PLAYBACK is a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films. New episodes air every Thursday.
For more than three decades, and still going strong, Spike Lee has been an incredibly prolific presence in the world of cinema. Rarely does a year pass without a “Spike Lee joint” hitting screens, and 2018 has brought one of his most acclaimed works yet, the Cannes prizewinner “BlacKkKlansman.” For Lee, the secret to that consistency is baked into the respect and admiration his has for his inspirations, artists like Frank Sinatra, John Coltrane, Toni Morrison and even sports stars like Michael Jordan and Willie Mays, individuals who left a lasting legacy in the form of a wealth of work.
Listen to this week’s episode of “Playback” below. New episodes air every Thursday.
“From the very beginning the goal was to build up a body of work,” Lee says, speaking at his 40 Acres and a Mule production offices in Brooklyn. “I did not want to be one of these flash-in-the-pan, where-are-they-now, that type of thing. I’ve always felt that to really appraise somebody’s work, it can’t be that they only did one album, one film, one play, one novel. I want to see what they did over a span of time. So that was the goal from the beginning, even in film school. That was the mindset.”
In a wide-ranging, often unpredictable discussion, Lee tackles everything from the current presidential administration to thoughts on how “Black Panther” has hopefully changed the game for black filmmakers — all while licking the wounds of a brutal Yankees loss the previous night.
A loud air-conditioning system kicks on in the vast room, sending Lee in a whole other direction:
“Global warming. This is no joke. We’re talking about God’s planet as we know it. Scientists all over the world have said this. It’s not B.S. It’s not a hoax. We’re in peril. And this motherf—er [Donald Trump] says there’s no such thing as global warming.”
On “Sorry to Bother You” director Boots Riley, who recently shared pointed critiques of “BlacKkKlansman”:
“I’m not talking about him.”
On “Black Panther”:
“What blows my mind, and what’s more important, is the international [box office].”
Lee was in pre-production on his latest — the story of Ron Stallworth, a black Colorado Springs police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s — when the events of last year’s Unite the Right Rally took place in Charlottesville, Va. The episode left 32-year-old Heather Heyer dead after a man plowed his car into a group of counter-protesters, and its imagery serves as an epilogue of sorts for “BlacKkKlansman.”
“Well, I knew I had an ending,” Lee says of his thoughts at the time. “I knew that David Duke, Agent Orange [his not-so-affectionate term for Trump], the alt-right, the Klan, neo-motherf—ing nazis, had written me an ending. But again, at the expense of a human life … Any time I go all over the world now people look at me and say, ‘Spike, what’s happening in your country?’ And if you want to break it down, this stuff is happening not just in the United States. This guy in Brazil [Jair Bolsonaro] is as bad as Agent Orange. We’ve seen a rise of the right across the world.”
“BlacKkKlansman” won Lee the Grand Prix award at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. He’s been to the fest a number of times over the years, beginning with his debut, “She’s Gotta Have It,” but this was the most prestigious honor he’s received there to date. The film is now positioned for a run on Oscar season, but Lee has his own perspective on that.
“Here’s the thing about awards,” he says. “After what happened with ‘Do the Right Thing,’ I just had to let it go and just be at peace with knowing that the great work is going to outlast awards. People are still shocked to this day that ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ won best picture. Who’s watching that film now? So, I’m at peace with it.”
For more, including extended thoughts on Lee’s post-9/11 drama “25th Hour” and a dive into the thinking behind his trademark double-dolly shot, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link below. (Bonus: A quick array of photos from Lee’s Brooklyn production company/museum can be found below as well.)
|The world headquarters of 40 Acres and a Mule in Fort Green, Brooklyn.
Kristopher Tapley for variety
|A giant papier-mâché Radio Raheem from 1989’s “Do the Right Thing” greets visitors on the way in.
KRISTOPHER TAPLEY FOR VARIETY
|One of countless walls covered in movie, sports and music memorabilia.
Kristopher Tapley for Variety
|Sal’s Famous Pizzeria wardrobe and prop from 1989’s “Do the Right Thing.”
Kristopher Tapley for Variety
|Posters for 2012’s “Red Hook Summer” and 1989’s “Do the Right Thing, along with a signed “Hamilton” poster and playbill and a “Midnight Cowboy” one-sheet signed by director John Schlesinger.
IF THERE IS A PHOTO CREDIT IT GOES HERE