The lights dim as the packed theatre slowly lowers its collective volume to mute. On January 18 at the Banff Centre, Ian Brown and Spike Lee walk onto the stage and sit down. A quick montage of some of Lee’s past work is shown, including much of the racism-infused dialogue from Do The Right Thing and footage from his Hurricane Katrina documentary, When The Levees Broke.
The montage ends, the stage lights go up to reveal both Brown and Lee to rapturous applause. Brown starts the interview with a question about his childhood, which Spike immediately shoots down as something he doesn’t want to talk about, all the while flashing a wry smile. The entire audience laughs as Brown takes several of his question prompts and puts them on the table never to be used.
Brown then asks Spike what it was that got him into film in the first place. Spike replies, “I didn’t find film. Film found me.” It was the summer of 1977 in Brooklyn, New York when he was visiting a friend. She owned a Super 8 camera and a box of film rolls. She gave him both to keep, upon which he used immediately. There was no narrative form to anything that was shot. All he did was capture whatever tickled his fancy on those fabled hot summer days. The rest as they say was history.
After being bit by the filmmaking bug, Spike went on to write, direct and star in his first feature film, She’s Gotta Have It. Once filming wrapped, he went straight into post-production where the money fell through, and the possibility of the film never being completed was very likely. In typical “do-it-yourself, Spike Lee fashion,” he went door to door asking for money from some of his friends (of which he refers to as “the original Kickstarter”). The doors he knocked on belonged to such prominent celebrities such as Bill Cosby, Oprah, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.
One of the biggest challenges Lee faced was in making Do The Right Thing. It was originally intended to be released under the distribution of the Paramount banner. Unfortunately, Lee and the studio parted ways after creative differences in regards to the ending, which is how he found himself at home with Universal, who fully backed his creative vision. The film details the racial tension between Blacks and Italians in a brutal summer heat wave in New York, circa 1989. The ending of the film is a critical scene and one of the most memorable moments in Spike Lee’s entire filmography. By not wanting to compromise on a happier ending, Lee stayed true to his vision, which is entirely indicative of the kind of storyteller he is. He shows truth.
One of the defining moments of Spike Lee’s career came when he made Malcolm X with Denzel Washington in the titular role. It was revealed that Denzel was so dedicated to playing the role that he learned as much about Malcolm X as he possibly could the year prior to filming. A partnership like that is something I’m sure many actors and directors only dream of achieving. Lee and Washington have also worked on Mo’ Better Blues, He Got Game and Inside Man.
One of his most controversial choices was to direct a remake of the much-loved Korean film, OldBoy, by Park Chan-wook. The original film has garnered almost universal praise for its dark story, brilliant action scenes and mind-bending final act twist. Foreign films being remade for American audiences don’t tend to work. While Lee’s version of OldBoy is competently well made and acted, his remake befalls the same traps as many have before it. There’s very little in the film that distinguishes itself to justify its own existence. It’s basically just a carbon copy of the flawless original film. But, I respect him for trying to take on something that’s beloved by so many.
His latest film, ‘Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, is one that of course also involves another controversial topic. According to Lee’s Kickstarter page, the film is about “Human beings who are addicted to Blood. Funny, Sexy and Bloody. A new kind of love story (and not a remake of ‘Blacula’).” Look for that film to be released sometime later this year.
The biggest thing that I took away from the interview between Lee and Brown was something that many independent filmmakers need to hear: when Spike Lee found critical praise early on, he thought he was going to be given the keys to fame and fortune right way. Unfortunately, that phone call never came. It was only when he went out and did everything himself that he got the work he wanted. You have to work hard to achieve your dreams. You can’t just sit around and wait for them to happen.
By Philip Clarke
Photo: Hans Reitzema / flickr (watermark removed)