Spike Lee: Denzel Washington is 'the most intelligent actor on earth'

The director talks about the trials and tribulations of his industry-changing film career

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Regional film aficionados were treated to an inspiring session with Spike Lee, 62, over the weekend. The Oscar-winning American director was the key speaker on Saturday night at the On.DXB festival.

Lee was true to form: direct, inspirational and somewhat cantankerous when discussing his four-decade film career, particularly 1989's Do the Right Thing and 1992's Malcolm X.

When The National caught up with Lee before his session, he was weary. The director's direct flight from New York was diverted to Madrid on the account of an in-flight emergency, which severely curtailed his time on the ground in Dubai. Arriving less than an hour before his presentation, he sat in the green room, almost in a meditative state, sipping a cup of lemon infused tea.

Lee sees that the appraisal of his body of work is changing: his at times caustic and always thought-provoking films were once viewed as controversial and incendiary, but a new generation of critics are approaching them with fresh eyes. With that has come a new wave of awards praising his legacy: in 2015, he received an honorary Oscar for his body of work, and next April, he will receive the Lincoln Centre’s highest honour, the Chaplin Award, in a gala ceremony in New York.

"There has been a growing appreciation of the work, I can say that is true. I do appreciate it, but I don't want to get overboard. I never stop working," he says. "A lot of times, and this has happened in my work, people don't get it the first time ... and it takes them some time to understand."

Speaking to a packed crowd at the Dubai Studio City Sound Stage, Lee detailed how film critics often misunderstand his intentions, and how Hollywood often viewed him as a nuisance. "Brother, man. It is understanding that this thing is not set-up for people of colour to win. You need to know that going in. Once you are conscious, you know it is not going to be easy and there are forces against you.

"It is about you using that negativity as a positive," he says. "That's it really. I am a prime example and there are others like [actor and filmmaker] Tyler Perry. Despite the odds and people calling us crazy and that what we do will never work, you have to realise that this stuff is just noise. If you seek the truth, then you need to have blinders on and have that one goal and do what you got to do reach it."

Denzel's study of Islam while prepping for 'Malcolm X'

Lee stands by his values, and that's why he publicly criticised Warner Bros's announcement in the early 1990s that Norman Jewison, an Academy award-winning white Canadian filmmaker, would direct the biopic of slain African-American civil rights leader Malcolm X.

The resulting outcry lead to Jewison walking away, and Lee sitting in the director's chair. "Here is the thing, though," he explains, "I give all the respect to Norman Jewison because this was his film. He didn't have to do that. He could have told me to go away, but he didn't. So I will always give props to him."

This was the first of many hurdles Lee and his crew faced when making 1992's Malcom X. The biggest issue was the film's length. Lee wouldn't budge to the studio's demands to cut it down to a manageable two hours. He argued that the epic length (3 hours, 22 minutes) was needed to portray Malcolm X's powerful transformation from petty street criminal to Muslim social justice advocate.

With the studio refusing to fund the film midway during the production, Lee was forced to reach out to prominent black celebrities to financially support the remainder of the project. The list included the likes of singers Harry Belafonte, Prince, Tracy Chapman, in addition to basketballers Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. The latter two's involvement resulted in one the biggest laughs in the making of the film.

"Now, for those who know Michael Jordan, he is very competitive, he doesn't like to lose in anything" Lee tells me. "So I accidentally let it be known how much Magic gave. He said 'what? Magic gave what? Okay, I got you,' and boom." The studio eventually relented and released funds after learning of a wily move by Lee to hold a press conference to announce the help from these celebrities.

All that goodwill from the community pushed Lee and actor Denzel Washington to dedicate themselves to the film. The director remains in awe of his star's performance. In a note to the Dubai audience about perseverance, he detailed how Washington prepared for up to a year for his Oscar-nominated role as Malcom X.

"There was no pork on his fork and no alcohol. He learnt how to pray in Arabic and he studied the Quran and that's because he is the most intelligent actor on this earth, in my opinion," Lee reveals. "There are many biopics, but just because you talk and look like the subject, that is only the surface. Denzel knew that his body is a vessel. And if he did the work, that somehow the spirit of Malcom X would come through him. But again, that only came through the work."

Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992). IMDb
Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (1992). IMDb

'Spike, you have to be 10 times better than your white classmates'

Lee himself has displayed a tenacious work ethic throughout his career. Born in Atlanta in 1956, he recalls growing up in a culture-loving household and says his trademark determination comes from his mother: Jacqueline Carroll, who was a teacher of arts and black literature, while his father, William Edwards Lee III, was an acclaimed jazz musician, and composed the score for a number of the director's films.

Lee says his parents encouraged him to express himself through the arts, but that they were quick to explain the struggles he'd face in the racially charged society he was living in. "When we moved to Brooklyn, New York, I remember coming home from elementary school with a report card full of Bs. I ran home happy to show my mother and she threw it away," he recalled. "My mother always kept it 100 with me, she said 'why are you satisfied with Bs?' I told her that was unfair. She would say 'Spike, you have to be 10 times better than your white classmates.' That was something all their parents told their black kids. At that time, I thought my mother was crazy, but thank God she told me that. She instilled in me a work ethic."

This allowed him to plough through many career obstacles. His 1986 debut feature, She's Gotta Have It, about a young woman's (Tracy Camilla Johns) relationship with three men, was shot on a shoe-string budget of just under $200,000 (Dh734,000, through various grants and studio money) over 12 days.

Because of this, as well as writing and directing, he took care of location scouting and in some cases, catering. While that film launched his career, he achieved status within the industry, as well as notoriety to some, with his third film, Do the Right Thing. Released in 1989, the plot focused on the simmering race tensions in a Brooklyn neighborhood. The explosive nature and the harrowing ending resulted in a fierce press conference after the film's first screening at Cannes Film Festival.

"There were critics who thought that this film would cause black people to go out in the streets and run amok," he says. "One person, I forgot who, but he was a major critic, said 'pray that this film is not shown in your neighbourhood'."

Lee says the experience was one of the first times he came across Hollywood's double standards when it comes to films about African-­Americans. Instead of focusing on the systemic injustices Do the Right Thing speaks of, critics instead chose to bemoan what they deemed as Lee's unrealistic representation of the New York setting, particularly his omission of the drug epidemic affecting the African-American community at the time.

"Drugs weren't part of that story. I didn't see drugs in Wall Street and these cats were snorting up a mile," Lee says. "It comes down to that double standard that when they think of black people, they think of drugs, guns and negativity and that's not the way that I see my people."