The Spike Lee Interview
By Billy Baxter
Posted 12/04/99 23:27:44
Spike Lee has directed 21 films, produced or executive-produced 19, has writer credit on 11, and is the author of numerous books aimed at "the demystification of filmmaking" which allow us access to the Spike Lee journey. He also lectures at New York University. He's now shooting his twenty-second film, Bamboozled, in New York and between shots Lee generously granted us a phone interview.
Twenty two years ago in a searing New York City summer a postal clerk by the name of David Berkowitz turned serial killer. He killed six people and wounded seven others and became known as the .44 Calibre Killer - The Son Of Sam. He 'worked' in the Bronx and Brooklyn boroughs. It was rumoured he preferred long-haired brunettes. Many women shortened their hair as a result. Dyed-blond became a trend fostered by fear. The extended hysteria of that summer saw local nightclubs deserted; restaurants all but empty; an electrical blackout triggered looting. The killer taunted the helpless police. The media was in a frenzy. He periodically wrote to the newspapers. "Don't think that because you haven't heard from me for a while that I went to sleep. No, rather, I am still here, like a spirit roaming the night. Thirsty, hungry, seldom stopping to rest; anxious to please Sam." Today Berkowitz is 46, a born again Christian, locked up in a maximum-security prison; weeping over the release of Spike Lee's spellbinding film, Summer of Sam.
To some, Spike Lee is the most important director in contemporary American cinema. For certain, he's up there with the most enigmatic and incendiary Americans of this century. Pre-Lee, African Americans found it extremely difficult to break into filmmaking. With a determination to chronicle 20th century American life, he cut a path of critical and financial success, paving the way for a host of new black directors. Along the way he entertained the world.
In 1989, Malcolm X met Martin Luther King met Spike Lee in his highly controversial call-to-action Do The Right Thing. The world Woke Up! with Lee's unsettling parable of the eternal conflicts of race.
That began a now inseparable congruency of Spike Lee the man with his work in film, literature, commercials, fashion or music. It has, repeatedly, swamped the validity and credibility of his work.
Lee began by stating that his motivation for making Summer of Sam was the same as for any of his films; to tell the story that he likes.
"All directors are storytellers," Lee said. "So the motivation was to tell the story I wanted to tell. That's what I love."
What was your personal experience of that summer, I asked.
"I was 20 years old in New York at the time, it was the summer of 1977, I remember the heat, the World Series, the disco..."
Lee has assembled a stereophonic supersound with this film, fearlessly redefining how we know 'sound track'. We witness the light delights of disco, anarchic sequences driven by The Who's punk rock, screaming media news breaks, the jubilant play-by-play call of Yankee baseball, the purple prose of Italian-American communicado and the internal distresses of a psychotic killer; layer upon layer in a mesmerising crescendo.
You were a disco freak, I ask.
"Yes, I mean I wasn't going to the clubs, but I was buying the records."
"What did you use as a reference to depict punk?"
"Oh, I just asked a lot of questions, I did a lot of research - that was a lot of fun - and that's really it. It was a special summer."
I asked Lee whether he thought his profile as a filmmaker added a wave of sensationalism to the movie that would not have been accorded to another filmmaker telling the same story.
"Oh, I definitely feel that's the case," he answered. "Everything I do is always scrutinised. But that's all I'll say about that."
That was certainly the case with this exuberant film. Propelled on to Australian screens this past November, behind it trails a kicking, screaming mess of sensationalism and outrage. Some of Son of Sam's victims families are furious. In an ironic twist they have sided with the killer Berkowitz, who attacked Lee for "this madness, the ugliness of the past resurfacing again - all because some people want to make some money."
That same interview with New York Times reporter Blaine Harden provided an enthusiastic Berkowitz promotion for his own Christian education videos, one titled "Son of Sam/Son of Hope".
Twist again and some dissidents are upset that the film's intent is not focused sufficiently on the moral and spiritual mindset of a killer. Take the bizarre argument of Time Magazine's Richard Corliss: "Someone could make a good movie about a tortured fellow who kills lovers in parked cars on the advice of a talking dog. But in Summer of Sam...Spike Lee has made a very bad movie with David Berkowitz deep in the background."
I asked Lee whether he thought some of the audience was disappointed that the film was not an intimate portrait of The Son of Sam.
"Well I can't really say yes or no to that, but that's not the type of film I wanted to make. It's not that type of film," he answered. "We're not trying to glorify David Berkowitz."
Indeed, Lee uses The Son of Sam as a recurring catalyst rather than as the story's main drama. This film is neither the portrait of a psychopath, nor the melodramatic story of his victims. True to that, the killer's casualties are never met. Well, perhaps the latter is a moot point.
