Spike Lee on Chadwick Boseman, Donald Trump and How Black and Brown People Rescued New York

Photographs by Quil Lemons

Half his face is covered by a mask. And yet, Spike Lee still gets recognized on a walk in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

On this sunny September morning, the 63-year-old director and activist is participating in a socially distanced photo shoot on the street outside his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. As Lee stands on the corner, a dark Subaru screeches to a halt. “I’m a huge fan,” proclaims the driver from inside the car. Lee nods, but he’s accustomed to stopping traffic. A few minutes later, a FedEx driver also rolls down his window to say hello.

As we follow Lee around, he keeps an ongoing dialogue with his neighbors — it’s hard to tell if they are fans or friends (or both). He points to his watch and tells a man, “You’re running late.” This is followed by a selfie with another man sitting on his stoop and a wave to a jogger coupled with a warning. “Where’s your mask?” he quizzes her. “Put it on your mouth!”

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Quil Lemons for Variety

Lee is as synonymous with New York as J. Lo is with the 6 train. He’s lived here since grade school. His parents — his mom, Jacquelyn Lee, was a teacher and his dad, Bill, is a jazz musician — moved to Crown Heights in the ’60s, and they became what Lee recalls as the first Black family in Cobble Hill. Lee now splits his days between his Brooklyn production company, a brick building with flags that carry the names of some of his movies, and the Upper East Side apartment where he lives with his wife, Tonya Lewis, a lawyer and producer. When he’s not sitting courtside at a Knicks game, he’s a film professor and artistic director of the Graduate Film Program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. New York is the setting of many of Lee’s movies: his 1986 breakout hit (which debuted in Cannes) “She’s Gotta Have It,” 1989’s zeitgeist-defining masterpiece “Do the Right Thing,” 1994’s semi-memoir “Crooklyn” and 2002’s “25th Hour” among them.

His hometown has also been, of late, the source of heartbreak. The past six months have seen the deaths of at least 24,000 people in the city from COVID-19, as Donald Trump (whom Lee has nicknamed “Agent Orange”) dragged his feet and dodged responsibility for the U.S.’ inadequate response to the deadly virus. “It goes to show you, s— could change in a second,” Lee says. “The world changed.” But Lee isn’t going anywhere, and he dismisses any talk of his favorite city being finished.

Even in these times of uncertainty, Lee has had a prolific year. In June, Netflix released his latest film, “Da 5 Bloods,” a post-traumatic Vietnam war drama starring Delroy Lindo and Chadwick Boseman, who died at 43 in August from colon cancer. Lee wasn’t aware of his illness when they were making the movie together, but he recently rewatched it — discovering new meaning in a pivotal scene where Boseman’s character, Stormin’ Norman, is bathed in a heavenly white light. As a tribute, Lee now has a flag of Boseman flying outside his office.

In September, Lee opened the Toronto Film Festival with his film “American Utopia,” a cinematic recording of the Broadway show starring Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, which premieres on HBO on Oct. 17.

For 90 minutes, I sat down with Lee to talk about these times and his remarkable career. We hunkered down (after a temperature check and with six feet between us) in his office at 40 Acres and a Mule. To his right was a shelf of DVDs of his movies, including “Jungle Fever,” “Malcolm X” and three Blu-ray Criterion copies of “Do the Right Thing” (he’s one of only four Black directors whose films have been selected for inclusion in the collection). While Lee has yet to win an Oscar for directing, he took home a statuette for best adapted screenplay in 2019 for “BlacKkKlansman.”

Spike Lee Variety Cover Story New York Issue 2020

Lee has a reputation for sometimes being Hollywood’s prickly uncle. You’re not quite sure if you’re going to be embraced with a hug or received with a snarl and a frown. But once he’s more comfortable, he lets you in and quickly warms up — cracking jokes, sharing memories and reminiscing about his unique journey as an artist.

How do you think New York is doing six months into COVID-19?

