- archived recording
(SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?
I’ve seen almost all of Spike Lee’s movies. Many I watched when they first came out in theaters. Remember those? That part has certainly changed. But many of Lee’s films feel just as relevant today as they did years ago. Lee’s most recent film, “Da 5 Bloods,” tells the story of four Black veterans of the Vietnam War. Along with being a treasure hunt caper, it also explores the trauma of being asked to die for a country that treated them as lesser citizens and also referenced the Black Lives Matter movement. The film premiered last summer in the midst of national protests for racial justice. With Oscar nominations slated for next week and lots of buzz surrounding “Da 5 Bloods” after its snub at the Golden Globes, I wanted to talk to the famous director about his filmmaking, his thoughts on Hollywood and streaming, and the future of his beloved New York City. But I should have known that any conversation with Spike Lee would start with my least favorite subject — sports.
How are you doing?
Good, how are you doing?
All right. You — what? The Yankees had a right-fielder, what was — Nick Swisher.
Nick, he was a distant cousin.
You guys related?
You know, West Virginia. We’re all from West Virginia. So I suppose —
You’re related! [LAUGHTER] You’re related!
It’s got to be. It’s got to be.
We don’t even need DNA.
We don’t even need, uh, Skip Gates either!
Yeah, there’s a lot of Swishers around. Everyone thinks I should play basketball, but I’m literally sports ignorant. But you’re going to explain to me what’s going on with the Knicks because apparently, they’re doing well.
Is that orange, your microphone?
Yeah, it’s red. It’s red.
Well, to me, it looks orange, so that’s one of the Knicks colors.
Oh, is it? OK.
Yeah, orange and blue.
Thanks for letting me know. OK, good to know. I’m the most sports illiterate person ever, so you’re going to explain what’s going on there in a minute.
But I like to say this first because I used to get into this argument with my wife all the time. And she would say, why do you always turn to the back of the newspapers to read the sports section? But if you read the sports section, that tells you what’s happening in the world.
Oh, really? Why?
Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali.
Billie Jean King.
I mean, Serena. I mean, everything that’s happening in the world usually, and sports gets it first. Agent Orange, when he —
May I just say, that’s what you call Trump. You don’t say —
Yeah, I don’t say his name. Agent Orange when he demonized Colin Kaepernick for kneeling, when he demonized Black N.F.L. players, National Football League players, and said they were unpatriotic. So you got to get your sports game up.
I will try, but why haven’t you made a sports movie? Have you made a sports movie?
“He Got Game“!
“He Got Game,” that’s right. That’s right, but not many. You should be making them all the time.
I got to diversify.
OK, all right. OK, all right. I mean, well, then, let’s just talk very briefly about the Knicks. I do know they’re apparently doing well. Is that correct? Does that make you —
Whoa, whoa, whoa, that choice of word, “apparently“? Uh-uh.
500, right? Something with 500 in it.
One game over.
One game over. Is that a good thing?
It’s better than it’s been. [LAUGHS]
Yes, that’s true. You know, I come from San Francisco, and the Golden State Warriors are apparently pretty good.
Oh, oh, well —
I mean, they won those world championships. And I don’t know when you’re going to air this, but Steph Curry did his thing in the three-point contest, so.
Yes, he won, correct? He won.
Yeah, he won.
And my son was watching it. I, of course, was upstairs watching the Meghan Markle interview with Harry with Oprah. And my son was screaming downstairs about three-point whatever. He’s 6’ 2” and going to be 6’ 5“, I think.
Well, I’m just glad that your total disinterest in sports did not affect your son.
Well, he is really tall, and he plays a lot. So he plays in the neighborhood. We live in Shaw in D.C., and he loves to play. But he was screaming from downstairs, so what can I say? So will you be returning to the Knicks game?
Yeah. So when the orange and blue have their home games coming up, I will return to the world’s most famous arena, the mecca, Madison Square Garden. I will be there, courtside!
All right. I’ve been getting invited by — I know a lot of internet billionaires, and they own teams. And I keep getting invited, and I never go. Like, Ted Leonsis.
He owns the Washington something.
Wizards, that’s right. The Wizards.
Why don’t you go?
I don’t know. I don’t know. When my son becomes a famous basketball player, I’ll do so.
No, no, no, no. Oh, let me just say something.
All right, OK.
Don’t you think, even if you hate basketball, don’t you think your son would want to sit courtside when the Los Angeles Lakers come to Washington, D.C.?
