Penthouse Retrospective

by Marcia Pally Originally Published: December, 1992

Spike Lee | A Fifth Thursday BONUS

In hard economic times people look for scapegoats — Jews, immigrants. The U.S. is using Japan as a scapegoat now for its economic problems. The Japanese are just making good products and people, including Americans, are buying them.

Immigrants standardly become middle class after one or two generations in America. That hasn’t been the pattern for blacks.

Koreans, for example, can get bank loans faster than most blacks, and immigrants never had the experience of slavery. They arrive with their language, families, and culture intact, while ours were stripped from us. For immigrants America is a place of opportunity, not the place where they were taught to hate themselves.

Blacks have been taught that they ain’t shit, ain’t never been shit, and ain’t going to be shit. They aren’t taught that Cleopatra was black, that we built the pyramids, that we developed certain math and engineering before anyone else. Toussaint L’Ouverture kicked Napoleon’s ass. Hannibal kicked Rome’s ass — that’s why there are so many dark Italians. If blacks knew this history, we’d feel better about ourselves, and that’s why it’s kept out of the history books. They want us to think Cleopatra was Elizabeth Taylor and Jesus was Willem Dafoe.

Are you making a historical film to correct omissions in school texts?

Not correct, augment. The multicultural movement in American education is trying to expand what is taught in the schools so we don’t leave out the Native American, for instance. This Christopher Columbus shit has got to stop. The system has to be revamped.

There is also a backlash against multiculturalism that says curricula should be based on quality, not race.

I expected a backlash. They’re not, going to give up the status quo without a fight.

Do you have a next film in mind?

No. I’m going to take a year off and executive produce young black directors making their first features.

Will you do any acting?

I don’t like acting: I act in my own movies because it helps get financing. I’m thought to be funny, I guess.

Is the Black New Wave still growing?

I hope it is. It’d be a quick death if it weren’t. But there’s a limit on the money that studios are willing to offer, and I include New Line Productions in that.

How do you feel when your films are criticized?

Criticism slides off my back. It’s always been part of my makeup, a certain confidence in myself. My parents always encouraged me and exposed me to the arts. My father is a musician and has done the scores for all my films. My mother was an art teacher.

That suggests the black middle class will produce more black middle class and the black underclass will be left to founder.

The black middle class has to care more about the people they left behind — not that the government shouldn’t do more. Some blacks make their money, get a house in the suburbs, and get negligent.

Does the absence of black jurors prevent black directors from getting international prizes?

No, but Cannes is an international festival and the jury should reflect that. Whoopi Goldberg may be the only black person to have ever been on the Cannes jury. I was asked to be on it last year, but I couldn’t be away from Malcolm X for two and a half weeks. If it comes down to me or a golden white boy like the Coen brothers or Steve Soderbergh [whose Barton Fink and sex, lies, and videotape won first prize in 1991 and 1989, respectively], they’ll choose the golden white boy.

Did you buy the ring you’re wearing or was it given to you? [It has a black hand entwined with a white.]

I bought it. You didn’t expect me to be wearing a ring like this, did you?

What percentage of the time can you afford to be angry about racial matters?

I’m reminded that I’m black every day. In New York if you’re black and you see a policeman coming towards you, you think about that. I’m amazed when people ask why blacks get angry. I get angry when I get asked stupid questions. It’s self-evident why blacks are angry. The L.A. riots shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone, except maybe whites whose only contact with blacks is through Bill Cosby or Michael Jackson.

Are you harassed by the police?

Oh, they don’t want to do that. I have too high a profile. Denzel Washington, however, can’t get a cab. Wesley Snipes [White Men Can’t Jump] had a cop pull a gun on him because he was in a smart car. You know, a black man in a car is a suspect. The Rodney King verdict told us exactly how many rights blacks have in the U.S.: none.

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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