I got to give it up to Cuomo. I think he did a great job because it easily could’ve gone the other way. I remember all those movies — “Death Wish” and “Escape From New York” — it was full of drug addicts and prostitutes and dope dealers and muggers. And then, later, I remember the summer of ’77, the blackout, 9/11. New York was dead. And they’re running that same narrative. New York has always gone through hard times and rebounded, so I’m not buying that.

But here’s the thing — it was the Black and Brown people of New York City that kept this motherf—er going. And we saw it [with] MTA buses, the subway, hospital workers, cops, firemen, nurses, first responders. And also, we paid the price. We didn’t have a choice. We had to work. A lot of these people, I think, wanted to work. They wanted to help. And then, we suffered the most because of the condition we live in. We’re just not healthy. We don’t have the health services that other people have. I don’t think you have to be a medical Einstein to see that we over-index Black and Brown people: hypertension, obesity, we can go down the line.

Where do you think we’re headed?

I know they call me “Negrodamus,” but I can’t call this one. And also, Nov. 3, who knows what the world’s going to be like. And they might not be able to declare a winner. This could be a civil war. And we got to come out and vote because this motherf—er is not going to leave, and he’ll say that the vote was invalid or rigged. He’s doing that s— already. He’s laying the groundwork to say the election is bogus.

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When Trump says, “Make America Great Again,” what does that really mean?

Roll back the clock. If it was up to him, I’d be singing, “Let my people go.” I’d be singing Negro spirituals, “Wade in the Water,” all types of stuff. Along with stealing the land from Native Americans and genocide, that’s how this country was built.

Fill in the blank for me. Donald Trump is —

On the wrong side of history. And he should not even talk about Abraham Lincoln.

How did you finance your first film, “She’s Gotta Have It”?

I got to thank my grandmother. My grandmother put me through film school and Morehouse. I was the first grandchild, and she used to save her Social Security checks for 50 years for her grandchildren’s education. And she gave me seed money for my thesis film, “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop,” which won a Student Academy Award. And the seed money for “She’s Gotta Have It.”

I first had to get the money to shoot. Then, the next stage, we get the money to get the film out of the lab. Then, they get enough money for me to live on so I could edit the film. And then, hopefully, in the third stage, I show it to potential investors and finish the film. I shot it in 12 days — two six-day weeks — for $175,000.

How does art speak to you at this time of your life compared with when you first started out?

It’s just what I do. That’s what I love. My father, Bill Lee, jazz musician, used to compose a lot of the scores for my films, so I just grew up in a very artistic household. My love of arts is never going to change.

Tell me about growing up in New York in the early ’60s.

I’m the product of New York City public schools from kindergarten. I’m the eldest. My mother was dragging me and my brother, Chris, to Broadway plays, movies, museums. My brother — my late brother, Chris — and I, we were my mother’s date. My father was on the go. He was taking me to the jazz clubs in Newport, jazz fests, stuff like that. And also, my love of sports comes from my father. I’m just so blessed because I grew up with both parents in the house. I didn’t want to see a lot of stuff. My mom would just say, “You’re going!”

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I lost my big brother two and a half years ago. I’m sorry to hear about your brother.

His tag name was Shadow. He was one of the original graffiti people. He went to [High School of] Art and Design until he got kicked out. You ask people in the know, they knew my brother Shadow.

You had both “American Utopia” and “Da 5 Bloods” come out this year.

You saw that [flag] hanging outside? The thing with Chadwick? I didn’t know Chad was sick.

Were there any signs?

He did not look well, but my mind never took that he had cancer. It was a very strenuous shoot. I mean, we all didn’t get to Vietnam until the end of the movie at Ho Chi Minh City. But that other stuff, the jungle stuff, was shot in Thailand. It was 100 degrees every day. It was also at that time the worst air pollution in the world. I understand why Chadwick didn’t tell me because he didn’t want me to take it easy. If I had known, I wouldn’t have made him do the stuff. And I respect him for that.

How did you hear about Chadwick’s death?