Why? You don’t love your son?
Well, you know —
No, no, no.
You don’t love your son?
You know how much those seats cost?
I have no idea. No idea.
Thousands of dollars.
OK, that’s another reason not to go.
And Ted Leonsis is going to give you two seats?
I’m not going to take free seats from an internet billionaire. Are you kidding me? I sit up in the high seats.
That’s because of “New York Times” ethic thing?
Yes, it’s an ethics thing, yes.
All right, you don’t have to go. Let your son go.
All right. OK, all right. What made you first infatuated with the Knicks? I think you may be their biggest fan.
Well, I grew up in Brooklyn, and my father would take me to the old Madison Square Garden. And we would sit up in the last row. Also, I was of the age where the Knicks were in their glory years. You wouldn’t know this, so I’m not getting mad at you. Hold on, let me turn this thing off. I’m going to start again. May 8, 1970, I was at one of the most famous N.B.A. games ever — Game 7, the New York Knicks versus Los Angeles Lakers, who had on their team Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain. The Knicks won, and that was their first world championship.
You have memories.
Well, my father, Bill Lee, great jazz bassist, composer, folk bassist, he had a concert that night — the same night! May 8, 1970. And in fact, I got my ticket from my father’s lawyer, who promised me, Spike, if the series goes seven games, you’re going to Game 7 with me. So my mother said, Spike — my late mother. She said, Spike, you’re grown enough to make your own decision. I went to the game.
Of course you did. [LAUGHTER]
I said, my father, he has more concerts. But this moment in time, May 8, 1970, I’m going to the game. In fact, I did a film called “Crooklyn,” where this scene is in it.
Your dad composed some music for your movies, too?
Whoa, hold up, hold up. It’s not some. My father did the scores for all my N.Y.U grad films. Then he did the score for “She’s Gotta Have It,” “School Daze,” “Do the Right Thing,” and “Mo’ Better Blues.” And my father one time was the top folk bassist. So, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Gordon Lightfoot, Theodore Bikel, Josh White, Odetta. And so, he was the top guy. And when Bob Dylan went electric, everybody followed him, and my father, to this day, has not plucked one string on an electric bass. So we were living high cotton. My mother had to work. She got a job teaching Black literature at St. Ann’s, the famous St. Ann’s in Brooklyn Heights. So my father — the money wasn’t coming anymore. My mother had to work. My father had five kids. I’m the eldest. But we would have starved if my mother didn’t work because he was not playing. It was against his morals.
He didn’t want to play electric bass. He didn’t want to play the electric music.
All right, OK.
Wasn’t going to do it.
Wasn’t going to do it. Well, he did a great job on your movies. But let me finish with the Knicks. Now before the pandemic started, you got into a beef with the owner of the Knicks. I did read that in the tabloids because I do read — is that over? Is that done?
Well, it’s over on my part. I mean, here’s the thing, and thank you for asking that question, because over — I don’t even know what the number is.
Mm-hmm. About 520, 30.
All right, 530,000 Americans are no longer with us behind some B.S. from Agent Orange. So when you think about stuff like that — me, I’m speaking of myself. All that trivial stuff doesn’t add up to a hill of beans. So that’s the way I’m rolling.
OK. So that’s changed. You’re just moving on.
Got to. Well, let’s talk about Agent Orange, because your recent movie, “Da 5 Bloods,” which was wonderful —
It came out last summer on Netflix. It was obviously supposed to be in the theaters.
June, that’s right.
But here’s the story, if I might add.
I had been named president of the jury for the Cannes Film Festival. So the world premiere was going to be in Cannes on a competition. But also, with Netflix, we were going to have a small theatrical run before it streamed. So once the pandemic happened, we went straight to streaming.
Well, let me tell you, it’s a movie about four Black veterans of the Vietnam War who reunite in an older age and return to Vietnam. And they basically go on this hunt for treasure and also the remains of the Chadwick Boseman character, who plays, I think, Stormin’ Norman. Is that correct? Stormin’ Norman. When you did this movie, why did you want to do it about Vietnam itself? What was your impetus to setting it there and with these guys?
This is not original screenplay. The producer, Lloyd Levin, brought it to me. And then I said — Kevin Willmott said, we should do this. I was born in 1957. So 10 years old, ‘67 — that’s like the height of the Vietnam War. And a lot of people forgotten that this war — a immoral war — was the first war that was televised back to American homes. I live in New York, so news is 6:00 and 11:00. And you would see what was happening. That was not the case Korean War or World War II. It wasn’t just like that, the technology. But Americans were seeing this war every single day. And many people said it started Walter Cronkite when he went to Vietnam. And that really set the whole thing in motion. So I was seeing it on television. But I was seeing the whole anti-war movement, too, right here in New York City.
