American filmmaker Spike Lee poses outside the Varsity Cinemas. Not pictured: his Air Jordans.
“Keep it moving” seems to be Spike Lee’s motto. He repeated it several times during a conversation with Canadian filmmaker Clement Virgo (Rude, Lie with Me), held last night at the Varsity Cinemas (a Canadian Film Centre and TD Canada Trust joint event in anticipation of Black History Month). Lee’s dictum seems to speak to a desire to not dwell on the past, to not agonize over what’s done. Odd then, that he’d elect to spend almost two hours talking about his career.
Cinema 8 at the Varsity was chock-full of paying fans, CFC students, and a handful of special guests (anyone who knew going in who Clement Virgo was probably spied Canadian filmmaker and CFC grad Ingrid Veninger sitting near the front). Doubtless, Lee is one of the most prominent American filmmakers—and easily the most prominent black American filmmaker—of the past twenty or thirty years. But he’s not much for conversation.
There was a bloated sense of discomfort hanging between Virgo and Lee. It probably had something to do with Virgo fawning a bit fanboyishly about having to play host to an obvious influence—early into the evening, he noted that when he was nineteen, he saw She’s Gotta Have It fives time at the Cumberland Cinema. He also tended to repeatedly call everything Lee has done “beautiful.” (And Rude rather blatantly ripped off one of the structuring conceits of Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which Virgo himself tactically fessed to.) But it also seemed like Lee didn’t really want to be there. With a few all-too-rare exceptions, every time he opened his mouth you’d be forgiven for mistaking his canned responses—”Technology has changed everything”; “We use [music] to help tell a story”; etc.—for the sound of a cheque being cashed.
Spike Lee, looking about as sombre and reserved as you’d expect.
It wasn’t a total wash though.
The focus of the conversation was Lee’s use of music in his films, an evocative and interesting subject. Virgo asked about Lee’s working relationship with his father, bassist Bill Lee, who recorded the original scores for all of Spike’s feature films up until 1990’s Mo’ Better Blues. They also talked about the anthemic quality of Public Enemy’s music. (“Do the Right Thing without ‘Fight the Power’ is a different movie,” Lee accurately noted.) They also discussed the famous dance scene, set to Experience Unlimited’s “Da Butt,” in School Daze. And during the brief question and answer period, someone in the audience tried to goad Lee into mocking Tyler Perry. (Lee referring to Gordon Lightfoot as “your homeboy”—meaning Canada’s collective homeboy—was another highlight.)
If anything, the evening was more than worthwhile for its anecdotal fodder. Turns out Lee does a pretty good impression of Michael Jackson. And a pretty lousy Martin Scorsese. He also told the story of how he convinced Toronto filmmaker (and, incidentally, CFC founder) Norman Jewison to cede directorial control of Malcolm X. According to Lee, though he greatly admired Jewison’s work, he felt convinced that he himself had to direct the film. “No matter how sensitive a white director may be,” explained Lee, “They’ll never know how it feels to be a black man in America.” This is probably doubly true for a white Canadian man.
Lee and Canadian filmmaker Clement Virgo pose on the makeshift red carpet.
The intermittent awkwardness and lack of rapport between the two filmmakers, compounded by problems with Virgo’s mic, didn’t permanently hamper the evening. Though Lee seemed a bit reticent when reminiscing about the making of his films, and tended to deploy a lot of broad platitudes in his responses, the evening did speak to what an enthusiastic and receptive audience his films have nurtured over the past quarter century. And even if Spike Lee would prefer to “keep it moving,” his recent stop in town provides the perfect opportunity to reflect on his expansive filmography: on its music, its social and satirical thrusts, and its exploration of the various shades of blackness and racial difference.
And while you’re at it, check out Clement Virgo’s Rude.
Photos by Nancy Paiva/Torontoist