x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Doing his thing

In person, director and sometimes actor Spike Lee is a driven, yet down-to-earth director, much at odds with his firebrand public persona.

Spike Lee is not always the man his public persona would make him out to be.
Spike Lee is not always the man his public persona would make him out to be.

Last year was a battle for Spike Lee - and not just thanks to his big-screen adaptation of James McBride's Second World War novel Miracle at St Anna. At 2008's Cannes Film Festival he got into a spat with Clint Eastwood, arguing that the Eastwood-directed films, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, didn't accurately depict the effort made by black soldiers in the Pacific conflict. Lee is a man who values honesty and openness. I consider myself a friend of his. I spent almost a year at a desk in the office of his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule, in Brooklyn, New York while working on a biography (Spike Lee: That's My Story and I'm Sticking To It). During that time, my affection for him grew greatly. I had heard, and still hear, all the stories about a cantankerous man, a difficult, surly interviewee and the ridiculous accusations that Lee hates white people.

This is not the man I know. Lee is honest, to the point and hilarious when the time is right. Nothing I can say will change some people's perception, so I can only imagine the sense of frustration that he has when he rebukes a claim or states a fact only for his remarks to be taken out of context. Let's take the Eastwood situation. I ask Lee why he chose to take to task the veteran director, wondering if it was just a marketing ploy for his own period movie. Lee answers: "I didn't attack Eastwood. All I did was state fact. I said that there were black soldiers who fought on that island and that they weren't visible in the two films."

I remember e-mailing Lee a copy of a Guardian article in which Eastwood's defence consisted of the line: "A guy like him, should shut his face." Lee responded on ABC news: "First of all, the man is not my father and we're not on a plantation either. He's a great director. He makes his films, I make my films? And a comment like, 'A guy like him should shut his face?' Come on Clint, come on. He sounds like an angry old man right there."

Lee was keen to draw the line under the comment by signing off, "Even though he's trying to have a Dirty Harry flashback, I'm going to take the Obama high road and end it right here. Peace and love." He tells me: "I've got no personal issue with Eastwood." Miracle at St Anna was a purposeful mix of fact and fiction. The fact is that a regiment of black Americans, known as The Buffalo Soldiers, was based in Italy in 1944 and that there was a Nazi offensive in Tuscany that claimed many Italian lives. The fiction is the story of four African-American soldiers who are split from the main group and enter into a magical-realist tale of love, honour and treachery.

The treachery element got the Italian press agitated. When Lee was in Italy presenting the film at the end of September last year he faced accusations of playing fast and loose with the truth. In 2005 an Italian court ruled that there was no connection between an anti-fascist Italian partisan resistance group and the 1944 Nazi massacre of 560 Italian civilians. However, the fact that this piece of history was still being questioned more than 60 years after the event is telling in and of itself. When I asked Lee what he felt about the reaction, he said, "It was really nothing. There are different perceptions of what happened, this is just one view. We're not trying to say that this is the absolute truth."

Miracle at St Anna was released in America in the last weekend of September in 2008 to a disappointing box-office return of $3.5 million (Dh12.8m) - a fraction of what Lee's last film Inside Man took in its first weekend. One clear difference was that Inside Man boasted some of the biggest names in cinema: Clive Owen, Jodie Foster and Denzel Washington. Lee says: "The budget we had on Miracle meant that we could not afford banner names." But he is quick to point out that "everyone I cast was the person who was right for the role". Playing the four soldiers are Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Laz Alonso and Omar Benson Miller. On the box-office numbers, Lee is philosophical: "Every time you release a film it's like rolling dice - you can never tell how it's going to turn out."

Making a war film was a new experience for the director. "I learnt a lot," he admits. "It was a lot slower than I'm used to, after every take we had to reset everything and couldn't just go again." Over the years, Lee has honed a technique, using two cameras shooting at the same time, that has been the height of speed and efficiency. It has also created a unique aesthetic. As race is so often at the centre of any discussion of Lee's work, it is strange that it is rarely noted how critical of the black community Lee's films can be. She's Gotta Have It condemned a multitude of African-American archetypes and its follow-up, School Daze, even examined the prejudice that exists between dark-skinned and light-skinned black Americans. Each of his films contains some sort of criticism of the way race is perceived and no group receives special treatment. Visit one of his film sets and it's a typically New York mix of races and creeds.

He believes Obama's victory shows that the racial paradigm has changed in America. "There has been a complete change in direction. This is a change that isn't even one that we can talk about as having happened since the Second World War and today. This is a change that has happened in the last four years since the last election." He puts this down to a generation that has grown up in an era when the racial divide has been less stark than at any previous time in American history. There is also a nice link between Obama and Lee. Apparently, when the US president met his wife, Michelle, he took her to see Lee's seminal picture Do The Right Thing on their first date. It's hard to believe that this year marks the 20th anniversary of the film's release. Lee was at the Democratic convention and saw Obama accept the nomination in the Broncos Stadium in Denver: a moment he describes as "history in the making".

Unlike Obama, Lee is not always a stunning orator. He's always courteous and replies directly to all questions, but will not launch into anecdotes unprompted, unless he feels completely comfortable. This no doubt contributes to his occasionally problematic relationship with journalists. However, Lee also gives frequent talks at universities and is a brilliant speaker in this context. He feels comfortable with students. This is no surprise. He is a prominent film lecturer at the Tisch School of Arts at the New York University.

A side to Lee that is not often noted is his great generosity. When writing the book I lost count of the number of times that people would commend this particular attribute. He loves sport and whenever he is in London tries to watch Arsenal. He has asked me to accompany him on a couple of occasions to the Gunners stadium and it's always an amazing experience. Lee loves sportsmen as much as he likes actors.

After the games he is always excited about meeting the players and chatting about the game. His knowledge is exemplary and in many ways he sees the position of director on a film as being akin to being the head coach of a sport team. He never has an entourage or bodyguards and is happy to mingle with the crowd. Lee is like Woody Allen in that he tries to make a film a year, sometimes two. Earlier this month, less than a year since completing Miracle at St Anna, he showed two documentaries at the Tribeca film festival. Of course, it helps that neither took long to film. The first, Kobe Doin' Work, a documentary that follows the basketball player Kobe Bryant's every move during the course of a game, took only one day to film. The second, Passing Strange, a filming of the stage musical based on the book by the singer-songwriter Stew, was filmed over three nights.

Now he already has a documentary on the basketball player Michael Jordan is in the works. But Lee seems at a loss when I ask him what his next fictional feature film will be. "I don't know at the moment," he says. "But there will be something coming." Of that we can be sure. Indeed, Lee is gearing up to shoot a new film this summer. He is presently juggling several projects, any of which could come to fruition, but not even his staff know what it will be, or whether he will pull a rabbit out of the hat and surprise everyone.

Miracle at St Anna premières in the UAE today.