Recently at Cannes, when asked by The Hollywood Reporter if he voted for Hillary Clinton in the general election, Spike Lee replied, cryptically, “Shit don’t work like that.” Okay, so who did he vote for? Read the exchange we had with him below, and speculate for yourselves. One thing that’s not up for speculation, though, is Lee’s deep love for longtime collaborator Roger Guenveur Smith. The two came to Cannes to be honored at a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood, presented by WanderLuxxe, at the American Pavilion (a space where fellow countrymen gather to take a break from the rest of the festival).
Friends for 30 years, they’ve worked on nine projects together, starting with 1988’s School Daze; Guenvear Smith went to an open-call audition for the film after becoming entranced with Lee’s first film, She’s Gotta Have It, about a sexually adventurous young woman in Brooklyn juggling three boyfriends. Most recently, they made the Netflix documentary Rodney King — a bare-bones taping, directed by Lee, of Guenveur Smith’s intense, poetic one-man show about the man whose beating at the hands of the LAPD threw the country into chaos. Released on April 29 to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the civil unrest that broke out in L.A. after the officers who nearly beat King to death were acquitted, the piece is filled with vivid details, like how King had been armed with nothing but a Hostess Apple Pie, or he’d been listening to De La Soul when he’d been pulled over, and features an incredible reinterpretation of King’s “Can we all get along?” speech. Guenveur Smith says he wrote it in a cloud of unexpected grief in 2012 when he found out King had drowned in his own swimming pool. “I felt an extraordinary personal loss and I wanted to know why,” he says. After four years of performing it, he asked his buddy Spike to film it for posterity.
Below, our chat with Spike Lee about his own Rodney King experience, how he voted, and the danger of giving Trump the nuclear football.
What was your personal journey with the Rodney King story? What do you remember about the day it broke in the news in 1991?
It’s very crazy. I was in L.A. the day of the uprising because I was showing Warner Bros. the four-hour cut of Malcolm X to Bob Daly [then–WB chairman] and Terry Semple [then–WB president] and to their credit they both stayed there the whole four hours. To their credit. They could easily have walked out because their assistants were walking in every couple minutes handing them notes. It’s easy to understand that it might’ve felt like the whole city of L.A. was burning. I remember hearing the word “helicopter” and again, it came around when Malcolm X opened with that horrible brutal beating of a human being.
What was the reaction in the room?
They said, “Good job,” and they got the hell out of there!
What did you do?
I was trying to get out, too. [Laughs a lot.] I flew back that night. I was able to get on one of the last flights home. I was supposed to spend the night, but look, again, I didn’t blame them trying to go home with their loved ones and I was trying to get my ass back to New York, too, because I mean, it was crazy.
What made you want to film this Netflix Rodney King piece?
Roger asked me. I’ve seen him do it and we’d done previous work of his one-man shows on [Black Panther co-founder] Huey P. Newton, and we’ve been working together since ’87, when we shot School Daze in Atlanta, Georgia.
Do you consider him a muse?
To be honest, I really try to stay away from labels. But you know, let the work speak for what kind of relationship we have.
Netflix released this to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the L.A. riots …
Well, I used the word “uprising,” but you do you. [Laughs.]
Good to know! How would you categorize where we are with race relations right now in America?
Well, I don’t think Agent Orange has helped any with Jeff Sessions as attorney general. So we’re going backwards. I mean, not just race relations. We’re going back as a country, in my opinion.
What’s it like being here in France, looking at America?
I’ve been outside of the United States since the election, and people ask me, “How did that happened? What’s going on?” So I think it’s safe to say a large part of the world’s population is scratching their head, like, “Is this the United States of America, supposedly the beacon of democracy?”
It’s interesting being an American at parties here — I’m the most fascinating person in the room. I don’t even have to be you.
Oh, yeah. You’re absolutely right. Doesn’t have to be me, Spike Lee. Any American, they’re just going to gravitate towards you because people are going to say, [Grabs my arms and shakes me.] “What is going on?!” And they shake you and corner you: “What is going on?!” You’re put in a position speaking on behalf of the entire population which is hard to do.
I was trying to think of Trump questions to ask you and there’s just so much. Did you see the picture of him holding the orb in Saudi Arabia?
The image I saw, which was painful, was seeing him dance. The way he was dancing, that’s reason for impeachment alone. No rhythm at all. On top of everything else! [Laughs.] Agent Orange can’t dance! He doesn’t have a rhythmic bone in his body.
I don’t even know what he’s doing.
Can you describe how it looked to you?
Ghastly! It was an affront to my African ancestral rhythms. It was just painful. [Laughs even more.]
You said impeachment. Do you think it’ll happen? Some people say don’t impeach him because then Mike Pence would take over.
I saw on CNN this morning where students at Notre Dame walked out on his commencement speech. What’s the order? It’s vice-president, House speaker, so after that it’s what’s-his-name, right?
Oooh, terrible trio! But it’s a sad situation and it’s very serious, too. This is gonna be a test for true democracy in the United States of America
What do you see as your role as a prominent filmmaker?
