I don't know whether Lee minted the expression "Do the right thing" as a political catchphrase. (In the elegiac coda to Lee's Malcolm X, we see Malcolm, in newsreel footage, telling a crowd: "You haven't done the right thing.") But it is a measure of the film-maker's influence that many people's minds at the climax of the Simpson trial turned to Lee. Thanks to the power of the movies and his own incendiary talent, Lee has often set the agenda for racial debate in America over the past decade. To his supporters, he is the film-maker who has asked the most probing questions in that period. To his detractors, he is the one who has provided the glibbest answers. He has just completed his eighth full feature film, Clockers, a coruscating, yet sometimes tender, examination of the effect of drugs on young black lives. It will be shown at the London Film Festival, and Lee will be over to give a lecture at the National Film Theatre.
I spoke to Lee last month at the Venice Film Festival, where Clockers was playing in competition (and went surprisingly unrewarded). I approached the interview, which took place in the al fresco restaurant of the opulent Hotel Cipriani (Lee's accommodation, not mine), with a certain amount of trepidation. Lee has a reputation for savagery or sullenness towards journalists. His mood is not supposed to be alleviated if the reporter is white (as I am); though I did hear that a black journalist at Venice, expecting a smooth ride, was asked by Lee: "Why do they always send me the token black?"
The story may be apocryphal. Much of what is written about Lee, and his films, is myth or, more often, oversimplification. There is undoubtedly a polemical side to him and his work. But it is usually qualified by subtlety and humanity, which get lost by many viewers amid the smoke of the battlefields Lee's films become. In part, I think, Lee courts this. He is keen to provoke, to lead viewers to the brink of dangerous ideas. He doesn't seem too bothered if they fail to realise how skilfully he usually withdraws to safer ground. Like any true artist he is not afraid of unpopularity.
On that warm Venetian afternoon, I found him genial but alert, as ready to laugh, with an engagingly unbridled snigger, as to query and correct - always courteously. He has a street-wise swiftness of thought, hustling questions with short, punchy replies. His conversation is peppered with argot you might require a dictionary of Brooklyn slang to translate ("mameluke"). He was delighted to have the chance to explore Venice for the first time ("Great city!"). Dressed in smart casuals and a baseball cap, he never removed his sunglasses.
WE STARTED with banter about basketball. Lee is a fanatic, who never misses a home match of the New York Knicks. (His desire for Clockers to make money has been sharpened by the recent price increase of his Madison Square Garden season tickets to $2,000 a match.) Soon the conversation shifted to Clockers, which tells the story of two black brothers caught up in a drugs murder in a Brooklyn project neighbourhood. There, young blacks acting as conduits between drug dealers and clients tread the streets around the clock (hence the title). The law-abiding brother confesses to the murder; but a white racist cop pursues his clocker brother, Strike. The film has a curious position in the Lee canon, both familiar and strange: a further exploration of the harrowing terrain of American racism - but in a new ultra-realistic style that often borders on cinema verite (the scenes in the projects are shot on a grey, ragged film stock). Where earlier Lee films had the feel of intricately worked racial fables, Clockers is more of a raw slice of life, captured by Lee, and then given his own personal spin. This may be due to it being the first of his films that he has not originated himself. Clockers was a novel by Richard Price, who wrote the first script and co-produced the film, along with Lee and Martin Scorsese, who was at one point scheduled to direct it. It is possible to detect a slight distance in Lee's comments on the film.
Lee's interest is in the novel's black characters (he cut out the personal life of Harvey Keitel's avenging cop). He has tried to paint a more shaded, morally complex inner city than many of his contemporaries have. "I had to do that," he says, "or there'd be no reason to do this film. My major concern was that I did not want to contribute to the bleakly pessimistic genre that black film-makers seem to be stuck in now." While thrilled by the increased chances for black directors, Lee has not always been impressed by their work. When I asked him to follow up a remark he had once made that we would soon find out who the black "pretenders and ... contenders" were, he just chuckled.
