I'll admit it: I don't read the art coverage on Slate so I'm unfamiliar with the rest of Lee Siegel's work. I also am not a huge Spike Lee fan. I think he's made a few great movies, a large number of incredibly mediocre ones, and he hasn't really changed much as a director all the way back to She's Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing, always utilizing the same kind of low tracking shots and vaguely similar jazz-influenced music. I've also often been bothered by Spike's rhetoric, especially the kind grounded in his consistent premise that African-Americans can't be racist because how their race has been treated. Meanwhile, he has no problem regularly making comments about other groups, especially Jews, that could easily be construed and prejudiced, even if he disagrees.
I just finished reading this conversation on Slate between Siegel and Lee, and just loved this little exchange:
Slate: Of course, I was particularly interested in what you have to say about the situation of blacks in Hollywood. But also in your statements about the Holocaust. You pretty much said that any movie about the Holocaust is going to carry all the prizes.
Lee: Whoa, whoa! What I was speaking of specifically was the feature-length documentary branch of the academy. I mean, there was a time—you could do the research, I don't have the chart in front of me—but for a period of over 10 years, almost every film that won best feature-length documentary was about the Holocaust.
Slate: That is an issue, right? It's followed you throughout your career, the relationship between blacks and Jews.
Lee: It's not an issue for me.
Slate: No, it's an issue for everyone else.
Lee: I have nothing to do with that. But I remember thinking when we were nominated for 4 Little Girls and then finding out that a rabbi was a producer for the other one: We're not gonna win.
The film Lee is talking about is the documentary The Long Way Home, and while Lee did, in fact, make a moving and insightful film with 4 Little Girls, to insinuate that a primary reason The Long Way Home took home the Oscar is because a rabbi was one of the producers is not only stupid but indicative of never seeing this sweeping and beautiful film about the trials Holocaust survivors went through on their way from Eastern Europe to making new lives in Israel. That doesn't even take into account his argument that over 10 years, every best feature-length doc winner was a Holocaust film. Following our the last 10 feature documentary winners:
2004: Born Into Brothels about children of prostitutes in the ghettos of Calcutta;
2003: The Fog of War, Errol Morris's fascinating study of Lyndon Johnson's defense secretary Robert McNamara and the lessons he learned because of his actions during and before the Vietnam War;
2001: Murder on a Sunday Morning which depicts the story of a 15-year-old African-American teenager wrongfully accused of murder in Jacksonville, FL. A great film, Murder on a Sunday Morning beat out the equally remarkable Promises which, while not a Holocaust doc, focused on three years in the lives of a group of Israeli and Palestinian children growing-up within the current conflict;
2000: Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport -- OK, he got me. five years a documentary about how British families saved a bunch of Jewish children from Eastern Europe did in fact win the Oscar.
And two years before that in 1998, The Last Days did win as it told the stories of five Hungarian Holocaust survivors. And in between, 1999's One Day in September had nothing to do with the Holocaust, but was about how a bunch of Palestinian terrorists took hostage and killed members of the Israeli team at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and sure, Munich is in Germany. And then there was Spike's year of defeat, which was preceded with 1996's Anne Frank Remembered. So maybe he's not 100% off. I mean, sure ... no Holocaust documentaries won from 1990-1995, but 1996-2000 did see four of the five documentary winners be Holocaust films. But it still doesn't qualify as "almost every film" -- it doesn't even count as "the majority" -- and it's Lee's hyperbole which is so disturbing because he's obviously not a stupid guy. I also don't think Lee is even anti-Semitic, regardless of how his rhetoric sometimes sounds. For one thing, I don't understand how an anti-Semitic African-American filmmaker would regularly work so closely in his own production with Jewish people, as Lee has.
Meanwhile, my problem with this interview isn't even with Lee at all. At least not Spike Lee. If anything, I think he acquits himself relatively well while being confronted with one of the dumbest, most sycophantic collection of questions I've ever read. The only way Lee Siegel could get any further up Spike's ass is if the director was taller. And in trying to be friendly and supportive and on Lee's side, he gets stuff flat-out wrong. That excerpt above even shows this as he at first mischaracterizes Spike's argument forcing the filmmaker to start his answer with "Whoa, whoa!" That's only the first of many times Siegel makes a statement in order to lead Lee into a direction that isn't exactly where he wants to go, and Lee has to keep correcting him. For example, later in the interview:
Slate: I think you've remarked on the fact that black filmmakers like the Hughes brothers, and John Singleton, and Matty Rich all end up being pushed into the crime-action genre.
Lee: I wouldn't put Matty Rich in that category.
Slate: Well, the other guys.
Hell, would anyone put Matty Rich into any category? The guy hasn't made a film in over a decade, and he only made two as it is. And what kind of interviewing is that -- to state a premise that your subject has supposedly floated and just to lump any black filmmaker you can think of into it? Or this exchange at the end in which I think Lee's point is completely valid, but it takes a while to get there because Siegel doesn't know what the fuck he's talking about and seems to just want to prove to that he's on the filmmaker's side, even if he doesn't know what side that is:
Slate: To come back to this, I have to say, I really don't like these movies like Barbershop and Beauty Shop. I just don't. I think of what you were doing—yet you made these films possible, right?
Lee: Don't put that on me.
Slate: No, but you created an open field for black filmmakers.
Lee: Yeah, but it morphed into something else. But no, you can't put Barbershop on me.
Slate: Still, don't you find it ironic that you created the atmosphere that made these films possible, and now they're more popular than more serious movies?
Lee: I never said that those films should not be made. I just think that they shouldn't be the only type of films that are made. But I'd take Barbershop over Get Rich or Die Tryin'. In Barbershop, you're not trying to kill anybody.
Look, I'm not saying Siegel should have intentionally been antagonistic -- although Lee certainly has put himself out there enough for any interviewer or film critic to challenge and debate him on any number of subjects, social and cinematic -- but this interview was a waste of space, even for the web. It's nice that Siegel apparently wants to help Lee sell his recently released autobiography, "Spike Lee: That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It" (although the author credit reads "As told to Kaleem Aftab"), but couldn't he have saved us some time and simply said: "Director Spike Lee has a new book out. I think he's the smartest, most socially filmmaker ever. I love him. You should read his book because then you'll be a better person. Besides, I wasn't going to ask him anything interesting or not in the book already anyway, and since I don't read very carefully, I would probably misunderstand much of what he has to say. $17.13 at Amazon. Go. Now. He'll like you and won't think you're a racist."
Come on Slate. You're way better than this.