This is an article from the May 27, 1991 issue
So you set off in February to do a story on the new black sports guru, Spike Lee, and you get the brilliant idea to have his alter ego, Mars Blackmon, the original Look, Mom, I Can Fly guy, do the interview for him. Can't you see it? Mars Blackmon, star of Nike's Mike and Spike ads, Mr. Street Chic, doing his first recorded interview! It would go like....
Q: So, Mars, what are your thoughts on Milwaukee Bucks forward Fred Roberts?
A: Yo, that haircut is radioactive!
Q: Are you saying his haircut is odd?
A: Are 7-Eleven smocks dorky?
Stuff like that. So you try it on him, and what do you get? Glacier floes. Turns out Spike Lee doesn't appreciate being thought of as Mars Blackmon or the guy who plays Mars Blackmon or even the guy who invented Mars Blackmon. In fact, Spike Lee will sign anything, anytime, except when somebody asks him to sign as Mars. Then he gives the Anthony Perkins stare, straight ahead, with those big, sleepy eyes. Guess you can't blame him.
People think of him as Mars, this one tiny character, instead of as the leading black American filmmaker and the writer, producer, actor, spokesman, thinker and T-shirt designer he has become. If it can be said that blacks carry the lead in American culture—in music, sports, vernacular and dance—then Spike Lee is carrying one hell of a lot of it on his bony little shoulders. Besides everything else he has done—the ads (Nike, Levi's, Diet Coke), the books (four, so far), the music videos (Anita Baker, Branford Marsalis, Steel Pulse, Public Enemy), the presidential campaign commercials (Jesse Jackson), the speeches (25 colleges last year)—he is film's new Orson Welles, hatching the idea, writing the script, producing the film, directing it, stealing every scene and driving Hollywood crazy with his insistence on having the final cut. So when you ask him to talk like Mars, he gets offended. Sort of like Van Gogh might have been if you had hollered, "Yo, Vinnie! Do Sunflowers!"
Still, for a guy who plays him so well, Spike is about as far from Mars as he is from...Mars. Check Mars out: the big black Cazals, the Brooklyn bike hat, the Georgetown T, the big gold nameplate around his neck, the bike shorts and the Dexedrine mouth filing everything in triplicate. On the other hand, check Spike out as he walks in for an interview: corduroy pants about two sizes too big for him, a wool sweater three sizes too big for him (where does Spike shop for this stuff, Chez Ewing?), a Malcolm X letter jacket (from a biographical movie he hopes to begin this fall), an X hat, leopard-rimmed specs and, of course, new Air Jordans, which Nike must fly in fresh daily.
As for his mouth, Spike is about as talkative as tile grout. He speaks only if he has something important to say, and, even then, you could get sciatica leaning over to hear it. How can Spike and Mars be the same person? Who knows? Nobody said Spike Lee makes sense. He has a gorgeous '60 T-Bird but can't drive. He loves basketball but stands 5'5". He is building a house next to a golf course on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts but hates golf. He weighs maybe 100 pounds with the Air Jordans on, yet his daily food intake is just less than that of Sandusky, Ohio. For instance, as we try to get inside him, we have to dodge some serious chicken fingers, fries and a cherry Coke, which he puts down in the corner booth at Junior's, a favorite restaurant of Spike's, in downtown Brooklyn.
Yeah, Spike still lives in Brooklyn. Leave Brooklyn? Are you mental? Spike may never leave the block. As a teenager, he lived on Washington Park (his dad still lives there). Now Spike lives in a nice brownstone around the corner and works around yet another corner. Your serious homeboy.
Spike dreamed up Mars Blackmon for his first commercial film, She's Gotta Have It, and then unearthed him for Nike's Air Jordan ads. Actually, Nike ad writer Jim Riswold and producer Bill Davenport unearthed Mars. They were watching She's Gotta Have It when they noticed that Mars didn't take off his Jordans even to do the nasty. Light bulbs went off in their heads. Was it tough to sell Spike on doing an ad with Jordan? "I think he would've done the commercial free, just to meet Michael," says Riswold.
The first Nike ad was "Hang Time," in which Mars ends up hanging on the basket rim while Jordan dunks on him. Very cold. Directed by Spike in his beloved black-and-white, the ad was filmed in one murderous day. "I remember Michael saying over and over, 'How many more dunks do I have to do?' " says Riswold.
