EXCLUSIVE: While 2020 was most everyone’s worst year, you’d be hard pressed to find a filmmaker who got more done than Spike Lee. He’s in the middle of the awards season race with his superb Netflix drama Da 5 Bloods; got raves for the virtual Toronto Film Fest and HBO premieres of American Utopia, based on the live Broadway show by former Talking Heads front man David Byrne; and generated the short films New York, New York and 3 Brothers, the latter of which played on CNN and drew connective tissue between the police custody deaths of George Floyd, Eric Garner and Radio Raheem, latter a fictional character from Lee’s 1989 film Do The Right Thing. Here he reflects on 2021 and the year ahead.
DEADLINE: Aside from the Groundhog Day reality most of us are living as we await Covid vaccine distribution, how are you doing?
SPIKE LEE: Well, we’re living historic moments. I think the world is a safer place now that Agent Orange is out of the White House, and last week, I got my Pfizer vaccine. I did not jump the line, did not cut the line. I’m in the 1B group, and that includes educators. I’m a tenured professor at NYU graduate film school. So, I got my shot. My arm was sore for a day, but I feel fine now, and in less than three weeks, I go back for my second shot.
DEADLINE: Are you back in the classroom?
LEE: Zoom now, but in order for me to go back to the classroom, I got to have my shot. My two shots in the arm.
DEADLINE: Why did you put it on social media?
LEE: When I took my Pfizer vaccine, I put it on my Instagram and the reason I wanted to do that is, there are too many black and brown people that are hesitant to take the vaccine. I understand that, because of the history of medicine and science has used black and brown people. You can go back to the Tuskegee experiments [Blacks were enlisted in a medical study conducted by the CDC and U.S. Health Service to monitor long term effects of syphilis by not telling the subjects they were infected and could eradicate the disease with a penicillin shot], and forced sterilization. This thing, this Corona virus, is not a hoax and not a game and is devastating our Brown and Black communities. It is killing Black and Brown people two and three times more than any other population. So, I was just trying to reach out and encourage people to do their own research – not on social media — and make their own decisions. There is a large, large segment of Black and Brown people who don’t want to take the vaccine, don’t trust it. Hopefully, there will be some who might consider it, seeing me and other people, like Tyler Perry who got the vaccine and made a BET special about it. I think it is very important that people take this vaccine. Another thing that doctors were telling me at NYU is that with these new variants, we all need to start wearing double masks. Double up. This is very important. These new strains, coming out of the UK, South Africa, Brazil, we all need to double up on the masks. Be safe, double up, double up, double up.
DEADLINE: Now that you’ll have your Covid shots, what do you think the odds are that you will go back to the Cannes Film Festival to head the jury, as you were set to do last year before most every other film festival got canceled by the pandemic?
LEE: I’ll be there, I’m going back to head the jury. I was looking forward to it last year, but then, the world changed. I’m just happy that Thierry [Fremaux] is having me back, and we’re going to go in July, God willing.
DEADLINE: Are you confident that the festival decision to move from May to July will be enough time for the herd immunity required for the crowds and flesh pressing that is part of Cannes?
LEE: Well, I hope so. Look, I’m not putting no money down. Just because, you know, it could change on a whim. I’m just hoping for the best, and we’ll see what happens. But I’ll have my shots, and I’ll be good to go.
DEADLINE: You mentioned Agent Orange, referring to former President Donald Trump. What do you make of this impeachment trial that got underway Monday? Beyond an opportunity to replay the jarring video and rekindle the scary memory of insurrectionists storming the Capitol, how much expectation do you have that Trump will be held to task for riling up those protesters, and how important is it he not be able to run for office again, as would happen if he’s impeached by both houses of Congress?
LEE: Well, I am very interested. You know I’m going to watch it, and I’ll be looking at these Republicans who, on January 6th, were scared out of their minds, and now are saying, “Oh, let’s just move on, let’s just move on.” But that’s not going to be the case. And I think justice will prevail. I hope so.
