The aftershocks of white nationalist rallies and their violence are still felt in Charlottesville, which hosted the 30th annual Virginia Film Festival this weekend. At the entrance of the fest’s marquee venue, the Paramount Theater (located on the idyllic main street that became a conflict zone August 12), the state pressured festival organizers to install metal detectors. Even as the festival decided to focus on the theme of “Race in Film,” out-of-town white supremacists started making their presence felt in Charlottesville as court appearances stemming from “A12” (the locals’ term for the horrific events this summer) began.
Against this backdrop, Spike Lee came to Charlottesville this weekend and screened his 1997 documentary “4 Little Girls,” about the 1963 murder of four young African-American girls in the bombing of the Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
“I think terrorism is terrorism whether it’s Isis, the Klan, it’s all terrorism,” said Lee introducing the movie to a sold-out audience at the Paramount. “If you’re killing people, you’re a terrorist.”
Before taking the stage to introduce and discuss “4 Little Girls” (along with his 45-minutes documentary “I Can’t Breathe” about Ramsey Orta, who videotaped his friend Eric Garner’s death at the hands of police), Lee sat down with IndieWire for an exclusive interview. The filmmaker talked about projects old and new, including the ones he dreams of making and ones he’s heartbroken he didn’t, and about how his message in the Trump era is the same as it was in the 1980s: It’s time for America to “Wake Up!”
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I assume like all of us–
No, that’s a word I hate, assume. Especially in film, “why I assume you’re going to bring the film to…” No.
Were you like all of us glued to your screens on August 12th?
Yes. August 12th. Right here in Charlottesville.
Why “4 Little Girls” today? Why did you bring that one here?
Oh, to show some more homegrown American terrorism.
“I Can’t Breathe” has been listed as a three-minute doc, but someone just told me it’s 45 minutes?
When did that happen? Is this something you’ve been working on recently?
No, it happened right after the murder of Eric Garner.
So you’ve had this for a while and you’re just showing it now?
I’ve really enjoyed ‘Lil Joints [Lee’s short films for ESPN]. You seem to be increasingly finding ways to make effective work outside of feature films.
I wouldn’t’ say ‘I Can’t Breathe’ is a Lil’ Joint. Lil’ Joints were specific sport stories that [didn’t] have the legs for a full 30 for 30.
For example that University of Missouri one–
Well, that was extra.
It had a real punch and my point was you increasingly have found ways to make impactful works that aren’t feature films.
I try to be very versatile and now with everything opening up, there’s not these specific defined times. There’s instances where you get more play from a 30-minute thing than you might get — especially ESPN — get from two-hour, 90-minute feature. Or even a seven-hour deal like my man over there did [“OJ: Made in America” director Ezra Edelman was in the room during the interview].
Along those lines, what was both freeing and challenging about adapting “She’s Gotta Have It” into a Netflix series? That had to be a new experience.
Not really. It’s filmmaking. From the very beginning, I told everybody my mindset is this: You have to have the same mindset I have. We’re making a long film. Don’t think about television, don’t think about cable, we’re making a long film. That’s the way it was framed, composed, everything.
So not even writing for episode breaks?
You don’t have to do that for Netflix because they dump them all at the same time. That’s the great thing, you don’t have to have a cliffhanger ’cause two seconds you’re on to the next episode. So it’s [more] like a novel with chapters.
Is it something you want to do again? Are there other stories that you might want to go back to?
There is one thing, hopefully God willing, I want to make “School Daze” a Broadway musical.
You were talking about the novel-like aspect, is that something — remake or not — you want to do again?
Right now, I just hope we get a very positive reception and Netflix wants to make Season 2.
In context of the last year, in context of Charlottesville — I don’t know if you saw that Dave Chappelle/Chris Rock sketch right after the election, where they’re amused watching their white friends’ utter shock about what Trump winning reveals to them about America. Watching your films for last 30 years, I assume you’ve been –
What’s that word, what’s that word, assume? [laughing]
You’re killing me here.
I’m just messing with you man, it’s all love.
Has it impacted you as a filmmaker?
Sir, sir. There’s one reframe that’s been that’s been in all my films except “She’s Gotta Have It” and that reframe is “wake up.” Laurence Fishburne was saying “wake up” – that [“School Daze”] came out in ’88 – as Dap. Samuel L. Jackson as Mister Señor Love Daddy was saying “wake up” in “Do The Right Thing.” I’ve been saying that. Everybody is saying “get woke,” I’ve been saying “wake up” since ’88. So all this stuff that’s happening does not surprise me. And the reason why it doesn’t is because racism is the very fabric, the DNA of these United States of America. Why should it surprise me? It doesn’t.
