Thirty-one years ago, an ambitious New York University film student named Spike Lee became an instant cinema force with his debut feature She’s Gotta Have It, about a sexually independent woman who takes three lovers and resists pressure to narrow it down to just one. Lee, who turned 60 this year, has directed 44 features, documentaries, and TV movies, and is probably one of the most influential living American filmmakers, as well as one of the most outspoken and controversial.
We talked to Lee his about his new Netflix adaptation of his debut feature, out Thursday, which puts Nola Darling at the center of an ongoing story set in a black middle-class Brooklyn that’s becoming increasingly gentrified. He also talked about his past feuds with other journalists and filmmakers, the lasting impact of his early work, the changing economics of the film industry, and the opportunities that television offers to filmmakers of color.
You have done some TV in the past.
But never a series.
Why a series, and why now?
Well, when you do a pilot, you hope it’s a series. I did a pilot called Mayor of New York that didn’t get picked up by HBO, and a pilot called Brick that also didn’t get picked up, by John Ridley. Just didn’t happen. I don’t watch TV, I just watch sports, but my wife, Tanya, watches a lot of TV. She’s the one who said, “You should try to make She’s Gotta Have It as a TV show.” She had the vision. Wasn’t me at all.
You’re a screenwriter. Why didn’t you write the show yourself?
Well, it’s very simple: I didn’t have the time to write ten episodes. Also, there was no need for me to write ten episodes because this was a story that didn’t need to be told entirely through a male gaze. I’ve been accused of telling things through a male gaze, and I didn’t want to give people any more ammunition. Plus, why wouldn’t I want Lynn Nottage to write scripts? She’s won two Pulitzer Prizes, for Ruined and Sweat. Why wouldn’t I want Eisa Davis, Radha Blank, even my sister Joie wrote a script? My wife had input on the scripts, my daughter was in the writers room too. We welcomed the input of women for this. There was no resistance, no nothing. I welcomed having black women in the room with myself, Barry Michael Cooper, and Lemon Andersen — and also my brother Cinqué!
The entire Lee dynasty is involved in this!
I brought my father’s score back too, and my brother’s black-and-white photographs that he took for She’s Gotta Have It of pre-gentrified, 1985 Brooklyn. And there are color ones, now!
In the conclusion of She’s Gotta Have It, the supposedly “nice” lover of the heroine, Nola Darling, rapes her. It was controversial in its day, and you got a lot of criticism for it over the years. Can you talk about that a bit?
I wouldn’t say flak, because I’ve been the first one to say, when people say, “Spike, you’ve been doing films for X amount of years, but if there’s one thing you can take back?” I say, “The rape scene [in She’s Gotta Have It].” That’s not like any headline news. I’ve been saying that for 25 years.
You have an incident that occupies the same place in the narrative as the rape scene at the end of the film version, but it’s an incident of sexual assault against Nola, which leads into the plot of the next several episodes. And there’s a whole arc that comes out of that. Whose idea was that?
Mine. I wrote episode one. It’s the way the rape was treated back in the film. That’s not to say rape doesn’t happen today, just look at the headlines! That was not anything profound, to have an attractive black woman be sexually assaulted on a NYC street. That’s not a headline, you know?
What’s the process of writing this show?
Barry Michael Cooper and I went to my home in Martha’s Vineyard for a couple of weekends and wrote a bible [Editor’s note: a story and style guide for the series] that we then presented to everybody. And we went from there. The bible’s like a launching pad. It wasn’t written in stone. And it’s me and him, we’re men, and then a lot of women came in and tore it apart! [Laughs.]
“What the hell is this shit?”
I’m exaggerating, but I’m not gonna lie, there was that dynamic in the writers room! There were some very interesting discussions among the writers sometimes that were split by gender. It was both a push and pull, a give-and-take. There were certain issues where the men were on one side and the women on another!
Can you give me an example?
Just in terms of tone.
What about the sexual-harassment montage? That is not how I would’ve described it in 1986, when it was a montage of guys trying out their come-ons and catcalling Nola, but that’s the phrase you’d probably have to use now.
Oh, in this one?
Yeah, the version of that montage that’s in the TV show. I saw it differently than I did 31 years ago.
I was laughing at it!
You didn’t laugh this time?
No, because of all the all stuff that’s been in the news with Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Donald Trump, and so on.
