Three decades on from ‘Do The Right Thing’, Shelton Jackson Lee, AKA Spike Lee, continues to make powerful movies about equality, prejudice and culture.
Politics may seem hopelessly polarised right now but Lee says he sees a path to positive change through the ability of social media to bring people together, peacefully.
The creator of ‘Jungle Fever’, ‘Malcolm X’, ‘Inside Man’ and ‘BlacKkKlansman’ spoke to RSNG about the creative inspiration behind his success, how Netflix is changing drama, why creatives should never follow the trends, and why we should all be shaking things up everyday…
RSNG How have you found the switch to TV drama from the big screen, notably in the form of She’s Gotta Have It?
SPIKE LEE, MOVIE PRODUCER AND DIRECTOR ‘The thing with Netflix is you’ve got to be on it, all the time. We were looking at 10 episodes of between 30 and 40 minutes and there’s no let-up.’
'You cannot have a quiet period like you might in a film where you are trying to build some sort of feeling, some sort of drama. With TV there is no long ascent, there is no tapering. Instead you have a product that needs to be at it from minute one, needs to draw you in, needs to get to a storyline and have that played out, usually in full, by the end.’
‘If you fail on any one of those things then there’s a chance you’ve lost your audience, and they ain’t coming back next time around.’
‘With a movie, certainly in terms of cinemagoers and the traditional box office, once they have paid their money they are in the seat and you have them. You can be more dramatic, more artistic, more considered over what it is you are giving them and how you want to shape and sculpt that viewer for the duration of the film.’
‘You can do very little for long periods then hit them, bam, at the end. With Netflix and this generation of TV drama, you don’t get that opportunity, so the presentation is different and, to an extent, the way you shape your characters – their personalities – is different too.’
‘Since the internet came along people have a very different way of grouping together and of campaigning for positive action’
RSNG Your MO, if you want to call it that, has always been to challenge the norm?
SL ‘Absolutely it has. That’s what we should all be doing, every day of the week. There is some stuff going down on an hourly basis that needs changing, and I think people are starting to realise now that they have the ability to change it, whereas before they didn’t.’
RSNG In what way?
SL ‘I think a lot is our connectivity, it’s social media. In the 1980s if you wanted to make a stand against racism or oppression or poverty you’d have to be marching down the streets. We saw it in Do The Right Thing; sometimes the only actions people feel are open to them so that they know they will be heard, is violence.’
‘Since the internet came along people have a very different way of grouping together, of getting their message straight, and of campaigning for positive action.’
‘I’m not saying it works every time, but creating debate and sustaining it online is putting a message out there that will last longer than torching a car.’
RSNG When you’ve had projects that haven’t caught on for some reason, how do you contend with that?
SL ‘I’ve always been of the opinion that the good stuff will come to the top in the end, even if it takes a while. Having your art missed by an audience isn’t just the privilege of up-and-coming or unknown directors, it happens to everyone.’
‘If you’re the same as other people, you will never stand out. Don’t ever follow the trends’
‘There is certainly one method that stands above all others when it comes to being found – you’ve got to be yourself, you’ve got to be proud of who you are and what you do. If it’s your voice, you have far more chance of having your voice heard and your work seen. If you’re the same as other people, you will never stand out. Don’t ever follow the trends.’
RSNG It’s the 30th anniversary of your iconic work Do The Right Thing – it still holds up as relevant today as it was in 1989. Why do you think that is?
SL ‘Well, sh*t hasn’t changed. The murderer’s chokehold of Radio Raheem was based upon the real NYPD chokehold of a graffiti artist, whose name was Michael Stewart. It was at Union Square subway station and the guy was smaller than me [he died following his arrest]. Also, at the end of the film, we shout out some other families, people who have been killed by NYPD.’
‘So, many years later when I saw the NYPD do the same thing to Eric Garner, it was like: “This is the same sh*t.” Recently, the United States department of ‘just us’ cleared officers of anything. Also, they waited until the day before the statute of limitations was going to run out. The next day was the fifth anniversary of his murder – it took five years.’
‘As we know, the list is too long to go over people of colour who have been killed by the forces and they don’t go to jail. So, the authorities don’t put that much on the lives of coloured people.’
