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Spike Lee On Gentrification, Jazz And How He Got His Start In Film


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. We're continuing our series of interviews with some of this year's Oscar nominees. Our guests today are two Hollywood veterans who are getting some of the first major Oscar nominations of their long careers. Later on, we'll visit with Paul Schrader, the writer-director whose movie "First Reformed" has him nominated for best original screenplay, the first time he's ever been nominated, even though his other screenplays include "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull." We'll start with Spike Lee whose flim "BlacKkKlansman" is nominated for, among other categories, Best Picture and Best Director, the first time Lee has competed in either of those categories. "BlacKkKlansman" is based on a very improbable true story. Ron Stallworth, an African American cop in Colorado, managed to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in 1979 by answering an ad by phone asking how to join. When they invite him in, he gets around the obvious skin tone problem by getting a white cop to stand in for him in person while he continues to deal with the Klan by phone. John David Washington plays Stallworth and Adam Driver plays Flip Zimmerman, the white Jewish cop who ends up meeting with the Klan and being less than comfortable with the situation and the danger involved.


ADAM DRIVER: (As Flip) I didn't want to say it with Trapp, but that peckerwood had a gun in my face. And he was an ass hair away from pulling the trigger.

JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON: (As Stallworth) And he didn't.

DRIVER: (As Flip) But he could have, and then I would've been dead - for what? Stopping some jerk from playing dress up?

WASHINGTON: (As Stallworth) Flip, it's intel.

DRIVER: (As Flip) Well, I'm not risking my life to prevent some rednecks from lighting a couple sticks on fire.

WASHINGTON: (As Stallworth) This is the job. What's your problem?

DRIVER: (As Flip) That's my problem. For you, it's a crusade. For me, it's a job. It's not personal, nor should it be.

WASHINGTON: (As Stallworth) Why haven't you bought into this?

DRIVER: (As Flip) Why should I?

WASHINGTON: (As Stallworth) Because you're Jewish, brother - the so-called chosen people. You've been passing for a WASP - White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, cherry pie, hot dog white boy. It's what some light-skinned black folks do. They pass for white. Doesn't that hatred you've been hearing the Klan say - doesn't that piss you off?

DRIVER: (As Flip) Course it does.

WASHINGTON: (As Stallworth) Then why you acting like you ain't got skin in the game, brother?

DRIVER: (As Flip) Rookie, that's my [expletive] business.

WASHINGTON: (As Stallworth) It's our business. I'm going to get you your membership card so you can go to the cross burning and get in deeper with these guys, right, partner?

BIANCULLI: Terry interviewed Spike Lee in 2017 when BlacKkKlansman was in production. He had just released his 10-part Netflix series "She's Gotta Have It," an expanded and updated TV version of his first feature film of the same name, which he made in 1986. He's since written and directed many films, including "Do The Right Thing," "Mo' Better Blues," "Jungle Fever" and "Malcolm X." But not until "BlacKkKlansman" has he been nominated for best director or best picture. When Terry spoke with Spike Lee, she asked him about his father, Bill Lee, who is a noted jazz bassist and composer.



So what did you learn about what it means to be an artist and try to support a family from watching your father?

SPIKE LEE: Oh. Well, I learned that there's nothing poetic about being a starving artist. I knew that. And I knew that - one of the greatest lines from "The Godfather" - I wanted to wet my beak. If my films made money, I wanted to be able to get my fair share of the money that's being made from my artwork. I just saw my father struggle - great, great, great musician - that there's nothing cute about being poor. At one time, my father was a leading jazz bassist - jazz folk bass - played Bob Dylan, Judy Collins. That's my father on Peter, Paul and Mary's "Puff The Magic Dragon," Theo Bikel, Odetta, all those things.

When Bob Dylan decided that he wanted to go electric, everybody else in the folk world did, too. And so my father, to this day, has never played one Fender bass or one electric instrument ever. Up to that point, my mother didn't have to work 'cause my father was most - he was in demand. But when he made the decision that he was not going to play electric bass, my mother had to become a teacher. You know, in a lot of ways, I looked at my father's integrity. But on the other hand, he had five kids. But to him, it didn't matter. He wasn't going to play electric bass.

GROSS: Did you resent that? Did you want him to play electric bass so that the family...

LEE: No.

GROSS: ...Would have more money?

LEE: No. And even today, I don't hold that against my father. I mean, he - his integrity said, I cannot play electric bass. I'm not going to do it. I can only play acoustic bass. I'm just very fortunate that I was able to use the great talents my father - he scored all my films - did the score for "She's Gotta Have It," "School Daze" - great, great, great score for "Do The Right Thing," "Mo' Better Blues." So I was very happy that it came around so I was able to employ my father.

