Held last month at San Francisco’s Castro Theater, SFFILM paid tribute to prolific filmmaker Spike Lee, complete with a screening of Lee’s latest film, “BlacKkKlansman,” followed by an intimate and wide-ranging chat with the filmmaker, as moderated by film scholar David Thomson. During the talk, which spanned nearly 45 minutes, Lee opened up about his early cinematic influences, including his affection for James Bond films and the career of Sidney Poitier. Asked what his favorite films were growing up Lee didn’t miss a beat: “James Bond! Sean Connery!,” he said. “‘Dr. No,’ ‘Thunderball,’ ‘From Russia With Love.'”
Yet, even as a child, the “Do the Right Thing” filmmaker recognized that his people, community, and experiences weren’t always being reflected on-screen. “They were almost all the films, because just going from Brooklyn, New York, … just the beauty that I could see of our community, just looking out the window, was not on-screen,” he said. “I remember, there used to be a time, if there was a black person on a commercial, it would be like, ‘quick, quick, quick, there’s a black person!'”
“And then the black exploitation era came, and that came and went,” Lee said. “But I remember specifically seeing Sidney Poitier in ‘Lilies of the Field,’ and in this film, Sidney Poitier is driving in the middle of nowhere and the car breaks down at a nunnery. Even as a little kid, I was saying, ‘get out there before they see you!’ … I was screaming at the screen, ‘Sidney, leave! Leave! They gonna say you raped one of these nuns!’ True story.”
Lee also recalled watching films like “Gone With the Wind” and “The Birth of a Nation” (which he noted was the first film he watched at NYU as part of its graduate film program) and feeling understandably shocked and alienated by their depictions of minorities.
“We were taught about D.W. Griffith being the father of cinema, all the innovative things he’d done in cinema that had never been done before, but that’s all we were taught,” Lee said. “The social and political impact of the films was not taught. In third or fourth grade, when they re-released ‘Gone With the Wind,’ we had a class trip to see the film, and myself and other black students, we did not feel good watching that film, the stereotypical images. … There was no discussion about how we might have felt.”
As Lee explains, these types of movies and movie-going experiences influenced him from a young age, even before he decided to become a filmmaker, and they continue to impact the kinds of stories he wants to tell now.
“Hollywood, in a lot of ways, has dehumanized people,” Lee said. “So that’s why it’s so important, people have to tell their own stories, that’s what it comes down to. But unlike a lot of art forms, it costs a lot of money. But it’s a powerful, powerful medium. … The first time I understood the power of film, I went to 42nd Street to see a Bruce Lee film, I don’t know if it was ‘Enter the Dragon’ or ‘Five Fingers of Death,’ but the movie came out, it was a thousand kids running up the block, hitting each other in the head with nunchucks, doing supposedly flying kicks, landing on their ass, and that’s because they just saw Bruce Lee.”
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