There is horrifying brutality, physical and verbal, and appalling carnage in Clockers, but also vibrant colour, vitality and lyricism (often provided by the soundtrack which contains as many ballads as rap numbers). "Often, when white Americans, or just white people in general, think about the ghetto," Lee argues, "they assume that all the black people there are drug-dealers and prostitutes, that it's a den of depravity. And that there's never any colour, there's never any joy, never any happiness. That's not true. So we wanted to show human beings. At the same time understanding that you can't make drug dealers the Brady Bunch either."
In the sort of criticism that would never be aimed at a white film-maker, Lee has been accused in the past of not showing enough drugs in his films. Though his 1982 New York University graduation film, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop, featured an unflattering portrait of a dealer, Lee was accused of utopianism in not throwing drugs into the explosive racial cauldron of Do the Right Thing. (He argues that drugs "would have been a frivolous sub-plot" and points out that no one criticised Oliver Stone for the omission of drugs from Wall Street, which came out at the same time.) An asthmatic since childhood, he has, he says, never got high, "knowing how precious I treat just a breath".
Clockers doesn't stint on the misery and degradation of addiction. But Lee is not naive about drugs and crime in the ghetto. When I mentioned the argument of the black novelist John Edgar Wideman that with such limited possibilities, crime presents the only, even the justified way out, Lee replied: "I don't know if he went quite that far. But I think that's still somewhat of a reality. Black men are growing up, and there are few or no prospects - except as an athlete, and not too many can be good enough for that; or a rapper, but rappers come a dime-a-dozen now. So they see their options to be very limited."
Clockers is not mainly about drugs, or race, or racism - though it skirmishes with them. Its real subject is family - and the lack of it in the ghetto. Strike, having no father, is caught between two surrogates: a cop, pulling him towards the straight-and-narrow, and a drug dealer, steering him into the dangerous-but-lucrative. One of the film's strongest features is the way it shows how the drug dealer (Lee regular Delroy Linden) combines his peddling of destruction with a pastoral care for his young lieutenants.
"It's important to see that in many of these communities, there are no men in the household," says Lee. "So all these young black males who grow up without any male parental supervision, go outside the house to seek that. And unfortunately, many of these are going to go for the 'okey-dokey'." This is the theme of Clockers: fatherhood - or, rather, fathers in the hood.
LEE IS himself a father now - of a daughter, Satchel, whom he has already taken to four or five Knicks games ("She's a regular sports maven"). At the age of 39, and already the grand old man of black cinema, Lee shows no sign of slowing-up. He has completed shooting Girl 6, an ensemble comedy about telephone sex, his ninth feature in as many years. Early on in his career, Lee used to cite other black film-makers (the pioneering Melvyn Van Peebles, for instance) as cautionary examples of fleeting black success followed by anonymity or exploitation (Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasss Song in 1971 was milked by the studios in their demeaning "blaxploitation" movies). Part of Lee's drive and prolificity stems from a desire to avoid the same fate. "It was always our goal to get a body of work," he told me.
Lee often talks of his own enterprises in the plural, as if he were the leader of a political party or the coach of a ball team. Or, more precisely, the head of a corporation. Lee's marketing savvy is another weapon against the traditional marginalisation of black film-makers. In addition to his film company, 40 Acres and a Mule, Lee has his own Brooklyn shop, Spike's Joint, set up to sell "authentic" memorabilia. And most of his films have been accompanied by elaborate tie-in books. The video of Lee's Mo' Better Blues is preceded by a short adulatory documentary resembling one of the lives of the saints ("... the very capable, multi-talented sensation that is Spike Lee").
All this may, in a facilely Freudian way, be read as a rebellion against his father, the jazz musician Bill Lee. Bill Lee has collaborated on many of his son's scores, and according to Spike is a great talent unfulfilled through lack of commercial nouse. Their relationship has been further strained by Bill's re-marriage to a white, Jewish lady. Given the flurry of accusations of anti-Semitism made against Lee after the depiction of two tight-fisted Jewish club-owners in Mo' Better Blues, I asked him whether he found it ironic to be collaborating with a Jewish writer, Richard Price, on Clockers. "Is Richard Price Jewish?" he responded, laughing, and refuting the earlier accusations. My own opinion is that Mo' Better Blues's offensiveness lies in the grotesquely caricatured performances of the miscast Turturro brothers as the club-owners.
