Spike Lee - still doing the right thing

As the BFI celebrates 20 years since the release of Spike Lee's seminal film with The Independent Interview and a season of movies on the Southbank, the director talks to Kaleem Aftab about race and retrospectives

Spike Lee arrives at the BFI Southbank on Monday as part of a celebration of Do The Right Thing, his third film, which premiered at the Cannes film festival in 1989. In the two decades since then, the film has been recognised by the American Film Institute as one of the greatest 100 American movies in film history and was highly listed in a Sight and Sound Poll of the best films of the past 25 years. It was also, as Barack Obama coyly admitted last year, the movie that the President of the United States of America took Michelle to see on their first date. All in all, a far cry from the divisions and debate that the race drama provoked on its release.

It was the most controversial and discussed film of that summer. You couldn't pick up a magazine or newspaper without someone having an opinion on the Brooklyn tale or the director. Critics David Denby in New York Magazine and Richard Corliss in Time argued that Do The Right Thing was of no value except as agitprop to incite the black community to riot. In the opposite corner was Roger Ebert who wrote that "it comes closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time".

It's not to belittle Lee's other films, including Malcolm X or Inside Man, or his two great documentaries 4 Little Girls about the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama and the Katrina documentary When the Levees Broke, to state that Do The Right Thing remains the key work in his oeuvre. The director would never admit that it's his best film. "My films are like my children", he says. "I don't have a favourite." Yet in all the literature that Lee approves, from the children's book he wrote with his lawyer-turned-writer wife Tonya, Please, Baby, Please to the blurbs on the back of DVDs, it's always Do The Right Thing that is given the status of first among equals.

Despite his hectic schedule, which saw him premiere two new films at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, Lee, now aged 52 has spent the summer touring a new print and promoting the Blu-ray release of Do The Right Thing in the US. "The film has grown in stature," he pauses to give one of his hearty bellowing laughs. "It's been fun, but I rarely try to stay too much in the past. It's been great going to these things and having the reunions, fun meeting up with all the people that contributed to what is being billed as this landmark film. There comes a point when I have to keep stepping and moving. After next week, I'll be done with the retrospective. Well, at least, until the 50th anniversary and if the Lord is willing I'll still be around."

Keen to move on to the next thing he may be, but Lee is also renowned as a collector of memorabilia. His offices are adorned with a fabulous set of movie posters while many of the black-faced pottery and porcelain trinkets used in his movie Bamboozled (about a modern television minstrel show) came from the director's personal collection. So it's no surprise to learn that he's kept a few souvenirs from Do The Right Thing, too. "Of course I have Mookie's Jackie Robertson shirt, the slate and Sal's pizzeria box", he says. "I keep the original script to all my movies. I don't type, I write the first draft long hand on a yellow legal pad."

In 1989, the prognosis on race relations was not good. The action is set on the hottest day of the year in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a mainly black neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York, and racial tensions are at breaking point. The African-American members of the community led by vocal militant Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) have had enough of being kept at the bottom of the ladder. It's telling that the only two businesses on the block are Sal's Pizzeria, run by the Italian-American family (Danny Aiello was Oscar nominated for his performance as Sal) and a fruit and vegetable establishment owned by a Korean family. The film is mainly told from the perspective of pizza delivery boy, Mookie, played by Lee, whose sole motivation is to get paid. As racial tensions simmer Mookie takes us on a journey through a vibrant black community that goes about its daily tasks under the omnipresent eye of We Love Radio DJ "Mr Senor Love Daddy" (Samuel L Jackson). There's also a great performance from John Turturro, the actor who has appeared in more Lee films than any other, as Sal's hard-nosed racist son Pino. The film is packed with topical material, from references to David Dinkin's campaign to become the first African American mayor of New York, Tawana Brawley's discredited claims of being raped by police officers, the murder of construction worker Michael Griffith at the hands of an Italian-American mob in Howard Beach and the death of graffiti-artist Michael Stewart who was apprehended by eleven policeman in a white transit van and choked to death (the evidence of Stewart being strangled by the police was "lost"). It all sounds very serious but the beauty of Do The Right Thing lies in its humour, not least in the shape of the hilarious trio (Robin Harris, Paul Benjamin and Frankie Faison) who stand on the street corner commenting on the comings-and-goings like a Greek Chorus. It's told at a raucous pace and everyone's opinions are aired.

The film took its lead from Richard Wright's Native Son, the great black literary work of protest which shocked many on its publication in 1940. It broke the stance, popular among black authors of the time, of advancing the idea of the sophisticated and cultivated "new Negro", so called for his or her ability to assimilate into American society. Lee sided with the more aggressive and disillusioned black masses, turning the psychic and physical violence of black life outward on to white America. Do The Right Thing culminates in a race riot in which Mookie throws a trash can through the window of Sal's pizza parlour.