The foundation — forget about the Bill of Rights, Bill of Rights came later and they didn’t apply to everybody — the foundation of this country is genocide of native people and slavery. Everything is built from that. And the quicker we come to understand it and accept it, and stop trying to go with these fake narratives that children have been fed. George Washington chopped down a motherfucking cherry tree, “I can’t tell a lie,” fuck that. George Washington had slaves. Right here, UVA, the whole UVA shit, this shit — Thomas Jefferson [founder of UVA] owned slaves and a suspect pedophile — there’s still people who don’t know how old Sally Hemmings was. So let’s stop with the fake narratives and tell the true story of this country, then we’ll be in a better place.
Do you feel —
— and put Christopher Columbus in there too. [Laughing] And let’s put in motherfucking Robert E. Lee.
Yeah, this conversation about the statues has been ridiculous.
Come on, all this. What are we trying to do, make “Gone with the Wind” again? The Confederates aren’t good guys. I’m sorry. [Whiny voice] “But they had children, but they had wives.” Fuck that, so did slaves. Here’s the difference, [their] families weren’t broken up.
I mean, my wife went to law school here at UVA and my mother-in-law grew up in Richmond, she and [tennis player and civil rights leader] Arthur Ashe went to school together at [Richmond’s all-black Maggie Lena Walker High School]. I’d also like to state [I accepted] this invitation way before August 12. And I’ve spoken here before too, so it’s not like I’m just trying to start shit. This invitation was extended and accepted before August 12.
I’m glad you’re here.
I am, too.
And you’re premiering “She’s Gotta Have it” tonight?
In New York, at BAM. Episode 1 and 2. Then Thanksgiving all the 10 episodes are coming out and I’m also –
The reviews this morning look good.
Thank you, I really hope people like it. I’m also I’m in the middle of shooting “Black Klansman,” starring John David Washington, Denzel’s son.
He’s the one that’s on “Ballers?”
Someone pointed out to me recently that he was Denzel’s kid and I couldn’t believe it.
He doesn’t go around saying that.
You’re working with Jordan Peele on “Klansman.” I loved “Get Out,” but were you shocked it was such a big —
I’ll tell you, here’s the science. It was a gangster move by Jordan because the message was so strong America couldn’t take it straight, so he had to hide it in the horror film. A football term, it’s a misdirection play. Defenders running over here, that guy has the ball. [Lee leaps to his feet to demonstrate the football play] The guy whose got the ball is high stepping. It was a misdirection play, I’m telling you it was a gangster move because people, the shit was so strong that you couldn’t just give it to ’em like that.
When I was sick, when I was a little kid, I hated aspirin so my mother and grandmother would take the St. Josephs, Bayer, whatever it was, they’d smash it up till it was a powder, stir it up in coca-cola – cause I couldn’t swallow pills. I’d been drinking Coca-Cola not realizing it was aspirin. Jordan, same thing. Gangster. Brilliant, brilliant move.
One of the things I loved about “Chi-Raq” was you having these resources again — I almost forgot what you can do when you’ve got money, painting on that size canvas and being so visually bold.
Thank you, [producer] Amazon.
Put money aside —
Sir, sir, [laughing] it’s hard to just say put money aside in this art form.
But if someone gave you a blank check, is there a project you’d love to do?
I got a ton of them. I’ve got some projects I wish I could now make. I worked on Jackie Robinson for two years. I worked on James Brown. And the sad thing is you can’t do a remake of a biopic. That’s just gone. [Editor’s Note: “42” came out in 2013, “Get on Up” in 2014.] I hate that I was underwhelmed by those two films of gigantic world artists who changed everything. Dr. Martin Luther King even said, “Jackie Robinson made it easier for me.”
Was there a scale those biopics required that you just couldn’t do with the money you had?
Another project would be [one] Budd Schulberg and I wrote together called “Save Us Joe Lewis,” about Joe Lewis and Max Schmeling [Schmeling, representing Nazi Germany and Lewis had two famous fights in 1936 and 1938]. Epic: FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, Lena Horne, Hitler, Goebbels. Epic.
I got another one, called “BK Loves MJ,” it’s about the day Michael Jackson died. And then, of course, “School Daze” the Broadway musical, that’s a dream I really want.
The 30th Virginia Film Festival took place November 9-12th.