Spike Lee made his fourth film, “Mo’ Better Blues,” just over 30 years ago. Although less recognized than other titles in his oeuvre (“Do the Right Thing” was released in 1989), it was an evocative take on moody jazz films, minus the darkness and despair, and it proved an intriguing contrast to Lee’s more provocative titles.
Denzel Washington stars as dedicated trumpeter Bleek Gilliam, whose emotional immaturity eventually gets him into career-ending trouble. Gilliam headlines a jazz quintet at a popular New York City club. The band is thriving, and Gilliam has his choice of lovers. Problems arise when he is forced to make decisions concerning his best friend and manager Giant (Spike Lee), and his affairs with two women, schoolteacher Indigo (Joie Lee) and aspiring singer Clarke (Cynda Williams).
It was the first collaboration between Washington and Lee, launching a multi-decade actor-director relationship. Washington gives a typically charismatic performance, as does Wesley Snipes playing Gilliam’s sax-playing rival, Shadow. As with most Lee films, there are numerous noteworthy supporting performances (including Lee himself, as the band manager with a gambling addiction). Also featured were Bill Nunn, Giancarlo Esposito, Samuel L. Jackson, Rubén Blades, Robin Harris, and John and Nicholas Turturro as Jewish nightclub owners Moe and Josh Flatbush, characters criticized as caricatures that played into anti-Semitic stereotypes.
In the midst of Lee’s stylized world of macho jazzmen were his sister Joie, in her first major role, and newcomer Williams. One of the film’s most consequential moments occurs when both women seem to take the place of each other in Gilliam’s bedroom. It’s a good representation of how the character views them as swappable, which is heightened when he commits the mortal sin of calling each one by the other’s name.
Indigo and Clarke were more than Gilliam’s hangers-on: For each actress, these were roles of a lifetime, especially for Williams who was in her early 20s and worked as a restaurant hostess, with no screen credits to her name.
Joie Lee appeared in her brother’s earlier films “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986), “School Daze” (1988), and “Do the Right Thing” (1989), but at that point “Mo’ Better Blues” — a rare story about music and romance in a Black middle-class milieu — represented the largest role of her career.
Here, both actresses look back 30 years and relive key moments that brought this film to the world. We gave Spike Lee the opportunity to respond to claims made by both women about the production, but he chose to respond only to those made by Williams. We included his comments in parentheses where relevant.
CYNDA WILLIAMS: It was my first film. I had just moved to New York from Muncie, Indiana. Graduated from Ball State University. In the Midwest, I was told by casting directors that I wasn’t the right type because I didn’t look black enough, and I didn’t look white. But everything changed when I moved to New York, because my look could cross different lines.
I had no intention of doing film, but many people that I worked with, and people that would come into the restaurant where I was a hostess, would say, “You should audition for Spike Lee’s new movie because you seem like you’re the perfect person for it. You’re a singer, you’re an actress, they’re looking for both.” I was young, I’d just turned 23, maybe even 22, and I was very confident as an actress, and as a singer, and I figured I had nothing to lose.
JOIE LEE: I was terribly green and intimidated, and also in awe. I was not an experienced actor, I’d not gone to school for that, so I didn’t necessarily have any acting foundation. It’s nothing that I ever expressed directly, but I have to say, I don’t think I even knew how to do that back then; how to say, “I really don’t know what I’m doing,” or, “Can you help me?” Or, “What does this mean?” It was an awkward situation. On the one hand, my brother wanted to do right by me; and on the other hand, I felt uncomfortable, wondering, “Do I really deserve this part?”
CYNDA WILLIAMS: I ended up having multiple auditions, including readings with Wesley, with Spike present, and they went well. Although after about six weeks of back-and-forth, I was honestly getting very frustrated, because I was like, “They’re talking to me all the time, and giving me all this information, giving me all this homework, but I have not been offered a role. So am I building a character for someone else?” (Spike Lee: “I couldn’t see her work in any other movies or TV shows; this was her first role. For ‘Jungle Fever,’ Halle Berry had five callbacks. That was Halle’s first film.”)
