The headquarters of Spike Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, is situated on a tree-lined street in his native Brooklyn. Once you enter the brick building, however, you’re surrounded by one of the most jaw-dropping collections of cultural ephemerae ever; a monument to his impressive, 30-plus year body of work. There is an African National Congress flag signed by Nelson and Winnie Mandela, a memento from shooting the film Malcolm X; Mookie’s Jackie Robinson/Brooklyn Dodgers jersey from his seminal movie Do the Right Thing; and a Shepard Fairey post of former President Barack Obama including the inscription: “Spike, thanks for the inspiration,” signed by Obama. He wasn’t kidding, either: Obama took his now-wife, Michelle, to a showing of Do the Right Thing on their first date.
In the bowels of the building is an all-white studio space where Lee’s been known to shoot some of the talking head scenes for his documentaries. Its memorabilia-lined walls notwithstanding, there are but three items in the vast space: a table covered with magazines, a Tesla Model X charging in the corner, and a desk in the rear. It is there that Lee is seated, engaged in a seemingly important phone conversation. Perhaps it’s about She’s Gotta Have It, a 10-episode TV adaptation of his critically acclaimed 1986 debut feature, that’s currently in post-production, and scheduled to drop sometime this fall on Netflix. Or maybe it has to do with Rodney King, a one-man show by regular Lee collaborator Roger Guenveur Smith, now playing on the streaming service.
Lee, who calls Smith a “force of nature,” filmed a performance of his one-man show, about the tragic life and death of the eponymous police brutality victim who sparked the L.A. riots, at the East River Park Amphitheater last summer. It is one of several works commemorating the 25th anniversary of the L.A. riots, an expression of rage and righteous anger prompted by the acquittal of the police officers involved in the King beating.
It’s late April and the 60-year-old filmmaker appears preoccupied with the mounting tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, two countries ruled by authoritarian heirs with regrettable hairdos. “We’re on the verge of World War III,” he tells me.
I guess we better hurry then.
Roger is a force of nature in this film.
He’s a beast! We did another one-man show together, A Huey P. Newton Story. He acts in the roles that are written for him, but he writes these one-man shows and he really gets to do his thing. He’s the only person onstage, and he’s a dynamo. It’s all scripted. He’s been doing his Rodney King one-man show for four years.
It is the 25th anniversary of the L.A. riots and we’ve seen a lot of pieces come out commemorating them. What does Rodney King mean to you 25 years on?
Well, that’s tragic. He died in his swimming pool. It wasn’t going to end well. I would venture that his close friends knew that something was going to happen to him. He was just one of those people where you knew. But I mean, he became a punch line, too. I’m not trying to be cute or make fun of him at all. And if you look at it, we have not really advanced that far when you think about where we are in this country.
He was reduced to somewhat of a punch line for his “can we all get along” speech, and I always found that pretty unfair.
He was not the most articulate guy to begin with, so maybe that’s why he wasn’t allowed to go on the stand to defend himself. The other thing is, he’s this big, black guy and that’s always been a problem in America, so his defense lawyers convinced him not to speak.
Police brutality is still, of course, a very big issue today.
Here’s the thing, though, and it’s something that a lot of people are missing: Jeff Sessions is the Attorney General of the United States of America, and believe me, it’s going to be much harder to bring any [charges] against cops. And Jeff Sessions the other day said the NYPD’s too “soft on crime.”
So how worrying do you find the fact that Jeff Sessions is our attorney general? He has been accused repeatedly of racism.
Worrying. The guy’s an alleged card-carrying Klan member. The whole cabinet is scary. It’s scary. It’s scary times we live in. And I say this often, but: Agent Orange has the nuclear codes, too.
We’re both New Yorkers, and speaking of punch lines, Trump’s always been a punch line to New Yorkers, although to the rest of the country, perhaps he was seen as the imposing man in the boardroom on The Apprentice.
Who’s laughing now?
Did you ever have any run-ins with Donald? You two must have crossed paths in New York over the years.
No, not really. A couple of years ago they had this event for New Yorkers, and I went, and as soon as he got elected that’s the picture The New York Times ran—it’s me, him, and his wife. It was just a step-and-repeat where they pulled us together for a photo, and then once or twice, when the Knicks were good, Dolan [the team owner] would invite him to a Knick game. But other than that, I’ve had no interaction with him.
As a New Yorker, how do you feel about him representing your city?
I don’t claim him! Even if he was Brooklyn I wouldn’t claim him. I don’t claim Giuliani, and he’s from Brooklyn. He’s given New York a bad look to the world.
You mentioned Knicks owner James Dolan, who’s also a big Trump supporter. How do you feel about the way he handled Charles Oakley? As a Knicks fan, I was not ok with it.
That was not a good look for anybody—for Oakley, for Dolan, for The Garden, for the Knicks, and for the NBA. Nobody wanted that.
But obviously we’re trying to draw free agents to the Knicks, and…
…If you’re a free agent, why are you coming to New York?
Exactly. When you have their GM Phil Jackson smearing LeBron and Carmelo, and then you have Dolan ejecting a Knicks legend in Oakley, it’s not making the Knicks seem like an attractive destination for free agents.
All I’ll say is that I know a lot of these guys, and they’re gonna see what’s happened in New York this past season, and they’re going to think long and hard about whether they want to play here. And it’s unfortunate. Draft picks are good, but what’s the use of clearing salary cap space if we can’t get anybody to come? And then the guys that come, they might be near the bottom of the list, so you wouldn’t want them anyway?
