Interview: Spike Lee for "She Hate Me"

By Paul Fischer Thursday July 29th 2004 07:03PM
Spike Lee for "She Hate Me"

He may be, as the ditty goes, absorbent, yellow and porous, but voice actor Few directors have thrived on controversy as much as Spike Lee. Still confronting, and never one to shy away from issues that persist in dogging the filmmaker, She Hate Me covers everything from lesbianism to corporate corruption. Lee's film centres around Harvard, MBA-educated biotech executive John Henry "Jack" Armstrong (Anthony Mackie), who gets fired when he informs on his bosses and initiates an investigation into their business dealings by the Securities & Exchange Commission.

Branded a whistle-blower and therefore unemployable, Jack desperately needs to make a living. When his former girlfriend Fatima (Kerry Washington), a high powered businesswoman and now a lesbian, offers him cash to impregnate her and her new girlfriend Alex (Dania Ramirez), Jack is persuaded by the chance to make "easy" money. Word spreads and soon Jack is in the baby-making business at $10,000 a tryst. Lesbians with a desire for motherhood and the cash to spare are lining up to seek his services.

But, between the attempts by his former employers to frame him for securities fraud and his dubious fathering activities, Jack finds his life, all at once, becoming very complicated. In a wide-ranging interview covering sex and politics, Lee talked to Paul Fischer in Los Angeles.

