On July 12, director Spike Lee took a little time out from whatever he’s doing in Marrakech to write the following:
@SpikeLee I Want To Thank One And All For The Love And Support You Have Given Me Over The Course Of My Film Life. Monday I Will Be Making Announcement.
I am absolutely overwhelmingly pro-Spike Lee. I have been fascinated by him and by his work since “She’s Gotta Have It,” and one of the things that made Spike so interesting in those early days was the books he would publish for each film, very frank books about how he got the movies made that also included his screenplays. It may be hard for younger viewers to understand just how big of an impact he had on independent film. And when I say that, I don’t just mean African-American indie films. I mean any indie films. Spike was just as crucial as Steven Soderbergh or Jim Jarmusch or Kevin Smith or anyone you want to point to as a symbol of the explosion that took place in the ’80s. Honestly, it never occurred to me to think of Spike as a black filmmaker first because he, like many of the guys who helped blow things up at that point, was just a filmmaker with a big voice. Watching how he got his personal material made was inspirational.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, it was the summer of 1990, and “Mo’ Better Blues” was just around the corner. I read that they were holding a book signing with Spike Lee present at the Samuel French bookstore in Hollywood. I decided that I was going to be the first person in line for that book signing, no matter what. On the day of the event, my buddy and I drove to Hollywood and made sure we were at the store the moment it opened. The signing wasn’t until 6:00 that afternoon, and when we told the people in the bookstore that we were there to line up, they didn’t know what to do with us. They told us to go away until 5:00 or so, but I wasn’t willing to give up my tactical advantage. We “browsed” for a while, grabbed some lunch, then came right back and “browsed” some more. Eventually, they got tired of us, and they told us we could be the start of the line, but we needed to be outside. They put us in the alley beside the store and left us there. It was around 4:30 that other people started to arrive, and by 6:00, there were several hundred people in line behind us.
When it was time to start letting people in, one of Spike’s assistants for the day came outside to check out the line. He explained to the Samuel French clerks that MTV and “Entertainment Tonight” and a few other shows were all there with camera crews, and he wanted to pick someone “appropriate” to be the first person inside. When he walked past us to pick the first black couple in line, I very politely lost my damn fool mind. I explained how long we’d been waiting, and I asked why I wasn’t good enough to be the first one inside. I may have even insinuated that I would love to ask MTV and the other camera crews the same question, and Spike’s guy backed off very quickly. He went back inside for a few, and when he came back out to where we were waiting, his irritation with me was plainly evident. Even so, he told me that I was first since I’d been waiting all day, and he allowed me to head inside to get my books signed. I bought a new copy of the “Do The Right Thing” books, and I bought “Mo’ Better Blues,” and I set them both on the table in front of him.
Spike looked up at me, that slight smile on his face that he seems to often wear, and said, “So… they told me you’ve been here all day. Do you have a question?”
Honestly, I didn’t have that clear an agenda. I just wanted to meet him and tell him how much his work meant to me. But since the cameras were on and Spike seemed to be having fun with me, I told him that I did. “In ‘Do The Right Thing,’ when Radio Raheem does the LOVE/HATE monologue, is that you quoting ‘Night Of The Hunter,’ or is that Radio Raheem quoting it?”
He signed both books as he considered the question, and his smile was bigger as he finally answered. “Radio Raheem doesn’t know who the fuck Robert Mitchum is.”
In the two decades I’ve been here in LA, Spike’s career has taken any number of left turns, and while I’ve liked plenty of his films in that time, I’ve also grown tired on occasion of the way Spike tears down other filmmakers, particularly along racial lines. While I certainly think every filmmaker brings their own cultural experience and personal history to the table when they make a film, I do not believe anyone owns the exclusive right to tell any story. Part of the reason I love film is because of the way it allows you to see the world through another person’s eyes, and that’s true of telling the story as well as watching it. Film is a chance for us to explore every aspect of the human experience, and I have a real problem with it when lee tells other filmmakers what they are or aren’t qualified to do. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Norman Jewison’s films, but he was very serious about civil rights and human empathy, and when he wanted to make a movie about Malcolm X, I thought it was brutal to see Lee attack him over it. I think Lee’s “Malcolm X” is a damn fine film, and an amazing performance by Denzel Washington, but I don’t think Lee was the only person who should have been allowed to tell that story.
In recent years, as Lee has worked less often as a filmmaker, his attitudes towards other filmmakers have been even harder to take. I would always rather an artist speak through his work instead of through press releases. The industry has changed dramatically, though, and I have no doubt it has become harder for Lee to make films that matter to him, and not really through any fault of his own. He has never been driven by the blockbuster mentality, and the sort of personal pictures that make up the best work of his career are increasingly uncommon now. The reactions to last year’s “Red Hook Summer” were fairly brutal, and while l didn’t love the movie, I certainly thought there was a lot in it to like. I loved his filmed version of “Passing Strange,” and his documentary “Bad 25” was absorbing, and it felt like he was simply finding new ways express his world view.
When I read that Tweet that opened this article, it worries me. Lee postponed whatever the announcement was that he was going to make, and it will now take place next Monday instead. If he does announce that he’s retiring, it is a loss to cinema. He’s 56 now, and his latest film is a remake of “Oldboy.” The trailer just showed up last week, and it looks like he absolutely took cues from Chan-Wook Park, from the original manga, and from his own personal and particular aesthetic leanings. People often refer to remakes as easy or lazy, but I don’t believe that for a second in terms of Lee. I think it’s a very smart move as he works to shore up his own commercial clout. After all, he couldn’t get a sequel to one of his few genuine hits, “Inside Man,” off the ground, and there comes a time when a working filmmaker has to figure out how to make the money men happy. Taking on a challenge like “Oldboy” seems like a lesser sin in Hollywood terms, and I would imagine there’s a strong chance it might turn out to be very good, indeed.
I hope I’m wrong about what I think is coming.
I hope I’m just overreacting to the phrasing of his Tweet and to the atmosphere right now in Hollywood, which is as toxic as I’ve seen it in the 23 years I’ve lived and worked here. It is an awful time to be someone with a strong voice, someone who doesn’t play by all the rules, and if Lee is stepping back from being an active filmmaker, there’s nobody who wins in that situation. Spike remains a vital, important figure in American cinema, and a system that has no place for him is a broken system. The system should change, not Lee, and if he does announce his retirement, I will see that as another marker on a road that seems to be leading in the wrong direction entirely.
We’ll certainly keep a close eye on what happens, and here’s hoping I’ve got this whole thing wrong.
In the meantime, “Oldboy” arrives in theaters October 25, 2013.