Spike Lee has always been an interesting film personality. Controversy follows him wherever he goes, whether he intends it or not. He’s opinionated, outspoken and loud to boot. But he’s also smart, well read, and honest; admits to his faults and when he makes mistakes. He also tends to contradict himself — he’s only human, after all. But most of all, he genuinely loves to make people think (twice), to keep them on their toes, to educate as well as entertain.
And still critics tend to focus on the fact that he’s not Caucasian. Some day critics will stop calling Lee the “black Woody Allen” or an “African-American filmmaker” (or even a “controversial” one) but simply acknowledge him as one of the most intelligent, articulate, and able filmmakers of our generation. But people tend to go for the obvious (we’re only human after all) and of course Lee himself tends to bring up the matter of race in interviews quite often.
But there’s more to Lee than just that. Much more.
Lee’s films are all well written, beautifully photographed, professionally acted, and always thought provoking and especially memorable. Some, such as Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X were instant classics the day they debuted.
Lee’s films are not just about the struggle of black Americans to become accepted and comfortable in today’s America. They are documents of a time, of a people, of all peoples. Anyone can relate to any of Lee’s films. You just have to peel back the layers to get to the truth of what his films are really about.
And in this collection of interviews, edited by Cynthia Fuchs, an Associate Professor at George Mason University, we get a chance to see Lee for the gifted, expressive person he is. In interview after interview — taken from magazines, Internet sources, and even television talk shows — Lee continues to surprise and throw one off balance with his comments and observations on human nature.
For instance, a question of music: who would have thought that some of Lee’s favorites included classical music composer Aaron Copland’s sweeping compositions, the Beatles, Patsy Cline, and even white bread popsters such as Steely Dan?
About films: You might have guessed that he would count Akira Kurosawa and Martin Scorsese as major influences. But Billy Wilder and David Lean?
But wait, there’s more. (Have I said that already?) One of the most fascinating chapters in the book is an excerpt from American Cinematographer magazine, written by Stephen Pizzello, “Between “Rock” and a Hard Place.” Pizzello gets the facts from both Lee himself and Malik Sayeed who, at 26 years of age, became the Director of Photography for Lee’s film Clockers. It was Sayeed’s first time handling a major motion picture and he went all out in order to give the film a unique look and feel. He talked Lee into using Kodak 5239 film stock, a high-speed color reversal film intended for photography under low-level daylight illumination, which was previously used primarily by the Air Force and by NASA for their onboard cameras on the space shuttle. Since 5239 film stock had never been mass-produced for the general public, Kodak had to make up a special run with edge numbers on it just for the movie. Even the development of the film was tricky, requiring negative processing before transferring it to 35 mm, and special care was given to the set lighting because of the danger of over-exposing the film. Is something as seemingly trivial as what sort of film stock is used in a film all that important? Lee thinks so. He considers all of this extra work worth it to make the film right. The look, texture, and feel of film are important to the mood. Lee knows that often one must go to great lengths in order to make a great film instead of a mediocre one.
In editing this excellent book of interviews Cynthia Fuchs has smartly put them in chronological order. This way we get added insight into how Lee evolved over the years, his opinions changing as did his outlook on the world. Rarely do we get to witness something so intrinsic in all of us — one’s growth as an individual — laid out so plainly for all the world to see in black and white. Witnessing Lee’s slow and gradual development from a smart and gifted personality to an intelligent, caring (he’s a father, now) individual concerned with the well-being, treatment and education of all people is intriguing and fascinating.
I hope that of all people, Lee himself reads this book cover to cover. He might be pleasantly surprised as to how he turned out.