In this week’s “One on 1,” NY1’s Budd Mishkin interviewed one of New York's preeminent filmmakers, Spike Lee, who is also a bit of a fan of the city’s basketball team.
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He is as much a part of the scene at the Garden as the Knicks players, maybe more. But as a kid, Spike Lee sat in the old blue seats up top, and his first season tickets were still pretty far away.
"My first season ticket was, I think, section 331,” said Lee.
Lee made the step up and moved down to court-side seats when his film career took off in the late 80s. His spot at courtside and the backdrop for many of his films cemented his place around the country as one of the symbols of New York.
But for his latest project, he ventured south, to New Orleans, for the documentary about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, "When the Levees Broke," a story told strictly through the words of the people who lived it.
"It would have been criminal act to impose narration on something like this,” said Lee. “How could you write something more eloquent than various people who lived the catastrophe of the breach of the levees?"
Lee has often addressed serious topics in his 20 years of moviemaking, from personal transformation in “Malcolm X,” racial hatred in “Do the Right Thing,” to the million man march in “Get on the Bus.” But the element of humor is almost always there, particularly when Lee is on screen, as in the scene about an interracial affair in “Jungle Fever.”
But there was nothing funny about the first day of filming of “Jungle Fever” in Bensonhurst.
"People were great, but the first day we were there, there was a death threat against me," recalled Lee.
His use of New York began in his first film, mostly out of necessity. “She's Gotta Have It” was shot in 12 days on a budget of $175,000. It was also the first time we saw his love of basketball, including a memorable scene about National Basketball Association Hall of Famer, Larry Bird. But when we think of Spike Lee and basketball, one name comes to mind, Reggie Miller. On a night in 1994 that is now part of New York sports lore, the Indiana Pacers star inspired himself by getting into it with Lee, and in the process scored 25 points in the fourth quarter of a pivotal playoff game to beat the Knicks.
"I was on the cover of the [New York] Post, The Daily News, Newsday,” explained Lee. “It's never funny at the time; it's only funny looking back, in retrospect. But that was not fun at all."
When we think of Spike Lee the New Yorker, we think first of Brooklyn where he grew up. He still has his office there and some stores. But years ago he moved to SoHo and then the Upper East Side. He left Brooklyn because people started coming around in the middle of the night.
"Many times I would not be around, and people ringing the bell at three in the morning,” recalled Lee. “Not even people I know, like I'm property of Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Well just, yeah, like, Îlet's see if Spike's here.’"
Although he is most closely associated with Fort Greene, Lee first grew up in Cobble Hill, in the mid 60s, a working-class, dockworker, predominantly Italian-American neighborhood where Spike said the Lees were the only African American family.
“It was alright as soon as people realized there weren't 50 other black families following us,” joked Lee.
Education was important in the Lee home. He said his mother told him that as a black man in America, he would have to be five times better than his white counterparts.
“I remember I would get an "A" on a test and my mother would say I'm very glad you got an “A” but I bet those Jewish kids got an “A+,” said Lee.
From Brooklyn, he followed a family tradition and went to Morehouse College, then back home to go to New York University film school. He borrowed and cajoled to get the $175,000 to make “She's Gotta Have It,” which grossed more than $7 million and won an award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1986.
"Even though I was basking in the adulation and the praise, I was still thinking about Îwhat am I going to do next’, and Îwhat am I going to do after that,’” explained Lee. “So from the very beginning, I was thinking I want this to be a career.”
But it was Lee's third film, “Do the Right Thing,” in 1989, the story of bigotry and racial strife in Bedford Stuyvesant, that brought him to the forefront. The years have not diminished its intensity, its humor and the violence of its climax. At the time, there were some predictions that the film might cause riots, and so Lee had to deal with a lot more than most film directors.
"Tom Pollack then-president of Universal Pictures was an irresponsible studio head, [who said] Îhow can you release a film like this in summertime,’” said Lee. “And the thing, is the subtext is, Îyou know how they get in summertime.’”
In Lee's next film “Mo Better Blues,” the depiction of two Jewish managers, played by John and Nicholas Turturro, was criticized by Bnai Brith and the Anti Defamation League as Anti Semitic, a charge Lee has always steadfastly denied. Lee claimed the characters were drawn from real-life situations in which Jewish manager exploited Black musicians. He wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times entitled, “I am not an Anti-Semite.”
“My lawyer's name at the time, he's passed, was Arthur Klein, he was Jewish, and he said, ÎSpike, why don't you sit down, as your lawyer I think you need to write this op-ed piece,’ and I did,” said Lee. “I know I had to do it but I wasn't happy doing it, at all.”
One incident from those years still seems particularly painful to Lee. In the lead up to the release of the film “Malcolm X,” Esquire did an article. Lee felt the writer had an agenda, as it was an article with an incendiary title.
"’Why Spike Lee Hates your Cracker Ass,’ [was the name of the article],” remembered Lee. “If I'm in the airport, or newspaper stand, and see that, why would I want to go see Malcolm X or any of his films? That looks like a quote."
The young man who New Yorkers first saw as Mars Blackmun in "She's Gotta Have It" turns 50 in March. He has been married for 13 years and has two children, and he says he is not a reflective guy about his career, focusing on the movies to come.
"We got 20 in, try to get another twenty in," said Lee.
- Budd Mishkin
|ONE ON 1 EXTRA|
Take a behind-the-scenes look at this week's "One On 1" profile with Budd Mishkin's full, uncut interview in Real Video: