Spike Lee: The Challenge of the Black Filmmaker

The following is excerpts from a talk given by Spike Lee at the Imagination Conference in San Francisco, June 8, 1996, speaking of his early years as an independent filmmaker and some of the efforts to release the movie Malcolm X.

Growing up in Brooklyn, we went to the matinees regularly and sat through the film six times every Saturday and drank all the Coca Cola we could drink and ate all the popcorn we could eat and threw stuff at the screen and tried not to get thrown out. I never knew that people actually made movies. We just went there, and showed up, and the projector was turned on, and stuff was on the screen. In fact growing up I wanted to play second base for the New York Mets. So going to college, I’d no idea of what I wanted to do. And like most underclassmen there comes a point where you run out of the elective classes you can take and you have to declare a major. I chose mass communications and that major encompassed film, TV, print journalism, and radio.

I was very fortunate because my parents were very creative. My father is Bill Lee the jazz bassist, and I grew up with him taking me to hear him playing in clubs in the Village. And my mother taught art. We were raised in a very creative environment. I remember going to see Broadway plays, The King and I, stuff like that. Now I could see that that exposure was very important, even though I didn’t know that was what I wanted to do, even though I didn’t want to see these plays, I did not want to see my father play jazz. Now I see that if my parents didn’t insist on it, even with me kicking and screaming. I’d have not become a filmmaker.

When I chose mass communications… for me film was the thing I’d think this was what I wanted to do. And in the summer of 1977 I could not find a job and I bought a Super 8 camera and I went around New York City that whole summer just shooting stuff. It was also the first summer of disco. People were having these block parties all around the city and that’s when the dance the hustle was out. My first film was a Super 8 film called Last Hustle in Brooklyn, which was really like a highlight film of black people and Puerto Rican people looting and dancing. When school began I showed it to my class and I got a favorable response and that’s a great feeling, the initial time that happens.

Upon graduation, I still did not have the necessary tools to be a filmmaker. We only had the facilities for Super 8, so I wanted to learn film grammar, learn how to make a film, and I applied to the top three film schools USC, UCLA and NYU. Unfortunately for me, at USC and UCLA you had to get an astronomical score on the GRE, (and I still feel a lot of those standardized tests are culturally biased). But, luckily for NYU, you didn’t have to take a test. All you had to do was submit a creative portfolio, and I was accepted.

For the next three years, that’s all I did was make films. We spent very little time in the classroom, without making films. If you’re not working on your films, you’re working on your classmates’ films. And that’s where I became a filmmaker by just actually doing stuff. Luckily, my thesis film was a film called Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop and it won a student Academy Award. With that acclaim, with the little acclaim that that award brought, I got an agent, from William Morris; I was very new to the game. My agent said “Look Spike, just leave everything up to me, I know how to handle the studios. Just sit back and wait by the phone.” So I waited by the phone, and waited by the phone, and finally got up enough nerve to ask my agent “What’s up?” I’m very naive, I don’t know the ropes. He said “Look, just take a chill pill, I know what I’m doing. Just wait by the phone. I waited by the phone some more, and waited by the phone. And then Ma Bell turned the phone off. And then Brooklyn Union Gas followed shortly thereafter. Then I realized that I’m going to have to take some alternative means to becoming a filmmaker. Just writing a script and knocking on some studio’s doors is not going to get it.

I said I have to do my own independent film. My first feature film has to be independent. I wrote a script, called Messenger. I got involved with some bogus producer who said he was going to deliver on the financing of the film. When you do an independent film you have to draw on a lot of favors, so I asked all my classmates, people I went to school with, to crew for me, and also a lot of actors I had met. People were turning down work to work on my film, cast and crew. After six weeks we waited for this mysterious, miraculous, wire-transfer to come into our production bank account. It never did. Finally I just had to break the news to the cast and crew that they had wasted their summer on a project that was never going to happen. They would not be compensated for it. As you might imagine, my name was mud, and rightfully so.

A critical moment in me being a filmmaker was one day when I was crying like a baby – sitting in my bathtub. All the water had drained out, I was wrinkled like a California raisin and I was ready to quit. I said ‘well let me give it one more try. I’m going to pick myself up off the canvas and try it once again. Just try to re-evaluate where I went wrong.’ In retrospect I saw that I committed several key errors all first-time filmmakers do. They try to be over-ambitious, try to do stuff that’s beyond their means – that helicopter shot, all types of stuff. I definitely didn’t have the means to raise the money for that script.

So I said to myself, the next script I write I’m not going to make those same mistakes. I’m going to write a script that can be done. There’ll be two or three people in a room, going to shoot it in black and white, won’t have to worry about the production design that much. And I’ll shoot it in a couple of days. Shoot what is possible. That film was She’s Gotta Have It. We raised the money for the film. It cost $125,000, and it went on to make 8-1/2 million. That’s when agents really began to call – but there were no more agents for me up ‘till Malcolm X.

Growing up in this country, the rich culture I saw in my neighborhood, in my family – I didn’t see that on television or on the movie screen. It was always my ambition that if I were successful, I would try to portray a truthful portrait of African Americans in this country, negative and positive. I’ve never really tried to get in that hole where everything has to be 100%, because I think that it’s not necessarily true and it’s definitely not dramatic having the subject, the characters in your film be 100% angelic, and god-like.

The character that I played in She’s Gotta Have It was named Mars Blackmon and Mars was a b-boy and his favorite athlete in the world was Michael Jordan. Mars was fanatic about Michael Jordan. Two young men at Wyden Kennedy named Jim Griswold and Bill Davenport saw She’s Gotta Have It and they came up with the idea of pairing Mars Blackmon, the character I played in She’s Gotta Have It with Michael Jordan. When they called me of course I wanted to do it, but it was really left up to Michael, because at that time he was not a moviegoer and he’d never heard of me.

Michael Jordan is the reason why I’ve done so many commercials, because Michael could easily get his own hotshot guy on Madison Avenue. Mike said ‘let me give this young black filmmaker a chance’. Even though he chose the Knicks every time there was a playoff game, Mike was the one who really hooked me up with the commercials. It was a complete accident that I got into commercials when I did Mars Blackmon.

As this is a creative conference I will try to say, if I can, what I think about creativity. I think it’s something, either you have it or you don’t. I know that may sound cruel. But that’s what I feel. You can get out there and front like you have it, but the people who know, know. Being a commercial filmmaker, it’s a great challenge to try to do stuff that’s creative. At the same time in film if you don’t (have the) money, you’re out of here. It’s a high wire act that you’re doing probably even more than music, because there’s much more money at stake in films. I think the average price of a Hollywood film has gone up to $35 million. And because I started out as an independent filmmaker, She’s Gotta Have It had no studio behind me telling me what to do. Because I raised the money myself, I had final say. And, once that film became a hit I was able to set a precedent so that from then on I’ve been able to have creative control. Basically I have been able to do any film I wanted to.