The final audition was with Denzel. We did our scenes, and they felt really good. I didn’t really know him at the time. I think I’d seen one movie with him, so I wasn’t overwhelmed about the fact that this was Denzel Washington. He and Wesley were handsome men, and were extremely talented, but that was the extent of it. I felt like I was just as talented; I was just female.
JOIE LEE: I believe that Spike wrote the part with me in mind, and I also believe that he might have cast me in the part before he told Denzel. And there might have been some disagreement between them because I just don’t know how forthcoming Spike was about it to Denzel — that he wanted to cast his sister in the role of Indigo. I don’t know if Denzel had somebody else in mind. Spike was also still a relatively new filmmaker at the studio level, and a Black one at that. Denzel was already a name back then, which maybe made the scenario even more uncomfortable.
CYNDA WILLIAMS: Well, I had no negotiating power at all. I got the least that you can get paid to play any role, so it really messed up my career for quite some time when it came to my finances. I played a lead role in a big movie and got paid little. And I got paid next to nothing for the song I sang [“Harlem Blues”].
But since I was new, I didn’t complain, and to me it was a big deal to get the part. But it took me a long time to rectify that. I eventually got an agent and a lawyer, so that I would never be in that situation again. (Spike Lee: “Everyone was paid scale on ‘Mo’ Better Blues’ except the established artists Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes. Cynda was paid scale to sing the song as well. Cynda and Joie were treated with dignity and respect, like everyone in the film.”)
JOIE LEE: We were both young. Cynda was, 22, 23? So maybe I was 26 or 27. I don’t know if there was any negotiating a contract with me ever, because I had no representation. I think I was just so happy to have and to get whatever. I joined SAG after “School Daze,” so I must’ve gotten at least scale. I didn’t know the lay of the land, and I didn’t know how to even advocate for myself.
CYNDA WILLIAMS: It was a man’s film. There were two women in it. Joie and I were only in one scene at the same time, so we didn’t get to know each other very well. Many of the men were method actors. A couple of them had spent time together on previous Spike films, and their characters in “Mo’ Better Blues” were kind of chauvinistic. So being method, they were kind of chauvinistic all the time on set. I’m not saying that’s who they were in real life. I didn’t really get to know them like that. And part of it was because of they were always in character. They were guys’ guys, they hung out with guys, they talked to guys, and women were just there for whatever they were needed for. So I didn’t really build relationships with anybody. (Spike Lee: “Some actors feel they have to stay in character to help play their roles. I didn’t know about any chauvinistic behavior.”)
JOIE LEE: Cynda and I never had any dialogue about any of that. I wish we were there for each other, because I wasn’t aware of any of that, and I was just struggling with my own stuff. So hearing her story, I feel bad, and I wish that I had done more, because I was the older of the two, and was more experienced. Those are difficult waters to tread, and it’s hard when you don’t really feel like you have agency.
In one way, it was a natural extension of my own life, because I grew up in a male-dominated household. My mother, who was the backbone of the family, died early. So I was 14, living with my father and my four brothers, and I’m the fourth of five. So I was kind of used to males dominating spaces.
But Cynda’s character would’ve spent more time with the guys than I did, because she was the singer. My scenes were primarily with Denzel. I’m not saying I was sheltered from these other experiences, but that was not entirely my experience. And I totally hear where Cynda’s coming from in terms of these guys being method actors, and I can see that being awkward or intimidating or uncomfortable. It was a boys club. It was even more so 30 years ago, and there were things that were said and done that you can’t get away with today. I’m talking about it in that context.
CYNDA WILLIAMS: I remember that Joie and I were unhappy about Denzel not taking his shirt off for our sex scenes, even though we both went topless. It was still early in his career, and he was trying to maintain a certain image. I know I was very offended. Why is it okay for me to bare myself and you not do the same? But he wouldn’t budge; he was the star. So we went along with it because we had to. If I’m going to be honest. I thought it wasn’t fair.
