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HomeEntertainmentSpike Lee has power. He’s still fighting it.

Spike Lee has power. He’s still fighting it.


Ahead of a new Brooklyn Museum exhibit of his personal memorabilia, the director talks his Oscars favorites, his forthcoming Colin Kaepernick series and the heroics of ‘Black Aquaman.’

Director Spike Lee stands between portraits of his parents, jazz bassist Bill Lee and teacher Jacqueline Carroll Shelton Lee, at his exhibition’s opening gala at the Brooklyn Museum. (Jelani Rice for The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — There’s no mistaking which office belongs to Spike Lee in a sunny corner of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he’s a tenured film professor and has been teaching for 30 years. Just outside the door, you’ll find a director’s chair; a “Do the Right Thing” street sign; a poster for that seminal 1989 film that used a single block in Brooklyn to capture the country’s explosive racial tensions; and a framed historical notice for the sale of “250 fine healthy NEGROES,” with assurances that they don’t have smallpox.

Inside, every surface is covered in memorabilia from an incredible life in the arts: Lee in a tuxedo with buddies Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. An illustration of his dear friend Prince, depicted in mournful purple rain, on a yellowing copy of the Village Voice from the week the musician died in 2016. The other day, Lee was rooting under his desk and found a rolled-up poster for “Raging Bull” he had forgotten he owned, signed Jake LaMotta, the boxer whose autobiography Scorsese adapted for the movie. “It had been there for years!” Lee says, laughing. “How long has he been dead? [But now] De Niro signed this and tomorrow Marty’s gonna sign it. I’m not messing around here.” Any memory of how he got it? “No!”

There’s a reason for this autographing emergency. Lee, 66, is an ardent collector of cultural items, including Richard Avedon photography and racist cigarette holders, and on Saturday, the Brooklyn Museum is opening “Spike Lee: Creative Sources” with more than 450 pieces from his personal collection, selected over a two-year process. And there’s plenty more back in his studio in Fort Greene, he says, plus in storage.

Lee’s mother, Jacqueline Carroll Shelton Lee, a teacher of Black literature, used to take him and his siblings to that museum as a kid, during a homegrown arts education that introduced him to cinema. She died when he was a sophomore at Morehouse College, located in her hometown of Atlanta, and there’s a whole section in the exhibit dedicated to family, featuring his mother, grandparents and father, the jazz musician Bill Lee, who composed scores for Spike’s earlier films and died in May. Spike Lee and his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, just celebrated their 30th anniversary, and their son, Jackson, was on hand at the gala preview Tuesday taking photos, alongside a deluge of collaborators and well-wishers, including journalist Robin Roberts and actors Adam Driver, John Leguizamo, Giancarlo Esposito and Laurence Fishburne.

The following is a compilation of several conversations, including one the morning after the exhibition’s Oct. 3 opening gala. It has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Q: I wanted to get your recap of the night. What was the best part for you?

A: It was just an amazing night. And I hope that people come back when it officially opens, because sometimes it’s hard to see what’s on the wall because it was jam-packed.

Q: Adam Driver was in “BlacKkKlansman” (2018), but I didn’t realize you were tight.

A: Oh yeah, that’s my Brooklyn brother! We really, really have a kinship, a brotherhood that extends and not just when we’re working, you know? So, I mean, he’s in the club.

Q: And then you and Bill Bradley had a fun moment in the Knicks room when you two passed a mic back and forth and recapped Game 7 of the 1970 championship. How long have you known each other?

A: He’s one of the Knicks! Those guys are my heroes. You know, he reached out to me to help him when he was first running for Senate. So we’ve kept in touch. I mean, he didn’t run for the Senate just to be showboating. He has a great heart, great mind, and cares about what’s happening in the world.

Q: You have Prince’s “Love Symbol” guitar. How’d you wind up with that?

A: I asked him for it, “Can you gift it to me?” Showed up a year later.

