Maybe too long ago since the first hang of Spike Lee. That story of Nola Darling and her love affairs for Brooklyn, delightfully shot in black and white under the original title of She’s Gotta Have It, meant the launch in 1986 of a good handful of works with which this small and sparkling verb filmmaker carries several Decades counting the vicissitudes of the African-American community in the United States and filling the screen with music —always good music—, flashes of reality and fantasies about his obsessions. Among them, the denunciation of racism in its various forms or the language of the streets. And New York, the city of his dreams and his sleeplessness. Now more than ever, it has become one of the most pandemic enclaves in the United States.
From there, in his corner on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where he has lived for years in the former home of artist Jasper Johns with his wife, Tonya; her sons Satchel and Jackson, an old yorkshire terrier named Ginger and a new shih tzu breed dog, Spike Lee (Atlanta, 63) talks to The Country Weekly via video conference. The interview takes place during the extension of the confinement by the coronavirus that the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, has decreed until May, whose popularity shoots up in the face of the excesses of President Donald Trump. “Our governor has shown great leadership in the face of this crisis, and in his decisions he has put human lives ahead of money.” Today everything stops at the Lee family’s house every day at seven in the afternoon. At that time, everyone dines around a table, an event that used to only happen on weekends. After our conversation, the patriarch will take some time to make the self-portraits that these pages illustrate.
Sitting on a sofa on which he will adopt various postures not without jumps, laughter and screams with his deep and explosive voice, Lee wears a red T-shirt and covers his eyes with the usual thick and round-rimmed glasses. Finishing off his New York waffle mask, the thick gray-haired goatee and a cap with the motto Da 5 Bloods appear, the title of his new hang in the form of a war film about the adventures of some veteran black fighters from Vietnam whose world premiere through the Netflix platform is scheduled for June 12. The plot of this new joint or hang, as he himself calls his tapes, also carries a built-in message: the memory of the black soldiers who were sent as cannon fodder to the front line in Vietnam in an inordinate proportion to the total population of United States. The echoes of Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King echo again in their footage. The filmmaker, as horny as he is angry, seems relaxed today. As has been happening for the past thirty-odd years, when we wake up to the new world after confinement, Spike Lee will still be there.
His new hang is a story of Vietnam veterans who still want to be part of the game. Is this how you feel today?
I’ve never stopped being in this game, you know? I’m going through my fourth decade in business and I still have stories to tell.
In the opening scenes of Da 5 Bloods the old colleagues meet again in hugs, the normal thing until now. How long do you think it will be before we can hug each other with our friends?
Hopefully the hugs return, but I still see far the moment when the five of us will collide again. At least, until there is a vaccine.
Spike Lee and Tracy Camilla Johns, during the filming of ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ (1986). Photograph by Everett / Cordon Press
How does the world that will come after the coronavirus fit in?
Let me get biblical. This is going to be A.C. / D. C. Before the Crown and After the Crown. The whole world needs to restart. This pandemic has exposed inequalities spread across the planet. In the United States, the black population has suffered the ravages of the pandemic more than anyone. Black people in this country know who we are and where we are. We are aware of having suffered the worst educational system and many other inequalities. When schools close, how can you learn from home during confinement if you don’t have a computer or Wi-Fi? A handful of social inequalities persist that were overlooked in the Before the Crown era. All these situations should be taken into account with a view to the restart to be imposed.
The echoes of Martin Luther King resonate, once again, in his new movie. Do you think your message remains valid for the younger generations?
At least I do believe that his message remains valid, another matter is whether people want to hear it or not. In general, young people know today that Dr. Martin Luther King said, “I had a dream,” that here is a national holiday where they don’t have to go to class … and not much else. But I wouldn’t blame young people for this kind of thing. It is we who have to teach what is important to new generations.
How do you handle confinement?
We are on our way here for three months … I try to limit excursions away from home. The entire Lee family remains bunkerized.
Why did you want to buy that house that Jasper Johns previously occupied?
I had no choice. Are you married?
Yes. I think I know where he is going …
Well, what happened is that my wife, Tonya, said one day: “Spike, you are going to have to choose, the children and I or Brooklyn.” And you can imagine what happened.
What have you discovered about your family these days spending so much time all together?
In the world Before the Crown the staff went to their roll. I think this was something universal. Now, every day at seven o’clock in the afternoon, we sit at the table together and have dinner. That used to only happen a few weekends. Everyone has their room here, each one has breakfast when he wants and makes his life. But during these last days, at seven o’clock we all stay together.
The family is always there, for good and for bad.
Always in both directions, that is, both directions … But be careful! The great race to divorce is about to start!
Do your children watch your movies?
“Everything is on pause with confinement. But beware! The great race to divorce is about to start! ”
They have grown with them. We really didn’t talk much about it. I’m just dad, the movie director. I try to focus on what I do and have them focus on what they do. I think that’s something they appreciate. I am still his father.
These days he will miss going to see the New York Knicks, his basketball team.
The truth is, no … We were making it terrible this season! What I do miss is feeling like a New Yorker. Especially, I love New York in the summer. But this world has already changed.
And how has your own life changed?
Spike Lee Self Portrait. Duke Ellington presides over the head of his bed.
For the first time since I started directing movies, I’m going slower. Everything has become a pause. I have spent four decades starting projects, running from one place to another, spinning the jar without stopping. Now I have had time to think, to remember relatives who stopped being with me years ago, to read pending books … I have read a biography of Marlon Brando and another of Paul Newman, a work about baseball … And I have seen many movies. When I understood that this confinement was serious, I made a promise to myself not to let it go by wasting time. At first I thought this was going to last forever. But the days have flown by. I still get up early in the morning. I do my exercises and, if I can, I ride my bike through the empty city. This is a very strange sensation. Every time I have been out of the city for a short period of time, be it for vacation or to shoot a movie, when I got back and got off the plane the energy hit me right in the face. The energy here is difficult to describe. They are very special vibrations.
