The Spike conspiracy

His latest film has enraged lesbians, but Spike Lee is used to causing a stir. He talks about George W. Bush, male sexual fantasy and how nothing in life is quite as it seems.

Published September 17, 2004 1:54PM (EDT)

Never was a man so aptly nicknamed. (Spike Lee was christened Shelton). He's in typically spiky form, licking his lips as he makes each point. "I hope people in the audience connect David Kelly to the film because he was a whistleblower." Typically, Lee customizes the reference for the British. Lee's political education extends way beyond America, and he is something of an Anglophile. He supports Arsenal when he comes to London, and throws the word "bollocks" around with lavish abandon.

"I don't believe he committed suicide," he says. "I don't think he would tell his wife, 'Oh, I'm going for a walk in the park.' I mean if you want to commit suicide, he'd just go in the bathroom and slit his wrists or go in the garage and blow his brains out, you know. Somebody wanted him dead."

Has Lee always been a conspiracy theorist? He looks round the room, with a conspiratorial grin, and starts talking extremely loudly as if to double bluff any potential eavesdroppers. "Well I mean I was talking to friends ... Hahahaha! Just joking. But it's as plain as day he did not commit suicide." Which, of course, takes us on to weapons of mass destruction, and the Tony Blair-George Bush relationship, and another conspiracy. "A lot of people are scratching their heads -- like what does Bush have on Blair and what does Blair have on Bush. Well " Silence.

"She Hate Me" is not only a satire on the greed of companies such as Tyco, Enron and Adelphia, it is also a satire on Bushism itself: The opening credits show $3 bills with Bush's face on them and a fake political advertisement against affirmative action. "I think the election coming up is gonna be the most important election in the history of the United States of America, cos God save us all " He trails off in despair. "God save the world if Bush is reelected. Heaven help us. Wooooh!"

To say the new movie is about corporate corruption and Bushism barely begins to tell the story. "She Hate Me" is, in effect, two films: a political thriller and a sex comedy. The jobless and broke protagonist Jack Armstrong accepts a financial offer from his former fiancée, now a lesbian, to impregnate her and her girlfriend. From there, he goes on to father 19 children with lesbians. "She Hate Me" is messy, sprawling, ridiculous and entertaining. It's a strange mix of the liberal (accepting of lesbians mums) and reactionary (ultimately, none of the lesbians can resist Armstrong's priapic charm). It's both sexually explicit and childlike -- soft porn brought to you by Walt Disney.

Not surprisingly, Lee has now been attacked by lesbian groups for "She Hate Me" -- after all, this is a movie in which one guy ends up doing the do with 19 gorgeous lipstick lesbians, and finally settles down to domestic life with a couple of them.

So Spike, I say, isn't this the ultimate male-fantasy film? He looks at me, all wide-eyed innocence. "It is not a male fantasy. I say that for this reason. It might be a male fantasy to sleep with two lesbians; it's definitely not a male fantasy to marry two lesbians. So that's where the fantasy ended," he laughs, happily digging himself into ever deeper trouble. "We knew going in that it would be impossible to make a film that all lesbians are going to love. But the lesbian population is not monolithic. You're going to get people who are open to the film; then you are going to get your hard-liners who feel that any self-respecting lesbian can't be a lesbian if there is a penis in the equation."

Perhaps it's not so much the penis, I say, it's the thing attached to it. "Well, you may have to do your own poll to supplement this article."

The criticism of the film is perfectly valid -- it is an outlandish portrait of lesbians for the lads. But it's also missing the point somewhat. "She Hate Me" is a comedy, not a political treatise. Yet, as in the past, Lee is expected to represent "the black experience," or "the lesbian experience." When he talks about homosexuality he does so with a great deal more insight than shown in the movie.

I ask him whether he could have made this film 10 years ago. "No, because I don't think I was evolved as far as homosexuality." In what way? "Well you just evolve, you grow. If you'd asked me 15 years ago, 'Spike, do you think men should be able to marry each other? Do you think women should be able to marry each other?' I would say I don't know. Today I say I'm cool with it."

