Spike Lee
Photo by Josh Telles

Spike Lee: “I’m not a quitter”

Short Profile

Name: Shelton Jackson Lee
DOB: 20 March 1957
Place of birth: Atlanta, Georgia, United States
Occupation: Director, producer, screenwriter

Mr. Lee, a number of your films have been termed controversial, what drives you to make a movie?

I consider myself a storyteller. I feel that is what good directors do, they are really just following criteria: is this a good story? Is this the story I want to tell? All we’re trying to do is the hard task of making interesting, thought-provoking films. I don’t choose stories based on how controversial they are… I’ve never wanted to make mindless entertainment.

Jazz musician Branford Marsalis said that when an actor once asked you about your vision for a film, you responded, “I paid you good money to act, now act, that’s my vision.”

Branford’s exaggerating a little bit, I would never tell an actor that. When they ask a question, I try to give them what they need… A lot of actors like direction so what I try to do is not over direct.

Do you think you’re often misunderstood?

There have been more occasions than not where critics review what they feel is the persona of Spike Lee, what their personal views are about me, as opposed to reviewing the film. Therefore they neglect the people who work behind the camera and those who work in front of the camera and focus on Spike Lee — to the detriment of the film.

“There was a lot of love for New York City that was not felt before, at that time everybody was a New Yorker.”

That persona is sometimes seen as the quintessential New Yorker. What does being a New Yorker mean to you?

At one time there was a campaign to make New York City the 51st state. New York City is so different from the rest of the United States that it is frightening sometimes. The people outside of New York City view it as not even part of America; they view it as Babylon, the city of sin, where all the blacks, Hispanics, homosexuals, Jews, and the mafia are going crazy. That’s really the perception of a lot of Americans from the hinterlands.

Apparently you used to spend your summers in the South — I can imagine that being pretty far removed from your life in Brooklyn.

Yeah, like a lot of black people, I have roots that are in the South. And as a kid, our parents to get rid of you for a break, would ship your arse down South to spend some part of your vacation with your grandparents. It was very interesting to go down to Atlanta, on my mothers side, and visit my other grandmother on the fathers side in Alabama.

Did you feel life was different?

Me and my brother, man, we’d say, “This stuff is too slow down here.” We liked going down, but after a while we were ready to go back, because everything was too slow! But the gap between New York City and the rest of America was definitely bridged somewhat after September 11th when there was a lot of love for New York City that was not felt before, at that time everybody was a New Yorker and that type of stuff.

What were your cultural reference points as a kid growing in New York City?

Sports was all I did, that’s all I cared about. I wanted to be a baseball player. I went to movies but sports is really what I cared about — as well as with music, you know, Motown, the Beatles…

Music is still clearly very important to you. Even in your films, many characters are drawn to music…

Yeah, I don’t know what I would do if music was not a part of my life. I grew up in a jazz household with all types of music. And I definitely value music in my films as much as I value cinematography, costume design, acting. For me it is just as important.

Your father was a musician. Did he give you that impetus?

Indirectly because music was being played all the time. You tend to be what you are exposed to at an early age. I think that is true for any artist. I’m not going to make a blanket statement, but I don’t think it is hard to believe that people make art about personal experiences that have affected them.

What have you seen as pivotal experiences for yourself and your career?

A big pivotal moment was when I did this film called The Messenger and it did not work out and I was really thinking about quitting. I was thinking about it seriously. But I gathered myself and convinced myself that I was not a quitter and examined in my mind all the mistakes that I have made and said I’m not going to do those again. And the next film was She’s Gotta Have It.

“Nothing can prepare you for failure, just like a broken heart. You gotta go through that shit.”

What was it like to fail?

Nothing could prepare you for that. That is just something you have to go through on your own. Nothing can prepare you for failure, just like a broken heart. You gotta go through that shit, it is just part of living. I thought about folding, but I’m not a quitter. I’m not going to quit.

So where do you go from there? How do you convince yourself that you have still got talent?

It is a very hard thing to do. I’ve always just been confident and I’ve always been the product of a loving, supporting family. So if your family is behind you, that’s half the battle. I’ve always felt that children’s dreams are killed by their parents more than anybody. I’m a sports fan and I know that whatever sport it is, soccer, football, baseball, there is going to be a guy that has one great year but isn’t always able to — as they say in sports — put those numbers back to back to back.

The entire body of work often outweighs a single failure.

Right, I’ve always felt that any intelligent person, if you really want to have a true assessment of the artist’s work, you have to look at their body of work. If somebody does a great first film, how do you know what their third film is going to be like? What kind of films are they going to be making 10 films down the line? That is why I think people need to be patient. I’ve always felt that; whatever the artist whether they’re a novelist, sculptor, musician, singer, filmmaker, playwright, you have to look at the body of work.