Riswold writes the ads, but they're occasionally Spiked. For instance, it was Spike's idea to call Jordan "Money," as in, "Money, why you wanna leave me hang-in'?" He also put the "Shuddup down there! We're trying to make a commercial!" into the ad shot in Mars's bedroom. As for the famous line "Do you know? Do you know? Do you know?" it came from Spike screwing up in She's Gotta Have It. "When I couldn't remember what line came next, I'd just say the line I knew a few times," Spike remembers. "The first time I did it, we realized it worked, so we kept it." The rest is street-hip history.
From Jordan's point of view, Spike can cop an attitude anytime he wants. "Spike's fun to be around, and he knows basketball," says Jordan. Besides, in Spike's ads, Jordan doesn't have 29 takes' worth of Wheaties dripping from his chin.
As for Spike, you can bring up Mars only a few times before he starts dropping the Cone of Silence over your head. "I never wanted to play Mars for a clown," he says. Spike wants to be serious, wants to be angry, wants to be an artist, and Mars keeps tweaking his nose. Mars was even offered his own movie for polymillions, but Spike turned it down. Now Spike wouldn't mind letting Mars fade out for good. "I think we'll let Mars die a natural death," he says. And you think he means soon.
Spike and Mars have one other thing in common: the sports page. Spike is Jack Nicholson East. He is seen at more Knick games than Marv Albert. He goes to Mets games and to Giants football games and to whatever game is being played tonight. This man is so afflicted that he reads The National. He weaves sports motifs throughout his films. Nola, the sexually hyperactive protagonist of She's Gotta Have It, wears the jersey of former Knick (now Washington Bullet) Bernard King, the ultimate scoring machine. Mookie, the loafing pizza delivery man who starts Brooklyn burning in Do the Right Thing, wears the jersey of Jackie Robinson, the Dodgers' pioneering black baseball hero. Pete Rose, Darryl Dawkins and Mike Tyson have all popped up in Spike Lee "joints." Truth is, Spike is no different from you or me in his rage for sports, except that when he yells at a Chicago Bulls game, "Yo, way to house him, Michael," Jordan looks at him and says, "Thanks," and then they have dinner together after the game.
Speaking of which, since the Mars interview has gone zilcho, you beg an invitation to go with Spike to the Knicks-Bulls game at Madison Square Garden tonight, where Jordan himself will appear. This is such a required event for Spike (two courtside seats) that he will miss the Broadway debut of his sister, actress Joie Lee, in the Lincoln Center performance of the Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston play Mule Bone. "She understands," he says. After the game, Spike and Jordan chat about a possible project for Fox. Then Jordan is off to the Black Girls' Coalition party at Reins, Lee is off to Joie's cast party...and you are off on a story that could go nowhere.
What makes this guy so color conscious? He signs letters and screenplays with the Malcolm X marching slogan "By any means necessary." In his journal, he'll write "Black to work" or "Black to the future." His production company is called 40 Acres and a Mule, after the grants that American slaves mistakenly believed they would receive after emancipation. Last year Spike pulled 40 tons of money out of Citibank because it did business with South Africa. He refuses to allow his films to be released in South Africa while apartheid laws exist. He made a deal last year to take over Spin magazine for one issue, telling the editor, Bob Guccione Jr., that it would be Spin's "blackest" issue ever. It was. (It was also the Spikiest issue; Spike put himself on the cover, conducted two interviews, featured his sister in an article and mentioned himself 27 times.)
It is a very big job, Chief Racism Expunger, and it means commenting on all walks of life, especially sports. Luckily, you mention race and sports in the same day and those sleepy eyes wake right up and you get plenty of Mo' Better Views. "Dwight [Gooden] and [Darryl] Strawberry would never go public with this," Spike says, "but I know there's an unwritten policy on the Mets that only a certain number of blacks can be on the team. I wish the Mets would just come out and say, 'Look, most of the fans who come to our games are white. It's just business.' It would still be racism, but at least it wouldn't be veiled racism."