A: I was happy I got it! So I’m not complaining to Prince, saying, “Why did it take a year?” But when I said, “Can you sign it?” He said, “I’ll take it back, Spike!” And I said, “Oh, no, no, no! I don’t need you to sign it!”

Q: John Leguizamo told me he couldn’t believe you had these vintage Federico Fellini posters with wonderfully warm dedications to you. How did you become friends?

A: The first time I was in Italy promoting a film, I asked my publicist, “Do you know Fellini?” And he said, “Yeah, I know him.” So I said, “Can you call him and see if he’ll have dinner with me?” And so we just struck up a friendship. And every time I would come to Rome to promote a film, we’d have dinner. The first time I didn’t have a poster, but I found these poster stores that sell vintage Italian films in Rome. So that’s when I got him to sign them.

Q: The section dedicated to your family seems particularly poignant, and I know your mom was a huge influence, since she took you to movies as a kid.

A: I’ll tell you a funny story. My mother loved James Bond. Loved Sean Connery. And she took me to see “Goldfinger” the first week it came out and the theater was packed. I’m 6 or 7. And you know, it’s very rare in a James Bond film, especially a Sean Connery film, where there’s silence and not, you know, guns being shot, ships being blown up. But there’s a silent moment in the film. And I said to my mother, “Mommy, why is that lady named Pussy Galore?” Oh, people died laughing. My mother was so embarrassed, she grabbed me and said, “Spike, don’t you say another word.” True story!

Q: You also have all these photos of your dad, Bill Lee. Have you been thinking about lessons you learned from him since he passed?

A: I’m still in my process of grieving, of losing my father. But it was great to see him in this show. And my grandparents. My mother never got to see me as a filmmaker, but my grandmother lived to be 100 years old. She saved her Social Security checks from teaching for 50 years and helped put me through Morehouse College, gave me the seed money for my thesis film, which won the Student Academy Award and also gave me seed money for “She’s Gotta Have It.” For 50 years, she taught art, between Macon and Atlanta. My grandmother was a great art teacher. Never got to teach one White student because of Jim Crow laws in the state of Georgia. And for 50 years, White students missed out because schools were not integrated.

Q: When you let me sit in on your class at NYU, you showed the students “On the Waterfront.” Why that movie?

A: One of the most influential things that happened when I was here at NYU, going to film school with Ang Lee and Ernie Dickerson — who was DP [director of photography] on a lot of my films and is now one of the top episodic directors — was being introduced to world cinema. The basic premise from “She’s Gotta Have It” comes from “Rashomon.”

I’m not doing the students good if they’ve seen a film 10 million times already. I’m trying to introduce them to things. I’ll say, “You know there was some good s— made before you were born. And it might be black-and-white.” And “On the Waterfront” is one of my all-time great films. I got to be good friends with Budd Schulberg, who wrote the screenplay.

Q: Ever meet Marlon Brando? You have so many posters of his movies in the exhibition.

A: Never met him. Would have loved to. But right after “Do the Right Thing” came out [in 1989], he called me. I don’t know how he got my number. Called me about four in the morning. He stayed up late. He was in L.A. anyway. And he said he had this script about Native Americans that he wanted me to read. Never got the script, never heard from him again.

A: Brando was a brother. So I’ll leave it at that. [Laughs.]

Q: A big supporter of the civil rights movement.

A: You know, when Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte went to Hollywood, they went to Brando, they went to Paul Newman, they went to Peter Lawford, they went to James Garner. They went to Charlton Heston, who did a complete turn [later]. And these big-time Hollywood stars wrote checks to keep the movement going. And they got kind of lost in the sauce. But they went to Selma. They went to Montgomery. They were there.

Q: Any films you’ve seen lately that are inspiring you?

A: Well, you know, Scorsese, that’s my guy. “Killers of the Flower Moon” is a great film. That Native American woman, Lily Gladstone, she’s winning an Oscar. And I don’t think that’s a supporting role. I think that’s a leading role. She’s got my vote.

Q: She’s actually submitted herself for lead actress.

A: Good! She should not go for the okey-doke.