The early life of Shelton Jackson Lee provided plenty to rebel against. His childhood was comfortable and middle-class; his family were the first blacks in the all-white neighbourhood of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. He says that they suffered little racist abuse because they posed no threat. Lee emphasises that, despite growing up in an integrated setting, he "chose to go to a predominately black college, Morehouse". Afterwards, he studied film at New York University. Inspired by the films of career-long friend Martin Scorsese, and the success of class-mate Jim Jarmusch, Lee made his name with the sex comedy, She's Gotta Have It (1986), in which a woman toyed with three lovers, parodies of different styles of black manhood. Some critics think it is still his best film. But Lee is at pains to disparage it, especially its commercial calculation and its acting. And it's true none of the principals prospered, whereas actors in Lee's other films, often getting their break with him, form a who's who of African-American acting.
After She's Gotta Have It, came School Daze (1988), a musical attacking divisions between students at all-black colleges. Along with last year's little-seen family drama Crooklyn, it is Lee's least accessible work. It was Lee's third and fifth films that cemented his reputation, in all its polarity. They remain his masterpieces. Do the Right Thing (1989), as well as being an almost perfect realisation of the Aristotelian dramatic unities (a tragedy that unfolds in a single summer's day, leading to the death of a young black man and the burning and looting of an Italian pizzeria in reprisal) defies the hysteria of many responses to it, by the richness of its community portrait, and the ambivalence lurking at almost every turn. The more times you see the movie, the more you realise that it stands as a vindication of neither of the famous concluding quotations (Martin Luther King's plea for pacifism or Malcolm X's approval of violence in "self-defence") but as a complex and agonised attempt to understand and even combine both - a work of art rather than agitprop.
There were those who saw Malcolm X (1992), with its deliberation and sobriety, as a new departure in Lee's work. In fact, it was a culmination. For all the fireworks, he has always been a director of checks and balances. A famous scene in Jungle Fever (1991) consisted of a discussion between the wife of the black hero (who is having an affair with a white girl) and her girlfriends about the lure of interracial sex. A review in New York magazine condemned Lee for tabloid sleaze ("Move over, Oprah...") and being obsessed with "race hatred and colour". But the scene ends with the wife saying: "You know something? It don't even matter what colour she is. My man is gone." Time and again, Lee's films slip away from sectarianism, without their critics having the wit to see it.
THERE IS a school of thought that Lee is an "inverse racist". This seems to stem from his unease about integration. Lee is resented for not selling out to white life, instead of praised for his integrity and solidarity with his own people. It is true that some of his pronouncements on race have sounded sophistic. But his real stance is more pragmatically pessimistic than confrontational. His view on integration is close to that of the novelist James Baldwin, that it is fine so long as whites withdraw from their supremacist and separatist ways: "I think that nowadays black and white people are realising that integration may not be the big deal it was thought to be. A lot of black people, tired of the harassment, are saying that if they don't want me to live there, I don't want to be there."
Lee has done for black film-makers what Richard Wright, author of Native Son, did for black novelists. He is a pioneer, the first in his field to communicate black rage to whites. His achievement in storming the white bastion of the movies is undervalued. To be black in Hollywood is still a rarity (as it is in Venice: the only other black face I saw there was that of a page boy in Veronese's painting The Supper in the House of Levi). Lee's films, through their stylistic brio and lack of mystique, have tried to break down the barriers between the viewer and the film-maker that Lee felt as a boy. Now writing a bio-pic of the baseball player Jackie Robinson, he is wary of comparisons to Wright ("I have this image of always being the angry black man - it's not really true") but also flattered. "I'm not as good a film-maker as Richard Wright was a novelist," he reckons. But he says that he is "trying". Clearly, doing the Wright thing.
! 'Clockers' is showing at the LFF (Odeon WE, 3.30 & 8.45pm 15 Nov; booking details overleaf) and is released nationwide on 9 Feb 1996.Reuse content