Observations: How cinema's inside man manages to do the right thing

  • @alicevjones

Spike Lee was on typically rambunctious form at The Independent Interview on Monday at London's BFI. In a wide-ranging discussion, guided gently and not always successfully by David Lammy, MP, the director covered everything from the release of Do the Right Thing 20 years ago and the racism of critics, to how Barack Obama is coping with a post-election onslaught from "redneck crackers" ("The euphoria of him winning has gone. He's under attack"), and the changing face of cinema, where funding is scarce. "Unless you're Spielberg, Lucas or Tyler Perry, it's hard to get a film made." Nevertheless, the single-minded director (he demands final cut on all of his movies) revealed that he had turned down big-budget directing jobs in the aftermath of his most successful film, Inside Man. "Every available bank-heist movie that had been lying around was dusted off and sent to me".

His wrangles with Warner Bros over the 1992 film Malcolm X also came up. The studio refused to let it run over three hours, telling him that Oliver Stone's JFK biopic was only two hours and 10 minutes. "So I called Oliver up and he said: 'Spike, it's over three hours. But don't tell those guys...'" When the studio shut down the film in post-production, Lee famously approached prominent African Americans for hand-outs. Starting with Bill Cosby and emboldened by his success, he secured increasingly large donations from Oprah Winfrey, Janet Jackson, Prince, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. "Now, Michael is a very competitive person", said Lee. "He doesn't like to lose at anything, be it tiddlywinks or ping-pong. So I just happened to mention how much Magic Johnson had given – and he wrote me the biggest cheque of all."

There have been plenty of sticky moments in the director's career. When he shot Michael Jackson's "They Don't Care About Us" video in Rio de Janeiro's most dangerous favela, "a part of the city where the police don't even go", he had to seek out the chief drug-dealer for protection. "He said to me: 'You don't need to worry. While Michael Jackson's here, this will be the safest place on earth.'" Frank Sinatra was less easy to please. When Lee approached Nancy Sinatra about using one of her father's songs in Jungle Fever, he struck difficulties. "My father did not like that you burned his picture on the wall of fame in that film", came the clipped response, referring to the climactic scene of Do the Right Thing in which Sal's Pizzeria – and its contentious wall of portraits of famous Italian Americans – is set alight. After lengthy negotiations, Lee won through, and "It Was a Very Good Year" appeared on his soundtrack. Must be that famous Spike charm.