An Interview with Spike Lee, Director of "4 Little Girls"
by Brandon Judell
The move is on to get Spike Lee’s “4 Little Girls” a Best Documentary Oscar
nod. To help make this a certainty, his hard-working publicist, Jackie
Bazan, is browbeating the media overtime so the acclaimed feature won’t be
forgotten by nomination time. Since we’ve always been slightly fond of
Spike, we decided to share our chat together with you. The film, by the
way, chronicles the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in
Alabama on September 15, 1963 which left four young women dead.
“4 Little Girls” just finished a 9-city run Thanksgiving and will next be
broadcast in February on HBO, the company that pulled together the project
along with Lee’s own 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks.
indieWIRE: Did you have any memories of the church bombing? You were only
five at the time.
Spike Lee: I have no remembrances of it all. I do remember the Kennedy
assassination which occurred when I was 11, but not the bombing of the
iW: So when did that event first enter your consciousness?
Lee: I really can’t tell you. I heard about it from my parents. My father
is from Alabama, though not Birmingham.
iW: Frederick Douglas said, “We have to do with the past only as we can
make it useful to the present and to the future.” Is that your goal with
Lee: I think that there’s a lot of young people, both black and white, that
really don’t know about the civil rights struggle and civil rights
movement, and African-Americans in particular who today are bearing the
fruits of everybody who had to sacrifice and struggle. They have no idea
what happened, and they think it was always like this because they were
always allowed to vote or go wherever they wanted. That wasn’t the case at
all. Afro-Americans somehow fear going back and revisiting painful parts of
history, nevertheless we need to do it. All we have to do is look at our
fellow Jewish brothers and sisters and see how much they revert back to the
Holocaust. Most blacks don’t even want to bring up slavery. Why bring that
up? But that’s our legacy. Even though I don’t know how “Amistad“,
Spielberg’s film, is going to turn out, I hope it’s good. I do hope the
success of that film generates many more projects about that whole dark
period in this country.
iW: One person wrote of you that you have the misfortune to be the most
prominent black director of his time. Because of this, you’re given the
responsibility to make the political films — or to be THE black
spokesperson. Do you feel the weight of that when you make a film?
iW: It’s just a media thing?
Lee: I have never, ever felt that I was a spokesperson for Afro-Americans
in this country. I understand that the media is trying to pinpoint
individuals that they do think speak for the masses or particular groups.
It’s not really the case now, but there was a time a couple of years ago
when anytime something happened in the world concerning black people, the
phone would ring in my office asking me for a comment. Being naive, I would
comment. Now I guess I really consciously pick and choose sponsoring an
issue that I want to talk about.
iW: But many would say you have helped politicize film in this country more
than any other director.
Lee: Oliver Stone has done that, too. With “Nixon” and “JFK”. We’re not the
first. Also I think that when you make statements like that, you really
have to look at whomever you are talking about. Look at their role by their
work. I’ve done ten films. Not all the films are polemical about issues. I
love that stuff but that’s not necessarily the only thing that I do.
iW: Just by putting blacks on film and not stereotyping them, you are being
Lee: You’re saying that just putting blacks on film is political?
Lee: (Laughs.) Okay. I’ve also heard it argued that just the absence of
politics in a film is political. Just the absence is a political move in
itself also, so I won’t argue with that.
iW: Were you surprised when you heard that Birmingham, once the bastion of
racism in the South, was also the only city in America to ban the “Ellen
Comes Out of the Closet” episode?