On college basketball: "Who do you think gets worse press, [Indiana coach] Bobby Knight or [Georgetown coach] John Thompson? Bobby Knight is a maniac, throwing this and that, stomping everywhere, but let John Thompson touch a player? Forget about it. He'd be lynched. On national TV no less."
On the NBA: "Why is the 12th guy on every team always white, 6'11" and dorky? Why do you think the Knicks got Kiki [Vandeweghe, a white forward]? Everybody knows Kiki started the demise of the Knicks."
On Knick center Patrick Ewing and New York fans: "New York loves him now. But I can remember when these same people were calling him an ape and a baboon and a thug at Georgetown."
On this year's Super Bowl: "All that patriotism! It was scary. It was like people were waiting for the lynching to start."
And Spike doesn't confine his comments to interviews. There's this scene in She's Gotta Have It in which Mars is complaining to an acquaintance about having missed a Knick game when Bernard King scored 35 points in the first half.
'Nard was serving the whole Celtic squad. Even jammed in [Larry] Bird's ugly mug. A vicious death-defying highflying Brooklyn Bridge 360 slam dunk.
Hold up. That white boy is bad. Best player in the NBA.
He's the ugliest mother——in the NBA.
Obviously, Bird's hero status in a black man's game rankles Spike. Referring to the uproar Isiah Thomas caused in 1987 when he said, "If [Bird] was black, he'd be just another good [player]," Spike says: "Look, I know what Isiah was talking about. Larry Bird has been positioned as the great white hope. Larry Bird can play, but the way the media has souped him up is unbelievable. The announcer is always going, 'Larry Bird can't jump the highest, but he makes up for it with his blue-collar work ethic.' And blacks are always described as 'gifted' and 'natural.' I think that's unfair to both parties."
There may be only one black athlete Spike doesn't like: "Neon" Deion Sanders. "Here's another young brother who got some money and will have it spent before he knows he had it," Spike says. Of course, Sanders once said that if he ever saw Spike, he would punch him "inside out." Spike smiles. "All he's got to do is spray me with some of that Jheri-curl juice and I'm done for." Jheri-curls, blue and green contact lenses, hair straightening, lip and nose thinning, these are things Spike does not approve of for blacks. That means Sanders is not nearly black enough. Nor schooled enough. "A lot of these athletes today, they might not even be able to tell you who Jackie Robinson or Curt Flood was," Spike says. "If it weren't for Jackie Robinson, these guys wouldn't have made much money. If it weren't for Curt Flood, sacrificing his career for free agency, these .250 hitters wouldn't be making $1.5 million. These guys are lumps. They don't think anybody ever came before them."
Of course, when it comes to black owners in mainstream sports, almost nobody has come before them. The way Spike sees it, blacks dominate sports now the way blacks dominated the cotton industry in the South. "Until there are black owners, nothing will change," he says. "Black athletes will have no say."
If that sounds controversial, wait until you get a load of Jungle Fever, an interracial love story that was inspired by New York's 1989 Bensonhurst racial killing and which will be released in June. The film promises to be a shocker. But that raises the question, How much of Spike's work is done for art's sake and how much for shock's sake? Spike once said that if he ever made a film that wasn't controversial, he would freak. "I'm an instigator," he says. But what burns him up so?
Another day, another ticket stub. This time it's Georgetown-Seton Hall at New Jersey's Meadowlands Arena. Georgetown coach Thompson, Spike's main man, hooked him up with seats, maybe because he and Spike have so much in common. They've been labeled reverse racists, accused of working with blacks almost exclusively. When gang members were blowing each other away over pairs of Air Jordans, Spike's and Thompson's Nike ads were accused of creating a need strong enough to cause murder. Jesse Jackson's Operation P.U.S.H. even started a boycott of Nike, ostensibly over the company's dearth of minority employees and the absence of blacks on its board of directors.
It didn't help that Spike had written a scene in Do the Right Thing in which Buggin' Out, a black radical, is walking down the block when Clifton, a white yuppie in a Celtics T-shirt, accidentally bumps into him and steps on his foot, leaving a big black smudge on one of Buggin' Out's new, unlaced white Air Jordans. Buggin' Out runs after Clifton.
You almost knocked me down. The word is "Excuse me."
Excuse me. I'm very sorry.
Not only did you knock me down, you stepped on my new white Air Jordans that I just bought and that's all you can say, "Excuse me?"