And Chris Nolan with “Oppenheimer,” you know, he’s a massive filmmaker. Great film. I showed [“Dunkirk”] in my class. And this is not a criticism. It’s a comment. How long was that film [“Oppenheimer”]?

A: If it’s three hours, I would like to add some more minutes about what happened to the Japanese people. People got vaporized. Many years later, people are radioactive. It’s not like he didn’t have power. He tells studios what to do. I would have loved to have the end of the film maybe show what it did, dropping those two nuclear bombs on Japan. Understand, this is all love. And I bet he could tell me some things he would change about “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X.”

Q: When you accepted an honor from the Toronto International Film Festival in September, you talked about how two critics, Joe Klein and David Denby, had predicted that “Do the Right Thing” would start riots when it came out in 1989. What do you think the reaction would be if it came out today?

A: If it came out today, Black people would still not riot and bring bloodshed, which is what those guys said. The film came in 1989, a lot inspired by graffiti artist Michael Stewart who got murdered by New York Transit Authority cops and here we are. You look at “Do the Right Thing” now, what the NYPD did, the strangle chokehold on [movie character] Radio Raheem, you’re going to think about George Floyd and Eric Garner. … We got the crystal ball. We were talking about gentrification. We were talking about global warming.

Q: At the time, you credited the movie with aiding the election of David Dinkins as New York City’s first Black mayor and getting Mayor Ed Koch out of office. Still think that’s true?

A: Didn’t help him! [Laughs.] I mean, we had a scene where we had graffiti written that says, “Dump Koch.” And at the end of the movie, the final shot, Sam Jackson as Mister Señor Love Daddy, he said, “Remember people, remember to vote, remember to register to vote.” I knew the Democratic primary was gonna be in September. This film just came out in August. That was not an accident. Koch had to go.

Q: The movie made it onto the American Film Institute’s Top 100 list in 2007. Did it feel like it was about time?

A: You know what’s more important to me? It’s on the National Film Registry with the Library of Congress. Forever and ever. I’ve got four films on the national registry: “Do the Right Thing,” “4 Little Girls,” “Malcolm X” and “She’s Gotta Have It.” I think the great stuff, you don’t have an expiration date. It’s not milk. “Do the Right Thing” is not gonna curdle!

Q: Back when you started your career, people would line up outside theaters for opening night. We had blockbusters and a kind of collective viewing experience that could do things like influence elections. Do you think that’s possible with streaming now?

A: It’s not [about] the form. I remember when “Roots” came out. That was tremendous. That was on television. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s a television show, a streamer or in the theater. It’s what we’re seeing, what the audience is seeing, that’s where the power comes from.

Q: Now your big project is an ESPN documentary series tentatively called “Da Saga of Colin Kaepernick.” Any idea when it’ll come out?

A: We’re still working on it. You know, when I got the call to do it, from Kap, I said, “Of course.” But it takes time. This is an opportunity for him to tell his story at length.

Q: Conservatives attacked Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games as a protest of police brutality, and Donald Trump and others called him unpatriotic. Will you be featuring Trump?

A: He said, “Get that SOB off the field.” I don’t call him by his name. I call him Agent Orange. And that was really one of his points in campaigning! Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem. He’s in there all right. He was in the end of “BlacKkKlansman,” [when it cuts to real footage of the 2017 white supremacy rally] in Charlottesville. “Very fine people.”

Q: Have you been following Trump’s trial for alleged fraud in New York?

A: My sister [Letitia James, New York’s attorney general] is not scared. He can say all he wants. She’s a strong Black woman. She ain’t scared. Don’t mess with her. You’ll get your feelings hurt. And you might go to jail, too. You might go to the hoosegow!

Q: Just going back to Kap, what makes you so interested in athlete protesters?

A: Number one, they have the platform. And they’re taking a great risk and they’re risking their careers. Kaepernick hasn’t played in seven years. John Carlos, Tommie Smith [track stars who raised their fists in a Black power salute on the Olympic podium in 1968 and were kicked out of the Games], they were left out to dry. Muhammad Ali lost three years of his prime because he refused to fight an unjust war. When you stand up for Black people, for Brown people, even for women’s rights — if you’re leading that, you’re a target and you’re going to pay a price for that.