With consummate storytelling expertise, Lee leads us to a point of realisation. One does not have to be the recipient of a bullet to be the victim of a killer. By the film's end we wonder whether David Berkowitz is the most tortured soul on screen.
The drama focuses on the interrelationships of an insular, xenophobic Italian-American community in the Bronx. Stripped back to its cinematic skeleton, the narrative is driven by action and reaction - by the Son of Sam killings and the resultant fear and paranoia that those events generated.
"We're the most violent nation on earth. There's no getting away from that," Lee tells. "But you've got to look at it on a broader level."
When violence occurs in Lee's films, it explodes in an uncompromising flash. Its sheer velocity shocks. It seems for Lee that more important than the violent acts themselves is the fear from which that violence stems.
"That's one of the frailties of the human condition", Lee says. "People fear that which is not familiar."
In Lee's 1986 breakout film She's Gotta Have It this fear centred on the conventions that bind sexuality. The film's heroine, a sexually liberated black woman, effectively suffers the frailties of the male ego.
Inspired by the real-life murder of Yusuf Hawkins, Lee examined the insecurity generated by inter-racial sex in his 1991 film Jungle Fever. Here, racist hostility is provoked by people's inability to overcome the colour divide.
And so it is with Summer of Sam, where the tension escalates to outright volatility in the Bronx. With a killer on the loose, suspicion fuels a lynch-mob mentality and they attack one of their own. Ultimately, it is this character's non-conformity in his own community that establishes him as the scapegoat.
While Lee's aesthetic is hardly 'realist', the collective focus of his work is inspired by real-life events. In essence this makes Summer of Sam a period piece, but its thematic sentiment provides it with a contemporary context.
"I think it is very important that films make people look at what they've forgotten," said Lee.
This is no more evident than in Lee's 1997 documentary feature 4 Little Girls. The film revisits the injustice of racial bigotry that led to the bombing of Birmingham, Alabama's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963 and the four lives that this terrorist act ended. Lee offers a poignant tribute to African-American dignity and, rather than refuelling racial hatred, leaves us with an underlying hope.
This empathy may in part stem from Lee's stable home life. A happily married father of two, Lee himself was born in to an artistic middle-class family and grew up in Brooklyn, a repeated setting for his films.
"I live in New York City, the stories of my films take place in New York; I'm a New York filmmaker," Lee tells.
Filmmaking has become a collaborative family effort. Lee's father Bill has contributed his skill as a jazz bassist and composer on numerous films. His brother David is a photographer; he provided the still images for Summer of Sam.
His sister Joie, an actor, has appeared frequently in Spike's films and is also credited as a co-writer of Lee's 1994 film Crooklyn along with their brother Cinque.
"We grew up in a very creative environment and were exposed to the arts at a very young age so it's not a surprise that all of us are in some form of the arts," Lee shares.
Joie and Cinque starred in the second of the Jim Jarmusch short film series Coffee and Cigarettes. Cinque also played the down-trodden bellboy in Jarmusch's Mystery Train and has now gone on to write and direct his own films which have enjoyed festival successes.
"What do you think of Cinque's filmmaking?" I ask Lee.
"It's fine. His story sense and his sensibilities remind me of David Lynch a lot...strange. My cousin Malcolm Lee is also a filmmaker," he adds. "His film The Best Man is opening Friday here in the United States with Universal Pictures. It's a very good film."
Like most New Yorkers Lee's a basketball fanatic. His wonderful book 'Best Seat in the House' leaves you in no doubt. He thought nothing of flying from the Cannes Film Festival to see a Knicks/Bulls playoff game in New York. He has courtside season tickets. Post-game he was back on a plane to Cannes and on arrival the next morning he continued interviews.
That's Lee's style: stick by you and yours. Thus, when defining Spike Lee the key word is respect - for self, for others, for craft, for differences, for the past and for the future. As a recurring theme it perhaps borders on the didactic, but as a way of life it is a lesson of immeasurable value.
The post-production circumstances of his 1992 masterpiece Malcolm X portray to a degree the regard in which Lee is held. Five million over budget, Warner Brothers said 'no more' and the underwriters fired the editors. Lee appealed directly to the power brokers of African America. A bail out, it had to be understood, that would never be repaid.
Look who came to the party: Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Janet Jackson, Prince, Magic Johnson, Tracy Chapman, Peggy Cooper-Cafritz. They financed post-production for an entire two months.
An immense talent, Lee has that ability to light a fire within you; leaving you enlightened, enraged, and thoroughly entertained. Love his films or hate them, you're guaranteed to leave the cinema effected.
Will non-New York audiences feel the same about Summer of Sam as locals, I asked.
"You don't have to be a New Yorker to like the film. You're not expected to know about that story and it's definitely not necessary with this visual experience. It's a film for the world audience." ---Billy Baxter
(Special thanks to Cinque Lee. Thanks also to Jason at 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks.)