(The commotion has attracted a crowd.)
I'll——you up quick two times. Who told you to step on my sneakers?...Damn, my brand new Jordans. You should buy me another pair.
I'm gonna leave now.
If I wasn't a righteous black man you'd be in serious trouble. SERIOUS.
"I never felt like there was any blood on our hands," Spike says. "I'm upset by anybody being killed. But you have to look at why it is that way. What is it about these kids' lives that is so bleak that they need a pair of sneakers or a Georgetown jacket to give them self-worth?"
Spike appreciates that both Jordan and Thompson have stuck with him, even in his militant's clothing. "I think if Michael Jordan had a weak spine, if he were scared, if he were one of these handkerchief-wearing, chicken-and-biscuit-eating Negroes, he wouldn't have stayed with it," Spike says. "I know people have come up to Mike and said, 'I don't think you should be associated with Spike.' I know that there have been plenty of black athletes who have told me, 'Look, man, I'd really like to do it, but my agents say if I even get in a picture with you it will hurt my image. They think you're too black."
In fact, you've got to hunt to find an ethnic group Spike Lee hasn't offended. His two Jewish jazz-club owners in Mo' Better Blues (released in 1990) so offended Jews that Spike had to write an op-ed piece in The New York Times insisting he wasn't an anti-Semite. He infuriated blacks by focusing in School Daze (1988) on the mutual prejudice between light-skinned blacks and dark-skinned blacks. In Do the Right Thing (1989), Koreans flung racial insults at Jews, blacks at Italians, Italians at blacks, whites at Puerto Ricans and Puerto Ricans at Koreans in a Rainbow Demolition of racism.
So how come Spike remains one of the hottest rides on Madison Avenue? How come Spike's Jordan ads helped propel Nike miles past Reebok and Converse? How come Levi's went to him for its button-fly minidocumentaries on kids? In those, Spike covered everyone from the kids who chase home run balls on Waverly Avenue outside Chicago's Wrigley Field (his idea) to surfers in Huntington Beach, Calif. ("We don't surf in Brooklyn," he tells them), to a guy who spins 11 basketballs at once.
"There were people, going into this project, who were afraid of him," says Steve Neely, Levi's ad man at Foote, Cone & Belding in San Francisco. "He'd just done Do the Right Thing. Mo' Better Blues was just coming out, and people were wondering if it was going to be weird."
Levi's had Spike shoot a trial ad—he used two kids who speak fluently backwards—and the company was hooked. Notably, though, neither Spike's name nor his face was used in the televised ad, only his voice.
"Nike took a risk, I suppose," says Riswold, "but that risk probably appealed to some people, especially [Nike president] Phil Knight. He likes to keep people on their toes."
What both Levi's and Nike found out is that Spike sells. "Part of what makes him work in the core market we're going after [14 to 24 years old] is his rebelliousness and candor," says Levi's Dan Chew. "If anything, it's helped."
What makes the Nike ads work is pure Walter Mitty. Here is the world's biggest sports fan getting in some serious hang time with the world's biggest sports star. It's midget observing miracle, and every short guy who could never jump—white or black—relates. We all know that there isn't a shoe made that's going to help us dunk (who has less of a chance of dunking than Mars?), so we're in it for the laughs. In this way, neither Spike nor Mike is stained as a geeky shoe salesman. Hey, they were probably wearing the shoes in the first place.
Riswold: "I think every ad leaves this ultimate fan trying to decide which he likes more, Jordan or the Jordans, the player or the shoes." Even better, Nike lets Spike poke fun at not only Jordan but Nike itself. Whether it's Mars asking, "Yo, Money, what makes you the best player in the universe? Is it the shoes?" or Jordan trying to understand a "limited earth orbit" or Jordan dressing up as Spike in the wish-from-a-genie spot, each ad is designed to show Jordan to be as human as Mars. Hey, these pro guys are tall enough without standing on a pedestal.
The Spike and Mike Show has left Nike's competitors in the $5.5 billion sneaker industry with their leather tongues hanging out. Now, instead of just hawking their own shoes, the other companies are chasing the leader. "Air out" is the new catchphrase with which Reebok assaults Jordans. "Hot air" is Converse's. Even Magic is trying to go street chic, though in his L.A. Gear advertisement he comes off as Millionaire Taking Drive to Ghetto. "I like Magic," says Spike. "But those ads suck."