I think that I’ve learned to pick my times when I speak over the years — I just turned 60 — and not just every single minute be commenting on stuff. No one’s really picked up on this. I’ve been watching MSNBC and Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell do a great job. I still got love for my brother, Anderson Cooper. But when Putin said he had a transcript of Agent Orange and the Russian guy he met when only Russian photographers were allowed in that, no one’s asked the question, how did Putin get the transcript of that meeting? How?! Were they recording sound on those cameras, the photographers?
Everyone’s got a phone.
Yeah, but the secret service aren’t working when the Russians come into the building, or what? That’s how it goes? We call off national security when there are Russian visitors? In the Oval Office? Inquiring minds want to know!
What else do you think we’re not noticing?
There’s always a saying: You follow the money and you follow bodies. And this thing is — I’m very interested in when Comey testifies in public and I hope that documents are released that he took upon his meetings with Agent Orange.
I’ve got to give a shout out to Busta Rhymes. He’s the one who came out with Agent Orange. He said that at the Grammys when he was performing with A Tribe Called Quest. I did not make that up! Shout out to Busta Rhymes, Agent Orange.
Do you also have a nickname for the election?
Rigged? [Laughs.] No, what I think though, is that the true story needs to come out about how the DNC did the okie-doke to Bernie Sanders. That was some straight-up shenanigans.
So that’s where your vote went?
Yeah, if I had the chance. If he wasn’t the Democratic nominee.
Oh, I meant, was that where your vote went during the general election?
You couldn’t vote for him. He wasn’t on the ballot.
People wrote him in.
Look, that was … And again, I’ve said this many times, I’ll repeat it. I’ll refer to Yogi Berra, the great Hall of Fame catcher for the 27-time World Champion New York Yankees. Twenty-seven times, let’s not forget that. “It ain’t over, till it’s over.” And from what I read in the book Shattered — which is a great book I recommend — Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, all those folks, felt that this is her birthright, and despite what I feel about Agent Orange, he outworked her.
If we know anything about sports, until the final whistle goes off or the last out of the ninth inning, you cannot take anything for granted. Look what happened last year at the NBA finals. Golden State up 3-1. No team had ever come back from 3-1 deficit in the history of the NBA, and it happened. And that happened before the election so the Clinton gang — let me use not “gang” — the Clinton people should have learned what happened to Golden State!
And then there was the Super Bowl after the election.
Atlanta Falcons too! 31 to 3 at half time? And let the hated Patriots come back? Let’s not forget, they lost two times in the Super Bowl to the New York football Giants. Don’t hate. All you people in Beantown. And also, the Yankees are coming back, too!
You’re Yankees over Mets, right?
Yeah, we got a good young team now. But we live in a very strange and dangerous time. I always tell the story — I’ve heard this rumor, this myth of the “football” [a briefcase carrying the codes to authorize a nuclear attack if the president is not at the White House]. Do you know what I’m talking about? I saw it. My wife Tonya and I, we gave a benefit for Obama before the election for the first term. And the house was packed, I went outside and there was a vehicle outside and I looked in the window and I saw it. That is not a myth. The football briefcase cannot be more than a 100 feet away from the president. It’s not a myth, it’s not a fairy tale. That shit’s real. And the fact that Agent Orange — there’s two theories. Either he has the real one or they gave him the fake code! [Laughs.] So hopefully, he has the fake one! Because, knowing him, he could just go off on a second. And you wanna have somebody who has some composure, in moments of strife, who’s not going to just overreact and just say, “Fuck it, let me press these buttons.”
Did you see the football was on Instagram? Back when Mar-a-Lago was super insecure, someone took a photo identifying a guy as Rick who carries the football.
I did not know about the Instagram, but people … it is true! And someone pressing the correct code could bring about the end of civilization as we know it.
And as a New Yorker …
I don’t claim him. First of all, he’s from Queens. [Laughs.] But Giuliani is from Brooklyn, so what do we know. [Shrugs.]
Do you feel like you have any insight or extra knowledge about who this guy is? If he has redeeming qualities?
Well, I haven’t seen any. Intriguing time in world history
How’d you feel about the appointment of the FBI special investigator?
I just hope, let’s see. Let the chips fall if they may and let the truth come to the surface. And ironically, you never know what happens. You have people telling Hillary, “Lock her up!” What happens if he’s the one who’s locked up? He’ll remember saying that shit, “Lock her up, lock her up.” It’s funny how these things work, you know?
And finally, I just wanted to hear about your new Netflix series, She’s Gotta Have It.
Well, I directed all ten episodes. Ironically, 30 years ago, it showed here. I won [a young filmmakers prize in the Director’s Fortnight section] and it’s been an honor and a godsend to go back 30 years and do it over. Not a do-over, but give it a new, modern reinterpretation in gentrified Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Brooklyn was not gentrified back in 1986, and that’s one of the themes, gentrification.
How does it feel to be doing it for TV for a streaming service?
I’ve done TV before. I love it. I directed all ten episodes, wrote two —the first and the final episode.
You’ve talked about how hard it is to get funding for the kinds of movies you do, so is making original content for Netflix your new kind of path?
Here’s the thing: My last two endeavors have been with Amazon and Netflix, so for me that’s a great indication that these are things that I could not have done within the setup of studios or TV cable networks.
This interview has been edited and condensed.