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Spike Lee, Holding Court

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 1, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Spike Lee Portrait of filmmaker Spike Lee at the Jefferson Hotel. (Dudley M. Brooks/The Washington Post)
The film opens with a montage of basketball images, a slow-motion tribute to the artistry of the game: You see girls and boys, men and women, their hands caressing smooth round leather, slapping it between their legs, on rural dirt and city asphalt, in calm environs and rough neighborhoods, spinning, passing, arcing shots that softly kiss the net.

All that to the symphonic exaltation of Aaron Copland's music.

To watch this scene from Spike Lee's new movie, "He Got Game," is to watch the real-life passion of the filmmaker emerge onscreen. Lee has loved the game since he was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, buying student discount seats in in Madison Square Garden's nosebleed section. Now, he is the ultimate celebrity fan, spotlighted frequently on TV, cheering on his New York Knicks from a $1,250-a-game courtside seat. He hassles referees. He heckles opponents.

It is from that vantage point that Lee has made his movie.

"Where I sit at the Knick games, you know, I would get hell from the brothers in the league if I came with some wack [expletive]. So for me, it had to be approved by the guys in the league. That's the level we were on."

Lee is critical of most previous basketball movies, including "Celtic Pride," "Eddie" and "Above the Rim," primarily because the basketball scenes are not believable, he says.

"Those films, everybody's dunking. And you can tell they got trampolines off to the side and guys are flying through the air like it's a karate movie or something."

It does not take long for Lee to slide into the role of critic and social commentator. Basketball is not his only passion. He is a pioneering African American filmmaker who makes movies with African American themes and has strong views on race. His movies -- 12 in the past 12 years -- are often controversial, as are his abundant opinions. None of this seems to bother him.

On this morning, Lee is sitting at a secluded corner table in the Jefferson Hotel lounge. At 41, he looks rather like a nerdy black studies student from the '70s -- Afro, goatee, black-frame glasses and blue pullover sweater. He has just arrived by train from New York and is hungry. He orders a fancy poached-egg dish with turkey sausage, and over the next hour does some dishing of his own.

He is not from the school of "no comment."

"I don't want to do those stupid sitcoms. I ain't doing 'Homeboys From Outer Space.'"
—Spike Lee
Lee derides many of today's black films as "coonish, clownish type work." He says his failure to win an Oscar this year in the documentary category for "4 Little Girls" was predictable, given that the competition -- and ultimate winner -- was a film about the Holocaust. He calls director Quentin Tarantino "ignorant" for his repeated use of the "n-word" in his movie "Jackie Brown." And for defending Tarantino, Lee likens actor Samuel L. Jackson -- who plays a foulmouthed gangster in the film -- to a "house Negro defending massa."

But more on that feud, along with other Spike commentaries, in a minute. Right now, there is basketball to discuss.

In "He Got Game," Lee cast 22-year-old Milwaukee Bucks guard Ray Allen to star opposite Denzel Washington. Allen's character, Jesus Shuttlesworth, is the best high school player in the nation. Washington plays his imprisoned dad. The film revolves around their estranged relationship and Jesus's torturous decision about which college to attend or whether to go directly into the NBA. The decision is made more complex by the prospect that Jesus could reduce his father's jail time by selecting a particular school.

Lee first approached the baby-faced Allen about auditioning for the part during halftime of a Knicks-Bucks game last season.

"I don't think there's an actor today that could've exhibited the skills to look like he could be the best high school athlete," Lee says. "It couldn't be done. So we just made a list of all the guys in the league who still looked like they could possibly be in their senior year in high school."

Los Angeles Lakers sensation Kobe Bryant, 19, was on the list but had summer basketball commitments. Eighteen-year-old Toronto Raptor Tracy McGrady, who just left high school last year and is the NBA's youngest player, tried out but was judged too reserved for the part. The photogenic Philadelphia 76er Allen Iverson, last year's top rookie, wasn't prepared when he came for auditions and seemed distracted. And then there was an unusual request by the agent for two of the league's brightest young stars, Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury of the Minnesota Timberwolves: Guarantee one of them the lead role or neither will audition.

"I was like, 'Look man, this ain't the NBA,' " recalls Lee. "There ain't no guaranteed contracts, buddy. This is a film."

Marbury and Garnett weren't invited in.

Allen, who had never even appeared in a school play, worked with an acting coach for eight weeks prior to shooting and is convincing. While Lee is proud of the authenticity of the basketball sequences, he says the central message of the movie is "redemption, forgiveness and, on a broader scale, relations between parents and their children . . . and how far can I push my child without it being harmful to the both of us.

"What's interesting is this is basketball, but it's not really about basketball," he adds, offering a quick cackle as though he has pulled off some sleight-of-hand trick on die-hard sports fans. "It's like the end reverse, the misdirection play. We got everybody at that sideline while we're running down the other sideline toward the end zone. Because the people who watch ESPN's 'SportsCenter' religiously every night are probably a small audience. And our goal was to make a film about basketball, but if people don't like basketball or sports they can still enjoy this film, too."

There can be no Spike Lee film without inclusion of some strongly held Lee beliefs about the way the country works or should work. "He Got Game" is no exception. Asked why Washington's character, Jake Shuttlesworth, is serving what seems like a mighty long 15-year sentence for the accidental death of his wife, Lee is quick with a reply: "Black male. Got the wrong lawyer. Came before the wrong judge."

The criticisms of Lee's work -- that his films often end awkwardly, that his scripts need polishing, that he bludgeons moviegoers with his social messages -- seem to roll off his back as time passes on.

"You just try to grow each time out," he says.

Is there a criticism that he considers legitimate?