So what’s your prescription for the Knicks? How do we fix this?
I mean, we haven’t won since the ’72-73 season. They haven’t won in my son’s lifetime, and we were taking him to Knicks games when he was laying in our arms. These times have periodically hit the Knicks over the span of many years, and I always refer to my man Michael Ray Richardson: “The ship be sinking.”
At least they have KP. That’s the one great thing Phil did.
And the other question is: nobody knows what Melo’s going to do either.
You don’t think he’s pretty much done, though? You really think he has some good years left in him?
Yes. Yes. Yes. And he has a no-trade clause, so it’s going to be his decision. It’s Melo’s decision, not Phil Jackson’s decision.
What do you think about Phil as GM?
What’s that famous Bill Parcells quote? “You are what your record says you are.”
That says it all, I think. Let’s go back to the L.A. riots. Do you remember what they meant to you at the time?
Well, I never used the word “riots.” I’ve always said it was an uprising. But for me, putting it in historical perspective, that’s not the first uprising in L.A. You had Watts. You had Detroit. You had the hot summer of ’68. There was the uprising when Dr. King got assassinated. And then, most recently, you had Ferguson. People reach a boiling point. That’s where the whole thing came for Do the Right Thing. I didn’t make that up. People reach a boiling point.
It is pretty amazing how prescient Do the Right Thing was, because that was released in 1989, a few years before the L.A. riots.
We talk about global warming in that film! But when I saw the video of Eric Garner being murdered—allegedly murdered, allegedly strangled to death—I was looking at Radio Raheem.
Which was based on the real-life case of Michael Stewart.
Exactly. And as you saw, with the instances of Rodney King and Eric Garner, in the capturing of those violent acts, nobody went to jail.
In journalism, when someone commits plagiarism, the journalism community isn’t too happy about that because it reflects poorly on the profession. But police aren’t like that. When one of these officers commits an act of police brutality, they all rise to his or her defense.
It’s the code. It’s the wall of silence. They didn’t see nothing or hear nothing. There’s so much pressure to step out and talk against your fellow cops. Shit, you could be killed on the job. They can say you were in the way and boom.
Lee has a beautiful Afrocentric painting of former President Barack Obama hanging on one of his walls. I can’t help but turn to it sporadically during our talk.
I see your painting of Obama over there. Did you see him finally reemerge to speak at the University of Chicago recently?
What did he say?
He cracked a joke and said, “So, uh, what’s been going on now that I’ve been gone?”
[Laughs] The world is upside down, number 44!
Do you see that with Trump, at least, it’s now an example of Republican hypocrisy laid bare? For a while they’ve been the party of tax cuts for the rich, cutting social programs for the poor, and ambivalence or even hostility to racial issues. Having Trump in office may perhaps wake some people up to this.
People knew that before. I don’t think there’s this great revelation now that, now that Trump is president, people are getting woke to the Republican Party. They heard the president talk about snatching women’s privates.
That is true. But I think the pervasive sexism in America is a slightly separate issue.
But how can someone vote for a president who talks about snatching women’s privates?
The way the GOP seemed to overcome that is through false equivalence—by comparing Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Trump even brought some of Bill Clinton’s to the second presidential debate to try and draw that comparison, as well as redirect some of the criticism he was receiving over the Access Hollywood tape.
What about Bill O’Reilly?
What about him? How do you feel about what’s happened at Fox News? They’ve had both Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly resign in shame amid sexual harassment allegations, and other on-air talents like Megyn Kelly and Greta Van Susteren leave.
They’re not going broke! And O’Reilly’s not going broke either. What is he getting? $25 million? And the women got what?
His accusers received $13 million—or a little more than half of O’Reilly’s golden parachute—from O’Reilly and Fox News.
Wow. $13 million was paid out? Man. I never watched [O’Reilly’s] show. The only thing I watch on Fox is football.
So, 25 years since the L.A. riots. All that time has passed and it’s brought us to… President Trump.
My daughter’s graduating undergrad film school. Time flies. It’s quick. And you used that word: president. It doesn’t feel presidential, though.
You have a daughter, and you mentioned the Access Hollywood video where Trump is heard bragging about sexual assault. What message do you think having someone like that be president sends to America’s women?
It says a lot about America. I travel a lot overseas and they’re like, “How did this happen?”
How do you think it happened?
People were asleep. Everybody thought Hillary had it wrapped up, and here we are. A lot of white women voted for Trump. At that Women’s March, I bet you a lot of those women voted for Trump.
Polls showed that 53 percent of white women voted for Trump. That raised some interesting questions about whiteness—and the protective shield of whiteness—in America. Because a majority of white women voted for the man in that video versus the first female presidential candidate of a major party.
People had trouble with Hillary Clinton, too. She had her own baggage. I’m not making a judgment, I’m just saying there was a likability issue and a trust issue with her, and that’s something that they weren’t able to figure out how to deal with. I’m reading that new book Shattered, and it’s good. I mean, you’re a big sports fan: Trump outworked her. He outworked her. In the end she was chilling and he was working. They wouldn’t listen to Bill [Clinton], either. He wanted to campaign more and they were like, “Look, you’ve had your two terms. This is how we’re doing it.” And in retrospect, maybe they should have listened to him. It’s scary times we live in. Putin, the crazy guy in North Korea, Agent Orange? Come on, now. That’s a bad combination. That’s a deadly combination.