Spike Lee was in typically outspoken form on Monday evening when he delivered BAFTA’s David Lean Lecture in London. The firebrand filmmaker discussed his work — showing clips from movies including Malcolm X and 25th Hour — and the current political climate in the U.S. during a wide-ranging 90-minute session.
Following a clip of his 2000 movie Bamboozled, the feted filmmaker vented frustration at the historic portrayal of minorities on screen, “This movie is about demonization and degradation of black people. That’s what Hollywood does. Imagery is powerful. At the time I made this film, American cinema was around 100 years old, TV was at least 50 years old. This film was about how black folk have been treated. I remember a time when we would gather round the TV when a black person was on TV. The fight has always been about who is going to tell the story. That’s what makes history. Cinema is the people who tell the story. Those people have done a lot of damage. I’ve never been a fan of John Wayne and John Ford and that cowboy bullshit. I hate them: Native Americans depicted as savages and animals…F*** John Wayne and John Ford.”
Lee has taken aim at the legacy of Westerns before. On Monday, his discourse continued on the themes of politics, racial inequality and media bias, “The U.S. was built upon genocide, stealing the land, and stealing Africans from their land to work the land they stole. Black people built America. This guy in the White House, I won’t say his name. Agent Orange. This Kaepernick situation. This whole thing is about lies, about changing the narrative and telling lies. To portray taking a knee as anti-patriotic or militaristic was not the case at all. A narrative was hijacked. Blacks were fighting for this country when they couldn’t even vote and weren’t free. The first man to die in the War of Independence between the U.S. and Britain was a black man. We’ve been dying from the get go and still today we haven’t achieved our rights. We are shot down left and right by cops. Film and TV media have been used to tell lies.”
Discussing the broad political relevance of his latest movie BlacKkKlansman, Lee said, “What you see in the film is global. This rise of the right is something we have to look at. America’s more guilty of this than anybody — of just being focused on — no one else matters. But we have to involve the people, we have to start looking at stuff with a global viewpoint because this stuff is all connected.
“I want audiences to understand that what you see in this film BlacKkKlansman is not just a peculiarity of America, this stuff is global and it’s happening all over,” he continued. “If you study history, what’s happening today is from the same playbook of all fascists — where you blame somebody, whether it be blacks, Jews or ‘those Mexicans’”. Lee’s remarks drew applause from the BAFTA audience.
At his instigation, Lee’s BlacKkKlansman was released 12 months after the Charlottesville race riot. By chance, the film will get its DVD release on the day of the mid-term elections.
On the subject of the upcoming elections, the director added, “At the end of Do The Right Thing, Samuel L Jackson’s character says, ‘get out there and vote’. People have to register to vote…things are shaky right now. We have these gangsters in office who don’t care about the people, they only care about how much money they can make.”
Lee said that meaningful change within the industry could only be achieved when there is more diversity among its gatekeepers, “There are very few people [who look like me] in those rarefied positions, what I call the gatekeepers. These are people who decide what we’re making and what we’re not making. That’s the next battlefield.”
The director finally reiterated his previously stated belief that Denzel Washington was “robbed” when he missed out on the Best Actor Oscar for Malcolm X. The great director reminded the audience of the difficult financing process on that film, which required Lee to go cap in hand to celebrity friends to get it finished.
Previous David Lean Lecture speakers include Robert Altman, Paul Greengrass, David Lynch, Lone Scherfig, Oliver Stone and Peter Weir.