GROSS: What kind of music did your father introduce you to?

LEE: Jazz.

GROSS: And you have shout-outs to jazz in the series. Yeah.

LEE: I mean, here's the thing, though. We - growing up, we had to sneak to listen to Motown and the Beatles. My father would hear that and say, turn that bad music off.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEE: Only music could be played out loud when he was in the house was jazz. And if it wasn't jazz, you had to turn that mess off. I mean, he even played with them. But he knew everybody. Everybody knew him. I mean, I'll give example. Late in his life, I did a video for Miles Davis. It was called "Tutu" and did the album called "Tutu."

GROSS: Oh, you did the video for "Tutu." Oh, yeah. OK.

LEE: Yes. And the first thing - he says, Spike, I know your father. I love your father's work so I'm not going to curse you out.


LEE: First of all, it'd been an honor for Miles Davis to call me MFer (ph). That was his favorite word. I wish he would've called me MFer, but he said, you know what? I know your father's Bill Lee - great musician, great composer. So I'm going to leave you alone - true story.

GROSS: So in the 1986 original "She's Gotta Have It," you played Mars Blackmon. You played - describe your character, and describe what he wears in that film.

LEE: Well, Mars Blackmon is the original b-boy, the original sneakerhead. He wears a chain around his neck that says Mars, wearing the fresh Air Jordans. We'd call them FOBs - fresh out the box. I mean, Mars is just crazy. And I didn't have a name for this character, and I asked my grandma, who lived to be a hundred years old. My grandmother put me through Morehouse and NYU and gave me the seed money for "She's Gotta Have It." Not that she was rich - she just saved the Social Security check for 50 years. She taught art. And I was the first grandchild. But I said, still need a name. She said, I had a crazy uncle named Mars. Said - I said, bang. All right, that's what it's going to be. His name is Mars. So the only reason why I played in the film was because we didn't have any money to pay for an actor to play Mars.

GROSS: So I get the impression from this that you never planned on acting.

LEE: Nope.

GROSS: Well, you...

LEE: I don't even like it, really, to tell the truth. I don't even do it anymore.

GROSS: Why don't you like it?

LEE: 'Cause I'm not an actor.



LEE: But the pop-up - but Mars Blackmon became so popular that, you know, people wanted me seen in other stuff. So I played Half-Pint and Shorty. My best performance, if I may say, of my limited acting skills is Mookie in "Do The Right Thing." I was good in that one.

GROSS: So I want to hear a - I want to play a scene with you in it from the original 1986 "She's Gotta Have It." And this is a scene where it's the first time Nola invites your character Mars up to her apartment. And Mars is surprised at how spacious and nice it is and how much of her artwork is around. So here's the scene.


LEE: (As Mars) So this whole place is yours, huh?

TRACY CAMILLA JOHNS: (As Nola) Whole place.

LEE: (As Mars) I likes. I likes. What's the rent?

JOHNS: (As Nola) It's cheap.

LEE: (As Mars) Yeah?

JOHNS: (As Nola) Yeah.

LEE: (As Mars) You know, we could put a divider right here. And you'll have a roommate - me - and never know I'm here.

JOHNS: (As Nola) You're right. I'll never know. How come every time I let a guy up here, the first thing they want to do is move in?

LEE: (As Mars) Well, you work, you got a nice crib and you're fine.

JOHNS: (As Nola) What makes you think I want somebody to take care of?

LEE: (As Mars) I didn't say that. You know, I didn't say that. I pay my own way. I'm not looking for no meal ticket. So what do you do? What's your job?

JOHNS: (As Nola) I'm a layout paste-up artist. I do mechanics for magazines.

LEE: (As Mars) Yeah, yeah. I know what that [expletive] is.

JOHNS: (As Nola) There's something about you.

LEE: (As Mars) About me? Good or bad?

JOHNS: (As Nola) I haven't figured it out yet.

LEE: (As Mars) You'll let me know, though, right?

JOHNS: (As Nola) You'll be the first to know.

LEE: (As Mars) You'll let me know? You'll let me know?

JOHNS: (As Nola) Yeah.

LEE: (As Mars) You'll let me know?

JOHNS: (As Nola) Sure.

LEE: (As Mars) You'll let me know?

JOHNS: (As Nola) (Laughing) Yeah.