So why do this movie? Why did you decide this was an important one?
I wanted to do a film that dealt with this immoral war from the viewpoint of the Bloods — Black men and some women who were shipped halfway around the world to fight in the war. In fact — and it’s not just a racial thing. Everybody got affected by being in that immoral war, and the families of sons and daughters who didn’t return. And I’d like to add that the film has bookends — Muhammad Ali at the beginning. Muhammad Ali lost his heavyweight championship belt, was banned from boxing, lost prime years of his physicality. And Dr. Martin Luther King — this is my belief — was assassinated because of that. Dr. King was not really seen as a threat, to me, by having Black folks ride the front of the bus in Montgomery or be able to sit at counters. But a great line that Chadwick Boseman says in “5 Bloods” — war is money, and money is war. And it’s my belief, when Dr. King became a critic of the war, he was messing with the money. Wars are run by the war machine. These are the American companies that make trillions of dollars — they don’t give a fuck.
So in the end of the movie, though, it is about them searching for money. That’s the plot that it hinges around, searching for these gold bars that they’re getting.
But here’s the thing, though.
The thing is that — I’m going to expand your last question, if I may.
Stormin’ Norman says —
This is Chadwick Boseman’s character, for those who haven’t seen it.
Yes. He says, this gold is ours. He’s like, reparations. Reparations. So it’s a two-pronged attack. We’re going back to get the remains of Stormin’ Norman. And number two, his remains are buried near the gold. So those are two reasons — the only two reasons — why they’re returning. They’d never been back to Vietnam —
They have not.
— since they left.
We’re talking 50 years later. So those two reasons that they go back. And as we saw in the great film directed by John Huston, who directed his father, Walter Huston, and Humphrey Bogart, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” when gold comes into play, all bets are off.
Right. They are, indeed, in that — in your movie.
Gold — you could be all lovey-dovey. Gold comes to the equation. You turn around, I’m stabbing your back. [CHUCKLES] Another line from — oh, we left — I left this out, not you. When I decided to do this film, I knew right away that one of the greatest albums ever — ever, ever, ever — Marvin Gaye’s album “What’s Going On” would be the spine of the movie. And one of my favorite lyrics is, “War is hell. When will it end? When will we start getting together again?” Marvin Gaye.
All right. So “Da 5 Bloods” — this movie features your famous double-dolly shot, where the actor is put on a dolly and slowly wheeled along with the camera so it looks like they’re gliding. Can you talk about first coming up with that, which you’ve used quite a bit, which I love?
Let the record state, I did not invent that shot.
I don’t think you invented it, but you have perfected it.
It’s become a signature shot, I might say.
And in the film “Mo’ Better Blues,” the first time we did it — when I mean “we,” I’m talking of my great friend, cinematographer Ernest Dickerson. And there was a scene where my character Giant in the film had to walk down a block. Ernest and I were talking about this. And let’s do the double — we didn’t have a name for it. Let’s do that shot. I forgot where we first saw it. And we were doing it not that long out of film school. And Ernest and I had a moment. We said, you know what? We’re out of film school. We’ve got to use this shot where it makes a difference and that it’s motivated. So during preproduction of “Malcolm X,” I became very friendly with Dr. Betty Shabazz, Malcolm’s widow. And she told me — she said, “Spike, I think my husband knew he was going to be assassinated when he went to Audubon Ballroom that Sunday.” I’m not going to question that. So when she said that to me, I said, how can I convey — without him saying to somebody — how can I convey his state of mind? I told this to Ernest. And right away, we said the double-dolly shot.
How did that convey it, from your perspective?
That’s what that shot does. So we were just using it. But after we made that decision, I have to have — there has to be a motivation for that shot, not just showing off, like, I’m just out of N.Y.U. graduate film school.
Right, where you teach right now.
Ten — oh, oh, ho, hold up.
Tenured. You’re a tenured professor.
Hold up. Hold up. Tenured —
— professor, and also artistic director of the graduate film school.
Let’s not get it twisted.
I’m not. I know your title. All right.
Hey, but the reason why I say that — “The New York Times” wrote an article about me and said I didn’t have a college degree. I was like, W.T.F.?