Do The Right Thing was the first Spike Lee film I watched – on video as an impressionable teenager. I was transfixed by the action, especially the scenes in which the protagonists vented their rage to camera and the little touches such as Buggin' Out cleaning his Nike trainers with a toothbrush. It was a film that depicted all the fun, laughter, sadness, fear and tension of being a minority group and living in a big city. It kick-started an interest in the director that would lead to my spending over a year working at his production office, 40 Acres and a Mule. Even when a film was not in production it was a hubbub of activity, housing an edit suite, his assistants, a room he used for rehearsals as well as a garage containing props from his films. When She Hate Me went into production the office was transformed as interns and film technicians moved in, while around the corner, in what has since become his main office, the production team and wardrobe would congregate. Lee has a massive desk at the centre of the building, but he'd rarely be sat in his chair for more than 10 minutes. I was hooked and embarked upon a biography of the man born Shelton Jackson Lee in Atlanta, Georgia in 1957. Lee's father was a jazz musician and his mother an English teacher. When Lee was very young the family moved to Brooklyn, New York, first to Cobble Hill where his was the only black family in a predominantly Italian-American neighbourhood before relocating to Fort Greene, the setting of his debut film She's Gotta Have It in 1986. The director attended the NYU film school where he was inspired by the success of Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise to make his own independent film. His appearance as the B-boy Mars Blackmon in the film led to a call from Nike who asked him to star in and direct commercials with the then rising basketball star Michael Jordan. It was through these adverts that Lee first entered the American public consciousness. They were also the beginnings of his work to use his fame to raise concerns about race in America.

It's amazing to think that there is now a black man in the White House when only 20 years ago Do The Right Thing made such a play of promoting the campaign of David Dinkins to become the first black mayor of New York. Lee, a vocal supporter of Obama's presidential bid, admits that there was no way that he could have foreseen or even dreamed of such speedy progress. "I couldn't imagine there being a black President five years ago, let alone in 1989. So it's a testament to the United States of America, but at the same time I'm not drinking that post-racial climate Kool-Aid. I don't think that exists yet."

The director has never shied away from saying what he thinks on race issues or creating stories in which race and creed is seen as pivotal. He criticised racism within the African-American community in his second film, School Daze before turning his eye to black-and-white tensions in Do The Right Thing. Mo' Better Blues set in a jazz club was criticised for its depiction of greedy Jewish club managers while Jungle Fever dealt with inter-racial relationships. The director was even accused of playing the race card when he put himself forward as the right man to tell the Malcolm X story on screen in the early Nineties. The Alex Haley biography was, he said, simply the most pivotal book he had read while growing up. Then, just when it seemed that he was V Cmaking films that veered away from race as a central topic, the director made Bamboozled in 2000, an under-rated satire about a modern black-and-white minstrel show. Lee is a director who responds to his own environment and as race has become a less important issue in his own life, it's taken up less space in his films.

I ask whether the changes that have taken place in America over the past two decades mean that a film like Do The Right Thing could not be made today. "It would be very hard to make a film like this today", he answers. "Not because the subject is irrelevant. I don't think the studios would do this. I have to thank Tom Pollock who was running Universal Pictures at the time. He put the weight of the studio behind me for this film and supported me, even when people wanted to waver and divorce themselves from the film."

Today, Lee is finding it more difficult to source funding for his films. Like so many Hollywood auteurs, he recently had to go to Europe to finance work such as his last fiction movie the World War 2 Buffalo Soldiers fantasy Miracle at St Anna. His one big box-office success of the past few years, indeed the biggest hit of his career, was the heist movie Inside Man, which was backed by a major studio. The director is famous for his work ethic and like Woody Allen, a director to whom he was unfairly compared when he first burst on to the scene, he tries to make a film a year. At the Tribeca Film Festival in April he unleashed two new documentaries. The first, Kobe Doin' Work, follows basketball star Kobe Bryant with multiple cameras during a NBA playoff game. The director took his inspiration from Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno's Zidane, a 21st Century Portrait. The second, Passing Strange, saw Lee, as he had done with The Huey P Newton Story in 2001, film a successful stage play. His movie of the Tony award-winning rock musical about a black musician in 1970s LA setting out on a journey to find himself was well received, allowing the production to live on in posterity long after the final curtain had come down.

