Spike Lee is sitting in the lobby of the Royalton Hotel in midtown, looking back and forth between the menu and his Louis Vuitton personal agenda, rubbing his head and trying to make some choices. He has just returned from one of many trips to New Orleans to film his documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, and he is leaving again soon for Germany, to see the final games of the World Cup (today he wears a shirt that says Brazil, the country he’s rooting for). He has to figure out when he’s going to meet with former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial, and he’s got to show up at a 9 a.m. panel tomorrow for the Black Women’s Leadership Council, and what is he going to eat?
Lee mutters his decision. “I’ll take the jumbo lump crab cakes.”
The waiter, who is about 25, black, and obviously unnerved by the fact that he’s waiting on Spike Lee, says, “What?”
“Jumbo lump crab cakes, man!” says Lee, impatient.
The waiter skitters off as if he is a crab himself.
Spike Lee is not the warmest guy in the world. He may not even be the warmest guy in the Royalton. He cares about people, but it’s unclear how much he likes them.
Things are going well for Lee, though, that much he admits. Sort of. “I’m happy, but I’m still … I mean, no one’s going—no one in their sane mind—is going to laugh or make light of the box- office success of a film like Inside Man,” Lee’s latest, which had the biggest opening of his twenty-year career. “Denzel’s biggest opening, too,” Lee is quick to add. “But coming in, I always had the thought that if this film, by some chance, became the big hit it has become, I would be able to get the financing to get this Joe Louis project going, and that still hasn’t been the case.” Which is a pisser, but then Lee did get his Katrina documentary made, all four hours of it, and that’s something.
“What was discouraging to me was, some people—it was like a revelation: I never knew we had poor people in this country,” before Katrina. “I think the United States government has done a very good job of covering up the poor so unless you really, really … You might see a homeless person, you know, on the street, but you can avoid it. You can bypass a lot of stuff,” says Lee, twisting the diamond stud in his ear. He speaks slowly, deliberately, like a professor or a certain kind of pot smoker. It’s a dispensation, not a discussion; he does not look you in the eye.
“Katrina pulled that away, all that cover, left it bare like a raw, exposed nerve,” he says, and starts to pick up a little steam. “And I don’t think we should try to slide it under the rug and act like it doesn’t exist. And I don’t think we’re ever going to get to the place where this country can … I don’t think we’ll ever achieve our true greatness.”
He is silent for a second and stares into space and then, “We’ve still not dealt with slavery!” His words come in a rush. “Black, African-American, and white Americans, we still have not dealt with slavery! When kids are in school and they’re learning about motherfucking George Washington, say the motherfucker owned slaves!” He is still sitting but bouncing, vibrating on the balls of his bright- yellow, brand-new Nikes. “Say what Christopher Columbus did! Kids are still learning in-1492-he-sailed-the-ocean-blue bullshit. George Washington could never tell the truth; he did chop down that motherfucking cherry tree. All right. Get rid of that shit and say he owned slaves. Say the first president of the United States owned slaves! Let’s stop with the lies. Let’s talk about the genocide of the Native Americans! All right, if you don’t want to talk about black and white, all right, let’s leave that aside. Let’s talk about the blankets with smallpox that were given to Native Americans. Let’s talk about the landgrab. I want to make a movie about Custer. I want to show Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull kicking ass!”
Lee’s own children attend one of the top private schools in the city, and he says it’s no better there, where they are among the very few black students in any given class. “We got to come back and go over incorrect shit they get in school all the time! My daughter, she’s like Angela Davis,” he says with pride and starts laughing. “She’s like, ‘Power to the people!’ ”