Yeah. You went to N.Y. — my son’s at N.Y.U. right now.
Yes, but in grad school. I went to Morehouse College.
Oh, went to Morehouse. And then you went to Tisch, right? Correct?
Yeah. But Morehouse is my undergrad.
Right. Delroy Lindo’s character — he was astonishing. He’s always an astonishing actor. He plays a Trump supporter. Let me play a short clip from the beginning of the movie when the four of them are at the bar.
- archived recording
On the real man. [MUSIC PLAYING]
We get back from ‘Nam. We didn’t get nothing but a hard damn time. Folks called us baby killers. Yeah. See, I bought into all that bullshit. How’s your life change, huh? Yeah, right. Time we got these freeloading immigrants off our backs and build that wall. Negroes better wake the fuck up with the quickness, man.
No, no, no, no, no. I’m just saying I’m — Don’t tell me that you voted for President “Fake Bone Spurs.” Yeah, I voted for him. Oh, get the fuck out of here.
So tell me about this character, because even though you refuse to say Trump’s name — you call him Agent Orange — what was it like to write a character like Paul?
Well, I co-wrote it. Kevin Willmott and I co-wrote the script. And I remember something my mother told me. My late mother Jacqueline said — at a very young age, she says, “Spike, Black people all don’t look alike, think alike, act alike. Black folks are not one monolithic group.” And so Kevin and I — we had these guys. When you’re in war, the person to your left, person to your right — bonds are forged for a lifetime. But it’s not interesting. Everybody is like — there’s no friction. So Kevin and I had to think, well, what is the worst thing we could give to this character? It didn’t take long. He voted for Agent Orange. And a lot more African-American men voted for him than my sisters. And this is what the appeal was to a lot of people, not just Black men like Paul. He played this card of the scapegoat. The reason why you’re not having the great life you should have is because of these other motherfuckers.
Right, which Trump used effectively.
Why does this character support him, then? Why did you —He’s somewhat sympathetic, too. Most of your characters like this are very sympathetic. I was watching “Do the Right Thing” last night, and I’d forgotten how sympathetic you write all the characters.
And the reason why I do that is because human beings are complex. There’s a complexity. That’s my Brooklyn pronunciation coming back right there. So as I said before, I gave you the reason why Black men voted for this guy. But in their own misguided thinking, they’re drinking the Kool-Aid. Agent Orange is not the first person to use the scapegoat playbook. Hitler did it. “Everything that’s wrong with our country is because of the Jews.” This is not new.
So what to do about it? Anything? You just wanted to depict this character.
But here’s the thing, though. One of the biggest criticisms of “Do the Right Thing” was that, Spike Lee, this movie is not where it should be or what it could have been, because Spike Lee did not give us the answer to how we end racism. It’s not my job.
I think you did, actually. When I saw it the second time, I didn’t remember it at all the same. It’s really funny watching it again. I thought you had enormous sympathy for every single character there. And you understood everyone’s pain.
And also, people really messed up on the title, “Do the Right Thing.” So it’s the audience — it’s up to the audience to think who’s doing the right thing. And it wasn’t my job to do that. It’s not my job. You’re just, as an artist, my approach is just, hold the mirror up.
Mm-hmm. Let’s talk more about “Do the Right Thing,” which originally premiered in 1989. The movie is set on the hottest day of the year in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Bed-Stuy, Do or Die.
Do or Die. And basically, the heat increases tensions within the community. And then there’s — I think it’s, Giancarlo Esposito gets angry because the shop doesn’t have any Black people on the wall of celebrity —
Pizzeria — Sal’s Pizzeria. And on their wall of fame, which is all — it’s pretty much Frank Sinatra and on down on their wall of fame. Let’s —
No, whoa, whoa whoa — Italian Americans.
Italian Americans. Let’s play a short clip of it. [MUSIC PLAYING] (SINGING)
- archived recording
What’d I tell you about that noise? What’d I tell you about them pictures? What the fuck? Are you deaf? No, are you? Fuck you! We want some Black people on that motherfucking wall of fame now! I’m trying to go fucking home, I’ve been here all fucking day, Buggin’ Out! Turn that jungle music off!
Why’s it got to be about jungle music? Why’s it got to be about Africa? It’s about the fucking pictures!
I want to hear about that scene.