That night, for some reason, I went to bed early. And the fact that I went to bed early, I woke up early. It must have been I was tired. I went to open my phone, and my phone — the whole thing had been blowing up. I turned it off. I was in shock. And most recently, with my lovely wife, Tonya, we watched it [“Da 5 Bloods”] again for the first time after his transition. And it plays totally different. He’s a ghost already. You know the scene I’m talking about? It’s the scene where he comes back, him and Delroy. I felt it when we shot it.

You’re talking about the scene at the end, where he’s standing in the light in the jungle and reveals his bullet wound?

It was God’s heavenly light. We didn’t have light. You know, Delroy’s talking to the camera, talking about his conversation with God? We go up, and we come down and we find this heavenly light. It’s Chadwick standing in that light, in that pose. That was God up there. I don’t care what nobody says. That was God’s heavenly light, because that scene’s not lit. That’s natural light. And that was God sending heavenly light on Chadwick. Paul, played by Delroy Lindo, he says, “I died for you.” I mean it was hard to look at the film again for me since his transition. It is just a whole ’nother experience.

There’s a line in the movie where Clarke [Peters] says he’s the best damn soldier ever. And Chadwick was — is — a soldier. This is conjecture: There’s a possibility he thought this might be his last film. And God gave him one more with “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” But now looking at that, he was playing it. Stormin’ Norman says, “If I have to go out, I’m going gangbusters.” And that’s what he did.

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You and Delroy Lindo have collaborated on four movies. How did it feel to work together again?

Funny story. I saw Delroy in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” That’s how I got to cast him as West Indian Archie in “Malcolm X.” Then he was in “Clockers.” So we are now working 25 years. He didn’t tell me, because I forgot; I offered him the role to be one of the corner men in “Do the Right Thing,” and he turned it down. And he said, “Glad Spike didn’t hold that against me!”

This was going to be an even bigger year for you. You were selected as the first Black jury president of the Cannes Film Festival, which was canceled due to COVID-19.

Yes. I’ll be there next May [as jury president].

What are your thoughts on the Academy’s new representation and diversity standards?

A lot of loopholes. Hire a white publicist. I need to sit down with somebody from the Academy. Look, I think their heart is in the right place. I will say that. But the battlefield for me is the rarefied air of the gatekeepers. These are the people, individuals who decide what we’re making and what we’re not making, who’s going to write it, who’s going to direct it, who’s going to produce it, who’s a star in this. In speaking about the subject, I always go to Lin-Manuel’s “Hamilton” — You got to be in the motherf—ing room. You got to be in the room where it happens. If we’re not in the motherf—ing room where the motherf—er happens, ain’t no motherf—ing thing going to change. Quote that!

We got to be in the room. I tell you, this is the truth. My early years in this industry, when I had meetings in Hollywood — and I’m not going to name who it is — they would bring Black people from the mailroom and have them in the meeting like they were executives. I didn’t know what was happening. So it wouldn’t be a “Lily-White” with the studio heads. And I peeped that s— right away. I understood why. Look, I wasn’t blaming my brothers; they just opened the mail. I knew what the deal was, but it’s just so obvious. “Come on, man, what’s your job?” And as soon as my meeting was over, I knew they’re going right back down to the mailroom. Word as a bond on my mother’s grave, they were doing that s—.

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What message do you have for Oscar voters who don’t agree with the new set of rules?

They probably voted for “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Green Book.”

Only six Black filmmakers have been nominated for best director, including you for “BlacKkKlansman.” But none of them have been Black women.

They always have it harder, no matter what it is, so why should it be different in film? That’s that simple.

Did you think you were going to win the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for “BlacKkKlansman”?

I could have had a shot once I got nominated. I had a shot. You got to be in it to win it. I didn’t know a Morehouse brother, Samuel L. Jackson, was going to be presenting. He came out. I said, “Oh.” When he opened the envelope, he said, “The house!” I didn’t hear [my name], because the people were yelling and screaming. It was a great moment, and that picture’s famous where I jumped up. Sam luckily caught me. That was pure adrenaline and joy.

We’re both New Yorkers. We both love the Knicks. We haven’t won the NBA championship since 1973. How does that change?

I like our coach. I was at Game 7, the Willis Reed game. It’ll happen.