“It makes good business sense for your product and your workforce to reflect what this country looks like,” Spike Lee said of Hollywood’s need for change both in front of and behind the camera. “But there are people still today that think that these are motherf*cking Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, President Eisenhower, Elvis Presley days,” the multiple Oscar nominee added. “Those days are gone forever, whether people like it or not.”
A nine-time Sundance Film Festival attendee, the director is back in Park City this year with Pass Over.
Filmed at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre last fall, the Amazon Studios version of Antoinette Nwandu’s politically charged 2016 play premieres on January 26 in the first of three SFF Special Events screenings. Lee isn’t the only member of the family at work at Sundance 2018. His wife and fellow She’s Gotta Have It executive producer Tonya Lewis Lee is here with Monster, the Anthony Mandler-helmed adaptation of Walter Dean Myers’ 1999 novel about a young black man snared in the criminal justice system. The film starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Hudson and A$AP Rocky is premiering today in U.S. Dramatic Competition at Park City’s Eccles.
Before the Pass Over and Monster openings, the rarely reticent Lee spoke with me about his new Sundance film, where the real change needs to be in Hollywood and why awards don’t really excite him. With the January 1 announcement that She’s Gotta Have It has been renewed for a second season, Lee also hinted about what’s next and why he still loves Sundance aft on Netflixer all these years.
DEADLINE: You are back at Sundance with the Chicago-set Pass Over, which comes from an Antoinette Nwandu play. How did you get involved with this project and what attracted you to film theatre again?
LEE: Antoinette is at same agency as me, ICM, and her agent gave it to my agent, Bart Walker, and he says, you should read this, so I read it. I did not know of the play at the time or that it had this run in Chicago Steppenwolf, but I liked it a lot, and we met.
DEADLINE: Was it pretty instant for you that this riff of sorts on (Samuel) Beckett’s Waiting For Godot was something you wanted to do?
LEE: When I read it, I knew that this would be good. I’ve done this before where I filmed a theatrical piece. Not just Mike Tyson and Undisputed Truth but also the 2008 musical Passing Strange by Stew. Also I’ve done it more recently with Roger Guenveur Smith and his Rodney King piece that was on Netflix last year. I like doing that, adding a cinematic take on theatrical pieces.
DEADLINE: You mentioned Netflix, which She’s Gotta Have It the TV series launched on last year, looking at the trajectory of your career, how do these different platforms and different mediums feel for you as a filmmaker in 2018?
LEE: Well, it feels great as a filmmaker. I mean, they’re giving me more platforms to do my work. Since I just made decision in Morehouse to be a filmmaker and obtain my education in the best film school in the world, New York University Graduate Film School, where I am now as a tenured professor, I wanted to build a body of work, so I’m very happy to be in my third decade.
February 12th is going to be the 30th anniversary of School Daze, and May 1st is going to be the 20th anniversary of He Got Game, so I’m very fortunate and blessed that I can continue to do the thing I love, which is what I’m doing. And this year there’s Pass Over at Sundance, the feature film called Black Klansmen starring John David Washington, Denzel’s Son, and also Adam Driver, so we’re still doing it. And we just got a renewal for a second season, She’s Gotta Have It.
DEADLINE: A lot of the opportunities we see now in the industry have roots in the work and the approach that you pioneered back in the Reagan Era and onward. As an independent filmmaker to a new generation of indie filmmakers here at Sundance, what’s your advice for establishing a viable career?
LEE: I do think there’s more opportunities now, more platforms to get your voice out there. That’s not to say that there’s still not a need for more voices of color, there is. It’s a still struggle, and I’ve been able to be here for 30 years, three decades, because I’ve been flexible. You’ve got to roll with the punches. You know, you get knocked down, but you put your hand on the rope and you pull yourself up.
DEADLINE: Pulling up, you mentioned the She’s Gotta Have It renewal a minute ago. Are you going to direct it all, like Season 1?
LEE: Yes, I will. One to 10.