But isn't there still a massive problem with homophobia in the African-American community? "Well, it's not just black men, but I will say that black men are probably more homophobic than other groups of people. I mean, there is a big stigma in the African-American community for homosexuals. Big, big, big, big, big."

Is that changing? "No. There's a new phenomenon in America that's called 'on the down low.' This is men who have unprotected sex with other men, then have unprotected sex with their wives and girlfriends, and their wives and girlfriends don't know they are engaging in unprotected sex with men. That's why African-American women are the group most at risk of contracting HIV. These men don't think they're gay. My reasoning is that the stigma of being a homosexual is so great in the African-American community that these men have convinced themselves they are straight. And they are homophobic too. Anything effeminate, they'll be the first one to call anybody a faggot or a punk, and they will swear on a stack of Bibles and look Jesus in the eye and say they are not gay. And that's a very serious problem."

Lee emerged in the mid-1980s with "She's Gotta Have It," a tender, sexy black-and-white no-budget movie about one girl and her boyfriends. There followed a series of brilliant films including "Jungle Fever," "Clockers" and, most notably, "Do the Right Thing." He also managed to make a mainstream movie about the militant Malcolm X, a poignant drama out of the Million Man March ("Get on the Bus") and the devastating documentary, "4 Little Girls," about the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala.

"Do the Right Thing" portrayed the simmering racial conflict of late 1980s New York, and in doing so defined a generation. Incredibly, Lee was accused of acting irresponsibly and inciting people to riot when the character Mookie, played by Lee himself, threw a dustbin through the window of the pizzeria where he worked. And this in a Hollywood where epic gratuitous violence is a staple.

But in a way perhaps it wasn't so incredible. After all, Lee has been accused of a number of things through his career, many of them contradictory or simply daft: of being a racist and black separatist (for making films about black people), of not being working class, of coming from a privileged background, of being a lefty, of being a capitalist with a clothing and advertising company. At times, there seems to be one set of rules for filmmakers and another for Spike Lee. He nods. "Well. sometimes they do seem to put up higher standards for me that don't apply to other filmmakers." Does it still happen? "Not to the same degree, but it's still there."

Perhaps Lee's politics caused such confusion for British people because they didn't fit into neat left-right pockets. Anyway, he says, he never advocated economic separatism. "That was ballocks," he says relishing the word but rounding it off too sweetly. No, I say, it's an "o" and you have to give it a harder, flatter sound at the end. He giggles. "Bollox," he says. Well done, I say.

"Well, here's the thing: I never saw a division between being politically active and making money. In the U.S. we live under the capitalistic system and I do think there's a way to make an honest living without being responsible for people's ill will or death. I mean, 'How dare you do a commercial, how dare you do a film like "Do the Right Thing" and then do a commercial, I mean '" And he tumbles to a stop, lost for words. He leans into the microphone and almost burps the word "bollocks" into it. Now he's got the giggles. "Ballux," he says again. "I only use bollocks when I'm over here."

I ask Lee if he has changed politically over the years. "I think I've become more astute, more aware. I'm trying to stop doing knee-jerk reactionary stuff and trying to study a little bit more and deliberate more before I open my mouth."

Can he give an example of his knee-jerkism? "Before I had children I said I would never take my kids to see a Disney movie, and that's one of the most ignorant statements I've ever made because if you have children you'd definitely take them -- you have no other choice."

Which leads us back to his favorite topics: movies and conspiracies. He talks about the filmmakers he loves most -- Kurosawa, Fellini, Coppola, Scorsese, Stone, early Truffaut and Godard. Ah, Jean Seberg, I say, wasn't she wonderful in "A Bout de Souffle," and how tragic that she killed herself. He gives me a look and shakes his head. "Jean Seberg, she hung out with the Black Panthers, you know. I think the FBI had something to do with her death because she was a Black Panther sympathizer."

By Simon Hattenstone

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