Now Lee has a number of projects on the backburner, including a biopic of Joe Louis written by the late Budd Schulberg. "Right now I'm about to teach class again at the NYU film school. Besides being a professor there, I'm also an artistic director there at NYU graduation film programme", he says. "I'm working on some new ideas and hopefully we can get Inside Man 2 off the ground. A sequel is something that I've never done before." As with everything in Hollywood at the moment, even this is not a sure thing. "It still might not get made, but we had such a great time making the first, with Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster and Clive Owen and all the New York character actors surrounding them, so hopefully Universal will let us do this baby."

Next Lee is turning his attention to the stage once again, not yet as a director of a play, a long-held ambition he has yet to fulfil. He explains: "There is a young man, Lemon Andersen, who had a small part in Inside Man and who also used to be one of the Def Poetry Jam writers, he has a one-man show that will play at the Public Theatre in New York and it will be billed as Spike Lee Presents, which essentially is a way to encourage some people who might not otherwise go to see the play County of Kings. But I'm sure that after they see his play, Lemon won't need a Spike Lee Presents again."

The defining moment of the summer for Lee was hearing that Michael Jackson had died. Lee made the music video to Jackson's controversial 1996 tune, "They Don't Care About Us", and was bewildered on hearing the news. "I was in Cannes, for a conference, and I just happened to turn on CNN. I didn't go to bed that night, I just kept on the TV. It was a big, big loss." Lee responded by hosting a dance party on what would have been Jackson's 51st birthday in Brooklyn's Prospect Park last month.

The sight of Lee leading the singing on stage is a far cry from his reputation for being a difficult interviewee, a man perhaps who lives up to his prickly first name. It's true to say that Spike is not someone you're going to meet at a train station and become Facebook pals with, yet he is not as tough as some would have us to believe. In truth he's shy, and gets animated only when conversation hits a subject that he's keen to talk about, such as movies, music, politics or American football. His life is taken up with the business of making films, and whether Inside Man 2 happens or not, one thing is for sure, it won't be long before he's back in his favourite place, the director's chair.

Kaleem Aftab is the author of 'Spike Lee: That's My Story and I'm Sticking To It' (Faber)

'The Independent' Interview with Spike Lee takes place at 8.45pm on Monday 21st September at BFI Southbank, London SE1, with a screening of 'Do the Right Thing' beforehand at 6.30pm. The BFI Southbank's 'Fight the Power' season continues until 30 September. For more information, visit www.bfi.org.uk or call 020-7928 3232 for tickets.

'PAIN, RAGE AND SEX': FAMOUS FANS ON 'DO THE RIGHT THING'

Samuel L Jackson
"During that time Spike Lee was kind of a symbol for a generation of people, and he did things that totally appealed to a certain generation. He was depicting a slice of life that people wanted to see. Folk like to see themselves on screen, and he was the only person showing them young, hip black people who had a voice. People who were disenfranchised but trying to find a place. He put them out there."

Philip Seymour Hoffman
"I grew up on Spike Lee, with Spike Lee, as both an audience and a fan. When there was a new Spike Lee film it was like, 'You got to go see a Spike Lee movie.' When he was making the earlier films such as 'Do the Right Thing', he was doing something so new and so refreshing, especially for what there was to see in the cinema. He was addressing things in the here and now, and he really attacked the issue."

Kwame Kwei-Armah
"The beautiful thing about 'Do the Right Thing' was that it was a combination of two powerful influences of the 1980s and my formative years. It was when Spike Lee met Public Enemy on a movie set. The film spoke about pain, rage and sex, it was an extraordinary collision of everything I wanted to see and hear. It just validated everything that I was feeling about the time."

Ed Norton
"I felt that people were responding in exactly the opposite way to the people who were writing about 'Do the Right Thing' and saying, 'This is a dangerous film, it's going to cause violence.' I sat there thinking the exact opposite. What I realised, way down the road, is what made people uncomfortable with it was that it didn't offer any easy answers."

Marc Boothe Producer, Bullet Boy
"'Do the Right Thing' still holds up today. The film was when it all came together in terms of the ideology and catching the energy of the time, with Public Enemy, Malcolm X and hip-hop culture. It was a brilliant blend of social commentary, and it looked at race politics in a way that has not been done as well or as effectively since. It showed an artist of rare confidence at the top of his game as a storyteller at what was a pretty amazing time in terms of black cinema."

John Turturro
"He was always a very open person even when I first met him on 'Do the Right Thing'. I remember reading his scripts, there was something about that script and I thought this could be really interesting. I had problems, like with the end of the movie, and I was able to tell him. I still think my favourite parts of the movie are the humorous parts. The film scores even more points there."

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