Spike Lee

Dennis Harvey May 3, 2007

When a then-unknown Spike Lee premiered his debut feature “She’s Gotta Have It” at the SF International in 1986, there was an instance of filmus interruptus. Not only did the projector stop, there was a general power outage of 45 minutes that the novice director filled by taking a flashlight and talking to the audience — which was already taken with his on-screen character as one of three suitors to an indecisive heroine — until the crisis was over. He, and movie, got an ovation despite the hiccup.

Twenty-one years later, both Lee and SFIFF were turning 50, so it must have seemed a good time for a reunion. Last night he joined the ranks of Robert Altman, Clint Eastwood, Abbas Kiarostami, Satayajit Ray, and Akira Kurosawa — one of Lee’s own personal favorites — in accepting the SF Fest’s Film Society Directing Award. It’s a lifetime-achievement kinda thing … though Spike has cranked out so many narrative features, documentaries, music videos, and more since “Gotta” that one can only assume he’s got a lot of life and achievement still ahead of him.

Calling him “a true cultural hero,” SFFS Executive Director Graham Leggat said “no American filmmaker over the last 25 years has … done so much around questions of race, class and gender.”

The ensuing clip reel bore that out, as scenes from “Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X,” “Clockers,” the documentary “4 Little Girls,” “25th Hour,” last year’s “Inside Man,” and others revealed the humor, style, thematic provocation and sheer verve of his output to date. Citing his penchant for penetrating cultural critiques, on-stage interviewer Wesley Morris (a former SF-based reviewer now at The Boston Globe) called Lee “kinda like our American cinematic attack dog.” The helmer was bemused.

Perhaps jet-lagged, Lee, at moments, seemed at less than full attention, but did deliver some intriguing pronouncements. His sheer presence was enough to inspire many in the Castro Theatre audience. Asked whether marriage and parenthood had changed his films, he admitted, “You could definitely make a correlation with the women in my films before and after I got married. My wife Tanya, she’s the first to read the scripts — and she’s tough.” On frequent star Denzel Washington: “When we’re working (together) we don’t really talk that much. It’s telepathy.” On “gangsta” culture: “I am not a fan. This whole infatuation with being a gangster … 50 Cent has done a great disservice with his message ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’,’ which my brothers took to heart …. Snoop Dogg, the “world’s most lovable pimp,” going on the MTV Awards with two women on dog leashes…..Coonery and buffoonery. Modern-day minstrels. I’m not happy about it. ‘Bamboozled’ was my commentary about that.”

On hiring new actors (he famously uses many of the same personnel over again): Lee says he often calls directors a performer has worked with before to get the dirt on their professionalism or lack thereof. “Directors do not lie to each other. Because you don’t want someone else to go through what you went through.” So watch out, you potential divas and showboaters.

Working on 1997’s “4 Little Girls,” his searing documentary about a 1963 Birmingham black church bombing (which killed four 11-to-14-year-old girls) Lee “never thought George Wallace would agree to an interview.” Yet the late segregationist politician “knew the end was near and wanted to make right with the Most High. But it was too late. The man did a lot of damage (in) his actions as governor of Alabama. That’s his legacy.” Asked by one among many worshipful Castro attendees what advice he’d give young aspiring filmmakers wanting to explore race, culture, politics and more while facing the challenges of art and finance, Lee was bluntly pragmatic.

“Be the best filmmaker you can be. That’s my advice. Your stuff needs to be tight. Know how to tell a story. Filmmaking is hard.”