SAN FRANCISCO — Spike Lee and the S.F. International Film Festival both turned fifty this year, so the time was ripe for them to converge again — particularly since Lee premiered his career-launching debut feature “She’s Gotta Have It” here in 1986.
Back to accept the fest’s Film Society Directing Award — originally dubbed the Kurosawa Award after a helmer Lee called “one of the greatest”– the Brooklyn-bred helmer was feted with a clip reel, a full house, and onstage chat with critic Wesley Morris at the Castro Theatre. Following some adulatory audience questions, two parts were shown from his four-hour “When the Levee Breaks,” last year’s searing cable documentary about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“Please do not leave this theatre thinking that everything in New Orleans is OK now,” he stressed. “People are still in a bad way there. They feel they were abandoned by the government.” He noted plans to do a “follow-up” on the docu, though more immediate prospects are dramatic scripts about the L.A. riots and the late James Brown.
While clips from “Gotta,” “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X” to last year’s “The Inside Man” focused on his narrative features, Lee’s remarkably prolific has also encompassed several docus, commercials, music videos, and more. “I’ve been very fortunate–I’ve never had to take a job just to pay bills,” he said. “There’s been so many different subjects, and I’ve worked with a lot of great actors, so it’s stayed interesting.”
A possibly jet-lagged, rather sleepy close-up face on the video-projection screen above the stage, Lee was often mellow to the point of disinterest regarding discussion of his own career. But he did fire up on a few external topics, like disgraced yakker Don Imus’ attempt to palm off responsibility for his offensive racial terminology by citing their usage in rap lyrics and in Lee’s “Right Thing.” In fact, it was the latter’s subsequent “School Daze” that pointedly deployed certain inflammatory words.
“Trying to use me to validate their ignorance, and they didn’t even get the movie right!,” Lee laughed.
On the other hand, he said “As African-Americans we’ve got a lot of housekeeping to do, we can’t blame anyone else.” He took particular exception to entertainers like 50-cent and Snoop Dogg glamorizing gangsta and pimp imagery.
Calling frequent star Denzel Washington “the best working actor today,” Lee said he’s learned over time that the collaborative nature of filmmaking is “like a great sports team. You have to keep your ego out of it.” He faulted himself for not being “as patient as I should be” with the process, but said “You just have to keep learning and growing.”
Despite his seemingly exhaustive output since the mid-80s, he said “When you¹re doing something you love, it¹s not really work.”