Yeah, well, 1986 was a long time ago. But the point is still the same for me when I wrote in ’85 and when I wrote it a year ago. It’s like, “Yo, you’re my brother. Your rap game is wack!” [Laughs.] It’s like, “Do you actually think a woman’s going to fall for this shit you’re saying?” But ironically, sometimes it might work because they keep saying it! [Laughs.]
I guess it’s like guys who decide they’re just gonna stay at the blackjack table until they hit.
Something, I gather! Or, you know, what’s that term, “A broken clock …”
Is right twice a day?
There you go! That’s it! [Laughs.] I felt like, as a woman, how would you react to that nonsense? It’s like, “Are you serious? Do you really think that’s going to make me attracted to you at all?” What’s different in this show is, now we have women trying to pick up Nola too! That’s new!
Let’s talk a little bit about what I want to call the Extended Spike-O-Verse represented in this show. You’ve obviously got She’s Gotta Have It right there: characters, situations, and a setting. But there’s also a little bit of Do the Right Thing with the stuff about stoop culture and the musical shout-out, where you say the names of musicians and celebrities, including Spike Lee …
All people from Brooklyn.
Exactly. It’s a lot like the “We Love” radio scene in Do the Right Thing where Samuel L. Jackson’s DJ is saying the names of great black musicians.
You know why that is? Because that’s the same music we’re using in the show, my father’s score from the movie. The Samuel L. Jackson shout-out — that was my father’s score from Do the Right Thing, so we took that piece of music as a shout-out to the people of Brooklyn. It’s in there, I’m not denying that, that’s for sure.
But you know, this is not the first time I’ve done something like that. I’ll give you an example: You may not notice, but in Jungle Fever, we see Buggin’ Out from Do the Right Thing, and he’s a homeless person! In that same movie, the two NYC cops who murdered Radio Raheem appear and almost arrest Wesley Snipes when he’s playfully joking around with his girlfriend. Those are the same cops! And another example: In Inside Man, when Clive Owen says, “Can we order pizza?” the pizza box says “Sal’s Famous Pizzeria.” And another thing for you: We found the actor who delivered the pizza in Dog Day Afternoon!
That’s the guy?
The pizza guy from Dog Day who says, “I’m a fucking star!” I had no idea that’s the same guy! I love that guy!
Yeah! He delivered the pizza in Inside Man too. He delivered pizza to two hostage situations in two banks!
That’s obviously a really important film for you, Dog Day Afternoon.
Oh, yeah. Sidney Lumet was no joke. We screened, for the actors and the crew, Dog Day, before we did Inside Man. That was our homage. Sidney was da man. I do love Sidney, and he supported me, too. God bless Sidney.
How is it different now revisiting this story now, over 30 years after you told it in your first feature?
What people forget is that the film is only 86 minutes, made for only $175,000, shot in 12 days from July 1 to July 14 in the hot summer of 1985. That’s two six-day weeks. For this, we had millions of dollars, a 63-day shoot, and ten episodes. There were things we couldn’t do then that we can do now.
For example, Nola talks about being an artist in the film but we never see her art. Here, we see Nola making art.
We’ve talked about how the production is different, but how is NYC different?
Gentrification. It’s not just local, it’s global. Back in the days, when I went to London, I’d hang out in Brixton. That shit’s been gentrified now. That’s one of the main issues we wanted to deal with. There was no mention of gentrification in 1986, but in Do the Right Thing, it’s like I had a crystal ball in that film. I talk about gentrification and about global warming!
That’s right — the three guys sitting in their chairs on the street corner, and one of them talks about how the polar ice caps are gonna melt.
Yeah, I wrote that in ’88! And I wrote about gentrification in Do the Right Thing, too, in the famous scene when John Savage is wearing the Larry Bird jersey and steps on Buggin’ Out’s “pristine…” sneakers.
Savage’s white yuppie telling him, “I happen to own this brownstone!”
So 1988 was when I became aware of gentrification. There’s pros and cons to gentrification, but I just think that you can’t come in and try to change the culture and the names of streets and neighborhoods, that type of stuff, it’s a problem. We deal with that, I think, quite effectively in this show.
You live in Manhattan now. But you’ve kept roots in Brooklyn pretty much continuously.
Yeah, I work in Fort Greene, where we shot the movie and where we shot this show. Here’s the thing: Brooklyn’s always going to be in you. Jay-Z and Beyoncé, they moved to L.A. They got a lot of homes. But no one’s ever going to be able to say Jay-Z’s not Brooklyn because he’s not in the Marcy Projects, you know? The goal is to get out of the projects! Who wants to stay? The goal is to get out, and he’s done it. I mean, let me reframe it: The goal should be to get out of the projects.
