Like his movies or not, it's hard to argue that Spike Lee isn't one of the most important filmmakers alive today, a provocateur who says what he thinks and does what he says — even when he's speaking against a living legend like Clint Eastwood.
MTV News recently caught up with the 51-year-old Oscar-nominated director to talk about his new movie, "Miracle at St. Anna"; his dreams of making a musical; the current state of black cinema; Barack Obama; his Kobe Bryant project; and more.
MTV: I suppose the obvious question is, why a Spike Lee war movie?
Spike Lee: In a couple years, you're going to be asking me, "Why a Spike Lee musical?" The films I make are stuff I'm interested in. I've never done a war film before. I've never shot a film overseas. I've never shot a film in four languages. So these are all challenges to me that were exciting.
MTV: No fair being facetious about musicals, by the way.
Lee: No, I want to do a musical. Musicals are one of my favorite genres. [No specific one] right now, but I would like to do one.
MTV: Could you snap your fingers and make a musical happen? More broadly, at this point in your career, are there films you want to do but can't?
Lee: Oh, yes. I have a black-biopic, no-money trilogy: Jackie Robinson. Joe Louis and James Brown. Those are three films I have scripts for and am trying to get done but have been unsuccessful so far.
MTV: What do you feel is the resistance to those movies?
Lee: They don't think there's a market for it, they're not interested. Or they think it costs too much. So that's one of those reasons why studios don't make anything.
MTV: I was reading an interview you did in the wake of "25th Hour," and you said that most black films had to be either minstrel-y or buffoonish to get made. Could that also be a reason? Do you think that's changed at all in the years since to be either better or worse?
Lee: People have to do what they do. I know it's very difficult as an African-American filmmaker — that if you're not doing some slapstick-comedy stuff or some drug, gangster, hip-hop, shoot-'em-up stuff — to get a film done is very hard. The subject matter is really ghettoized, even if you're Will Smith, the biggest star on the planet, or Denzel [Washington] or Sam Jackson. I have used the term gatekeeper before. It's very simple. There are four or five people on the mountain within the Hollywood studio system and network-cable TV system. A very select few of these people decide what gets made. When people of color are more able to get into those positions, I think you will see a significant [change]. Of course, it has to be the right person, because if you have a Condoleezza Rice up in there ...
MTV: Forget gatekeeper. Pretty soon, we might have an African-American president.
Lee: I still think a lot of people, even myself, haven't been truly able to comprehend the significance of it. I think in a lot of ways, the rest of the world sees it sooner than we do. This is huge. This change is everything, and I think we can truly become a great country [with Obama]. I do feel that people will put aside their fears and vote for what's best for this country — they're going to do the right thing.
MTV: "Do the Right Thing"! Ever been tempted to do a sequel to that?
Lee: Never, never. After my first film, they wanted a "She's Gotta Have It 2," and I said, "Hell, no." You want a sequel? I've only done one film!
MTV: You recently had some words with Clint Eastwood over war movies. Why is "Miracle at St. Anna" such an important story to tell?
Lee: The guys I met who fought in World War II. I really honor these African-American men who fought for this country, for the red, white and blue, who fought for democracy at a time when they were still second-class citizens. At a time where the United States Armed Forces were still segregated. At a time that many places in the country, you still had to get them at the back of the bus.
MTV: It occurs to me listening to you that a lot of people of my generation might not even know what a Buffalo Soldier is beyond vaguely recalling it as a title to a Bob Marley song.
Lee: [Laughs.] Well, hopefully they'll know some more. I think there's many stories that have yet to be told in this country. I think many young people are interested in the past. I think many are interested in stuff that wasn't taught in their school. I think many people miss the fact that all they learned in school was Washington chopped down the cherry tree and Abraham Lincoln and Christopher Columbus discovered America.
MTV: You're doing a documentary on Kobe Bryant. What about him fascinates you? He seems to me like a guy with a lot of weaknesses.
Lee: As far as basketball?
MTV: No, no. As far as basketball, he's the best player.
Lee: Yeah, but what we're doing is [actually] only one game. We're not doing a documentary on his life. He played on April 13 in the Staples Center. They played against the world-champion San Antonio Spurs. The film's going to be about that one day — that's it. We had 25 cameras on him while he was playing. Phil Jackson allowed us access in the locker room before the game, at halftime and postgame. and he'd never, ever done that before.
MTV: So is Kobe Bryant the best player today?
Lee: Him and LeBron James.
MTV: Yeah, but you're not doing a movie on LeBron.
Lee: Not yet!
Check out everything we've got on "Miracle at St. Anna."
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