"I think early on it was a valid criticism that my female characters . . . weren't given the same dimensions or the weight that the male characters were given," he says. "And that's something we tried to work out."

When it comes to dispensing criticism, Lee is more engaging. He is asked if he is disappointed that he has not yet won an Academy Award and says no "because I know that stuff a lot of times is not based on merit."

But when it is suggested that he stood a pretty fine chance of winning with his Oscar-nominated first documentary about the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls, Lee welcomes the opportunity to set the interviewer straight. The winner in that category, he explains, was "The Long Way Home," which chronicles the fate of European Jews between the end of World War II and the founding of Israel.

"When the film is about the Holocaust and one of the producers is a rabbi and it comes from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, there are not many sure things in life, but that was a sure thing when you consider the makeup of the voting body of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences," says Lee. "I'd have rather been the New York Knicks in the fourth quarter, down 10 points, a minute left in the United Center, than have the odds we faced of winning the Oscar against the Holocaust film."

Lee doesn't present his assessment as bitterness, but rather as a detail of doing business in Hollywood.

"I'd just say to Spike Lee, 'Don't bestow upon us some ecclesiastical powers over Hollywood," says Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center."That's a bit of a stretch, even for a Knicks fan. C'mon, Spike."

Now, ask Lee what's up with him and Samuel L. Jackson, who gave a movie-stealing performance in Lee's "Jungle Fever" and has sat courtside with Lee at Madison Square Garden, and you get an eruption.

"I don't have nothing against Sam," Lee begins innocently enough. "Morehouse man. But I'm sorry, if he wants to defend Quentin Tarantino, he can. But for me, it's a lot like the house Negro defending the massa. Because when I was talking about Quentin Tarantino, I was not talking about Sam Jackson. It was not an attack on him. I just had a problem -- I still have a problem -- with Quentin Tarantino and his use of the n-word. And it's not just the 38 times we heard it in 'Jackie Brown.' It's his whole body of work. 'Reservoir Dogs,' 'Pulp Fiction' and the film he wrote but did not direct, 'True Romance.' And for Sam to make the personal attacks he did, I just found it very sad . . . and very small-minded."

Through his publicist, Jackson yesterday declined to respond. But he said earlier this year that the use of the n-word was appropriate in the context of "Jackie Brown" and accused Lee of hypocrisy because he "uses the word himself in all his films." He also said he was tired of Lee acting as though he had been elected the voice of black people: "I didn't get a chance to vote in that election."

Lee acknowledges his use of the word in his films, but says he does it sparingly and with more authority. "It's the volume," he says. "Also, I think as an African American I have more of a right to use that word."

Lee says he believes there is a double standard for offensive language in the entertainment industry, citing the pressure that Michael Jackson faced in 1995 to rerecord two passages in a song about intolerance. Jewish groups said the words "Jew me, sue me, kick me, kike me" were offensive, and Jackson replaced them.

"Why is it that 'nigger' is all right, but you get into a Jewish slur and all the sudden you're antisemitic?"

Why Lee feels compelled to wade so deep into this is anyone's guess, but he's in there now.

He drops that Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax Films, called him after he began criticizing Tarantino "because he thought it was going to hurt the box office of 'Jackie Brown.' He didn't care anything about the whole use of the word. All he was worrying about was box office."

Weinstein says what he was trying to do was to facilitate a dialogue between Tarantino and Lee. And though he likes Lee, Weinstein says, he is growing tired of his antics. "Does he have anything nice to say about anybody's work but his own? I'm getting sick of this. . . . If Spike wants to take the gloves off with me, come on."

For his part, Tarantino challenged Lee to call him personally instead of complaining through the media. Through his publicist, Bumble Ward, the director said: "He has not acted like a man and this is just baldfaced promotion."

Lee says he has no intention of speaking to Tarantino, who had a cameo role in Lee's film "Girl 6."

So the feud continues.

Lee is asked what more he wants to accomplish in film. He would like to make more documentaries, he says. He would like to work with Will Smith and Eddie Murphy. And he would like to break into another medium -- television.

"That's a hard nut to crack," he says, "basically because I don't want to do those stupid sitcoms. I ain't doing 'Homeboys From Outer Space.' Had I went that route, I would have had four shows running on TV right now."

There's so much potential for African Americans to blow up in TV, he adds. "It just burns me up that we're always stuck in these asinine sitcoms. And it's funny. Why is it in the opening credits of all these shows that black folks always gotta be dancing?"

The state of black filmmaking, as Lee sees it, is similarly problematic.

"To me, I look at it as half-empty, half-full," he says. On the one hand, there are textured films about black life, such as "Eve's Bayou" and "Love Jones," getting made. On the other hand, he says, there are many more films getting made about urban drama and black pathology -- films like "Booty Call," "How to Be a Player" and "The Players Club."

"That's what the studios want to fund," says Lee, and "their assessment is not 100 percent wrong because those are the films black people are going to."

Lee has finished his breakfast, and it's time to leave the Jefferson for a hastily arranged interview at Black Entertainment Television's headquarters across town. As Lee's driver cruises up New York Avenue toward Northeast Washington, a group of young black men, riding in a white Jeep, car stereo pounding out rap lyrics, notices the film director in the back seat.

"Oh, that's Spike Lee," says one. "What's up, Spike? What's up?"

Spike smiles and flashes the brothers a peace sign. And then it's back to his rap on basketball.

Is Michael Jordan really going to retire after this season?

"No, he ain't retiring," says Lee, who has starred in Nike ads with His Airness. "Nothing he's told me. But I don't think he's going to walk away from this. Having too much fun. What's he going to do after he stops? He can't play golf every single minute. Mike's competitive. He needs this -- like a fix."

Like Spike Lee needs his passions.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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