OK. I think this is one of the best examples of how complex this film is — the script I wrote. You have two people who might, to the audience, look to be in conflict. But let’s dig a little deeper. Sal’s famous pizzeria is in the heart of Bed-Stuy, Do or Die. His customers are Black and brown. Buggin’ Out’s problem is that Sal’s famous pizza, in the heart of Bed-Stuy, Do or Die — all his customers are Black and brown. Yet, he has a wall called the Wall of Fame where it says, only American Italians on the wall. So they both have two truths, Miss Swisher. Sal’s truth is, this is my motherfucking pizzeria.
Yeah. I’ll put whoever I want on the wall. He says it.
I built this motherfucker brick by brick. And this is America. And I do the fuck what I want to do. And Buggin’ Out is like, look, that may be true, but your livelihood, your business, is all from your Black and brown patrons. So out of respect, put some brothers on the wall. So let me tell another story.
So going to “Jungle Fever.” That film is two contrasting neighborhoods — Bensonhurst, one was in Bensonhurst, the Bensonhurst where Yusef Hawkins was murdered. And then you have Harlem. And Stevie Wonder did all the songs for “Jungle Fever.” So that’s Harlem. And I wanted three songs from Frank Sinatra, “Hello, Young Lovers,” “It Was A Very Good Year,” and I forget the other song. So anything you want to do with Frank Sinatra, you had to go through his lovely daughter Tina. We’ve become great friends. So I called up Tina. I said, “Tina, I need these three songs for ‘Jungle Fever.’” She says, “Spike, my father is mad at you.” Why is Frank Sinatra mad at me? “You want to know why?” I said, “Why?” “You burnt his picture —
— in ‘Do the Right Thing.’” And to this day, Al Pacino has never said a word. De Niro has never said a word. The late, great Phil Rizzuto never said a word —
Phil Rizzuto was up there.
— to me. But Frank Sinatra was not having it. [LAUGHS] And I said, “Will you please tell your father I apologize? No disrespect was meant.” She came back. “My father is still mad at you.” And I love Frank Sinatra. My mother — that’s all she played in the house, was Frank Sinatra. So I said, “Tina, what can I do?” “He’s mad at you. But look, why don’t you write him a letter?” So I wrote the Chairman of the Board a handwritten, 10-page letter.
To Sinatra, who is the Chairman. That’s his nickname.
You never heard of Chairman of the Board?
Yes, I have. I’m just reminding listeners who may not know.
Your credibility is getting kind of shaky now.
I know he’s Chairman of the Board. I’m Italian American.
Well, why did you have to think about —
I know —
— to think about it? No.
I didn’t have to think about it. I’m telling listeners —
Italian American —
Not every audience member knows —
— and you’ve got to think about — hold up. Hold up. Hold up.
Miss Swisher —
— how do you have to think about Chairman of the Board —
I do not have to think about —
— and you claim to be Italian American?
I’m doing explanatory for the listeners —
You know what? You know what?
— of this podcast.
Listen, you’ve got to do a thing with Skip Gates because we’ve got to really check your heritage. [LAUGHTER] Anyway. Anyway. Old blue eyes.
OK. You wrote him the letter. And then?
He said, OK. So we got the songs for “Jungle Fever.” And then on top of that, years later, somehow I ran into Roger Moore. And he told me the story that Frank Sinatra had a screening room in his home in Palm Springs. And every Friday and Saturday night, he would call the studios for a film he wanted to screen, and they would find a print-up. And he told me that he — Roger Moore was in that club, that elite club that were getting invited to these screenings. And one night, they screened “Malcolm X.” And he told me — he says, Spike, Frank Sinatra loved “Malcolm X.”
Well, there you have it.
You shouldn’t have burned his picture. So when you think about that movie, when you’re looking back on it, you play Mookie, obviously, who’s —
Mookie. Mookie. Do you have a character you think is the most important in that movie? Because it’s really an ensemble cast.
Mm. I’m not going to do that.
All right. OK, don’t.
But I will say, if you may allow me, I’ll pat my back in that motherfucking film. [PATTING] On each shoulder, we had the crystal ball. Gentrification, climate control — you go down the line. We had the crystal ball. And this is not the first time this happened in my four-decade career. And a lot of my close friends have a nickname for me. You’ve gotta ask, what’s the nickname?
What’s your — Mirror. I don’t — what is it? What is it? Nostradamus.
Negrodamus. [LAUGHTER] You were close.
I wasn’t going there.
You were close.
You can go there —
You were close.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
But I’ve got to give you credit. No one ever said that before when I say that with journalists.
