Through a lens darkly

Is Spike Lee a misogynist? In an exclusive extract from the film director's authorised biography, Kaleem Aftab asks his female leads - and his wife - what they think
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Spike Lee's name erupted into the American popular consciousness with the release of his début feature film, She's Gotta Have It, in August 1986. The movie, independently financed on a £175,000 budget, grossed £8m at the box office. Though such success in itself would normally ensure a certain amount of media attention, it was not this film-maker's unique selling-point. Spike Lee was black, and he had made a film about black people, starring black people, that played for black audiences. From Hollywood's vantage point, that was way too much black in one sentence.

Spike Lee's name erupted into the American popular consciousness with the release of his début feature film, She's Gotta Have It, in August 1986. The movie, independently financed on a £175,000 budget, grossed £8m at the box office. Though such success in itself would normally ensure a certain amount of media attention, it was not this film-maker's unique selling-point. Spike Lee was black, and he had made a film about black people, starring black people, that played for black audiences. From Hollywood's vantage point, that was way too much black in one sentence.

To pigeonhole Spike Lee on the grounds of his race would be to inflict a great injustice. This is a man who, over the two decades in which he has been in the public eye, has come to be recognised as a quintessential New Yorker: whether it's for watching basketball games courtside at Madison Square Garden, or employing the city as the primary location for most of his films, or providing his widely reported commentaries on New York politics and daily life.

Those of his films that touch on politically decisive issues, and his forthright opinions, have garnered him as many critics as admirers. One common view is that Spike shows a somewhat contemptible attitude towards women. From his first film on, the director has struggled to get to grips with the female psyche.

Sensing that it would be expedient to get a better understanding of the female perspective on sex in making She's Gotta Have It (1986), Spike asked his classmate Tracey Willard to help design a questionnaire that he could present to some of his female acquaintances. The questions left nothing to the imagination:

Are there any sexual acts you perform with one man and not another?

Do you think you are sexually adept?

What do you think about a woman who masturbates?

Talk about one unfulfilled fantasy.

Do you feel that all men are basically dogs?

Does penis size matter?

Have you ever OD-ed on sex?

Some of the young women polled might well have wondered for whose benefit these questions were being asked. But Spike argued that each needed to be answered before he felt comfortable proceeding with his script. Research and the soliciting of opinion would be a key component for him. He says: "You have to do the research. If you don't know about something, then you ask the right people who do. With She's Gotta Have It, I don't think I got any revelation; it was just good to hear the women whom I interviewed confirm what I thought already."

His third major film, Do the Right Thing, (1989), started a trend that saw Spike at odds with his female leads. By the end of the shoot, Rosie Perez was unhappy with the director. It was the film's sex scene that raised her hackles, a scene in which Spike himself, playing Mookie, lavishes his attentions on Perez's Tina by taking an ice cube to various overheated zones of her body.

"The ice-cube sequence was very disturbing to me," Perez says. "I mean, I had just lost my virginity in college. And it wasn't what I had expected. I found it much more exploitative than what I'd read: on the page, it seemed like an intimate moment between boyfriend and girlfriend. What it came out as was some guy getting some ass via his baby-mother, and that's not how I had interpreted it.

"Eventually, I burst into tears," Perez recalls. "I said, 'Don't keep filming.' It was just like a volcano silently erupting, and when it did, I just cried. That was the only way I could handle it. I don't know how Spike felt about that situation. And I felt bad, like, 'Oh, I disappointed him, oh God, I don't understand what's going on..."

Spike insists he has been careful to ensure that he gets sex scenes "right" without straying into exploitation. "You just have to be on good terms with the actors and talk stuff out beforehand. A perfect example is She Hate Me - I had many different discussions with many different women, and also with [the actor] Anthony Mackie, so they knew. And this was before they even agreed to do the film. But actors want to know - 'Here, it says they make love. What type of acts are we talking about? What's going to be seen?' I have no problem with that. At the same time, I still want to allow myself some flexibility. But shooting a sex scene is very mechanical - 'Will you move this way? That way? Raise your leg?' And for the most part the crew isn't allowed to be there - I close the set, make it as comfortable as possible."

Rosie Perez's final word on the Do the Right Thing experience is conciliatory: "But who am I to tell a director what they should be doing? I think that Spike's message is much bigger than that one issue, and I think that sometimes we can get very choosy about what he's trying to say. Outside of whether you feel the portrayal of women is positive or negative, there's so much more that he's saying outside of that, that it's unbelievable."

