Spike Lee attended the first-ever public screening in Saudi Arabia of “Malcolm X” on Saturday during the Red Sea Film Festival. The film shot key scenes in Mecca, over 30 years ago, but has never been screened in the kingdom, due to the 35-year ban on cinemas that only ended in 2018.
On Sunday, at a press conference, Lee gave his take on filmmaking, while often referencing the Soccer World Cup, currently underway in neighboring Qatar. “Everything for me is about sports,” he quipped.
He added that in addition to rooting for the recently-eliminated U.S. team in the World Cup, he “desperately wanted Cameroon to win,” because of his family roots, since his father’s family side is from Cameroon, and his mother’s side from Sierra Leone – “My ancestors were stolen from Africa. They weren’t slaves. They were enslaved.”
He explained why it was so important to film Malcolm X’s participation in the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. “We made the first film that was ever allowed to bring a camera into the holy city of Mecca during Hajj. Of course, I hired a full Muslim camera crew. The highest Islamic court didn’t agree to this because of me, but because they realized how important Malcolm X was for Islam. We were blessed. Yesterday we came full circle.”
Lee said that now finally having the chance to visit Saudi Arabia and meet young filmmakers is a very emotional experience. “[Director and cinematographer] Ernest Dickerson was my classmate at NYU, along with Ang Lee. We were all in the same class. Ernest shot all my films up until our final collaboration, on ‘Malcolm X.’ We wanted it to be an epic film, like David Lean’s ‘Doctor Zhivago’ or ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ We knew by hook or crook that we had to shoot Malcolm X’s hajj, where he broke into true Islam. It added so much spirituality to the film.
“In his autobiography he wrote about being with fellow Muslims ‘whose eyes were the bluest of blue.’ That’s when he came to the realization that some of his previous thoughts about Islam were false.
“There’s no other way we could have shot those scenes in Mecca. You cannot fake those huge crowds. No budget could achieve that. It’s amazing. It gave the film that special feel we needed.”
The helmer added that his friendship with Oliver Stone, who is currently presiding the jury at the Red Sea Film Festival, helped him in his struggle with Warner Bros.’ Robert Daly and Terry Semel, who asked him to cut his original four-hour rough cut down to two hours. He called Stone who said that “JFK” was three hours long, and used that to defend a three-hour cut for “Malcolm X.”
But he nonetheless praised the WB execs’ commitment to the pic: “The first time we screened the film on the Warner Bros. lot was the day of the Rodney King verdict, and the ensuing uprising in L.A. To their credit while whole neighborhoods of L.A. were burning down, they stayed throughout the whole four-hour screening.”
Asked whether it is important to support the burgeoning Saudi film industry he said: “Absolutely. You can’t rely on others to tell your stories. That’s basic 101. Early in my career lots of people told me black films don’t work. They said there couldn’t be a black superhero. They said that black films couldn’t travel. There was a false narrative. Well, my brother Ryan Coogler has changed that. ‘Black Panther’ blew it out of the water.”
His advice to young filmmakers in general is that “you have to bust your ass filmmaking. It’s one of the hardest businesses to be in. Everyone I have worked with has a strong work ethic. Miles Davis, Michael Jackson, Prince, Michael Jordan, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin are all artists with a tremendous work ethic.”
He also emphasized the importance of putting together a team – “Who are your folks? You have to have that gang mentality” – and how other filmmakers have helped his career, such as Martin Scorsese who he met while at NYU. He added that he recently spent seven days with Steven Spielberg on the set of “West Side Story.” “I was just amazed by the scale of the shoot. It was amazing to see a master at work.”
Lee said that he was in Brazil three weeks ago during the presidential election, in which Lula defeated the right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro. “I was very happy with the result in Brazil. It’s troubling to see what is happening in Russia. What happened with the Jan. 6 insurrection. With ‘Agent Orange,’ who is now running again. This right-wing thing is happening globally. The U.S. just banned abortion. Crazy stuff is happening.”
He also talked about the dangers of cancel culture. “Art has changed the word for good and bad. It depends on the artist. But lots of artists today are condemned for their work. We need to separate the art from the artists. I mean, look at the German filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl. If you look at ‘Triumph of the Will’ it’s great filmmaking. Look at the end of ‘Star Wars’ – that’s where George Lucas got it from. “
The helmer then talked about his current docu series about how former San Francisco 49ers quarterback and civil rights activist, Colin Kaepernick, was effectively canceled in 2016 after he began kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice.
“They say he’s been blackballed. But we say he’s been whiteballed. He still works out six days a week just waiting for that phone call to return to the NFL. He took the knee to bring awareness to the murder of black and brown people in the U.S.A., and was deemed a pariah.”
Asked whether he has ever suffered anything similar in his career, Lee said no. “There’s no comparison with me. I’ve been blessed.”
“[Kaepernick] has sacrificed his career because he said we must bring attention to racial injustice. He took the knee in 2016. This was four years before the murder of George Floyd. People were kneeling around the world after his murder. After those eight minutes in which that racist crop had his knee applied to George Floyd’s neck and murdered him. Many teams around the world, like England, now take the knee. But Colin Kaepernick is still out of work.”