Q: Talking to you, I’m struck by what it means for an athlete to lose any part of their career, since their careers are so short. Is that why you wanted to make the series?

A: Why did I want to do the two documentaries about [Hurricane] Katrina? Why did I want to do the documentary “4 Little Girls”? And I never like to talk about this, but this is the truth: A week before the theatrical run of “4 Little Girls,” I get a call from the FBI saying they want to see the print. I send them the print. And the day after the film debuted at Film Forum, the FBI [reopened the investigation and later] charged two people for murder. I forget their names.

[Note: Thomas E. Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry, who had been members of the Ku Klux Klan, were suspects for decades in the horrific 1963, dynamite-fueled bombing that killed four African American girls — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, ages 11 to 14 — and injured more than 20 others. In 2001 and 2002, Blanton and Cherry were convicted of four counts of murder each and sentenced to life in prison, where they died at 82 and 74, respectively. Another Klan member, Robert Chambliss, had been convicted of murder in 1977, at 73, and died in prison at 81. A fourth conspirator, Herman Cash, died in the mid-’90s before the FBI reopened the case.]

But the FBI knew who did it that week [of the bombing]. The motherf—er’s nickname was Dynamite Bob! They knew who planted those [19] sticks of dynamite. So 20-something years later, the day after “4 Little Girls” opens, you press charges? They knew! J. Edgar Hoover was no friend of Black people, Martin Luther King Jr. or the civil rights movement. [Wiretapping] Dr. King and then sending those tapes [of his extramarital affairs] to Coretta Scott King. Who does that type of stuff? And say, “We’re gonna make these tapes public if you don’t commit suicide.” The FBI knew who those terrorists were. It was homegrown, red, white and blue, apple pie, Fourth of July terrorism.

Q: You said it was really emotional being down there, 60 years after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. What struck you most about the day?

A: That in some ways, it was a celebration. First of all, we’re in a Baptist church. So you know we had singing, you know we had the choir. It’s one of those things where you’re sad, but your spirit is high. I know that might sound crazy, but that’s the way I felt, that we knew that we’re in the exact place, 60 years ago, where those motherf—ers planted the sticks of dynamite.

You know what was funny though? That thing that happened in Montgomery with the boat. … You don’t know nothing about this?

[Calls out to his teaching assistant in the other room.] Kwesi! Find me them clips of what happened in Montgomery! With the boat!

[Note: A Black riverboat co-captain spent 45 minutes asking a private pontoon boat, via loudspeaker, to move so he could dock, and he was met with taunts and yelling from the White passengers. When he was transported to the dock to talk with them, they attacked him. Three White men and one White woman were charged with assault. A Black man wielding a folding chair and hailed by many as a hero, was charged with disorderly conduct.]

[Lee, watching the video:] They wouldn’t move their boat for the big boat. Uh oh! He took off his hat! [Laughs.] What! What! So they’re trying to gang up on this guy. Then here come our folks! All at once! Here they come!

[Lee asks his assistant to pull up a new video.] You gotta find one when the swinging starts! Where’s the melee? M-E-L-E-E! There’s one guy that jumped off the paddle boat to come help his brother. And Black folks are saying, “Black Aquaman! Black Aquaman!” I’m not trying to make light of violence, but we’re not having that no more. We’re not having that.

Q: What was it like seeing Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to be a Supreme Court Justice, give a speech at the 16th Street Baptist Church?

A: I shook her hand. I told her a joke. I said, “Look, if I get a traffic ticket, you gotta get me out of jail.” She laughed. It wasn’t like “Haha!” She went [titters]. But what was scary, when she went up to the podium, the protection she needs. She had two people on each side of her that had, like, an attaché case, which was a machine gun. They’re not going to publicize it, rightly so, but I put money down my sister has had numerous death threats since she became the first Black woman in the highest court in the land.

