'We're in Disarray': An Interview With Spike Lee

The filmmaker discusses Ferguson, getting tenure at NYU, and the eclecticism of his new movie, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus


For virtually his entire career, Spike Lee has attracted almost as much attention for his polemics as his films. “I know I have a reputation,” Lee told then-CNN anchor Piers Morgan in 2012. “But I’m always being put in this position [where] I have to speak on race … on behalf of 45 million African Americans." Perhaps that's because it's impossible to extricate the defining characteristics of a Spike Lee "joint"—movies that are unabashedly bold and combative, with his signature double takes and hip-hop soundtracks—from the filmmaker's 30-year exploration of race relations in America, social justice, and the power of art.

Landing firmly in between MLK’s plea for “nonviolent resistance” and Malcolm X’s push for protesting “by any means necessary,” 1989's Do the Right Thing captured the smoldering bigotry percolating beneath the asphalt in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy. 1992's Malcolm X, which was more partisan in its politics and ambitious in scope, charted the rise and fall of the eponymous human rights activist. And with Terence Blanchard’s elegiac score and the Tribute in Light always in sight and mind, 2002's 25th Hour poetically examined life in New York City post-9/11 through the lens of one man’s final day before being incarcerated.

Almost three decades since his the release of his extraordinary directorial debut, She’s Gotta Have It, time hasn’t dulled Lee or his films. His latest movie, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, is about a fiery romance between Dr. Hess Green (Stephen Tyrone Williams) and Ganja Hightower (Zaraah Abrahams), two lovers who—after discovering an ancient African artifact— suddenly find themselves craving blood. A remake of Bill Gunn’s Blaxploitation film from 1973 (fittingly titled Ganja and Hess), Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is an untethered, unsettling, and singular piece of work from an artist whose curiosity in exploring unfamiliar terrain has yet to recede. Funded on Kickstarter to much controversy, the film was exclusively released a month ago on Vimeo (“It’s a new world,” says Lee) and is currently receiving a limited theatrical run.

During the past week, Lee sat down to discuss the evolution of his career, what he tries to teach emerging filmmakers in his role as the artistic director at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and the limits of the Hollywood studio system. The interview has been slightly edited for clarity and length.

Sam Fragoso: You’re never making the same movie twice, always pushing the boundaries, trying different genres and forms. So where does Da Sweet Blood of Jesus come from?

Spike Lee: There's a lot of different themes. It would be boring to me to keep remaking the same film, and I say that having written a sequel to School Daze—which we haven't been able to get off the ground—and also thinking about revisiting He Got Game, with Ray Allen. But it wouldn't be the same film, even though it would be a sequel. I love interesting stories and those are the type of films I make.

Fragoso: Even if you were to make a sequel, it probably wouldn't be you retreading old material.

Lee: To the best of my abilities, I would try not to do that. But I would just say though, in this climate of the studio Hollywood system—and I'm not talking just as a black filmmaker, I'm saying it as a filmmaker in general—that this is a much harder climate to get the films I made in the past done in today. And I still think there's an audience for it. But the world has changed, and we have the whole phenomenon of tentpole films. Back when I was growing up, a majority of those films were released between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Now it's 12 months a year, 24/7. I'm not saying those films shouldn't be made also. I just wish there was a little bit more balance. But the reality is, until audiences stop spending billions of dollars on these films, they're going to continue making them. What is Fast & Furious up to? Eight?

Fragoso: They keep changing the titles—some don't even have numbers.

Lee: Yeah but the people who go to those films, they know what number. And look, those films are making a ton and they're going to continue to make them. That's basically the mindset, in my opinion, of the people on the green-light boat who determine what films get made and what films don't get made.

Fragoso: You've said in the past that Kickstarter is the logical next step, the natural place for innovative, independent artists like yourself who are making movies that studios are afraid to touch. And you've been "kickstarting" in some sense since She's Gotta Have It.

Lee: It's very simple. Kickstarter is not necessarily new. What makes it new is the technology. I was using the principles of Kickstarter when I raised $175,000 for my first film way back in 1985. The principles are the same.

Fragoso: So the future for independent artists is crowd-sourcing and tapping into that fan base?

Lee: Yeah, but you can't live your life on Kickstarter. I know I can't. It'll give you a pass one time. But I'll work within the Hollywood system. It just depends upon the budget. I'm not crazy. I knew going in that there's no way any studio would do this film. I never even sent it out. It was always conceived as a Kickstarter project. So the goal was to raise the money in the time allotted, and we did it. But not getting the necessary funds for a project has happened before. Not just to me. There's a lot of great stuff out there that has yet to receive financing and the green light. That's just the nature of the beast in dealing with the Hollywood system. And also, if you have a script that's ambitious, even with Kickstarter you're not going to raise $10 million. That's not going to happen.

Fragoso: What distinguishes a Spike Lee "joint"?

Lee: Well, I mean it's hard for me to describe. I think it's just really all the ingredients that I put into my film. Whatever film it is, whatever subject matter is. Whether it's a documentary or a narrative film. The connective tissue is that it's coming through me, but all the stories I feel are different. They're connected but they're different. Fingers on a hand. Toes on a foot.

Fragoso: You have many fingers, apparently.

Lee: I'm going to try to work for as long as Akira Kurosawa did. My hero. He was working through his early 80s. I'm 57. So I got a lot more stories, a lot more films, a lot more documentaries. A lot more work.

Fragoso: In all your stories there are various political undertones, sometimes more than undertones. Do the Right Thing essentially predicted the LA riots, Malcolm X is, well, Malcolm X, and 25th Hour was the first—and probably the best—film to capture life in New York after 9/11.

Lee: Let's talk about it. We had the crystal ball on the LA riots. We had the crystal ball on global warming. We had the crystal ball on gentrification. We can blame the gentrification era on John Savage's character in Do the Right Thing, wearing that green Larry Bird Celtics t-shirt. Stepping on Buggin' Out's pristine Air Jordans.

Fragoso: When watching and experiencing something like Ferguson or the Eric Garner tragedy, do you feel compelled to explore those subjects on film?

Lee: I would like to do something that captures the state of America today, where we are as a country. That'd be great.

Fragoso: Where do you think we are?

Lee: We're in disarray.

Fragoso: Have we always been?

Lee: Yeah, but, you know, a lot of times it's right underneath the surface and then something jumps off and everything just bursts out.

Fragoso: Many Americans appeared surprised by racism this time. As if everything was better.

Lee: I know, it was crazy that some people thought that when President Obama, the first time, put his right hand on Abraham Lincoln's bible, that hocus pocus abracadabra: racism just went "poof." I wasn't drinking that Kool-Aid the minute I heard it. People were swept up in the euphoria of an African-American president.

Fragoso: And now?

Lee: And now we're back in reality.

Fragoso: Do the Right Thing opens with Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power." Jump ahead 26 years to Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and you have a man in a fedora break dancing.

Lee: My man is Lil Buck! Great, great dancer from Memphis, Tennessee. They call that "juckin." And what you hear on the music is the great Bruce Hornsby on the piano. I really pay attention to opening credit sequences. I think it's the way to get the audience's mind attuned to what's going to follow for the next two hours or so. It's much more than something you have to do because of a contract. You can make it interesting and creative.

Fragoso: Right, and I linked the two opening dance sequences because there’s a different tone 26 years later. Perez is far more aggressive than Lil Buck. And people, quite unfairly, have called you "angry" in the past.

Lee: Well here's the thing: there's this phenomenon where an African American speaks out their anger. The New York Times recently did a lengthy profile on Shonda Rhimes and black women went berserk. And that's the first time I remember the NYT apologizing for a story. Those sisters were about to burn the Times' building down! They went off because they got offended, "Why is Shonda Rhimes angry?" So that's a label. That's not new. That's some old trickery and slickery to devalue whatever somebody is saying. You just obliterate it by saying, "Oh, they're angry." And then, when you think about it, if anybody is entitled to be angry it's African Americans! We could be a lot angrier!

Fragoso: I mention the difference in music and tone, really, because I'm curious as to how much has changed for you in 26 years? Have you a softened a little with age?

Lee: I'm married. Two kids. My daughter is in film school, an undergrad sophomore at NYU. My son’s a senior in high school. So a lot has changed … If you get angry about everything you're going to give yourself cancer. So you just gotta pick and choose. And to be honest, you can't let anger rule your life. It's just not productive. Well I can't speak for everybody, but it's not productive for me.

Fragoso: So how do you pick and choose?

Lee: Depends what we're talking about. I was very angry about the outcome of the grand jury in Ferguson and Staten Island, that's for sure. Trayvon Martin too, if we're going down the list. There's a long list. But like I said before, I can't let anger rule my life. It's not good for anybody.

Fragoso: But there’s a feeling that your work, especially in the early years, was very much fueled by that anger, that frustration.

Lee: And I think that's there in the later works. It's just more subtle. Not necessarily Mookie throwing a garbage can through Sal's Famous Pizzeria.

Fragoso: In the past you've discussed the "feast-to-famine" trend when it comes to African-American artists in Hollywood. Do you have any hope things will reduce that gap, that disparity?

Lee: My hope will be fueled when African-American members have green-light votes in the studio system. I'm talking about the Hollywood studio system, and it will start when people really start doing what they say. They say they believe in diversity, but the numbers say otherwise.

Fragoso: You mentioned your daughter is a film student at NYU, a school you've been teaching at for 15 years now. In your time there has your advice to burgeoning filmmakers changed?

Lee: Yeah, 15 years now. I just received tenure this summer. I'm also the artistic director of the Tisch School of Arts. But no, it has never changed. I always talk about how you gotta work hard, don't expect this thing to happen over night, and you gotta bust your ass to make this happen. To make it happen.

Fragoso: But the industry has changed.

Lee: You're right the industry has changed, but what I said hasn’t changed. That's still the formula. There's no magic bullet. But if you work hard that's never going to hurt what you're trying to achieve. I'm just trying to let them know the way it is, because they're still in school and I'm still out here dealing.