DEADLINE: Can you give us any sense of what we’re going to see in Season 2?
LEE: Not yet, but we’re going to bring it. We’re going to represent the culture and bring it. We’re going to bring it.
DEADLINE: One of the things that I loved so much about the first season of She’s Gotta Have It was the tributes and lovingness to the great Prince. Music has always been such a huge part of your career. Is there a different musical theme that we might see in She’s Gotta Have It, Season 2?
LEE: (laughs) It’s really too early, too premature. We haven’t even assembled the writer’s room yet, but I will say that we would do that. Music is one of the pillars of my art. I grew up blessed in a household where my parents, my late mother, Jacquelyn Lee, and my father, they made music and art a priority. They made it a duty to introduce their children to the arts, and not just me. My sisters were all artists too.
DEADLINE: As we see more female artists of color like Issa Rae, Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rhimes and Lena Waithe in positions of creative power, and others from other communities accessing platforms and outlets for their art, do you see the traditional powers truly loosening their grip a bit? Do you think that that’s going to be something that’s going to sustain, or do you worry that that’s something that will be of the moment and then will retract back to its old ways?
LEE: Well, I’m really with the sentiment of the latter part of your sentence. That’s why I never did head stands, cartwheels and somersaults when black people won an Academy award. I’ve seen it too many times where every 10 years, we win some awards, and then the articles the next day tout it as we discovered the black audience, the black actor, and then there’s a drought for the next nine years. I look at stuff more on the long view. You know, I just don’t get too excited.
DEADLINE: What would be a shift that would get you exited?
LEE: Look, I’m happy if anybody wins and gets acknowledged for their work, but I never thought there was a tidal shift because of one or two of us winning an award. I keep saying this, and it may sound redundant to some of the readers, but the only way this thing is going to change for good is when people of color get in those gatekeeping positions. That’s not about winning an award. It’s not about winning an Oscar or Grammy or a Tony or a Golden Globe. The real change is what happens when people of color get in those positions of power, who I call the gatekeepers.
Right now, these positions are mostly controlled by white males, let’s keep it 100. It’s a fact. As Jay-Z would say, fact, super fact. You know, it’s not fakes news, as your president would say. So, I think that the real change will only happen when people of color are making decisions at the green light meetings. Because that’s where the industry decide who does what. That’s when the fundamental changes will happen, and until then, it’s just some shenanigans, skullduggery, subterfuge. Those are my three S’s.
DEADLINE: How do you get around those three S’s?
LEE: Tonya and I shopped She’s Gotta Have in several places, and it’s no coincidence that Netflix did it. That was the only meeting we had where there were black people, particularly black women, Tara Duncan, Layne Eskridge, who were in the room. They understood the culture, they understood who Nola Darling was, and I’m glad they were in the room, or it wouldn’t have gotten made.
DEADLINE: But it makes such clear business sense with your fan base…
LEE: It makes good business sense for your product and your workforce to reflect what this country looks like. But there are people still today that think that these are motherf*cking Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver, President Eisenhower, Elvis Presley days. Those days are gone forever, whether people like it or not.
I know President Trump is trying all the time to roll back the clock, but this country is changing. It is not just Spike Lee saying that. As early as around 2040, white Americans could be in minority in this country. And I don’t think that’s something for that the people should be scared of. It’s what this country’s origin is about, which is the great melting pot.
DEADLINE: You have been here in Park City so many times, you got so much love from people at our Monster panel on Sunday when they heard you were in the room, but what is it like at this point in your career having another film premiering at Sundance?
LEE: It’s great, great. First, I want to give a shout out to my man, Robert Redford. What he’s done is great for independent filmmaking, and I always pay my respects to Mr. Redford and always give him a big hug when I see him. So it’s an honor when I get invited to this great indie institution he started. Secondly, Sundance this year is extra special to me because my wife Tonya Lewis Lee has a film in competition that she produced, Monster, that you mentioned. That makes this one very special to me.