He has spent years portraying New York life in his movies. How does it feel to see it empty today?
I see an extraordinary population. Locked up and beaten by the pandemic, but still strong. We live something similar on 9/11. But New Yorkers are tough and brave. You have to be to live here. New York is style, ego and arrogance.
And what will it be like after the coronavirus?
I think New York will have to take serious care of its black population, which has demonstrated more than anyone what it means to be on the front lines during the pandemic: driving buses and subways, dispatching groceries in stores and supermarkets … And in general, the United States United of America will have to be better when we get out of this. We cannot go back to what we were before, a territory full of inequalities. Otherwise thousands of people will have died in vain. And this also applies to the entire planet.
“We cannot go back to the pre-pandemic inequalities. Otherwise, thousands of people will have died in vain ”
Will New York cease to be the capital of the world?
New York will always be New York, whatever happens. And the United States … that is something else. I have many friends from different countries who often ask me: “Spike, what is your president doing?” I always answer them the same: he is not my president.
Above all, I imagine, when he recommends injecting disinfectant to treat the coronavirus. You often call him Agent Orange. And sometimes directly a son of a bitch.
The sad thing is that many Americans take this guy’s words as if they were the gospel.
What did Barack Obama do wrong to let him into the White House as his successor?
I don’t think he did anything wrong. That this guy became president of the United States was the reaction to eight years of a black man’s presidency. I hope there will be a change in the November elections. Obama has already said that they will be the most decisive in the history of the United States. I go further: the fate of the world will depend on what happens in those elections.
Self-portrait of Spike Lee at his home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a home formerly occupied by artist Jasper Johns.
Get up! He’s been screaming that for decades in his movies. Has anyone listened to you? Do you think that your cinema can change something?
I live in a country where being black is still the only reason one can be killed. When Radio Raheem yelled “Get up!” in Do what you should, it was 1989. Now we are in 2020 … And nothing has changed. At least you can bring light with what you do and end up being part of the conversation.
Recent Pulitzer Arts Awards have recognized the work of authors narrating black North America. Do you think those awards pay more attention to racial diversity than the Oscars?
I do not know in depth how the Pulitzer Prizes are organized, but what I do have is that choosing a prize winner requires a group of people. And the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences became aware in 2016, when Spotlight was the winner for best picture, that the members who vote for those awards need to be more diverse. The consequence is that since then more black people have been nominated and have won Oscars. And there I include myself. It has also been my case.
Were you reconciled to Hollywood last year when you won the golden statuette? It took 30 years to propose him as a candidate for the award.
Too much time! There are still few black people who make decisions in Hollywood. I’m talking about important decisions in the studio system: who funds, who writes, and who directs a movie. That is the next frontier.
In his speech at the Oscars last year, he shouted, do what you should!, Evoking his eponymous film where racism exploded from several corners of the same street that lead to the same place: violence. Do you think that the coronavirus has raised a step in the confrontation between the United States and China that could set fire to an explosion of xenophobia towards the Asian population in your country?
Hate crimes against the Asian population have increased here since the President of the United States began to refer to this pandemic as “the Chinese virus.” Saying that is an invitation to carry out acts of hatred against people of that origin. And I would add that those who carry out these crimes do not distinguish between Chinese, Japanese or Korean. They think they are all Chinese. Stupid! [pronunciado estúpidous].
So you know that Spanish word …
Spike Lee Self Portrait.
I grew up in Brooklyn, you know, with my brothers and sisters from Puerto Rico. I know the bad words well. Culouuu! Chouchaaa!
And how is the industry you are going to change with the pandemic?
I don’t see people coming back to a movie theater soon, in a dark room, and with other strangers, at least until it’s safe enough or there’s a vaccine. Summer is the season of blockbusters. And I get the feeling that everyone is going to be postponed until November or December. Big productions don’t make money just by streaming. They need asses [palabra esta última pronunciada en pseudoespañol: culous] sitting in the theater seats. What is happening is going to affect all industries and our lives. I was going to be president of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival, the first person of color to do so. It will not be possible at the moment. We are all going to have to readjust.
Her father, jazz musician Bill Lee, appeared in his first movies. Her mother Jacqueline died too soon. He could not know its success. What did you learn from it?
I learned everything from my mother. She was a movie buff. My father hated Hollywood movies. I was the oldest of my brothers and I became my mother’s date companion to take her to the movies. There, together with her, this passion was born. But as a mere spectator. I had no idea what it meant to be a director.
Today he also works as artistic director of the cinematographic degree at the University of New York, where he studied. They were the same classrooms that other seasoned students, like Jim Jarmusch, passed through at almost the same time. What were you looking for in those classes?
Honestly, what my generation was looking for then was to have a team to shoot. We needed tools. I was not chasing someone to teach me how to be a film director. But in the end, I learned. To learn how to make movies you have to make movies.
And what are the students who are going to their classes looking for today?
Follow your dreams. And tell stories.
Have you become a millionaire with your movies?
Let me tell you a phrase that I love about The Godfather: “I think I’ve been able to warm my peak.”
If you look back, would you say that you have managed to make exactly the cinema you wanted to do and shot it exactly as you had dreamed of?
I have been very fortunate, a blessed one. I have the right to the final editing of my work and I still have many stories to tell. I pray that I can keep making the movies I want to do. Whatever happens with this tremendous crisis we are experiencing, whatever remains after the pandemic, people will always need content.
How long do you see in this game?
Kurosawa continued until the 80s … I hope I have another 20 years to make films.