Negrodamus. [LAUGHS] [MUSIC PLAYING]
We’ll be back in a minute. If you like this interview and want to hear others, hit Subscribe. You’ll be able to catch up on “Sway” episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with Sacha Baron Cohen. And you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Spike Lee after the break. [MUSIC PLAYING] So “Do the Right Thing” was famously left out of Best Picture nominations for the Oscars. Instead, “Driving Miss Daisy” won, one of my least-favorite movies. One of your more recent movies, “BlacKkKlansman,” was nominated for Best Picture in 2019 but lost to “Green Book,” another one of my least-favorite movies. So it’s basically “Driving Miss Daisy” but with a white driver and a Black passenger.
Oh, I’ve got a job for you right now. It’s very quick.
Combine those two titles and give me the title of one film.
Of “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Green Book“?
Yeah, combine it.
OK, let me think. It could still be “Driving Miss Daisy.” I don’t know —
No, you’ve got to combine both films —
OK. All right.
— for a title.
Oh, you’ve got to do it for me. I’m not going to be able to do it.
No, I’m not doing that.
“Miss Green Book“? “Miss Green Daisy“? What — I don’t know. Come on.
There’s many, many different combinations. But we’ll —
— leave that alone right now.
The point I was making — the parallel shows the US hasn’t changed that much, as you want to believe. Were you surprised by that? And again with the Golden Globes — another snub for “Da 5 Bloods” this year.
Well, I would say that I had an inkling that history would be repeated with “Green Book.” And I’ve never really paid much attention to Golden Globes, so—
All right. What about these Oscars for “Da 5 Bloods“?
But here’s the thing, though. I made this film specifically for the Bloods — the Black soldiers who fought an immoral war — this film was for the ones who came back alive and the ones that came back in a casket. That’s it.
So you’re not angry when you don’t win? Is it important for you to win these awards, or not at all?
Oh, look there’s video tape of me being angry. So I —
Right. Yeah. What about the importance of these awards? Things have changed this year, in the pandemic, in terms of moviegoing experiences.
Well, we’ll see what happens with the nominations. But in no uncertain terms, we’ve seen many more voices and films reflecting — a better reflection of this mosaic of the United States of America.
How would you portray — would you change the portrayals? Like, for example, of the N.Y.P.D. in “Do the Right Thing” and in other movies?
Would I change it? Did you see them cracking heads during the pandemic?
I’m not changing that.
How do you feel, then, about the ad campaign that you had done with them? What would you change in that regard?
First of all, there’s a lot of misinformation about that.
Yeah. So please illuminate us.
I have an advertising agency called Spike DDB. And the New York police came to me and said, “Spike, you have a better understanding of your communities. Can you do a campaign that shows an outreach to the community?” Simple as that. I don’t grow up hating police. And I don’t believe in “defund the police,” either. But I just want the police to be righteous.
So why not defund the police? It’s a debate going on.
But here’s the thing, though. The debate is about the words. And I’ve learned this in my own life, that I have to be very careful about the words I choose, because if you have the wrong words, they could be used against you. So it was very easy for people to take those words, “defund the police,” and make it sound like they’re saying we don’t need police. We need police. But we need righteous police. We need police who aren’t racist. And then this past year, for the first time in ages, the New York City Police Benevolent Society endorsed Agent Orange. And then another policeman got suspended for using the loudspeaker on his cop car, while on duty, in uniform, saying “Trump 2020.”
So what reforms are you looking for?
Look, I don’t have my documents in front of me, but it’s got to change. It’s got to change. There are just some fundamental changes that have to happen to have a more righteous — not police department, not just in New York City, but all over the United States of America.
So when you say “change,” what change do you mean? Do you have ideas of change, or just that it has to change?
I think that they have to relook at the budgets of these police departments. And so I hear, a lot of times, that policemen say, “We’re not equipped to deal with mentally disturbed people.”
Well, let’s take some of that budget and give it to the departments that can deal with that. That’s one thing.
All right. So when you feel that you are critical of them, you also work with them. And you want them to be better. If they came to you today, to your advertising company today, would you work with them again?
I would have second thoughts because — I would make them look at “Do the Right Thing.” Not that much has changed.
All right. Let’s switch talking about what you’re doing in Hollywood now. I asked you about the future of Hollywood. “Da 5 Bloods” had been released directly to Netflix. You’re also producing a new project with them — and I’m going to pronounce it wrong. I hope I don’t — “Gordon Hemingway & The Realm of Cthulhu.” Are you one of those directors who is nostalgic for old Hollywood big glamorous premiere nights? Do you miss that or being in physical theaters? How do you think the changes are going to affect Hollywood?
