John Colapinto: Spike and Mike
July 21, 2009
Twenty years after he wrote and directed his masterpiece, “Do the Right Thing,” Spike Lee’s concerns remain the same as they were in 1989—or 1979, for that matter, when Lee was discomfiting his film professors at N.Y.U. with his student movie attacking D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.”
It would be an oversimplification to say that age has mellowed Lee; he has made a handful of movies in the last twenty years (“The 25th Hour,” “Inside Man”) that do not overtly deal with race. His most recent feature, “Miracle at St. Anna,” was simply the latest effort by Lee to (as the character Buggin’ Out puts it in “Do the Right Thing”) “put some brothers on the wall”—in this case, the figurative wall that commemorates the Second World War heroes known as the Greatest Generation.
Lee and I discussed all of these things and more when I interviewed him last year on the eve of the release of “Miracle at St. Anna.” One exchange that did not make it into my piece involved Michael Jackson. It’s worth posting now, I think, since it casts some light on an unknown area of Lee’s huge body of work, and it provides about as good a defense of Jackson’s indefensible song “They Don’t Care About Us” as you’re likely to hear.
We were talking about Lee’s 1990 movie, “Mo’ Better Blues,” which some critics denounced for its presentation of the Jewish jazz-club owners Moe and Joe Flatbush. Lee was urged by his (Jewish) lawyer, Arthur Klein, to
defend his depiction of the Flatbush Brothers in the New York Times. I included this tale in my profile, but I did not include what Lee told me about his further motivation for writing the Times op-ed. Our exchange continued:
I saw—not first hand—but I was working with Michael Jackson on a video for the song “They Don’t Care About Us.” The lyric was “Jew me, sue me, kick me, kike me.” Wooooo! The weight of the world hit him. You don’t know what the wrath is until the J.D.L., B’nai B’rith, Simon Wiesenthal Institute and Spielberg and Geffen, too—they shut it down.
You worked on that video?
Yeah! It happened at the same time.
Man, I’m surprised you didn’t get nailed for that, too: “And Spike Lee did the video.”
They didn’t know! [Laughs.] But they’d have put me in that if they knew! They pulled every single record out of the stores, had to put, like, a scratch over it. Here’s the thing, though. Artists are allowed to express themselves. So why is it that Michael, to have a viewpoint—first of all, who’s to say that that’s not a character in the song saying that? Martin Scorsese, one of my favorite directors—and we went through every one of his films—a whole lot of “black motherfuckers,” “mulignan,” “nigger nigger nigger.” Now, that is not Martin Scorsese. That is the character in his films. The other point would be Quentin Tarantino and his excessive use of the n-word. That was the same time “Jackie Brown” came out. So how was it that Quentin Tarantino was given a pass for his excessive use of the n-word, but Michael Jackson was practically nailed to the cross? Double standard like a motherfucker to me.
Are you still friendly with Michael?
I haven’t seen or talked to Michael in years. Kind of, like, laying low.
The actual lyric, from Jackson’s 1995 album, “HIStory,” was “Jew me, sue me, everybody do me/Kick me, kike me, don’t you black or white me.” Representatives for both the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith spoke out strongly against the song. Spielberg, who, two years earlier, had agreed to write liner notes to what he thought was a greatest-hits album, wrote to the Times to distance himself from the song: “My liner notes are by no means an endorsement of any new songs that appear on what has been released as Michael Jackson’s ‘HIStory’ album.” Jackson first argued that the song was meant to be a denunciation of bigotry, but a few days after the record’s release he apologized, and later re-recorded the song with new lyrics.
Lee’s next excursion into the question of race in America is his filmed version of “Passing Strange,” the remarkable musical by Stew. I watched Lee shooting this production last June, in the Belasco Theatre in New York. The movie will be released, Lee tells me, in late August, at the IFC Center, in Manhattan.
[Source: New Yorker]