JOIE LEE: Oh my God, is his tank top on the whole time? Well, what does that say? I don’t even remember that. I might’ve just been in my own thoughts and head about the scene. What if we had refused to take off our tops?
CYNDA WILLIAMS: Spike and I argued a little bit about it. And it wasn’t like he wasn’t trying to get Denzel to take off his tank top; he tried, but Denzel wouldn’t. At the time, I don’t think he saw what was wrong with that. But that kind of shows you what was wrong for women in Hollywood at the time, and even now. It’s okay for our sexuality to be exploited, but men have choices. At the time I don’t think they were showing men’s bodies like they started doing over the last 10 to 15 years. But we had to, or we didn’t do the movie, and they’d just find some other actress who would. (Spike Lee: “This was Denzel’s film and he was the star.”)
JOIE LEE: It was uncomfortable. Spike had at least the decency to excuse himself from the set during my love scene. It would’ve been even more uncomfortable having my brother there. It was obviously a closed set. Ernest Dickerson shot it, but I didn’t really know what to do. I felt self conscious. I don’t remember being directed per se, or any communication between me and whoever was directing the scene. It still makes me uncomfortable even to talk about it. But yeah, there could’ve been maybe a little bit better explanation, just so that everybody was on the same page about what we were doing.
CYNDA WILLIAMS: The other thing was I grew up very religious. My grandfather was a pastor, so the nudity was a big deal. The very first time I went in, [casting director] Robi Reed made me aware of the nudity. And so I called my grandfather and I asked him, “I want to audition for this movie called ‘A Love Supreme’, and it has nudity in it.”
And he said, “Is it gratuitous?”
And I said, “I don’t think so. I don’t think it goes too far.”
And my grandfather said, “This is what you do. You’re playing a character, unless it’s gratuitous, I don’t understand the question.”
I said, “So that means that I should do it?”
He said, “If you’re an actress you should do it.”
So I did it.
JOIE LEE: I do recall Denzel’s effort to assuage my fears and defuse tension. One incident that always stayed with me is that, because I spoke very quietly, and I did not know how to project, it annoyed Spike. That’s the result of just feeling small, and being timid in that environment. But during the club scene, I was speaking so low that Spike was riding my ass about speaking louder, and I just couldn’t do it. So he was furious, and he read me the riot act about that because even the sound guy couldn’t hear me, and he did this is in front of the cast and crew.
I was completely humiliated, and I ran off the set in tears because I just wanted to quit or go home. And then I came back, and I guess I was crying, when Denzel said, “Turn on the camera,” because I was trying to clean up. Denzel said, “No, no, no, don’t do that. Just use it.” I don’t think I really understood this at the time, but Denzel was right about using that in the circumstances of the scene we were filming.
But, over the years, I’ve thought everything about the making of the film, about Cynda, and my own experience. I think I always felt that to say something is to detract from the opportunity that I had to work with my brother, or to work with Denzel. It feels, and it felt as if to say anything would seem ungrateful.
CYNDA WILLIAMS: I’ll add that, in all honesty, Clarke was a much fuller character than the movie ended up showing. I’m the old-school, sit down, create the entire background for a character type of actor. And a lot of that was there initially, but Spike cut most of it out. (Spike Lee: “I understand actors getting upset when scenes are cut but this is cinema, not everything makes the film.”)
So when I watched the film the first time at the premiere, I was surrounded by my family, and I was mortified because all the things about my character that I loved so much were gone, and it was just about the nudity. And so I wasn’t happy with my part, which skewed how I saw the entire movie. I didn’t watch it again for a very long time, until about two years ago. And I had a much better experience with it. I actually thought it was very good. I’m an adult now, so seeing myself that way was not an issue anymore. And I see what people love about it, and I respect what people love about it. But it took a very long time for me to get to that place, because of that first mortifying moment.