Question: Could you talk broadly about what inspired you to make this movie and the things that were important for you to touch on? Answer: The inspiration for this movie came from the New York Times and reading the Wall Street journal when they broke the whole story on the Enron shenanigans, the McKinley's and them guys. And then it broadened to Bernie Evers at Worldcom and Dick Lizowsky] at Tyco, Martha Stewart, the Regis' at Adelphia, and just greed. Look, human beings are always going to be greedy, but this is, like, just bold-faced, they're not ever trying to be shy about it. Stealing money for the golf courses and paintings and all kinds of stuff. And then you see people being hurt. You know, I really felt sympathetic to the hard workers, the good hard-working Americans who worked at a company like Enron and put their life savings in Enron stock. And [it just] evaporated, and disappeared. Question: When did the plot about impregnating lesbians come in? Answer: That came at the same time, because we wanted to tell more than one story, we wanted this film to have two spines and the thinking went like this. Progea is the company in this film, that scandal being, like, an overall view, but I think the audience would be able to identify more with one man's dilemma or journey and his own moral struggle and that would be the thing with John Henry Armstrong and what he does. Question: Did you have any discussions with the Gay community about the way that the lesbians were going to be portrayed in this movie? Answer: Well, we hired a technical consultant. Her name is Tristine Tormeno, who is well-respected within the lesbian community so, we hired her, she worked with me on the script, which was written, but she looked at the script and pointed things out. She also worked with the actresses. Question: They were sent to lesbian boot camp? Answer: Since we started the junket, we're trying to change that name. Now we like to refer to it as Lesbian Sensitizing Seminars? Question: There are a lot of themes in this about family. Can you talk about your stance and the things that were important to you? Answer: Well, I think if you look at the end of the film, I think we present a new configuration of family, what people thought of family. Forget about Eisenhower. Even ten years ago, what people thought of family is much different than it is today. I found it very amusing that our new president tried to ram home this new amendment to the constitution that was quickly shot down, banning gay marriage. But, to answer your question in a broader sense, we wanted this film to reflect the crazy world we live in. And that was really the blueprint of this film, to jam pack as much as we could into this film within the alloted time, all the issues, and it would be like an assault, the same way individuals assault in the world we live in today with subject matter, images, and all types of stuff. Question: Was it difficult to find spots to put commentaries on Bush and other issues? Answer: Nah, we could have done a lot more. We don't need to, because I think if you are inditing big business, automatically, it's inditing George Bush. George Bush, he has more CEO's in his administration than any other president in the history of the United States of America. Just look at the thing, it was not a mistake that we put on Enron logo on the three dollar bill in the thing. Question: Are you worried that it might hurt some of the drama? Answer: No. Question: When you first started making movies, it was a revolution to show black professionals. Do you think that those kinds of straight forward movies can still be made, because this is high concept? Answer: Well, I don't know how to really answer that question. I think that, again, this movie does not come from a Hollywood studio, the studio system. We went to everybody, they didn't want to make it, and I can understand so. But if you look at the films that they make for African American audiences, I think that there vision of African Americans is very limiting. Question: You made comments against Soul Plane. Do you think those types of movies will continue to be made? Answer: Oh, they'll continue to make them, and I know for sure if Soul Plane had been a hit, there would have been Soul Plane 2. I don't have this on a, I was just told, if that film had done well on opening weekend, Monday morning they would have put things in motion for the sequel. Question: Does a movie like that make you really concerned about African American portrayal in mainstream Hollywood? Answer: Oh yes. I was disturbed before Soul Plane. Let's not put everything on Soul Plane, it's not like the first, that wasn't the first one. Question: Do you think that it's still a minstrel show or is it getting better? Answer: I'm not that stupid. Will Smith, I, Robot, made 52 million. But Will, Denzel, they're operating outside of what we're talking about. And also, another advancement, I'll give you an examples of three films that were directed by African Americans that had nothing to do with African American culture: Clark Johnson directed SWAT, Antoine Fuqua, King Arthur, F. Gary Grey with The Italian Job and Be Cool, so those are advancements. But, at the same time, I still am sad that there's not one African American who's in the gatekeeper position at a network or studio that can greenlight a picture. As far as, the VP that creates things, several studios don't have an African American at all, this late in the gang? Question: What about you working in the studio system? Answer: I've done it. I've gone back and forth. 25th Hour was Touchstone, so... Question: Do you still want to keep that door open? Answer: Oh, the door's not closed. It's just that we've got to find common ground. I don't mind doing films like Summer of Sam or 25th Hour where it's not specific African Americans, I like the stories. But when they do come to me with stories dealing with the African American experiences, they've got to open up. Question: Did your technical consultant ever raise the issue of touching on the lipstick lesbian issue? Answer: I think that if you look at the woman that Fatima brings, we have a full representation now. Fatima's smart. She wants him to go into this ideal, she wants her ten percent. This guy's very straight-laced, come on, he went to Harvard undergrad, got his MBA from Warton, and he saw the action she had when he caught her. Anyway, so in order to entice him into this thing, the first five women are not going to, if she brings the dykes, the butches, all bets are off, so how she reels him in is bringing the lipstick. The first five she brings in, most people consider them very feminine. Question: Is it odd that they're so impressed with his body? Answer: [LONG PAUSE] Why? I don't think it's odd, why is it odd? Question: Because they're acting like they are attracted to him. Answer: [LONG PAUSE] Because they want to have nice looking kids. No, no, no, though, it's not just his penis, they want to see his full physique. You want to see what you're buying. If you go to a sperm bank and you fill out a form, you write what height, weight, what color eyes, what color hair. If you want your sperm donor to have a post graduate degree, that's an extra $5,000 dollars. So, to me, maybe not for you, but for me, I find it believable, if this guy's gonna be, if my egg's gonna meet his sperm, I want to see what his physique is. They know he went to Harvard, they know he got his MBA, they looked at his file, they see that his medical health, he's clean here. They questioned Fatima ten million times, what's he like, you know, they want to know everything about him, because they're taking it serious. This guy is gonna help bring my child into the world, so for me, I find it believable that they want to see what the goods is. Question: That scene is like he's up on the auction block. Answer: Exactly. I'm glad you brought that up, because that scene for me, it works on double levels. The two levels are this: You have level of sexual objectification, which meant another story forever, which meant that now the tables were turned. But a more subtle level, which most people haven't gotten, the level of the auction block is a direct reference to African Americans being sold as slaves, when you stood up on that little thing and you were buck naked and master or potential master, opened your mouth, felt your teeth like you were a horse and felt your genitals and felt your muscles, and if it looked like you