How do you feel about the film business right now as an auteur, as the French would say? I mean the theatrical end of it.
Well, thank god for Netflix! [Laughs.] I mean, I don’t think it’s a wild statement to say that most interesting stuff is being done for Netflix, Amazon, and cable. The studios got more rigid in their appetites, and they keep serving audiences the same meal again and again and again and again and again, so after a while, people who want more are gonna go elsewhere for nourishment. They can get that on Netflix and all these other places.
Netflix has changed the game. Scorsese’s got The Irishman shooting now for them, with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, everybody. And they’re seeking filmmakers, too! So I was very happy with my experience with them, and hopefully, god willing, we’ll get to see a second season or more.
Do you think TV has made a difference for black filmmakers in terms of expression?
In expression and work, yeah. By doing work, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to grow and work on your craft. It’s hard to work on your craft when you’re not doing your craft.
The direction of this is very relaxed, loose, playful. You’ve got the story, you’re telling the story, but you’ve also got these interludes, and you have text, like, you’ll cut to an album cover, you have still photographs mixed in, it’s almost like a multimedia experience. What itch does this scratch? Where does this come from? Do you even know?
I’m just doing my thing! I’m glad you brought that up. That was a very important thing I wanted to do, because music is a big part of my thing, and I love musicians. I think musicians are the greatest artists. In my pantheon, musicians are at the very top.
For the music for this, I have my father’s original score, a new score by Bruce Hornsby, songs by established artists, and songs by unsigned artists. On my Instagram, I put out a thing saying, “Unsigned artists, submit us your songs.” Over 6,500 people submitted songs, and I listened to every one — not all the way through! — but there’s 40 songs in this ten-part series from unsigned artists.
There’s a touch of the impresario to you, like, the way you integrate the work of other artists into your own work. You throw a little spotlight on it.
That’s the first time anyone’s ever said that to me, and it’s true. I’m a student, but I’m also a tenured professor in graduate film school. I’ve been teaching for 15 to 20 years, and on the first day, first semester, new year, I have a list of what I feel is essential cinema, and my students ain’t heard of these films!
Ace in the Hole is one, On the Waterfront is another. I can go down the line and it’s astounding. I’m like, “Where do you think ‘love’ and ‘hate’ on Radio Raheem’s knuckles in Do the Right Thing came from?” “You made it up?” “I didn’t make it up! It’s Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter.” Yeah, I like to give shout-outs. Let’s give a shout-out to Frank Sinatra! Let’s do a thing on the show where we’re talking about African-American artists, and they name three names, and we cut to their art! Come on now!
In a lot of your movies, you have documentary-like situations or scenes that feel like they were ripped from the headlines, and you shoot in real locations, but you light them so they look like a theatrical set. And a lot of times there’s very dramatic music, and the camera angles often make it feel like you’re sitting in the front row of a theater. So it all becomes, literally, street theater.
It’s heightened reality, yeah.
Where the hell does this come from?
I don’t know! [Laughs.] That’s a very good question. I know I should give a really good answer, but for now I can just say that I just don’t want to do what everybody else is doing. Why do something the same way it’s been done hundreds of millions of times? What’s the point? Plus, that also means that I don’t see the world like everybody else. I’m not saying that’s bad or good, I’m just saying that. Them’s the facts. So my work is going to be an embodiment of how I see the world.
I ask because I wonder if it’s that tension between theatrical and documentary elements that has apparently made it hard for some to interpret your work.
Too bad! [Laughs.] “There’s no drugs in Do the Right Thing! Where are the drugs?” People asked that.
Here’s the thing, though: I wouldn’t be here today if I let that stuff stop me. There are painful things — number one, Jungle Fever, and this is a true story. My lawyer was Arthur Klein, a great, honest lawyer. He was Al Pacino’s lawyer, the lawyer for a whole bunch of people. When that shit came out that I was anti-Semitic because of Mo and Josh Flatbush in Mo Better Blues, played by John and Nick Turturro, my lawyer said, “Spike, come to my office. I’m telling you this not as a lawyer but as a friend: If you don’t write an op-ed in the New York Times saying that you’re not anti-Semitic, you’re not going to work again.”
What are some other times you had to put out fires like that?
The big one was Do the Right Thing. Those pieces by David Denby, Joe Klein, that said the movie was gonna cause violence — have you seen the new thing that came out? The new New York Magazine 50th anniversary book [Highbrow, Lowbrow, Brilliant, Despicable: Fifty Years of New York].
