Spike Lee talks Mo' Better Blues, Malcolm X, and Miracle at St. Anna
Remember our interview with Spike Lee in Issue 38? The following is an unpublished chunk from that piece.
Originally, Mo’ Better Blues was entitled A Love Supreme. Why did you change the title?
Alice Coltrane! [laughs] I was in contact with her. She read the script and thought there was too much profanity in the film, and she preferred that we not use that title, but she would still let us use the song. The recording was much more important than the title.
Was Mo’ Better Blues the first instance of the media accusing you of anti-Semitism? With the portrayal of the two Jewish club owners?
The club owners were Moe and Josh Flatbush, played by John and Nick Turturro. This was something that blindsided me completely. There was a big brouhaha, and at that time, my lawyer, who is deceased and was Jewish, said, “Spike, if you want to continue to work in this industry, you have to get rid of this anti-Semitic label.” His name was Arthur Klein, and he suggested that I write an op-ed piece for The New York Times saying, “I’m not anti-Semitic.” I took his advice; I did that. They were really trying to lower the hammer. You never felt somebody on your ass until you have the JDL, B’nai B’rith, and whoever else on your ass with the anti-Semitic thing. They could put you on lockdown.
How did you feel about Malcolm X being snubbed at the Oscars?
Well, we didn’t get a Best Picture nomination. To be honest, that’s not why I make films. Denzel will tell you the same thing. Also, it didn’t just happen to me. Look at Scorsese and The Departed. You’re telling me he had Taxi Driver and Goodfellas and he never won? Look what he won for. There’s a makeup, and when you win, sometimes it’s not your best work. The biggest tip-off that he was gonna win was like two or three days before the Oscars. They announced that the presenters for Best Director were gonna be Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola. I said, “No way in fucking hell are they gonna have those guys here and it’s not going to be Scorsese!” I forgot who else was nominated for director of the year, but I would’ve bet a million dollars Scorsese was winning when they said the presenters would be Spielberg, Lucas, and Coppola! [laughs] It’s unfortunate, but as Marty would say, “I’m glad I won!”
What was the impetus for your last film, Miracle at St. Anna?
Loved the novel. I’ve always wanted to do a film about World War II and African Americans’ participation in it. I’ve always wanted to shoot a film in Italy and [Miracle at St. Anna author] James McBride provided all the stuff I needed to make this film.
I know you enjoyed the book, but did the Clint Eastwood schism play a part in your decision?
Well, that happened after the film was already made. I was just incredulous that he could do two films about Iwo Jima and not have a Black Marine say a line. I was able to interview some guys, and one of the guys, who just recently died, was Thomas McFadden, who was there. He said there were plenty of Black folks there on those islands. Thomas McFadden told me this story that there were two pictures of the planting of the flag at Iwo Jima. He was at the first, and there was a whole bunch of Black people watching them take the picture. And, because it was lava, the stick wouldn’t hold. He had a supply dump, and they said look to see if you could find something, so he found a pipe from his supply dump, stuck the pipe in the lava, and that’s what they stuck the flag in. So, at the time the picture was taken, there were a lot of Black folks watching the picture being taken!
That story was mysteriously overlooked.
That’s the whole thing. It’s overlooked. There were one million African-American men and women who contributed to the war effort. That’s not even counting all the other wars. So again, there’s that pathology. The John-Wayne-super-White-man-pathology. And you cannot underestimate the power of the media.
I think in order to understand many of the issues you raise, and the questions you pose, you have to come from a certain place.
Here’s the biggest thing. The hurdle that happens is that these White folks think the world revolves around them. So, they don’t have the humility to understand there is some other shit out here that’s just as worthy, and you might not know about it. You’re not the motherfucking expert on it, either. They just can’t get around it. What’s the word? Entitlement. It fucks shit up. Everything does not revolve around your ass. And the ones that get around that are able to understand other stuff and are able to write more objective critiques on our shit.