Two in my opinion, is the last war the United States was right
about. Korean War to stop communism? Bullshit. The Vietnam
War, the same thing." He added to that the Gulf War, and the most recent
conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as invasions in between. "World
War Two, that was democracy against fascism, against the Nazis. So that
was another element. People are not divided about going to war against not
just the Nazis, (but) Japan and Italy. And these guys (the black men who
fought on the U.S. side as buffalo soldiers) always talked about how they felt
more free in Italy than in their own country. And a lot of people don't
know during World War Two a lot of German P.O.W.'s were sent back to America,
and they were imprisoned on the same camps where the black soldiers were being
trained in the South. And on every one of those camps the Nazi P.O.W.'s
got better housing, better food and better health, medicine and stuff than the
Negro soldiers who being trained to kill those motherfuckers. And this is
something those guys (the buffalo soldiers) to this day have still have
not been able to get over."
Spike Lee then mentions a scene in "Miracle At St. Anna" that takes place in
Louisiana that features the character played by Derek Luke who approaches a
white U.S. military police officer who is feeding the Nazi P.O.W.'s ice cream.
"Why are you feeding those Krauts?", the director recalls Mr. Luke's character
asking in the scene. The military officer says to Mr. Luke's character,
"well you have to go around back and I'll feed you."
"And this stuff happened all the time."
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"Miracle At St. Anna" is scheduled to open in the U.S. and Canada on October
10. It will be released in North America by Disney/Touchstone Pictures.
Note: The release date has since been changed to September 26.
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