DEADLINE: It does seem like there are reasons to feel better about things than this time last year, or January 6. That includes the realistic expectation we will all be inoculated. What are you most concerned about right now?
LEE: Well, all throughout Agent Orange’s four years, I was always worried about him having the nuclear code. And the last couple days he was in office, I mean, I’m reading about Nancy Pelosi, asking about…because the man’s unstable…I don’t know what they did, whether they changed the code or what, but thank god he wasn’t able to do something with that nuclear code. It was a major concern of mine. And January 6th? I will always call that Insurrection Day. The whole world saw that, the whole world was shaking their heads in disbelief, like how could this happen in the so-called cradle of democracy? But it did, and people died. People died.
DEADLINE: Swinging this back to film. I cannot recall a time over the 30 years writing breaking film deals a larger number of women and people of all colors getting chances behind the camera. I recall the trend stories we would read periodically, when a few Black directors broke through with the sentiment that, finally things had changed and Black filmmakers were going to get a fair shake…
LEE: What’s happened, every 10 years, a couple Black films will get some notoriety and the articles will come after that. We’ve come to a new stage! And then, another 9-year drought.
DEADLINE: You have always been the cautious voice saying that as long as there were no decision makers of color at studios, it would always be just a fad.
LEE: Well, I still feel that way. My term — I call them the people who breathe that lofty air, the people who have a green-light vote — until we get in those positions in numbers, it’s always going to be dicey.
DEADLINE: This wave has been helped by movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo and the ousting of Harvey Weinstein and other abusers in corporate posts. Is it a better world for storytellers of color now than a decade ago?
LEE: Well, look, I just hope that this continues. I’ve seen this before. I hope it’s not a fad because these stories need to be told. So, we’ll see what happens.
DEADLINE: If there was something that you could suggest that might make this more than a fad, what would it be?
LEE: It still goes back to the power brokers. There has to be a total mindset that the films that are made reflect what America looks like. I know it’s cliché, but the term is mosaic diversity. And you don’t have to go broke doing that, either. You can make money. I mean I’ve read about various studies that have said that business, the more diversity they is, the more profits there are. So, if for no other reason than wanting to grab the almighty dollar, let that be your reasoning.
DEADLINE: You are a football fan like I am. We’ve heard about the NFL trying to embrace diversity, and that teams try to hire Black head coaches. And yet all these white assistant coaches have for the past few weeks been named head coaches, while between the Super Bowl teams the Kansas City Chief and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, we had Byron Leftwich, Eric Bienemy, and Todd Bowles unable to throw themselves into these searches because they were diagramming offensive and defensive teams for the two top teams. And now that they’re free, what jobs are left open? Likening it to film, is the lack of inclusion perhaps that people are comfortable working with the same people, or people of the same color they are more comfortable dealing with?
LEE: That’s the American way, isn’t it? That’s just the American way. You know I don’t care what Roger Goodell says, I don’t care how many Black performers they have during the Super Bowl. That’s just smoke and mirrors. [Colin] Kaepernick still can’t get a job. So, it’s all smoke. I remember Goodell said, oh, we were wrong, we were wrong [in castigating Black players who took a knee during the National Anthem]. I remember Agent Orange saying the Black NFL players, the Black ones specifically, and we’re 70 percent of the NFL, saying it was unpatriotic to kneel and called them all f’ing sons of bitches. And the owners…a large part of them were supporting Agent Orange. I watched the Super Bowl, and at times, I thought I be watching the Soul Train Awards.
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
LEE: They were trying to get as many Black people in that thing as they could, singing “America the Beautiful,“ “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And The Weeknd, at halftime, they had a Black guy signing.
DEADLINE: I didn’t realize that, but you’re right.