Well, I don’t know when — in fact, they just opened last weekend here in New York City. And I knew, going in, that people are still like, I don’t know. So wait and see. But there will come a time in the future where the masses will pack movie theaters once again.
I disagree with you.
Because I think they like the screens at home. I think they’ve gotten used to them. I think that movie-theater experience has declined rather precipitously as a product. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the movies. I think the experience of going to the movie theater is not the same.
Well, I beg to differ.
OK. You, as a director, think it’s critically important.
I think that — not every film. Some films — before, they used to say — remember, before, the line was, “I’m not going to the theater. I’ll rent it.”
Or I’ll see it on the plane.
See it on the plane. You know what I’m talking about.
But I know, next Christmas, I’m going to be in the theater for the first showing to see Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story.” The first time I see that, it’s going to be in the theater.
And how do you feel that Hollywood companies are shifting, like what Warner did, by putting the slate both places?
They’re trying to catch up to Netflix. Simple as that.
What do you think of that? What do you think of Netflix? They have a $100-million global fund to increase outreach to underrepresented communities on top of $5 million it plans to donate to organizations — probably one of the most diverse slates in the entertainment business. So how do you feel about, this is sort of the future? They are the future — pointing the way to the future.
Well, I think that Ted Sarandos, Scott Stuber, and Tendo — my brother Tendo — know that, in addition to this being the right thing to do, it’s also profitable.
Profitable and good business. Yeah, that’s what he says. But they are pointing the way to streaming. All the big studios are now streaming — is where all the business is for them.
They’re trying to catch up to Netflix. Netflix was innovative. And when somebody breaks through, everyone else is playing catch-up.
Right. Is that the way of the future, that they will be streaming and in theaters at the same time? How do you feel about that, as a big director?
That’s giving the people a choice. Now, here’s the thing, though. It’s really generational, too. For example, we have a generation — my reflection! Cinematography.
Spike is showing me his phone.
Yeah. We have a generation of people who grew up watching movies on their cell phone. And some people watch stuff that’s not even horizontal the way it was shot. That just — that pains me.
We have people who are watching “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters” — I’m not even going deep to, like, “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Bridge River Kwai,” “Doctor Zhivago.” I’m not even going that deep. I’m talking about current stuff, they’re not even watching horizontal, watch like that. So —
You’re not happy about that. What about the people you teach? You have many students. How are they looking at it?
Well, they get indoctrinated. [LAUGHS]
OK. Into the phone — into the world of digital?
I preach the gospel. Also, I’d like to say I’m very happy about two of my former students, Chloé —
Chloé Zhao, the director of “Nomadland.” Wonderful movie.
— and also Shaka King, “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Now, I’m not trying to say I was their only teacher there at N.Y.U. graduate film school, the best film school in the world. Nonetheless, I’m proud that their two films are really —
Killing it. They’re killing it.
Killin’ it. That’s the word.
They’re killin’ it. But leave the G off.
What do you think —
Hold on, hold on. Leave the G off. K-I-L-L-I-N, apostrophe. Killin’.
Killin’. Killin’. Killin’, with an apostrophe. All right. What are they doing that’s important, from your perspective?
They’re telling great stories. And I always felt that that’s what great directors do. They tell stories.
OK. So when you think of these upcoming directors, these young and upcoming directors, what does their future look like, especially — you mentioned, too —
Oh, their future is bright —
Why is that?
— number one, because there’s more places to go to.
Mm-hmm. And more places to create on.
Yes. Before, if the studio said no to your project, you’re up the creek.
Right. So they have more choices. How do you feel about those choices? I want to ask you the influence of platforms like Twitter or — there’s all kinds of places that people are publishing — on YouTube, all kinds of places. So do you see promise for these as becoming creative platforms, or are they more marketing or —
Oh, no, no, no. People are making feature films on iPhones. And that’s great. Why should you be denied — particularly for young filmmakers, why should you not have the chance to express yourself because you don’t have millions and millions of dollars?
All right, I’m going to finish up asking a couple more questions. You’re currently directing a documentary called “NYC Epicenters 9/11 – 2021 1/2,” which looks at New York City’s recovery from 9/11 and its experience through the COVID-19 pandemic. What spurred this idea for you to use these two events as bookends?