JOIE LEE: I can’t remember the last time I saw the film. But it really meant a lot to me, because of my family’s involvement. Especially my father, who scored the music. It’s the part of “Mo’ Better Blues” that I return to happily. It’s a beautiful, evocative, orchestral work. It’s timeless.
I loved hanging out in the studio with my father during those recording sessions with the orchestra. I think the score is underrated and was worthy of an Oscar nomination. It’s one of my favorite collaborations with my father and Spike, and their last. They were in a good place, had common ground then, and had synergy. And I think, in some way the film was a tribute to my father, to his genius.
CYNDA WILLIAMS: Yeah, I think the number-one thing audiences loved about the film was and still is the music. A lot of people have told me that their favorite song was “Harlem Blues,” the song I sang. They still don’t know I sang the song, which always amazes me. They thought I was lip syncing, which I was as we were filming, but I was lip syncing to myself. But they love the music, and all the actors that came out of that movie, and went onto become stars. The Turturro brothers, of course Denzel, Wesley, Giancarlo Esposito, Samuel Jackson, all phenomenal actors that blew up to be such respected, loved actors.
JOIE LEE: The original title of the film was “A Love Supreme,” inspired by the John Coltrane album. I think that was really what Spike was striving for, that great love, and maybe transcending the mundane stuff to get to that higher place in one’s intimate relationships. There was this great divide about who Bleek should end up with: the beautiful chanteuse Clarke, or the down-to-earth, more kind-of traditional Indigo? I wonder if a part of Spike maybe wanted to emulate an idealized love. And I think that is in some way the love that you want.
CYNDA WILLIAMS: I remember when the film came out, I read a couple of reviews and I found out very quickly that wasn’t something I ever wanted to do again. People were very upset that it wasn’t like previous Spike Lee films up until that point. It wasn’t dealing with Black rage like “Do the Right Thing.” Instead it was about music and love. I realized that there were going to be a lot of different opinions about the film for a lot of different reasons, and it’s none of my business. So that was the very last time I ever read reviews of my work.
Roger Ebert did write a beautiful reaction to my performance [“Cynda Williams in her first film is a luminous discovery. She has a presence that seems to occupy the screen by divine right“]. And he’s the one that helped draw attention to “One False Move,” which I made after “Mo’ Better Blues,” because it sat on the shelf for awhile and then somehow Ebert got a copy of it, and he pushed it so hard, putting it at the top of his favorite movies of the year list. And all of a sudden, this movie that I thought was dead on arrival had a life. I never met him. I wish I had before he passed, because he was a driving force in my career.
JOIE LEE: To be honest, the only thing I remember is some white male reviewer saying something about my look, my “unkempt hair.” Because, 30 years ago, America apparently wasn’t ready for a Black woman in film with natural hair in its natural state. So he was talking about me and my appearance, as if it was something ugly and unattractive to him. It didn’t meet his standard of beauty, as opposed to maybe Cynda.
I don’t remember who that white guy was or who he wrote for. But that stood out to me, and kind of shocked me to be honest. My world was very small. Depending on where work took me, there were people who had negative reactions to the way I dressed, the way I wore my hair, my style and my sensibility. I didn’t know that until I started to appear on screen. So that was my introduction to that world, and I wasn’t very comfortable within it.
CYNDA WILLIAMS: I wasn’t willing to do some of the things that were expected of me, because I was a woman. And so that meant that I was not part of the scene like I might’ve been if I’d have done certain things to get in the door, kind of like Clarke. The film opened some doors for me. Not like the guys, but it opened doors that I never knew existed. The doors that are open for men are just different than the doors that are open for women.
But I’m glad things are changing. It’s helpful that more women are now producing and writing for themselves, telling their own stories. And that’s where it has to happen. We have to do it ourselves.
“Mo’ Better Blues” is streaming for free with ads on Peacock.