LEE: I mean they were like, we got to Blacken it up. They even had a Black person signing. But the reality is, great-great potential head coaches cannot get jobs, and a lot of these clubs gave those jobs to assistant coaches who had never been a head coach before. It’s like they’re getting the people off the scrap heap, and it’s just so obvious. And that Rooney Rule, I don’t think that’s working. They’re going to have to make some modifications to it.
DEADLINE: Do we need a Rooney Rule in Hollywood?
LEE: Well, I mean, it’s a whole different thing.
DEADLINE: Sport versus art?
LEE: I just think that it will always be the gatekeepers, I understand what the Academy is doing, but the only way I think it’s going to have fundamental changes is if the gatekeepers who make the films, that group is more diverse. These are people who decide what we’re making, what we’re not making, how much does it cost, who’s directing, who’s writing. They make the decisions. I would love for someone to do a study, at the networks and the streamers and the studios, and let’s see who they are. What color are the people who are the gatekeepers, and have a green-light vote? And I’d be very interested to know that. I mean, it’s nothing to do with you, sir, but I don’t remember reading an article where journalists were asking, studios and networks and streamers, you know, who are you, who are your gatekeepers? Who are the people that have the green-light vote? Let’s be transparent.
DEADLINE: You are in the middle of another awards season with Da 5 Bloods. I was surprised to see the film not reflected in the Golden Globes nominations, or you or Delroy Lindo or Chadwick Boseman. Is it possible a film that melds a political or polemic message into something like the heist genre has a harder road than a straight ahead look at hate and racism like your Best Picture nominated film BlackKklansman?
LEE: I’m not going to agree with that. I don’t know what their thinking was. I didn’t miss a wink of sleep [over it]. My son and daughter will be there, though. They’re ambassadors for the Golden Globes this year.
DEADLINE: After I watched Da 5 Bloods a second time, those Marvin Gaye songs from What’s Going On fit so well. I hadn’t realized that was a concept album reflecting the thoughts of a returning Vietnam vet. Genius choice to infuse your movie with that specificity. How did you fix on that?
LEE: I was in high school, a sophomore at John Dewey High School in Coney Island, public school, sophomore year, and the library had turntables where you could listen to records. They had headphones. I would cut class and listen to the album. Marvin Gaye had an older brother named Frankie, who did three tours [in Vietnam]. Frankie was writing letters back to Marvin. So, that really was the impetus for one of the greatest albums ever, and most recently, Rolling Stone named it the number-one album of all time in the top 500. I wasn’t trying to do a lot of deep thinking about it. I knew the story. I knew the origin, so, it’s just simple. I mean Da Bloods, that’s the album they were going to listen to in Vietnam. That’s the album that Hanoi Hannah would be playing.
DEADLINE: Da 5 Bloods got turned down by studios before Netflix stepped up. Did you get a sense as to what appealed to Netflix that didn’t appeal to those studios?
LEE: Well, here’s the thing, and this is what I tell my students. Sometimes doors be closed on your face, and you just need one door to be cracked open. Netflix was that place, and I thank Ted [Sarandos], Scott [Stuber], and Tendo [Nagenda] for giving me the chance to do it. But when a studio turns me down, I don’t ask for the autopsy.
DEADLINE: How much has the influx of streamers and their appetite for diverse content changed the opportunity for inclusion?
LEE: Streamers have really opened it up for filmmakers because the more places, the more doors you can knock on, the more opportunities that somebody there is going to take a chance on your project. So, I got to give it up to Netflix, Amazon and the others. They’re giving filmmakers more doors to knock on.
DEADLINE: What was the most meaningful moment that came along with winning the Oscar for your BlacKkKlansman script?
LEE: Oh, it’s that iconic picture when I jumped up into the arms of Sam [Jackson], my Morehouse brother. Luckily, he didn’t drop me. That wasn’t planned. It was completely spontaneous, and I must give a shout out to my man, Samuel L. Jackson, that he did not drop me.