I’m a New Yorker, love New York. I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, but grew up here in the People’s Republic of Brooklyn, New York — public school, kindergarten, the John Dewey High School in Coney Island. I love New York, love its diversity, its energy. And I love New Yorkers. Simple as that.
So did you shoot any scenes this week? Can you give us a sneak peek?
Oh, this past weekend, we — I can’t do that.
I’ll tell you this, though. We’ve interviewed over 200 people.
Wow. To compare both 9/11 and —
Yeah, there are parallels. There are stuff to —
What’s the parallel?
How people said New York City would be dead after 9/11, and people are saying that currently.
Mm-hmm. I want to finish up with the New York mayoral election that’s happening. You narrated a campaign-announcement video for Ray McGuire, the former vice chairman of Citigroup. What convinced you that Ray is the one to rebuild New York?
Well, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done here in this city. And I’m a long-time friend of the family. And that’s the answer.
That’s the answer. Over other candidates — more progressive candidates like Maya Wiley or Dianne Morales, for example.
Look, there’s many, many candidates that people have to look at. So by me narrating this, I don’t think I’m saying people shouldn’t do their due diligence and choose the best person who they think is right.
Do you have any thoughts on Andrew Yang? [LAUGHS] Big, giant smile.
Next question. So let me ask you, when you think about New York and what you’re going to be doing next, what should we expect from the next era of Spike Lee?
Well, what you mentioned is documentary. The film I’m making is something else.
And it’s about?
You’ve got to come quicker than that. [LAUGHS]
What is your —
All right. Let’s cut out that 12-hour pregnant pause right there. [LAUGHTER] What I will answer — my next film, knock on wood — [KNOCKING] it will be my first musical —
— all singing-and-dancing musical. And the origin is an article that appeared in “Esquire” magazine. The article was about how Viagra came to be.
Why are you laughing?
I’m excited. I’m suddenly excited.
But you laughed! [CHUCKLES]
But let me tell you.
— the word “Viagra” makes anybody laugh.
You’re not —
— the only person that laughed.
Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
You’re not the only one.
OK. Well, you know what? I’m open-minded here on this one. I feel —
Thank you. Thank you.
— you could do it. So last question. The Knicks are currently fifth in the Eastern Conference, they tell me — my producers do. What do you think are the chances they will make the playoffs this year?
Oh, we’re making it.
Orange and blue skies.
Again, we’re making it.
There’s been a drought.
OK, a drought. And they’re making it. And you’re going to be courtside.
In the world’s most famous arena, the mecca — Madison Square Garden.
All right, then. Mr. Lee, thank you. This has been a delightful conversation. I’ve really enjoyed myself.
Thank you. Thank you. And one last thing.
What’s your son’s favorite N.B.A. team?
What does LeBron James play on? [LAUGHS]
Oh my God!
I’m sorry! That one.
You don’t know what team LeBron James plays for?
He loves LeBron James. He was —
What team does he play for? I’ll give you a clue.
Their uniforms are purple and gold.
Lakers. It’s got to be the Lakers. Lakers.
What city is that?
Oh! [APPLAUDS] [CHUCKLES]
Anyway, thank you so much. I appreciate it.
And also, I want you to know that I do listen to your podcast. And keep doing the right thing.
I’m — [LAUGHTER] What is that, though?
No, what did Yoda say?
Yoda. What — I don’t know. What did Yoda say?
Yoda from “Star Wars.”
I know who he is —
What did he say?
— thank you. Is it a he?
Lots of things.
Don’t get me mixed up with the pronouns. What did Yoda say?
Lots of things.
We don’t know the gender of Yoda. What did he say?
I understand. I don’t know. What did —
Yoda said, “No try. Do.”
Oh, right. OK. I will. I’m on it. I’m on it. All right. Have a good day. [MUSIC PLAYING]
“Sway” is a production of New York Times “Opinion.” It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Heba Elorbany, Matt Kwong, Daphne Chen, and Vishakha Darbha, edited by Nayeema Raza and Paula Szuchman, with original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Erick Gomez, and fact-checking by Kate Sinclair and Michelle Harris. Special thanks to Shannon Busta, Liriel Higa, and Jamie Collazo. If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to subscribe to a podcast, so subscribe to this one. If you’re listening on the Times website and want to get each new episode of “Sway” delivered to you as much as Spike Lee wants a championship delivered to the Knicks — good luck, Spike — download any podcast app. Then search for “Sway” and hit Subscribe. We release every Monday and Thursday. Thanks for listening.