‘When this film came out there were a lot of reviews from people on both sides of the fence and the one thing that always got me was when reviewers would talk about ‘lament.’ The loss of the pizzeria and they put more weight on the loss of white-owned property than a black life. So that’s another thing which has not changed.’
‘The heat in New York, after it gets past 95˚, shit is crazy’
RSNG This was the biggest project you had undertaken at the time. Can you tell us about how you went about this and the thought process behind it?
SL ‘The title was something which came first, and I knew what I wanted it to be, but from there, everything just started to trickle in. I know that I wanted it to be the hottest day of summer.’
‘The heat in New York, after it gets past 95˚, sh*t is crazy. All of those people in the projects living on top of each other, that just shouldn’t happen. So, I knew that I wanted that to be in the film and as the day goes on, the temperature goes up and we see things escalate.’
‘I wanted to have the whole thing shot in one block and four years ago, New York City had that street renamed ‘Do The Right Thing Way’. That’s the only street named after a movie in the history of the city. So, the film takes place in one day and you see the many characters that live in the block and even thought it came out in 1989, I wrote it in 1988.’
‘So, I was talking about justification in 1988, I was talking about global warming, I was talking about police brutality and several things we had in our crystal ball. I did not predict a black president, though haha!’
‘I have to give a shout out again to Night of the Hunter with Robert Mitchum and that was written by James Agee and that’s where the style was at the time – knuckle rings. So, that’s where I got the idea of instead of putting tattoos Radio Raheem has love and hate.’
RSNG When this film came out, it didn’t look like anything else which was out and also didn’t sound like anything else?
SL ‘Well, the look of the film is not down to the director, that is more down to the DP (Director of Photography) who was Ernest Dickerson, the costume designer, who was Ruth Carter, the production designer, Wynn Thomas.’
‘Ernest and I went to film school together and Ang Lee, as well, we were all in the same class. That was at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Ruth Carter won an Oscar for Black Panther and she had been nominated before for Armistad and Malcolm X. Wynn Thomas who has been a production designer for a long time and was working recently on a new film, The Five Bloods.’
‘So, we sat in a room and I told everyone that we want people to be sweating while they were watching this film. The red wall where you see the corner men, that was not the colour of the wall, Wynn painted it that colour. Ernest would put butane and things below the lens and Ruth would have costumes with no colour. All of this contributes to the heat.’
RSNG The music fits the piece so poignantly, as well?
SL: ‘The film takes place on the hottest day of the summer and also, another shout out that I have got to give is to Public Enemy’s Chuck D. Because, I forgot how many times you hear Fight the Power.’
‘But I knew that every time you saw Ray Raheem, he’s got a hip-hop song blasting and I wanted an anthem. So, any song that is in the film as much as it is, has to be a great one.’
‘I automatically thought of Public Enemy, but what you see in the film was not the first demo. We weren’t ready to show the film to them, so the first attempt wasn’t what we needed, and we waited and waited. Then, when I showed them the film, Chuck knew exactly what we needed.’
‘They had a look at the script but it’s not the same as when you see the film. But they knew exactly what they wanted to do and how to do it, and they used the Isley Brothers song ‘Fight the Power’ and put their own touches and style to that.’
RSNG You have been particularly outspoken about Donald Trump.
SL ‘But we just live in a very, very shaky time in the world now with this guy in the White House, I call him Agent Orange. I mean, it’s serious, now and as President Barack Hussein Obama has said, this coming election could be the most important election in history. The United States of America is really about the soul of the country.’
‘That’s where the battle is now and this guy in the White House is on the wrong side of history. We showed that at the end of BlacKKKlansman, where the President of the United States of America, the so-called leader of the free world, refused to repudiate the Klan, neo-Nazis and he said that he couldn’t do it.
‘He was afraid that he would lose his base and the same way he keeps saying: “Send her back, send her back…” (in reference to Ilhan Omar) Then he says: “That wasn’t me, I wasn’t saying it.” You know, he was egging them mother*ckers on!’
‘So, that’s where we are and that’s one of the reasons why this film is still relevant, because if you’ve seen the film, you will know that this sh*t is still going on. It’s not a history lesson, it’s not a relic, it’s still – you could say – reflected in the headlines.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch the trailer for Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman.