At 9 a.m. on Saturday, March 11, Spike Lee sat behind a desk piled high with the daily papers in a Regency Hotel suite, dressed in a black blazer embossed with a white Yankees emblem, black pants and round thick-rimmed tortoiseshell glasses. He was there to talk about his new thriller, the Clive Owen–Denzel Washington bank-heist flick Inside Man.
Instead, he was talking about When the Levees Broke, his forthcoming documentary about Hurricane Katrina, and Condoleezza Rice. He was cracking up, giggling and cackling—in fact, caggling. Mr. Lee recalled the story of a shopper who approached Ms. Rice at the pricey Ferragamo shoe store on Fifth Avenue during Katrina and reportedly shouted “How dare you shop for shoes while thousands are dying and homeless!” before Secret Service physically removed her. Mr. Lee picked up The Observer’s tape recorder and held it close in front of his face. “To the lady that got in Ms. Rice’s face in the store before you got pulled off by Secret Service,” he said. “If you read this article, please contact The New York Observer because we’re trying to find you for the documentary we’re doing on Hurricane Katrina.” Caggle, caggle. “ IF you are still alive, that is. “Also, to the person that said ‘Go fuck yourself, Mr. Cheney.’ If you are still alive, we’d like to contact you too. If you are still on our planet”— caggle—“if you are still walking amongst us, if you get this down in Guantánamo with the other jailed peace activists and suspected Al Qaeda agents who have been jailed for five years and not charged with anything, please get a message to me! We want to know what prompted you to tell Mr. Cheney to go fuck himself! Thank you.” He paused to catch his breath. “Seriously, we’d like to find that woman.”
It’s no wonder. Mr. Lee has strong feelings about this administration, but especially Ms. Rice’s prospects as a 2008 Presidential candidate. “African-Americans will have to really, really, really, really, really, REALLY analyze the Secretary of State’s record, and get past the pigmentation of her skin,” he said. “If we do that, I don’t think we can vote for her. I’m not the spokesperson for 45 million African Americans … but that’s my right as an American citizen.” He laughed. “Hopefully, that right hasn’t been rescinded yet. I’m not going to vote for that woman. No. Way.”
IT’S SOMETIMES HARD TO REMEMBER SPIKE LEE is a funny man. The filmmaker, who turns 49 a few days before Inside Man, his 18th feature film, is released on March 24, has endured and enjoyed a long, bad marriage with the press, the tipping point a 1992 Esquire headline “Spike Lee Hates Your White Cracker Ass.” And while occasionally his films did little to reassure white people that he didn’t, in fact, hate their cracker asses, press like the Esquire article made Mr. Lee throw his hands up. “That was the most damaging thing ever,” he said. “It wasn’t anything I had said in the article, nor was it something I meant, so that was the worst …. But what can I do? What can I do about that?”
This time around, for the marketing of Inside Man, Mr. Lee is nowhere to be found on the giant posters that have appeared citywide. And it doesn’t seem like a Spike Lee Joint—at first. The film’s P.R. has been focused on the hefty star power of Mr. Washington, Mr. Owen and Jodie Foster. It’s about a perfect and elaborately planned bank robbery with some Nazi blood money thrown in for good measure.
But it’s also about New York. On that count, Mr. Lee’s fingerprints are visible everywhere: blue skies over the Manhattan skyline, Denzel’s tough/soft cop’s quick-witted quips about life in the city, funny and uncomfortable jokes about post-911 racial profiling. Unlike fellow New York writer/director and rabid Knicks fan Woody Allen, Mr. Lee hasn’t yet totally decamped for a foreign city. Instead, as in 25th Hour, Mr. Lee manages to hit on exactly what it’s like to live here since Sept. 11, without the heavy-handedness of the sort of terrorism porn-shlock coming out this year. Even the music feels right.
He’s been getting New York right for 20 years now. In 1986, Mr. Lee made She’s Gotta Have It for $175,000. It went on to make $8 million. Three years later, Do the Right Thing was out with Oscar nominations for Mr. Lee’s screenplay as well as an acting nod to Danny Aiello (who curiously declined the invitation to talk about Mr. Lee). He lent his skills to commercial shoots and music videos and established his own production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, on Dekalb Avenue. He’s been prolific, like Mr. Allen: Mo’ Better Blues in 1990, Jungle Fever in ’91, Malcolm X in ’92, Crooklyn in ’94, Clockers in ’95. In 1996 he released both Get on the Bus and Girl Six.
But then he switched directions in 1997 with the Oscar nominated 4 Little Girls, a painful look back at the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama church bombing. Eschewing traditional voice-over narration, Mr. Lee let the people who lived it tell their stories themselves. “Spike’s devoted to giving a voice to people who can’t speak for themselves,” said Sheila Nevins, president of HBO’s documentary division who produced 4 Little Girls and the upcoming Katrina film. “Gordon Parks said, ‘Never forget that the person in front of the camera is more important than the one sitting behind it’. When Spike does a documentary, he’s brilliant at having the person in front take over. He’s a zealot for getting it right.”
4 Little Girls was one of his most critically acclaimed achievements. But the critics have had other things to say about his films, too. David Denby, then at New York magazine, wrote of Do the Right Thing’s angry mob scene: “Lee appears to be endorsing the outcome, and if some audiences go wild, he’s partly responsible.” The New York Times reported that Mr. Lee’s portrayal of Jewish club owners in Mo’ Better Blues prompted the Anti-Defamation League to express its disappointment that he had “employed the same kind of tactics that he supposedly deplored.” In 1992, Mr. Lee requested that only black journalists interview him while promoting Malcolm X, and the public was outraged.
“In the beginning, I think people didn’t understand that this guy is in a new situation and he’s trying to do all these things,” said actor and longtime friend John Turturro, who has appeared in eight different Spike Lee films (“He pays me in Knicks tickets,” he joked). “The dialogue could have been a lot less … incendiary. Sometimes people really came out there swinging, and he was swinging back. He was younger. That’s what you do when you are younger.”
“I think sometimes Spike is not always the best advocate for his own work,” said Edward Norton, who starred in Mr. Lee’s 2002 film 25th Hour. (“One of my best experiences,” Mr. Norton said. “I can’t say enough good things about him.”) “Spike’s righteous indignation in public as a person leads people to believe that he’s a dogmatic person in some way. But the truth is, if you really look at his work, you see the soft heart at the center of the guy. His work is very compassionate. Spike, like very few contemporary American filmmakers, really consistently challenges audiences,” Mr. Norton continued. “He’s always making you do the work. And he engages you in this ride through the moral crisis of modern urban life, but then refuses to just button it up for you in some pat way in the end.”
Shelton Lee was born in Atlanta, Ga., to a jazz musician father (who provided the music for Mo’ Better Blues) and schoolteacher mother who called him “Spike” for his tough attitude, before moving to Brooklyn for most of his childhood. He matriculated at Morehouse College in Atlanta but returned to New York City to attend N.Y.U.’s Tisch School graduate program. His 45-minute film Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads won a student academy award (a fellow student by the name of Ang Lee worked as the first assistant director). Over the years, Mr. Lee has ridden the waves of gentrification in New York, watching neighborhoods change colors overnight. “Manhattan is too expensive, so people move to the East Village,” he said. “The East Village is too expensive? They move to Williamsburg. Now people are getting priced out of Williamsburg! New York City is not New York City if only millionaires can live here.” Mr. Lee has spent the years moving in the opposite direction.
“I grew up in Brooklyn—first in Crown Heights and then we moved to Cobble Hill,” Mr. Lee said. “My late mother had the vision to say, ‘We should buy a home.’ We were one of the first people to buy a brownstone in Fort Greene—this was when the getting was good,” he said. “Back then, Atlantic Avenue divided Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights like opposite sides of the train tracks. Now when you see young white professionals walking down Myrtle Avenue,” he cracked up, “there are white linen tables on the sidewalk! I never would have thunk it.” Now Mr. Lee— who would have thunk it?—resides on the Upper East Side.
Everyone in Fort Greene knew where the Lees—his wife Tonya Lewis, and children Satchel, 11, and Jackson, 8—lived, and when some developed a habit of ringing the bell, the family decided it would be a wise decision to move. They started off in Soho but then, surprising many, moved to the Upper East Side in 2002. “I never ever, ever thought in a million years that I’d live on the Upper East Side,” Mr. Lee admitted. “But here I am and I’m enjoying it.”
The family took over the house where famed turn-of-the-century stripper Gypsy Rose Lee once lived (a home rumored to have been bought for her by lover Otto Preminger) from famed American-flag painter Jasper Johns. “Jasper Johns? He didn’t leave a drop of paint. Not a drop,” said Mr. Lee. “Not a paintbrush, not a drop of paint, nothing. But he did leave a VHS tape of the This Is Your Life show that had Gypsy Rose Lee on it. The show was filmed in the house. “Early on, my son said he used to see Gypsy Rose. My wife, she was like, ‘Oh, you don’t see anything,’” he went on, still laughing. “But I believed him.”
STILL, THESE DAYS, MR. LEE IS PREOCCUPIED with another town. He was at the Venice Film Festival, glued to CNN, when Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans. He said he knew right away that it was a story he wanted to tell; the forthcoming HBO documentary is slated to premiere in late August. “I don’t think the last eight years have been a good moment in our history, under this President and administration,” he said. “There are people down there six months later who are still in despair. They still don’t have a home. They’re still waiting for FEMA.” He paused. “That should be a play— Waiting for FEMA! Down there, FEMA is a dirty word.
“Before Katrina, New Orleans was 80 percent African-American,” he continued. “What’s it going to be like when the majority of its black citizens have spread out—given one-way tickets, I might add. Can you imagine? Those people got on those planes, when they were being evacuated and they weren’t told where they were going. So you get on a plane and fall asleep—and your black ass is waking up in motherfucking Anchorage, Alaska!”
Last October, he tussled with Tucker Carlson (“the guy in the bow tie”) on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher when Mr. Lee said he’d be including in his documentary the conspiracy theory that it was the U.S. government who bombed the levees.
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “Even today, a large part of the African-American community of New Orleans thinks that those levees were bombed. Now, whether that is true or not, that should not be discounted.” He rattled off past government trespasses: 1927’s Great Flood of Mississippi, when the levees were, in fact, blown up; the flooding of the Ninth Ward during Hurricane Betsy in 1965; the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.
“So, in the collective mind of African-Americans, it is not some science-fiction, hocus-pocus thing to say that the government is doing stuff,” he continued. “Even if it didn’t happen, you cannot discount it and dismiss it as Oh you people are crazy. It’s what people think—talk to Jewish people. Because of the Holocaust, you know, anything that happens, it’s like, ‘Oh! It’s starting again.’ And I’m not going to fault someone of Jewish ancestry that feels like that because that happened! This is history.
His voice grew louder. “No one is saying to Jewish people, ‘Oh, you’re crazy!’ So if you use the same analogy, then it’s not so farfetched. It is my duty as a filmmaker to let them give their opinions, and there are people who will swear on a stack of bibles that they heard an explosion down there.” Would he be shocked if it turned out to be true? “No. No, I would not,” he said.