And, yo, even 6'10" basketball coaches like to hang with Spike. Here come Mutt and Jeff now, Thompson and Spike chatting in the innards of the Meadowlands, Thompson's huge arm resting on Spike's shoulder yards below. And you can hear Spike saying, "Coach, two? On the 24th? O.K. coach? Two?"
Georgetown will be at St. John's next Saturday.
If it's Sunday, these must be the Detroit Pistons. Spike has two on celebrity row at the Garden (one for his date, actress Veronica Webb, who appears in Jungle Fever). This makes three games in four days. You should have to pay this guy's popcorn bill. The only thing better than being a child all your life is being a child with money.
Shelton Jackson Lee—"I don't know why they call him Spike," says his maternal grandmother, Zimmie Shelton. "I never liked it"—was born into the middle class in Atlanta, Ga., in 1957, one of five children of a bass player, Bill Lee, and a teacher, Jacqueline Lee, both college graduates, both children of college graduates. This was, suffice it to say, a very tasseled household. The Lees moved to New York when Spike was two. By the age of five, he was being dragged by his mother to movies and Broadway shows. Loved the shows, but ate up the movies like the economy-size Ju-Ju-Bees.
The Lees spent several summers with relatives in Alabama, and in those years, 1963-65, Spike came nose-to-kneecap with bigotry. He can remember separate bathrooms for blacks and whites. He can remember moving into Cobble Hill, a white Brooklyn neighborhood, and being called nigger. "People always think discrimination is just in the South," he says. "But it's like Malcolm X said: 'The South begins at the Canadian border.' "
It didn't help that Spike was the littlest kid around. Once, two boys, both bigger, wanted to beat him up. They made an appointment with him to do so after school. Spike, ever organized, talked the teacher into letting him go home early.
When you are small and black and you are growing up in a white neighborhood and you have a slight speech impediment, you learn to be suspicious of everybody. "He is very distrustful of people," jazz trumpeter Branford Marsalis, a friend of Lee's, told the cable TV show Bravo. "He was probably never the most popular guy in class." Spike's father, who, like Spike's four brothers and one sister, chose not to be interviewed for this story ("We're kind of on gag orders," said one brother), once said, "I think Spike's size has had a lot to do with his determination to do something big."
Big to Spike was becoming a professional athlete, but the closest he ever got to the arena floor was about 100 rows back. He has always gone to games, only now he sits farther down. At the Garden, he's at courtside opposite the Knick bench. A very good high-five spot. That's a long way from some of his no-meat-but-potatoes days as a kid. Spike's father, as stubborn as 41 mules, refused to play the electric Fender bass to make ends meet. He insisted on the purity of the stand-up bass, which meant he didn't work much. Spike's mother put in stiff hours as a teacher to make ends meet but never complained. The purity of the artist must have been in her, too. "We weren't starving," Spike remembers. "But sometimes it was hand-to-mouth."
It was never easy for Spike to love his mother full-out. Jacqueline was the bad cop. Bill was the good cop. She was the disciplinarian, and he was the lenient one. "All of us liked our father better because there was never any static coming from him," Spike says. "It would be like, 'Daddy, can we jump off the building?' 'Yeah, go ahead.' "
Spike didn't have much time to straighten out his feelings before his mother died suddenly of liver cancer, in 1976. Spike, 19, hurried home from Morehouse College in Atlanta to see her. When he left a few days later, how could he have known she would go in another two days? "I think about her a lot," he says. "She inspired me to write. I got my drive from her. I think she'd like the movies I'm doing now."
But if losing his mother is what burns inside Lee, he doesn't show it. Confronting racism so young is rotten, but nearly every black American has had to do it. There is something else about him, something deeper, something hidden. But where? And what?
Get lost twice on the subway, only to get to Brooklyn and find Spike has zero time. Swamped with Diet Coke people. But he hands over his "Jointography," the video collection of his work, and points the way to the video room. It'll do.
