Amidst all the pro and con chatter about his upcoming Chicago-set feature film "Chiraq," filmmaker Spike Lee was present for this year’s Chicago International Movies & Music Festival, better known as CIMMfest, just 2 days ago, on April 18th," in an event titled "An Evening of Music, Film & Wine with Spike Lee" at City Winery in Chicago.
There, Lee talked about his career trajectory, from his debut feature-length film "She’s Gotta Have It" in 1986, to his most recent work, the Kickstarter-funded underwhelming "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus." I was hoping that the taped event would become available online, but, thus far, I haven’t be notified of any video uploads. But thankfully, some of those who were present, like the Chicago Defender and the Chicago Tribune, published some highlights from the event, that I felt were worth sharing here.
For example, per the Defender, Lee, as you’d expect, wasn’t at all coy in talking about his experiences in the film industry, sharing "colorful anecdotes" on his trials and triumphs, including the influence of his inexperience while shooting "She’s Gotta Have It," stating: "First two films, ‘She’s Gotta Have it,’ and ‘School Daze,’ I did not know what the fuck I was doing. It wasn’t until ‘Do the Right Thing’ that I was confident as a film director. When you come out of film school you are afraid of actors. You don’t know the verbiage, so you just hide behind the camera and let the actors do what they want. So it took my third film; and that’s when I became confident."
I don’t know if it necessarily shows in both films. I quite appreciated "She’s Gotta Have It," and its novelty, despite a few obvious problems with it – problems which Lee himself admitted to years later; notably the rape of Nola Darling scene and its aftermath – which Spike did share his own regrets with many years later. I didn’t see it at the time of its release, so I can’t speak to the then zeitgeist and overall reception of the film, other than what I’ve read since then. But it was undeniably fresh in its style and structure, especially within the context of what we call "black cinema" at the time – though, again, not without its problems.
Spike also shared his thoughts on why Denzel Washington didn’t win the Oscar for Best Actor for his work in "Malcolm X," calling it a "make-up call" for Al Pacino who did win the award that year, stating: "Denzel that year lost to the great, Bronx-born actor, Al Pacino. Al was nominated but did not win for ‘Godfather I,’ ‘Godfather II,’ ‘Serpico,’ ‘Dog Day Afternoon,’ ‘Scarface." He didn’t win. Makeup call: Denzel was young, he won an Oscar already for ‘Glory,’ Best Supporting Actor, beat out Danny Aiello for ‘Do the Right Thing,’ so they fucked over Al Pacino. He had 65 roles, five times he didn’t win; he didn’t win one. ‘Scent of a Woman,’ you’ve gotta give it to him! Denzel wins for ‘Training Day:’ Makeup call. You’re not going to get it back, but you know why you got it; because they [the Academy] wants to correct something they feel that was done wrong in the past.”
A sentiment that’s been shared many times over the years, with respect to the Academy Awards. Essentially, it’s all "politics," as the saying goes.
Spike also retold the story that I think many of us have heard before, about how his grandmother sacrificed so that he and his siblings got the best art education they could get, in order to excel in their respective fields: “After 50 years, my grandmother (an art teacher) saved her social security checks for her grandchildren’s education. And since I was the first grandchild, I had first dibs. My grandmother put me through Morehouse; my grandmother put me through NYU film school; and my grandmother gave me the seed money for ‘She’s Gotta Have It.’ And so often, parents and relatives kill dreams more than anybody else, real talk. I was fortunate I came up in an artistic family so no one looked at me like I was crazy or looked at me sideways when I said I wanted to be a filmmaker. When I told my grandmother that I wanted to be a filmmaker, she said, ‘Spikey I don’t know anything about filmmaking, but that’s what you want to do, and I will support you.’”
It’s not an experience that, sadly, a lot of us can recognize. In my family, my parents didn’t see a career in the arts as anything possible. Maybe as a hobby; but not as an income earner. They pushed us all (my siblings and I) into careers in medicine and engineering primarily, because those were degrees that almost assured that you’d be financially stable – at least, back then. I can’t say the same thing with any certainty today, given the dour shape that the US economy has been in since the 2008 economic downturn. But our parents certainly had the best of intentions for us, so there are certainly no regrets or hard feelings towards them. They did what they felt was right for their children.
So it goes…
Spike also shared that he’d love to work with Denzel Washington again, and hopes that it will happen eventually: "Denzel and me worked together 4 times, ‘Mo’ Better Blues,’ ‘Malcolm X,’ ‘He Got Game,’ ‘Inside Man,’ so hopefully one day we’ll have our fifth film together. I don’t know what it is, but hopefully."
There was talk of a sequel to "Inside Man," but I’d prefer a wholly original project.
Sadly, although expectedly, he didn’t share much about his recently-announced Chicago-set "Chiraq" project, which the Chicago Tribune called "the elephant in the room," given that he was speaking in Chicago, to a Chicago audience. He only alluded to the uproar over the film’s title (which Chicago natives haven’t exactly taken a liking to), comparing it to previous pushback he faced on other projects, suggesting that he’s simply used to it, and it’s nothing that will deter him from proceeding with the film: "All this stuff that’s happening today in Chicago … Criticism… It started with the first film, ‘She’s Gotta Have It.’ So this is nothing new.”
His parting words were: “We’re not talking about the future. I’m gonna curse here: I’m not talking about s— before it happens. So many people say, ‘I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that.’ Mother——, you don’t know s—, because you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not saying anything until it happens."
One thing he did reveal, which I actually wasn’t aware of until now, is that, in "Inside Man," Lee winks to his earlier "Do the Right Thing," with the scene in which police supply pizzas whose boxes include listening devices, to the doorsteps of the bank where Clive Owen’s character is holding hostages: "If you watch that scene, the pizza came from Sal’s Famous Pizzeria!" Spike shared with the audience. And not only did it come from Sal’s, Lionel Pina, who also appeared in Al Pacino’s "Dog Day Afternoon" as a pizza delivery man, does the same job in "Inside Man," as a police officer who delivers pizzas at the bank’s front doors. Some trivia if you weren’t already aware.
In the video below, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel appeals to the filmmmaker to not call Chicago "Chiraq."