Uh, yeah, man!
Well, they reprinted my article in there. I forgot I wrote it! I was reading this and I said, “Man, this is good! Did I write this?” But again, remember, that was 1989, and people might say, “Spike, give it up, it was a long time ago.” But some dangerous accusations were made by those journalists, saying that my film I wrote, acted, produced, and directed, would cause major riots across the USA; that black people would run amok because of this film; that this was why David Dinkins wouldn’t become the first black mayor of New York. Outrageous charges! And to this day, Denby and Klein have never, ever been man enough to man up and say, “All right, I fucked up.”
You also had words with Clint Eastwood in 2008. “A guy like him should shut his face,” he said.
Tonight I’m introducing Miracle at St. Anna at BAM, and that’s the movie that started the whole thing, because Clint Eastwood did the two films back-to-back about Iwo Jima, and there were black marines who were part of that story.
My complaint wasn’t just about Clint, it was about the total exclusion of black people in movies about the various wars that have been fought in this country. These are stories that for the most part have not been seen. The first person to die in the struggle to break this country away from England was a black man, Crispus Attucks. This is fact. Then you watch films about wars, and we’re not in them. I mean, you’ve got a couple of them in the Vietnam films, but in World War II, World War I, Spanish-American War, no. You have Glory, of course, but a lot of the time we’re written out of history. But anything Clint Eastwood said, anything he ever said — it was really, you gotta take a second look at it after the thing he did with the chair! [Laughs.] I can’t believe he said that shit!
What were you thinking as you were watching that on TV?
To me it was sad. I felt sad for him because it was like, “You’re my brother, what are you doing?” He’s on the wrong side of history with that one. What he did at that convention, he was on the wrong side of history.
You got criticized throughout your career for being, I guess, too much of a personality apart from your films. The kinds of conversations we have right here, I enjoy, but there are a lot of people who say, “Spike Lee should let his work speak for itself. Why is he speaking about politics, acting in his own movies, why does he have an ad agency and a store?”
Yeah. That’s the same plantation mentality that slave owners had. “Go up and down the field! Shut up and play football!” We’re like, “Hell no, we’re not doing that. We’re more than football players, and we’re going to use our platforms!” That’s what it’s come to. These guys ain’t playing.
They’re about to kick me out here. Can I ask three quick questions that I’ve always wanted to know the answer to?
Yeah, go ahead!
First, can you explain the ending of He Got Game?
Yes. By Jake throwing the metaphorical basketball, the metaphorical Spalding basketball from Attica to his son, he’s released him, saying, “Forget about me. I love you. Live your life.” You’re not the only one who’s asked that question! [Laughs.]
I thought it was a beautiful but baffling image. It made me wonder, “What did he try to tell me here?”
That film is a story about a broken father-son relationship.
Which leads me to my second question — how come your dad didn’t score more of your movies?
He did She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Mo Better Blues. It’s really about technology. When you score a film, I’d say to my father, “This is a scene that’s two minutes and 20 seconds.” But he doesn’t write like that. He just wrote it for … forever! [Laughs.] I’m listening to his stuff and thinking, “How am I supposed to [use] this?”
You know there’s been speculation that you two had a falling out or something.
No, no! Ernest Dickinson shot all my films at film school and all my films up to Malcolm X, and Ruth Carter did a lot of my costumes. I work with a lot of the same people over and over. It was a different thing with me my father. I remember one time, he had to write an arrangement [based on an existing song], and he was listening to it on a cassette player, but the cassette player wasn’t running at a real speed, so when we transcribed the music, it didn’t line up because something was wrong with the batteries! That was painful.
All right, last question: What’s up with your people mover shot, where it seems like people are kind of floating along?
Oh, my signature shot? That’s just a new way for people to move! It’s really become my Alfred Hitchcock cameo. I did not invent that shot, but Ernest and I did it on the set of Mo Better Blues, when Shorty had to walk [through the park], and I thought, “Let’s try it.” But after that, we tried to have a reason for it. For example, that wonderful sequence in Malcolm X where you hear the great song, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” The final scene is like that, Malcolm floating along to his destiny. In 25th Hour, after Philip Seymour Hoffman has kissed Anna Paquin, we did a shot like that, and it shows his state of mind. In Inside Man, after Denzel thinks he’s witnessed the murder of a hostage, we did the floating shot there.
So you just like the way it looks?
This interview has been edited and condensed.