CMW Highlight Reel: Inside the Mind of Spike Lee
Excerpts From the Filmmaker’s Epic Talk in Toronto
“This whole stuff is not new,” says American director Spike Lee, whose body of work has often been a potent exploration around issues of race. “People have cameras, we saw with Rodney King, everybody now has a phone that can record something, and now people are capturing it.”
The comment itself defined the general forward tone of the keynote interview held during Canadian Music Week (CMW), moderated by Toronto film critic, Richard Crouse.
“Please don’t believe that this is a phenomenon that all of a sudden is sweeping America,” continues the famed director. “Baltimore is not new, we saw it with the Simi Valley verdict (Rodney King). It might be on this summer, I’m not up here trying to start no shit.”
Spike Lee has never been the kind of personality to hold back on his views, and whether it was a conversation about technology, music or creativity, it’s that very boldness in thought that embodies the overall conversation.
There may have been no question as to the reasons why Spike Lee received the Nile Rodgers Global Creators Award before the CMW talk, but his ability to express without fear of backlash provided further credence in a moment that addressed several different topics. Here’s a look at some of the most memorable take aways – straight from Spike Lee’s mouth:
Traditional Film vs. Media Consumption Today:
When we did Malcolm X, Ernest Dickerson, a great cinematographer, he’s also my cinematographer; he shot all my films in NY, then shot She Bad and Mo Better Blues and Malcolm X. We knew in order for Malcolm X to be successful it had to be an epic film. So we looked at probably the best epic filmmaker, David Lean. It was a retrospect of David Lean films.
We didn’t go shoot on the Syrian Desert and all around the world for someone to see Malcolm X this way. As a filmmaker, I know I may sound like a dinosaur, but that pains me.
We would see Doctor Zhivago, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, 70mm prints. That’s how we wanted Malcolm X to look. It kills me today going into my fourth generation of filmmaking, that young people see Malcolm X on [their phones] for the first time.
We worked too long. We didn’t go shoot on the Syrian Desert and all around the world for someone to see Malcolm X this way. As a filmmaker, I know I may sound like a dinosaur, but that pains me.
Finding Rosie Perez for Do the Right Thing:
I was in Los Angeles and I was in this club that’s no longer there called Funky Reggae, and at the time, School Daze was out and the number one record was “Da Butt” by this group called E.U. so we flew them out from DC, the home of go-go music, and they were playing “Da Butt”, and Rosie was on the speaker dancing.
I told her to come down because I didn’t want her to break her neck, and sue me on top of that. So she jumped off the speaker and started cursing me out in a Spanglish dialect that I never heard before. I asked her where she’s from and she said Brooklyn, Fort Greene, the same neighbourhood that [I was] from.
At the time I was writing Do the Right Thing, and that’s when I decided that Mookie’s girl should be Puerto Rican.
Unlike a lot of other places, in America there is no static between Black Dominicans and Black Puerto Ricans in New York, unlike Black people and Mexicans in California or Texas. In New York, you grow up together and live together, there’s no friction between the two. [They’re] my people so I wanted to demonstrate it by having this girl be Puerto Rican.
The Importance of Work Ethic:
Not everybody, but these millennials, I don’t blame ’em, but [there’s] this whole fiction of overnighters. That you don’t have to do any work, no elbow grease, no nothing, where the hand of God will come out of the sky and you’re going to be anointed the next one.
I think there’s no substitute for hard work where you just get out there. You gotta bust your ass and if you [don’t] do that, whatever you achieve is really hollow.
A lot of it has to do with these game shows and stuff like that. I think there’s no substitute for hard work where you just get out there. You gotta bust your ass and if you [don’t] do that, whatever you achieve is really hollow.
Creativity, I think, is one of the greatest gifts [one] can get. When I feel something that’s God-like, it’s like, where did the idea come from? I like to know where grand ideas come from. These things are just blessed upon you and they all say that you gotta be open to it.
Your vessel, soul and spirit have to be open, because if you’re closed, you’re not getting that shit. It’s not going to come to you. The great artists are open so they’re able to receive these things. I don’t know if you can teach creativity. It’s a learned craft.
There’s a difference between craft and creativity. They have to work together. You can be creative, but if your craft is shaky . . . [for instance] in sports, you’ll have great athletic skills, but if your fundamentals are not right, you’re not gonna play.
The Killing of Black Men at the Hands of Officers:
People are capturing it. We saw with Eric Garner with the same exact chokehold we saw in Do the Right Thing with Radio Raheem. We saw in South Carolina, we seen it in Baltimore, so please do not believe that this is a phenomenon that’s all of a sudden sweeping America. Now it’s just being caught [by] everybody.
Even with footage, those cops in New York City got off with the strangle hold on Eric Garner. People forget this, when that trial moved to Simi Valley, they got off. You saw it happen in LA after that. This stuff is not new.
Do not get offended by Black Lives Matter. That’s not saying White lives don’t matter. Come back a little bit. Black Lives Matter is not an offence to White people.
It might be on this summer, I’m not here trying to start no shit. This is not just about African-Americans. When you saw what happened in Ferguson, all over it was Black, White, Hispanic and Asian, everybody was taking to the streets, not just in America.
Don’t go for the hokey doke that this is something that only concerns Black people. I think we are all concerned any time someone loses [his or her life] over some bullshit.
The #BlackLivesMatter Movement:
For my White Torontonians, do not get offended by Black Lives Matter. That’s not saying White lives don’t matter. Come back a little bit. Black Lives Matter is not an offence to White people.
Several nights I was marching and saw several White kids marching with Black Lives Matter. It seems now that there is less value put on Black lives. I said before, these things happened before, back to lynching, but now with cameras, it’s being brought to the public now more than ever.