Lee: Not at all. When I read that was going to happen, I knew that
Birmingham was one of the cities not going to run that episode. I was not
surprised. They’re just following their legacy.
iW: Malcolm X once said, “South was south of the Canadian border.” Is
Birmingham just America intensified, or do you think it’s a land unto
Lee: No, I’m not going to put everything on Birmingham. Malcolm said that
when those people in those buses in Boston were being overturned and all
that stuff. I think a lot of times the North is too quick to finger
everything on the South. The midwest up to the northwest with all those
militia people, that’s the scary thing now. These militia groups. Neo-nazis
and stuff like that. Most of that stuff is not even in the South. It’s
Oregon. Utah. Things like that.
iW: Certain groups — gays, blacks, women — are finally getting the power
to make their own films. You have said in previous interviews that you’re
not happy with some of the films and TV shows they’re making. You thought
“Booty Call” and “How To Be A Player” are degrading to African-Americans and
doing little to improve their image. You said you wanted to break a TV set
when you saw “Homeboys from Outer Space.”
Lee: (Laughs.) I said all those things. There is nothing wrong with comedy.
Nothing wrong with laughter or laughing. I’m talking about performers. I
have problems with buffoons. Coonish type of humor. That’s what my problem
is. I just was finding it disturbing why every show, not every show, 95% of
the shows dealing with African-American are sitcoms. Why can’t there be
iW: Do you sometimes think that throughout your whole career you’ll always
be — quote unquote — a black director?
Lee: Yes, I have no problem with that. I have no problems with white
America looking at me as a black man because I understand the mind-set and
where we are in this country. I think the majority of white Americans are
unable to look at somebody black and not the skin of their color first.
That’s just the reality. And if that’s the reality, I’m not going to spend
valuable time agonizing over that, getting ulcers or hypertension worrying
about the fact that people can’t see who I really am and see the skin of my
color. We’re not at that point in this country. This country is not mature
enough to get beyond that point.
iW: Addison Gayle Jr. wrote in The New Black Voices: “Perhaps to be sane in
this society is the best evidence of insanity.”
Lee: I don’t know exactly what that means.
iW: Well, maybe you wouldn’t be able to do what you’re doing now 20 years
ago. You’d have to be playing games and kissing ass in Hollywood.
Lee: I have to do that also. (Laughs.) It just amounts how much butt kissing.
iW: Is it easier to be black now then it was anytime in the past?
Lee: As far as working in corporate management or in the arts and movies?
What do you mean?
iW: In general.
Lee: It really is a paradox because at the same time that there are more
successful African-Americans then ever before, the black underclass is
bigger then it’s ever been. So the cup is half empty; the cup is half full.
I think you can just move back to the 1950’s where in a lot of states,
black people could not vote, could not buy clothes in stores downtown. They
had to ride in the back of the bus. Public transportation. At the same time
if you look at it, black businesses flourished back then. At the same time,
look at the statistics. Black males weren’t murdered at the rate we are
now. We have this unbalance.
iW: In your film, there are scenes of the young black girls bodies who were
killed by the bomb being laid out in the morgue. That’s something I don’t
think I’ll ever forget.
Lee: The quick cuts.
iW: Were you shocked when you discovered them?
Lee: Very shocked. Here’s the story. We were in this public library in
Alabama, and we asked to see the morgue photos, not knowing that they had
them. When the clerk called the photos out, we were startled and taken
aback. You can imagine what 20 sticks of dynamite can do. But when you see
the results, it literally brings tears to your eyes. I have to be honest
with you, I was not 100% sure whether I should include those shots. The
postmortem photographs. But I decided if we didn’t linger on them, it would
be tasteful. They reinforce the horror and the crime that was committed
when those sticks of dynamite went off in the Sixteenth Street Baptist
Church and killed the four little girls.
iW: By the way, is your Jackie Robinson film getting any closer to reality?
Lee: I hope so especially after the enormous press that the 50th
anniversary of Jackie breaking the color barrier received. I hope that one
or two studios will now be willing to open up their purse strings.
[The IFP presents a special program tonight in New York City featuring
a screening of “Four Little Girls“, and a discussion session with filmmaker.
For more information visit the IFP website at:
[Brandon Judell is the lead film critic for Critics Inc. on America Online
and a contributing editor to Detour Magazine. His new book is “The Gay Quote Book” (Dutton). He has also written for The Village Voice, The Advocate, and
Rodale’s Guide to Weight Loss.]