Lisa Jones, Spike's sometime girlfriend and author of companion books on School Daze and Do the Right Thing, perceived the makings of a major problem in the treatment of women in and around Spike's 40 Acres production company. "Political hip-hop had come on the scene," she says. "But at the time, I was really questioning hip-hop politics and removing myself from the 40 Acres scene. Spike was down with Public Enemy, and I wasn't necessarily feeling all that enamoured by it. There were a bunch of us who didn't like it, because sexism was coexisting with all the right-on politics. And what was the message of all that politics anyway? That you should walk round wearing an X on your shirt? What was beyond that? It ain't even defined now. 'Fight the Power'? It was more 'Create your own power.'"

The problem for Lisa Jones was that Spike, in common with various rappers and black nationalists who could identify prejudice and oppression when it came in the guise of race or class, either did not want to deal with - or overlooked - the tendency of the mainstream culture to encourage males of whatever colour to believe they enjoyed a rightful position of dominance over the female. This unreconstructed male chauvinism would pepper characters in Spike's movies: eventually the director would hold his hand up and admit: "I need to work on the depiction of females in my pictures."

In his next film, Mo' Better Blues (1990), where the action centred on New York's jazz scene, Spike cast his sister Joie Lee as the love interest. Freud would perhaps somersault in his grave, but it is a fact that, for Do the Right Thing, Spike, as an actor, played with his sister's lips and, as a director, filmed her in the shower; and for Mo' Better Blues he filmed her in a sex scene with Denzel Washington - "an experience I would not repeat," he recalls.

Joie is of like mind: "Oh God, it was a horrible experience for me. I don't think I ever got there, that I was ever private or intimate with Denzel - and I think it shows. It didn't create tension between us, I don't think that, but I wasn't able to make the separation between being the character and being Spike's sister. We never talked about it. What is there to say? I don't discuss that aspect of my life with my brothers. I didn't really know what I was doing. I didn't know how to ask for help. I didn't have enough experience under my belt or training to be able to make the separation, so it was horrible. And it still makes me feel uncomfortable - I can't watch it. That is just humiliating, humiliating. I seem to experience that a lot with my brother..."

The Denzel/Joie sex scene is intercut with scenes of Washington sleeping with Cynda Williams. This was another instance where Spike took a real experience and put it on film. He says: "These were good-looking young musicians, and I don't think that it was a revelation to see jazz musicians with multiple sexual partners," but he adds intriguingly: "I don't know where I got the specific idea for the double love scene. It definitely wasn't making love. I might have called a woman another name and I was in a jam..."

It was crucial that Spike find the right actress to play the first white female * * lead in one of his films. So, for Jungle Fever, Annabella Sciorra, who had appeared in Cadillac Man and Reversal of Fortune, met Spike at an Italian restaurant in Times Square. "I remember that he didn't order anything, so I didn't feel like I could order anything," she says. "And he was so quiet and he kept his eyes down a lot. The more introvert he got, the more shy I got. I felt like it was a disaster. Then I went home and he called on the phone and said, 'All right, you're Angie,' and I was like, 'Hooray!' I was so ecstatic. Though I hadn't seen the script, so I didn't really know who Angie was..."

Spike then had to explain to his lead actress the dynamics of the characters and the dramatic situation as he saw it. With his usual candour, Spike remarks: "Amongst black people, you have always heard it said that once a black man reaches a certain level, especially if you are an entertainer, you get a white trophy woman. I didn't make that up."

Sciorra remembers: "At some point we discussed the characters' attraction to each other, and Spike said, 'This movie is about fear of the big black dick.' That just made me laugh - maybe there are some people out there who are afraid of Spike's dick, but I didn't understand that from the character. If I had, I would have addressed the character differently."

The difference of interpretation caused friction on set. Monty Ross (the film's co-producer) remembers Spike getting frustrated with his lead actress: "It was tough, because when it came to the love scene Anna just froze up. She made a scene the first time we filmed her with Wesley [Snipes]: this black man was more of a caveman, and he just wanted to get next to this white woman. We didn't want the movie to come across as a black man just relentlessly pursuing a white woman. We wanted there to be equal passion, both people to be hungry for each other. Anna said, 'This is who I am, and I've never made love to a black man, and you know I don't know what to do.' Spike was like, 'But you're an actress, you have to act.' It was tense..."