LEE: (As Mars) Good.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's Spike Lee as Mars Blackmon in "Do The Right Thing." So your character, as we heard in that scene, repeats certain lines over and over - most famously, please, baby, please. How did you come up with that kind of repetition for your character?

LEE: I couldn't remember what the next line was (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, seriously?

LEE: True (laughter). I kid you not.

GROSS: Oh, so that's why you kept repeating.

LEE: I couldn't remember what the next line was, so I was going to keep repeating the line I'm on (laughter).

GROSS: That's hilarious 'cause it's such a kind of quirky, funny characteristic. So it really works.

LEE: Well, it's an accident (laughter).

BIANCULLI: Spike Lee speaking with Terry Gross in 2017. More after a break - this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2017 interview with writer-director Spike Lee, whose film "BlacKkKlansman" is up for several Academy Awards this year, including Best Director and Best Picture.


GROSS: So Brooklyn is so important in your life and in your movies and on your hats (laughter).

LEE: Oh, can I just...

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

LEE: ...Say something real quick?

GROSS: Yeah.

LEE: It's the republic of Brooklyn...

GROSS: (Laughter) OK.

LEE: ...The republic.

GROSS: So anyways, Brooklyn was not - no one was claiming that Brooklyn was kind of hip or cool or a republic that I was aware of when I was growing up (laughter). And so it's just interesting to see what Brooklyn has come to signify. Like, so that's quite a change. So when you were young, before you lived in Fort Greene, you lived in another neighborhood, right? - Cobble Hill.

LEE: Yes, Cobble Hill. The Lees were the first black family to move into Cobble Hill. Cobble Hill, up to that point, had been historically Italian-American, working-class neighborhood.

GROSS: And why did your parents move there, knowing they'd be the only African-Americans in the neighborhood?

LEE: It was a - my mother, you know, who was running things - my mother always wanted a brownstone. So we rented two floors in a brownstone - Warren Street between Henry Street and Clinton Street in Cobble Hill. And then my mother said, you know, we got to buy a brownstone. So we bought a brownstone on Washington Park between Myrtle and Willoughby in 1968 for, like, $45,000. Back then, the realtors wouldn't even use the name Fort Greene. They would just say downtown vicinity.

GROSS: So when you were probably very young, when your parents moved to Cobble Hill and it was an Italian-American neighborhood, what was that like for you as a young African-American boy?

LEE: Well, we got called the N-word for, like, two weeks. And then when it finally dawned on them there were not going to be hundreds of black families filing lease and the neighborhood was going to go black all overnight, then we were just like any other kid. A lot of my friends today are these guys I grew up - you know, in Cobble Hill at a very young age, especially the Tuccis (ph) - Louie (ph) and Joe (ph) Tucci - shoutout.

GROSS: (Laughter) So what was the school like? Was the school mostly white?

LEE: I went to public school - PS 29. After a couple years, you know, some Puerto Ricans moved in into the neighborhood. But it was - I had a great, wonderful childhood. I mean, we - forget these video games. We played street games. We weren't doing - just sitting in front of the television. We were playing stickball, stoop ball, softball, two-hand touch, Johnny on the Pony, Ringolevio, down the sewers. I mean, we just played...

GROSS: Down in the sewer, was that the last one?

LEE: Down - it's a top game. You know spinning tops.

GROSS: Yeah.

LEE: Well, the sewers had a hole in it. And the goal was to knock the other guy's...


LEE: ...Top down the sewer. I mean...

GROSS: We never played that one.

LEE: We were imaginative.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEE: We - it was creative. We made up games. We played on the streets. We were running around. We - there was physicality. I mean, running bases - I mean, we had fun. And the summertime was the best because it wasn't - it didn't get dark till, like, 9:30. So you leave the morning - you leave the house in the morning (laughter) and you didn't have to show up till it got dark.

GROSS: So when your family moved to Fort Greene, you were probably - what? - around 10.

LEE: Eleven.

GROSS: Eleven, OK. So what was it like for you to move to a predominately African-American neighborhood after living in Cobble Hill?

LEE: It was great. Fort Greene, it was black and Puerto Rican. It was great because we were living - we weren't renting anymore. We had a big, old house right across the street from Fort Greene Park.

GROSS: Did you ever take piano lessons, since your father had a piano and played?

LEE: For a minute - the one that was a really good pianist was my brother David. And it was my - his piano teacher was in Harlem. So as - since I'm the oldest, I had to drag his ass on the subway every Saturday to take him for piano lessons. Boy, did I hate doing that. (Laughter) Do I have to do it? Yes, you do. You're the oldest. Back in the day, when your parents told you to do something, you had to do it. There's no negotiating or none of that stuff. You had to do it. If you said something, my mother said, I'll slap the black off you (laughter).

