Spike Lee: You Ask The Questions

So do you think you should have had an Oscar by now? And have you ever dated a white woman?
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The Independent Online

Do you think the current "gangsta''music culture in the USA is a positive or negative factor for the black community?

I think that it's having a detrimental effect on the world as a whole, not just the African-American or black community. And I think that gangsta rap has evolved into pimp rap, and I'm not a fan of that. I don't think it's good to exploit women, to talk about them as "hos", I don't think it's good for anybody. I don't think it's good for the portrayal of women in the videos, I don't think it's good for the men who are in this stuff. A lot of it is about money, too, but money is involved in everything.

Have you got any unfulfilled ambitions? Is there anyone you'd still like to work with?

There's a ton of talented people I'd still like to work with. I have a new film ready to shoot in five weeks in the States. It's called Inside Man. That'll be the fourth time I work with Denzel Washington, the first time with Clive Owen, the first time with Jodie Foster. I'm looking forward to working with them all. The film's a hi-tech bank heist film. It's like Dog Day Afternoon, 30 years later.

What do you think of the Oscars? Do you think you should have won one by now?

Well I got a nomination for Best Original Screenplay for Do The Right Thing, and I got a nomination for Best Documentary for 4 Little Girls. It's not something I'm really concerned about. I don't stay up at night tossing and turning. I think my body of work speaks for itself. I'm not just talking about myself, I think a lot of the performances, a lot of the technical aspects of my film have been overlooked. The editing, costume design, the music, the cinematography, but we're not going to bitch and moan about it. When film-makers are honoured, it's not necessarily for the best work they've done. A lot of times it's a payback.

Being as impartial as you can, who would win a fight between [the basketball players] Patrick Ewing and Shaquille O'Neal? And would it be a dirty street-brawl or more of a wrestling match?

Both of those guys are my friends. They have too much respect for each other and respect for themselves to fight.

What connections between Enron and prostitution did you hope to underscore with She Hate Me?

I think it's about ethical questions, what people would do in order to get what they want. Whether a guy wants to sell his sperm, or cheat and lie in the business aspect of things, are all ethical moral questions that everybody makes every day. I'm not trying to say which is worse, I just want to show that in everybody's life you're going to be faced ethical and moral questions, and ask what will you do when those situations arise.

You teach film. What do you hope for from the future of cinema?

I teach at the grad film programme of New York University, and the students keep me excited. Their energy and their dreams mean that I get a lot from teaching, so that's why I do it. What I try to impart to my students is that they develop their own original voice and unique look at the world.

Do you ever feel like you are seen as a spokesman for all African-Americans? And do you like that?

People see me in that capacity a lot, but it's not something I'd be comfortable with, it's not something I've ever presented myself as, a spokesman for 45 million African-Americans. I do realise I have a platform to speak, and when I do say stuff, I'm saying what I think, not speaking on behalf of every black person. And something else I've learnt as I've gotten mature is that I can't speak out about everything. In the past I might have, but now I choose.

Are American race-relations getting better or worse?

I still think that until this country deals with slavery it's never going to get to the place where it needs to be. There's great trepidation on both sides, black and white, to deal with slavery. There's guilt, blame, shame, everything. People like to forget about it like it never happened. This country can never be the great country we can be until we deal with that, in the same way as we have to deal with what the whites did to the native Americans. They wiped them off the land, took the minerals and the steel, and gave them whisky and blankets with smallpox on them. Now they've got them relegated to some reservations, saying: "Okay, we fucked you over, so we're going to let you have a casino." I think this is a complex problem and there isn't a simple answer.

What's your take on guns?

I'm not a fan of the NRA, and until we do something to curb the sale of guns in the US, we will continue to be the most violent country in world history.

You wrote Crooklyn with your sisters. How was it to work with your family?

I've worked with my family from my very first film. My sister was in it, my brother did the still photography, my father did the scores. It's very enjoyable. We're all talented and we were raised in a very artistic household.

What is it about your famed "signature shot" (the camera-and-actor-on-the-dolly shot) that fascinates you?

I just like the effect that shot gives. It's very strange and people notice it. But I try to be much more selective about it now, and come up with a reason to use it.

Who's your favourite black actor?

I'm about to work with Denzel for the fourth time, and he's currently on Broadway in Julius Caesar, which he's very good in. He is one of many great actors, but he's at the top.

How many hats do you have, and which is your favourite?

I got hundreds of hats, all stuffed in the closet. I like hats, but I don't have a favourite.

Have your kids ever wanted to appear in your films?

All the time. They've only seen Crooklyn, because they're only 10 and eight. They've been in a couple of commercials and music videos but not a feature film yet. One day. I'm very much looking forward to them seeing the rest of my films, when they get of age. I'll be very interested in how they feel about their father's work. My family is very honest - especially my wife Tonya. If she doesn't like something, she'll let me know. There have been a couple she really hasn't liked, and she'd certainly have input into any film that our kids might be in.

Do The Right Thing is considered to be one of your greatest works. Do you ever worry that your best years are behind you?

No way, I don't think like that. In the future I just want to grow, grow up as film-maker, grow up as a individual, as a father, a husband, just grow. I'm looking forward to the rest of my life and don't spend a lot of time harping on stuff I've done in the past. In six weeks, it'll be the 20th anniversary of She's Gotta Have It and that's a long time. And yeah, I'm on that path of growing and achieving.

Is it possible for a black film-maker working in America today to make a non-political film?

Oh yeah, they do it all the time. It's been done, it's not a big thing. I've always felt that even when you make the decision to leave politics out of anything you do, then that's a political act in itself. So politics is always involved.

Which film-makers do you admire yourself?

Billy Wilder, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Oscar Micheaux. Each one is a distinct individual and I think that's why I like them.

Can you always make sure you do the right thing?

Well, no one's perfect. But you can attempt to. It's important to keep trying. I am!

How does a 5ft 5in guy with spectacles end up dating Veronica Webb?

Veronica Webb? You know! I guess it was just one of those things! It's so long ago I forgot how I asked her out, that's aeons ago, A long time ago in a galaxy far far away. Height is nothing to do with it, though.

Your wife's a lawyer. How did you meet? Was she suing you?

No, she doesn't practise any more. Right now she's a TV producer and a novelist. We met at a function in Washington DC.

Have you ever dated a white woman?

No, I didn't. I don't know why not - I went to an entirely black school! And now I'm married so those days are over, but it just didn't work out like that. It wasn't in the cards, it wasn't in the stars.

The latest biography of Spike Lee, That's My Story and I'm Sticking To It, as told to Kaleem Aftab, is published by Faber, £12.99