First assistant director Randy Fletcher recalls: "Wesley and Annabella are supposed to do their love scene - this was during the first couple of weeks. What I think happened was that she was lying on her back and he was on top of her, and he told her to turn around. And I heard someone say, 'Cut,' and the female voice did not come from Spike... Annabella wanted to talk to Spike, and if I remember correctly, she almost got fired."

Sciorra's memory is: "I think I called 'Cut' because Wesley took off my underwear and I didn't have anything on underneath. And to my knowledge that was not what we were doing, and I didn't have a nudity agreement with Spike and I was just about to be naked."

In his 1996 movie Girl 6, Spike dealt with the issue of female sexuality head on. In telling the story of Judy, a struggling actress who becomes a phone-sex operator, Spike asked the Pulp Fiction director Quentin Tarantino to play himself holding a casting in the opening scene. The scene explores sexual exploitation within the film industry. Judy's agent will tell her: "Sharon Stone spread her legs and you see what happens..."

Spike says: "John Turturro ad-libbed that line. No one had really heard of Sharon Stone before Basic Instinct and she blew up when she spread her legs on film. But actresses are asked to compromise themselves, not just from the director but the producer too - 'Are you going to show your tits or your ass?' They say that shit all the time. It is men making decisions. And of course they would rather have heads explode on screen than show a penis."

Tonya Lee Lewis [Spike's wife since 1994] had problems with the film: "Satchel was born by the time Girl 6 came out, and I always felt Girl 6 was Spike's way of rebelling against marriage and children. Spike didn't tell me he was doing the film: I started hearing about it from other people first. And I always felt that he had a guilty conscience about it: why not tell me about it? What's the big secret? Why am I hearing it from people who've read about it in the paper, and I sleep with him? I felt like he was hiding something about it or he was afraid of what I was going to say.

"Once I had a chance to read it, I didn't get it. First of all, I thought that the script was so poorly developed that I did not understand the main character, her motivation, her history. How did she get to that place? It was like, 'Dress up a lot of pretty sexy girls and make them talk dirty.'"

From 'Spike Lee: That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It' © Kaleem Aftab, 2005. To be published by Faber & Faber on 16 June (£12.99)


In 1990, Spike made Jungle Fever, his fifth film in five years. It details the travails of Flipper, a young black architect who, while leaving his African-American wife and child to embark on a relationship with his secretary, has to try and cope with the behaviour of his crack-addict brother Gator.

Spike says: "The germ of Jungle Fever was the Yusef Hawkins incident. A young Brooklyn African-American kid goes to Bensonhurst to look at a used car to buy. At the same time, a girl, to spite her boyfriend, is telling him, 'I'm leaving you and my black boyfriend is going to come and visit me.' So this gang of young Italian-Americans are waiting to pounce on the first black face they see, and it happens to be Yusef Hawkins, and he gets shot dead. So that was really the spark for the idea.

"And I don't care what people say; the year Jungle Fever was made, 1990 - some Italian girl brings a black guy home? Maybe you can do that now in Bensonhurst. But back then? Hell, no. Now these white kids are into rap, hip-hop and black culture. They weren't into it that much back then..."

The subject had plagued Spike for some time. "For me, a large part of Jungle Fever is about sexual mythology: the mythology of a white woman being on a pedestal, the universal standard of beauty, and the mythology about the black man as sexual stud with a ten-foot dick. Buying into the mythology is not a strong foundation for a relationship."

Spike was fairly sure of the actors he wanted for the male leads. Samuel L Jackson was used to receiving "the Spike Lee phone call": "For us, it was basically Spike Lee's summer film camp. He always called the same guys and would always have the same crews and the same actors and we would get together and it was like, 'I got some costumes, I got some film - hey, let's make a movie!' After we kind of moved on I realised that the film business was different from the way I had viewed it as being through working with Spike."

Now Spike wanted Jackson to play the crack-addict Gator. Spike claims he wasn't aware Jackson had entered a drug rehabilitation centre after making Mo' Better Blues. The actor tells a different story: "Spike knew I was in rehab. He called me there and asked if I still wanted to do the movie, and I said, 'I still want to do it. I'll be out by then.'"

For many of the actresses, this would be their first time working with Spike. He gave a role to his girlfriend of the time, casting Veronica Webb as his on-screen wife.

One of the many talents Spike is credited with discovering was Halle Berry: "My biggest concern was that she looked too fine to play a five-dollar crack ho. She was saying, 'Spike, I'm telling you, I can look messed up!' I didn't even know it was her the first time I saw her in costume. I'm not saying this because of anything else, but Jungle Fever is for me her best acting to date."