Q: You had quite the September.

A: What happened? [Laughs.]

Q: Getting the Ebert Director Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. And you moderated the reunion of the Talking Heads at the premiere of the rerelease of remastered, Imax “Stop Making Sense.” How’d that happen?

A: [Singer] David Byrne and I are friends. I’ve done stuff with him before. And I was honored that — because you know they hadn’t been together in, like, decades — they all said, “Bet.” They were cool with me doing it.

Q: Were you worried about them not getting along?

I don’t know what happened afterward. But that night, that day, it was peace and love. And I wasn’t trying to be, you know, Geraldo Rivera, and start [something]. Number one, gotta give praise to the late, great [director] Jonathan Demme. He did his thing with that. And they blew it up on Imax and redid the sound, so it was a great, great, great night. I got up to dance for “Once in a Lifetime.” I had to.

Q: And you were at what looked like every game of the U.S. Open.

A: Coco! [Laughs.] You see at the women’s final I was rocking my Kaepernick jersey, too.

Q: What was it like being there?

A: It was herstory. Not history. Herstory. 19 years old. And Arthur Ashe Stadium seats 24,000. I mean, it was a home-crowd advantage, that’s for sure. I felt sorry for [Coco Gauff’s] opponent for a minute because she wasn’t winning today. That was not happening.

Q: Is she the best you’ve seen since Serena?

A: I think we get sidetracked comparing people. Even Michael Jordan said on record, [clapping to emphasize his words] “I’m not gonna say I’m the greatest player ever.” But you know what? There’s other people that say it. Like me! [Laughs.] He’s the G.O.A.T.! He won’t say it. [Laughs.] I’m not saying that to the detriment of my brother, LeBron. All love. And it makes sense that people who have only seen Michael Jordan on YouTube [that they don’t get it]. Michael’s retired and they grew up seeing LeBron [James]. I’m not mad at that.

Q: You showed me a pair of game-worn Jordans from a 1996 Bulls vs. Knicks matchup that Michael gave to you. Did you ask him for them?

A: Hell yeah, I asked him! The Bulls won the game 107-86, and look at Mike, he wrote: “To Spike, sorry!”

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Q: Who’s your guy in this election coming up?

Q: The one that’s happening in 2024.

A: John Starks for president! Just joking. You don’t know the answer to that question?

Q: I know the answer. But do you have any thoughts about President Biden running again?

A: I know many times in my films I wore the cap of “Negrodamus.” [Laughs.] With “Do the Right Thing,” we projected a lot of stuff. But I can’t call this upcoming election. Yet! There’s people getting on Biden for his age, his son. … The motivation I feel for Joe now versus the first time is not the same. So they’ve got a lot of work to do.

Q: How do you think Trump’s chances are?

A: Well, God help us. When he was in office, every night I would say, “Please, Lord. I hope they gave him the wrong number for the nuclear code.”

Q: Are you worried about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as his most formidable opponent?

A: Hell yeah. I don’t want to him to have the nuclear code. No time.

Q: They’re banning the teaching of Black history in Florida.

A: You know what I say? If you’re gonna be about it, be about it. Start burning books like Nazi Germany while you’re at it. Go ahead. Why are you faking the funk? We know that’s what you want to do. Go ahead.

Q: It’s not just banning books, it’s teaching that enslaved people actually learned life skills.

A: First of all, enslaved people were farmers and all types of stuff before they were stolen from Mother Africa. It’s not like they got here and Master told them what to do. So the skills you thought we learned, we knew already. Africans created civilization, so I don’t know what you’re talking about. You remember how in “Do the Right Thing” Giancarlo says “Boycott Sal’s”? Boycott Florida! [Laughs.] Boycott Florida!

Hell with ’em. Now, the weather’s great. I’m not gonna front. Miami’s nice. But you know how sometimes we’re New Yorkers, and we don’t think we’re necessarily part of New York State, like Buffalo and all that. So, can we move Miami? Let’s have Miami secede from the state of Florida.



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