DEADLINE: The same actor who turned in one of the most powerful scenes in any of your movies, when his crack addicted character, Gator, had that last confrontation with his father…
LEE: Jungle Fever. He played a crackhead. You know what people forget? Jungle Fever was in Cannes, and the jury made up a special award that didn’t exist to acknowledge Sam’s performance.
DEADLINE: I did the Playboy Interview with Sam years ago, and he noted the irony of playing that crack addict in the first sober performance he gave after quitting crack and cocaine himself, as hard as that is to imagine now. That scene was just devastating and heartbreaking to watch.
LEE: And also, you know, where the great Ossie Davis kills his son Gator, that came from Marvin Gaye Sr. shooting his son, Marvin Gaye Jr. That’s where it came from.
DEADLINE: You’ve mentioned your kinship to Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan…
LEE: Yeah. Those are my guys.
DEADLINE: Why are you so determined to make a movie with Budd, who died in 2009 and wrote that famous Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy Run?
LEE: The movie’s not about Budd. Budd Schulberg and I became very, very good friends, tight, and we co-wrote a script together called Save Us, Joe Louis, which is about the relationship between heavyweight champions Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. Budd Schulberg is in the Boxing Hall of Fame as a writer and he was at both Schmeling-Joe Louis fights in Yankee Stadium. Boxing was his thing; he wrote that novel The Harder They Fall, which was Humphrey Bogart’s last film. So, Budd and I wrote this script, and he would call me every two weeks, [whispering in the soft way Schulberg spoke], ‘Spike, did you get the money yet, Spike?’ He made his transition, left us in his physical form, still hoping that we’d get this film made, and I made a promise to Budd, so, I’m going to get it made. It’s a great, great script: Hitler, FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jack Johnson, Lena Horne, Sugar Ray Robinson, Goebbels … and people don’t realize this, but the second fight, people thought that the winner of that fight would be the victor of World War II.
DEADLINE: I recall reading that Schmeling was uncomfortable being the symbol of Nazi Germany…
LEE: He had no choice. What was he going to do? In fact, the first fight, Hitler and Goebbels didn’t want him to go; no one thought he could beat Joe Louis. But Joe Louis didn’t train. He was hanging out, and Schmeling got him. After the first fight, they sent the Hindenburg to bring [Schmeling] back to Germany. When Joe Louis knocked him out in the first round in the second fight, they didn’t send the Hindenburg. And when he got back, he got drafted, and they made him a paratrooper. They really wanted him to die.
And then, Joe Louis, in the war effort, donated a lot of his purses to the war effort, but the checks are made out to him and not the war effort, so the IRS comes after him, and that was downhill. He had to keep fighting to pay his taxes, ended up working as a greeter in Caesars Palace. After the war, Coca-Cola wanted to go into Germany, post-war, like a lot of American business. So they said, what German can we get to be the President of Coca-Cola? Who do they take? Max Schmeling.
DEADLINE: So he had the more successful post-boxing career?
LEE: Oh yeah. And Joe was a greeter at Caesars Palace. The whole thing flipped. We had the great scene where FDR summoned Joe Louis to the White House, and he said, Joe, come here, let me feel your biceps, and Joe flexed, and he said … now I’m paraphrasing, “This is how we’re going to beat the Nazis.” That is the legendary Budd Schulberg, my guy. We were tight.
DEADLINE: So what’s your next film?
LEE: I’m doing a musical about Viagra. Singing and dancing. It came from an Esquire Magazine article about the two guys that headed special projects. The other guy was a chief medical examiner, and they got picked to bring Viagra to the marketplace. Something a lot of people at Pfizer didn’t want to do. They thought it would be embarrassing, but it was a great, great success. True story.
DEADLINE: Pfizer, the folks who gave you the Covid vaccine. Like what you just said about Marvin Gaye, sometimes it seems like things come full circle.
LEE: Yeah. Well, here’s the thing. The government and the states determine what hospitals, what vaccine they get, so, NYU is Pfizer.