Spike once described himself as "a black nationalist with a movie camera—and that's a dangerous thing." The first film he ever shot was dangerous—looters robbing Harlem shops the day after the July 1977 New York City blackout. "It looked like Christmas," he once said. "Everybody was leaving stores with a color TV under their arm." Fresh out of Morehouse in 1979, Spike enrolled at New York University's film school and made tuition by cleaning film at First Run Features. He nearly flunked out. "I knew going in that because I was black, I had to be 10 times better than anybody else," he says. He wasn't.
By 1982 he had one last NYU film to do, his senior thesis, and if it wasn't terrific, he could kiss Tinselworld goodbye. He made a short film called Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, and all it did was win a national student Academy Award. And still it took Spike four years to find enough financing to make his first independent film, She's Gotta Have It, and even then he was up against preposterous odds. Shot in 12 days on the streets of Brooklyn and one indoor location and featuring fewer than 10 actors, the movie was paid for nickel by nickel. "I can remember Monty [Ross, the co-producer] would run home and check the mailbox, hoping there'd be checks in there," Spike says. At one point, Spike's phone and power were turned off and his rent was overdue. Things got so tight that crew members used the deposits from their empty pop bottles to buy film.
"I'm flat broke," Spike wrote in his diary then. "STARVIN' like MARVIN. I hope I never have to go through this again, it's been killing me.... That last screening, I made a joke about selling tube socks on 14th Street. Well, it's no joke.... When I get some money I'm gonna purchase a typewriter so I can start sending out letters, and so I can type my own goddamn script.... I will, however, never quit. I was born to be a filmmaker."
You may know the rest. She's Gotta Have It, made for $175,000, grossed $8 million at the box office and became one of the alltime independent smashes. It was so good that it gave Spike room to make a critical bomb, School Daze, before he hit it big with the shining Do the Right Thing, a movie the Christian Science Monitor called the most important American film of the 1980s. Like any great artist, Spike took us places we (at least we white viewers) had never been before, like inside a ghetto that wasn't the least bit frightening and into the lives of blacks who were neither jocks nor junkies, crack-heads nor killers, pimps nor prostitutes, just people who explode when it gets too damn hot to be pressed any further. Spike told reporters that he hoped the film would wreck the 1989 reelection campaign of Mayor Ed Koch, whose confrontational style had contributed to the city's racial tensions. And it certainly didn't help Koch, who lost the Democratic primary to a black candidate, David Dinkins, now mayor. By any means necessary.
"What I like about [Spike's] movies," says Steven Soderbergh, the white director who made Sex, Lies and Videotape, "is that they're made from a totally black point of view. There's no attempt to make things clearer for whites. Which is fine. He's imploring you to learn."
Spike wants to make a sports movie—probably about college basketball—and five will get you 10 it's not going to be The Larry Bird Story. "I saw Rocky with a white audience, and it got scary," he says. "They weren't cheering for an underdog to win, they were cheering for him to beat the——out of this uppity nigger, Apollo Creed. Rocky hit a nerve. The white public was fed up with blacks dominating boxing. In Rocky, white America finally had a heavyweight champion. Which is sad, because that's the only way they're ever going to get one."
Which probably explains what happened when HBO asked Spike to produce a boxing feature on Mike Tyson. Spike focused on Tyson and his agent, Don King, and their tirades against prejudice and the white world. Boxing writers had heard King give these speeches 4,000 times before, but Spike ran them like they were war news. The film was broadcast just before Tyson gave Alex Stewart a leather facial in Atlantic City in December, and not only was the documentary longer than the fight, but it also was far more interesting.
Mike Francesa, the CBS commentator, hated the film. "Here were three black men, King, Tyson and Lee, who have risen above any disadvantages they have had," says Francesa. "But instead of telling kids, 'Hey, we did it, you can too,' they were essentially saying, 'Forget it. The system won't let it happen." Francesa writes Spike off as a fan—not a journalist but a "big-time sports groupie. He's always high-fiving Patrick [Ewing] at Knick games. That's what he's into."
But HBO vice-president Ross Greenburg, who gave Spike a free hand, says the film "changed the face of sports television. It has changed the way producers think about their presentation. Usually, they just let the gun go off and start the race. We've never taken it to the lengths Spike took it." The film won two Emmys.