And what was worse - because like many black families in the North, when summertime came, your parents shipped your black ass down south to get a break. So you would spend the summer down south with your grandparents. And down south, they don't play. They get the switch. You know what a switch is. It was brutal because they make you choose the switch you get beat with. And if you choose a too-little switch, they'll get - they'll pick their own switch - was three times the length of the small one you picked. Oh, boy (laughter).

GROSS: What earned you getting hit with a switch?

LEE: Oh, it didn't matter. They didn't like something, you had to - go get that switch, son.

GROSS: So was that...

LEE: What'd I do? (Laughter).

GROSS: Was that an effective form of punishment for you or was - did it just, like, really make you angry and want to rebel more?

LEE: No, no. That switch hurt. Oh, Lord. And it would be so hot. And there was no air conditioning. And those mosquitoes would eat you alive. Oh, my God (laughter). And then we - the area made fun of us because we talked different. And I - we couldn't understand what people were saying. I remember one summer, we came down south with afros because afros took a while - everything takes a while to get down south.


LEE: And when we got off - when they saw us with afros, they looked at us like we were three-headed Martians.

GROSS: Were there things you were told you couldn't do in Alabama because of racism? Was the line different than it was in Brooklyn?

LEE: It - we never - see; there weren't any white people in Snow, Ala. So we didn't have - it was not like we were in Selma or Montgomery or Birmingham. We were in Snow. We were in the sticks. So we rarely ever saw white folks when we went down South. So people might call me Mr. Brooklyn, but my parents are from the South. I was born in Atlanta, Ga., spent many summers there and also went to college in Atlanta.

GROSS: In Morehouse.

LEE: Yeah. My father went to Morehouse. My grandfather went to Morehouse. And my mother and grandmother went to Spelman - these two historically black schools that are across the street from each other. In fact, my grandma lived to be 100 years old. I know said that before. I'm being redundant. But her grandmother was a slave. Yet she had a college degree. So I come from a long line of edumacated (ph) black folks (laughter).

GROSS: Where were your parents always stressing the important (ph) of education when you were growing up?

LEE: Oh, yes. I mean, my - yes, educators, educators - that's why I...

GROSS: So what did they do to make sure that you got a good education?

LEE: Well, the best thing my parents did - not just for me, but my siblings though - was they exposed us to so much stuff, and it paid off. My mother was dragging me to Broadway plays, off-Broadway plays, museums. Man, I didn't want to go to stuff. I wanted to run up and down the streets. But every - my mother would take me and my siblings - I mean, she was dragging us while we're screaming. But every time we came home on the subway, we would say, you know what? That was good. The reason why...

GROSS: What's one of the shows that you saw that you really loved?

LEE: Oh, one thing was memorable. My mother took me to see "Bye Bye Birdie" at Radio City Music Hall Easter Show.

GROSS: So this was the movie.

LEE: The movie. And the reason why the opening credit sequence of "Do The Right Thing" with Rosie Perez's dancing - that came from Ann-Margret dancing in the beginning of "Bye Bye Birdie."

GROSS: Oh, that's great (laughter).

LEE: But here's the thing that my mother was - so my love of cinema came from my mother. My father hated movies. And so I - since I was the oldest, I was my mother's movie date. If my mother went, it'd just be Martin Scorsese. She took me to see "Mean Streets" when that film came out. I was like, Mom, are you a...

GROSS: What impact did that have on you?

LEE: (Laughter) I said, Mommy, this movie's crazy. What - if you - if somebody could Google what year "Mean Streets" came out - I was definitely underage to see that film. And I've told Martin Scorsese that story many times, and he laughs.

GROSS: (Laughter) Spike Lee, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

LEE: Well, thank you so much. And again, I'm a fan.

GROSS: Thank you.

LEE: And it's been a minute, so let's do it every time I have a project, all right?

GROSS: Let's do it again, absolutely.

BIANCULLI: Writer-director Spike Lee speaking to Terry Gross in 2017. Among the Oscar categories in which his latest film BlacKkKlansman is nominated are best picture and best director - his first time in either category. After a break, we'll hear from Paul Schrader, who's gotten his first nod for a screenplay he's written, even though his previous films include "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull." And Justin Chang will review the new movie "Birds Of Passage." And I'll review the new Amazon documentary series "Lorena" about the infamous case of John Wayne and Lorena Bobbit. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.