- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 25, 2004

ATLANTA - Aside from Alfred Hitchcock, Spike Lee may be the most recognizable director in film history. At 47, he no longer looks so young, and he speaks with a measured gravitas that suggests he’s used to his words being flashed around the world.

The filmmaker was in Atlanta recently to promote his new film, “She Hate Me,” a comedy-drama about a black whistleblower, Jack Armstrong (Anthony Mackie), who’s fired by his corrupt corporation. Lacking an income, Armstrong agrees to his ex-girlfriend’s (Kerry Washington) proposition that he become a one-man sperm bank for lesbians wanting to have children.

As is usual with Mr. Lee, he had a lot to say on a lot of topics, ranging from his film — which opened nationwide last weekend — to an imperiled black generation to his 97-year-old grandmother:

On criticisms of young blacks, as laid out in “She Hate Me” and by Bill Cosby in recent comments:

“There are concerned black Americans worried about our future as a people. As we embark on a new century, we’ve got to stop being so concerned about what whites are going to think if we discuss our stuff. It’s the age of information, and there’s no way we can deal with the ills of our society by huddling together on the corner….It’s not going to happen.

“So you can’t worry, ‘Oh… what Bill Cosby said, white racists are going to use against us.’ Bill Cosby has earned the right to say whatever he wants to say. But that’s not the equation.

“We cannot have a generation of young black kids growing up not being able to read or write. More importantly, not wanting to know how to read and write. Because, somehow, in the twisted mentality we have today — which is really pumped out by ‘gangsta rap’ — these kids equate getting an education with trying to be white. (Long pause.) Which is genocide.

“Intelligent kids dumb down because they don’t want to be ostracized. They don’t want to be called a white boy or a white girl. Or a sellout. Or an Oreo. Somehow, they equate ignorance with being black and being real and being street. Being ghetto has become a badge of honor. And that’s more than insane. That’s bananas.”

On what has fundamentally changed inside him since he made “She’s Gotta Have It” in 1986 and what has not, despite all the prizes and celebrity:

“What has not changed is my passion for cinema. I love it. What has changed, well, now, I’m a much richer man than I was before, and I’m not talking monetarily.

“I have a wonderful, beautiful, creative wife (Tonya Lewis Lee, an attorney), who’s now touring the country with her book (“Gotham Diaries,” co-written with Crystal McCrary Anthony), and two wonderful kids, my daughter, Satchel, who’s 9, and my son, Jackson, who’s 7. Because of ignorance, because of plain stupidity, before I got married, I always thought cinema and sports would be the most important things in my life.

“I remember, before I got married, I used to say, ‘I’m never going to take my kids to a Disney film.’ And that’s the statement of an ignorant person who hasn’t had kids yet, because if you have kids, that’s one thing you’re going to do. (Laughs.)”

On why his female characters have gotten more complex, especially the ones in “She Hate Me”:

“My wife has had a great impact. She’s a strong, intelligent woman. She went to Sarah Lawrence [College] and got her law degree at [the University of Virginia]. The first time I met her, I said, UVa.? Is that as good as [New York University]? She almost had a fit.

“Tonya’s the first one I let read my scripts, and if there’s something she doesn’t like, specifically about the women’s roles, she lets me know in no uncertain terms.”

On why he chose to combine two plot lines, a dramatic one about corporations and a comic one about procreating with lesbians:

“We (Mr. Lee and co-writer Michael Genet) wanted the film to reflect the crazy, turbulent, hectic time we live in. So we wanted multiple stories. When I was a kid, I would always watch Ed Sullivan on Sunday night, the guy spinning the plates. When you do a film like this, you are that guy.”

On whether art can make a difference:

“It’s a wonderful thing when art can have a direct impact. Even though I don’t like the film, what Woodrow Wilson said about D.W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ — ‘It’s like writing history with lightning’ — is a description of film at its highest form.

“My friend Stanley Nelson did a documentary about Emmett Till, and that film definitely made people scratch their heads and reconsider opening up [the murder case]. And it’s been said that ‘4 Little Girls’ (Mr. Lee’s Oscar-nominated documentary about the bombing of a Birmingham church in the early 1960s) did the same thing. And Errol Morris’ ‘The Thin Blue Line’ before that, which got a man off death row. And we all see what’s happening with ‘Fahrenheit 9/11.’”

On the flak Michael Moore is catching for “Fahrenheit”:

“I’m always glad when someone else can take some buckshot, and they’re shooting at Michael pretty good. (Laughs.) But Michael’s strong, and his movie is going to last forever as a testament to the times.”

On his special connection with Atlanta:

“I was born here, even though I grew up in Brooklyn. I went to school here. My grandmother, who’s 97, is still here. After I finish my interviews today, I’ll be able to go by and see her. She put me through Morehouse [College] and NYU film school.”

On his relationship with Morehouse now, after being kicked off campus in a dispute (centered around contract stipulations and the film’s portrayal of black colleges) while filming “School Daze” in 1988:

“Well, I’m on the board of trustees.”


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