Spike lost $7,000 making the film, but he didn't care. He believes that King and Tyson had never really been heard, thanks to a white-dominated press. "The problem with Don King is that he's too powerful for people," Spike says. "People don't like his relationship with Mike Tyson because he's keeping Tyson's money away from the whites. The world is not set up that way. If you have talent, you're supposed to have a white agent, a white accountant and a white lawyer. King doesn't play by their rules."
Look who's talking.
Stiffed again. "No time," Spike says in the morning, rubbing his eyes. Your plane home goes wheels-up tomorrow. Six days into the story and you still don't really know what drives Spike Lee. There is only one thing left to do. The first day here, Spike reached into his desk drawer and gave you a book. He handled it as if it were the Hope diamond, but you'd never heard of it: Fallen Prince, by Donald P. Stone. "I have to have this back," Spike said.
You have a choice? You read.
You read about two lovers, Mike and Phoebe. Owned by different men in South Carolina, they were slaves who risked whippings to cross plantation lines and be together. They were married on Christmas Day, 1811, and eventually had seven children. As Phoebe was carrying their eighth, her owner yanked up stakes and moved to Alabama. Mike asked to be sold to Phoebe's owner but was denied. Mike and Phoebe were separated. And for slaves, separated usually meant forever.
After years of loneliness, Mike requested to buy his own freedom. The owner agreed, but for $1,900, a fortune for a slave who could make only cents a week working extra on his off-hours. Still, blister by blister, night by night, year by year, Mike worked until he became free. He set out searching for Phoebe in the Black Belt of Alabama, careful to avoid whites who might ignore his papers and return him to slavery. Finally, in May 1825, he arrived at a lightless slave quarters in Snow Hill, Ala., where he met Phoebe's eyes and opened his arms.
Mike and Phoebe stayed together another 40 years, he free, she enslaved. They had another three children. Sadly, Phoebe died a year before the South surrendered to the North and Alabama's slaves were freed, but she begot a huge and free family. Her fourth child, James Carmichael, fathered a fervently religious daughter, Martha Carmichael Edwards, who was known around western Alabama for her elegiac prayers. But she didn't change life for blacks in the South the way her crippled son did.
Nobody expected William James (Willie) Edwards to live, much less walk, but walk he did, despite an osteopathic infection and despite never having a pair of shoes as a child. And nobody expected him to bust his tail hard enough and long enough to come up with the $8 a month he needed to attend Booker T Washington's Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala., but he did, beginning in 1889. And nobody believed he could overcome his own sickliness and a stutter to become the class salutatorian in 1893, but he did. And nobody expected him to become a protègè of Washington's and to found one of the finest black schools of its time, the Snow Hill Institute in Snow Hill, but he did, in 1893. And when he did, even history wrote it down.
As he got older, Edwards had many grandchildren, but Bill Lee was perhaps most in awe of the great man. Driven, like Edwards, Bill became a great stand-up bass musician, eventually sitting in with stars like Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan and Duke Ellington. But Bill was as stubborn as any of his ancestors, and he refused to play the electric Fender bass. He would sooner starve. And he nearly did. Eventually, he found new fame as a composer and performer for films, thanks to a young director who believed in Bill as much as he believed in himself. Little guy in leopard-rimmed glasses. His son.
Now you can see him. Now you can see where he gets his drive. And all that anger, too. And brilliance and doggedness and burden. A legacy of will began with Mike and Phoebe, ran through Willie Edwards (the fallen prince himself) and Bill Lee and now courses through Spike Lee. He springs from American black royalty.
In Spike you see Bill, the purist. Spike will not move to Hollywood and make big-studio pictures. He will not let the studios tell him what to write. He is hell-bent on pressing racial issues. "[Racism] is the cancer of America," he says.
In him you see Willie and Mike and Phoebe, too, unwilling to quit. Make a smash hit without a typewriter, a phone and two nickels to rub together? No problem. "He has an unshakable will to be heard," says filmmaker John Sayles.
In him you see his mother, the survivor. He controls his company like a warden. If the electrician comes to fix the light, Spike writes the check. "I want to be here for the long run," he says.
It has to be this way. Like the ones who came before, Spike chiseled through great walls to get to where he is. In their memory, he is serious. There's too much to lose now. Too much has been fought for already. Got to do the right thing.
And you wanted him to do Mars Blackmon? Yo, scribe, blow.