were a big buck and you could sire a whole bunch of piccaninnies, than you got more money. So that was another reference to that. Question: Are you developing other African American stories? Answer: No, I got. What do you need. [Laughs] Whaddaya got! Question: Themes of race definitely play a part in the film too. Answer: But in the background. I don't think race is really overt in this. That's my opinion. Question: Why do you think the character ultimately condemns himself for helping these women? Answer: [LONG PAUSE] That's a good question. There are some people in the world that have a problem with bringing 19 kids into the world and being paid for it. And also, I'd like to state, I'd like to make the point, it's not the fact that women are lesbians, it's just the fact that he feels like a prostitute. He brought 19 kids into this world. Question: A lot of those were complete families. Answer: I understand that. But, John Henry Armstong still cannot get around the fact that, even though he signed a donor waver agreement, even though these children are wanted and loved, he still is the father of 19 kids, and he got paid for it. And some people, some men, I would have a hard time with that on my conscience. Question: Are you saying it's important to have a male and female influence on a child? Answer: No, I'm not saying that. I mean, there's been no scientific studies saying that children of same sex parents grow up to be any worse than any children with a mommy and a daddy at home? Question: How do you feel about the criticism you've gotten on some of your films and that you may get on this one that the white characters are stereotypes? Answer: This film?!? Question: This and some of your films in general. Answer: Well, you have to help me for me to better answer this question. Are there any white characters in this film that you think are stereotypical. Question: The Woody Harrelson character and the Brian Dennehy character, are sort of the bad guys and they are not as developed as the black characters. They aren't the focus of the movie either. Answer: I think the Woody Harrelson character is fully developed. The guy's a crook. [Pause] The guy's a crook and I'm sorry, they're are some white men running corporations that are crooks. That's not a combination of the entire race. Question: You are a very political filmmaker. What are your thoughts on the upcoming election? Answer: Oh, I'm very nervous about this election, because we're all going to go to hell if George Bush wins. Well, we have to mobilize so that doesn't happen. People have to register to vote. Despite what we feel about John Kerry, we have to rally behind him. Question: He's such an invisible opponent. Answer: I know, but we gotta get beyond that. I fear for the world that Bush, when he's there. Question: Do you think this movie will help that? Answer: No, I think the work's going to be done by Fahrenheit 9/11, which is a great movie. Question: Can that movie help the change? Answer: Yes, it has already. Let me answer it this way. Michael Moore would not need armed guards around him 24 hours a day if that film had no impact. The man has armed bodyguards around him 24-7. That is the biggest testament to the impact of the film. Question: Do you know Moore? Answer: I spoke to him the other day? Question: How's he doing? Answer: He's not happy about, with his life being threatened. I wouldn't be happy either. Question: With Ronstadt and Whoopi, there seems to be major reactions to these issues. Answer: I told you, this is a very serious time, man. They're squashing down. Question: How does that affect you as a political filmmaker? Answer: It's scary. All Linda Ronstadt wanted to do was dedicate a song to Michael Moore. They came down on her hard. Question: Is this where you're heading if you speak out? Answer: We're there already. It happened earlier with the Dixie Chicks, you know when they said they were, you know that happens. The guy that owns Clear Channel, who's one of Bush's buddies, he pulled them off the playlist. Question: Are you concerned about people doing that type of thing to you? Answer: Well, I'm concerned, but it's not going to stop me. Question: If Bush gets re-elected, what do you think? Answer: I say God help us all. Question: Do you think it's important for us to pull out of Iraq? Answer: We should never have been there in the first place. The evidence is there that he lied to the world. The only reason we were there was because of these weapons of mass destruction, this was supposed to save the world as we know it, and now they're trying to put this off on the CIA as faulty intelligence. And, you know, the American public, a lot of times be gullible. So we go for okey dokey. 'Okay. I believe you. Okay.' Question: You said you could have been harder in your movie about Bush. Was there anything that you pulled back on because of censorship? Answer: No, not at all. I mean, look at the things we had with Bush. We had the whole thing with the three dollar bill, and we had that fake sort of Willie Horton commercial about affirmative action. Question: Have you had feedback from Republicans on the movie? Answer: No. I'm small fish. Question: Since you mentioned Enron, what do you think is a fair sentence for Kenneth Lay? Answer: Every single person that lost money, they need to get their money back. Enron employees that lost their life savings, they need to get their money back. Question: And your thoughts on Martha Stewart's soft sentence? Answer: [LONG PAUSE] You know I have a problem with her, where she compared herself to Mandela. She should get a year just for that. If I was the judge, 'You get a year just for that!' 'If Mandela can do 27 years, I can do five months.' Come on! She shoulda got a year just for that. Five years probation for that sentence. Question: Do you think people have gotten used to these white collar slaps on the hand? Answer: I just think there's apathy has run amock. Many things are happening in this country where America should be up in arms. The reason people aren't up in arms is because of [sounds like mass of containments] which is used as an opium. Movies, television, all these reality shows, the music, it's used as an opium to make people go to sleep. I'll give an example of where people should be up in arms: When Halliburton got that eight billion dollar contract without a bid, but just the fact that the former president of Halliburton is now the Vice President of the United States of America, and there's no congressional investigation or hold up. Before this thing goes through, we're going to make sure that, it's just like they just gave it to Halliburton on a platinum platter. Not only do they get the contract for eight billion dollars without a bid, but then every day, you pick up the paper, they're being caught for overpricing the United States government. Feeding soldiers aren't even there, all types of, just crooks. Question: Where do you get your news from then? Answer: That's a very good question. I'll tell you, I'm very lucky, because I get to travel the world, and so it's amazing to me, when I'm over in Europe, and I see how the BBC's covering something, and then see how it's covered on Fox, it's not even the same story. And that is why, for me, in closing, one of the great things about Fahrenheit 9/11 is that Michael Moore sent a lot of this information which the media had never covered. We never knew about the goat thing. There's so many things that the American public, the gatekeepers that first hear the news said, 'Uh-uh-uh-uh, we're not, leave that out, we're gonna get this.' And so, in closing, it's about who is telling the story, because we remember, at one time, you know, we all love Nelson Mandela now. At one time, Nelson Mandela and ANC were listed as terrorists. But then, 1946, 1947, when the state of Israel, when they were frightened, trying for statehood, they were blowing up British ships and the British were calling them terrorists. They thought they were freedom fighters. But the British said, 'No, you're terrorists.' 'No, we're freedom fighters.' So who's what, it depends upon who's telling the story. Question: So what's the solution? Answer: We just can't take that stuff for granted. Question: Do you have people in your sphere of African Americans who are actually Republicans? Answer: I know people some African Americans who voted for Bush but they're not going to do it this time. Question: How are the Knicks? Answer: We need help.