Penthouse Retrospective

by Marcia Pally Originally Published: December, 1992

Spike Lee | A Fifth Thursday BONUS

I’ll never say that whites can make films only about whites and blacks only about blacks, but in some cases it makes a difference. You can’t say that Coppola’s being an Italian-American didn’t enhance The Godfather series. It did. The people who talked to me about Malcolm wouldn’t have talked to a white director. They wouldn’t trust him.

Some blacks didn’t trust you with the project.

Amiri Baraka made some statements to the press that I was too bourgeois to make Malcolm X. You know Baraka? He used to be called LeRoi Jones.

You say Malcolm was not a violent man. What does “by any means necessary” mean?

Some people interpreted it to mean violence. I think Malcolm was talking about self-defense.

What is the line between self-defense and violence?

A blurred one. The media wanted to give Malcolm the image of a violent man and a racist, which isn’t true. My film shows his evolution from hustler, pimp, and dealer to turning himself around. This transition is possible. It’s why he wrote about his life, to show that it can be done. We can elevate ourselves.

What would Malcolm have said about the riots that followed the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles?

The same things he was saying 25 years ago. Racism hasn’t changed.

Some blacks criticized the rioters for looting their own neighborhoods.

By the second day they had gotten to the white communities, and that’s when the National Guard was called in. Rioting in South Central L.A. is okay, but not in Beverly Hills. That’s what makes this different from the Watts riots in the sixties. Blacks got smart and went to the suburbs.

Were you surprised that no riots erupted in New York?

The mayor, David Dinkins, had a lot to do with keeping the calm. Had Ed Koch still been mayor, I can tell you there would’ve been riots. He promoted racial disharmony to get votes. We like to think that Do the Right Thing had a little to do with getting Koch out of office.

Who would you tell people to vote for in the presidential election?

I wish I could tell people to vote for someone who’d make a difference. Jesse Jackson would be a good president, but that’s not reality. America isn’t ready for a black president.

What do you think of Bush’s comment that welfare programs made blacks in L.A. riot?

I think Bush regrets that remark — he’s been so strongly attacked for it. The Reagan cutbacks on social programs are responsible for riots. When education sucks, that’s responsible. The government spends more on the military than on food; that’s responsible.

Will what happened in L.A. make any difference?

I think so.

So change can happen only when white people are afraid.

Sometimes.

Tension between Koreans and blacks, as in the L.A. riots, was already represented in Do the Right Thing.

There’s bad blood between Koreans and blacks in the U.S. Koreans own a lot of stores and they don’t hire blacks — I’m not saying they should. A Korean store-owner in L.A. shot a black teenage girl in the back and got three years community service for it. Blacks are angry.

Were you surprised at the Rodney King verdict, especially after the whole world had seen the video of the beating on TV?

I was hurt but not surprised. But the next time cops are in that position, they’ll think twice about beating a man 56 times. They know now that there are ramifications.

It’s optimistic of you to think that conditions for blacks will change, especially as the economic gap between rich and poor has been widening over the last decade.

That gap has got to narrow or we’ll have civil war. You can’t flaunt wealth and expect the rest of the people not to react. That’s why the riots were in L.A. — the gap is so big there between movie stars and the poor.

Who would win that war?

Both sides would lose.

Do you think racism in other parts of the world is as severe as in the United States? What about Europe’s new nationalisms?

I can’t speak fully because I’m not the Arab who’s having his head beat in, but have you ever heard of Le Pen? Mussolini’s granddaughter ran for office in Italy and won. Fascism is on the rise the world over.

One thing about Spike Lee, he never makes movies that have no opinion or melt away into cultural fodder. Penthouse always appreciates that, which makes us always look forward to the next one.

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