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Spike’s Big Night: A Short Story (Part 1)

May 10, 2011
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On the limousine ride to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Spike Lee felt a flux of emotions that could only be classified, much to his chagrin, as nervousness. He hadn’t felt this way since the closing ceremony of Cannes nearly a year ago, when Steven Soderbergh–that motherfucker–won the Palm d’Or for sex, lies, and videotape, stealing the prize that everyone at the film festival, including Sally Field of all people, said should have been rightfully his. As he mentally rehearsed the various possible outcomes of tonight’s Academy Awards ceremony (Do the Right Thing was up for two, including Best Original Screenplay), and as he struggled to maintain his Brooklyn-acquired cool, wondering whether or not he should lose the hat, trying to shake his ambivalence over the latest Nike/Bugs Bunny commercial he’d shot and which they were planning to broadcast during the awards show, his mind kept returning to the same inescapable thought: he wanted to win. Bad.

In the front, the limo driver was listening to Debbie Gibson’s “Lost in Your Eyes.” It had been the number one single for several weeks.

“Hey man, could you turn to another radio station?”

“Sure. You got a preference?” the driver asked.

“Whatever. Just as long as it ain’t fucking Debbie Gibson.”

He sat back and tried to relax. Tried. Los Angeles was well-known for its sunny, laid back atmosphere, but Spike always felt especially anxious when he was down here. It wasn’t just that in being here he wasn’t in New York, his home and hood. It was also that he considered L.A. to be a city of phonies, liars, and bullshit artists. New Yorkers might be uptight, pushy, and in most cases far from being laid back, but at least they’re not bullshitting you. You know where they stand, even if they happen to be standing on your neck. In L.A., so it seemed to Spike, everybody was bullshitting you, from the studio execs at Paramount to the waitresses at Mel’s Diner. Everybody had an angle, a scheme, a plot that would typically involve them becoming rich and/or famous while inevitably screwing you over in the process–but they had the nerve to want you to like them while they were screwing you over, or at least right up to the very end.

In L.A., nothing was what it seemed. It was a city as fake as most of the movies it churned out. Spike even suspected that if you got close enough to the palm trees, a ubiquitous staple of the Los Angeles landscape, you’d discover that even they weren’t real. Instead, they were just towering, two-dimensional pieces of cardboard that (in Spike’s cynical scenario) had been donated to the city by the movie studios, designed by some famous art designer and constructed by underpaid laborers in various sound stages and backlots around town. Spike thought that would be the perfect metaphor for the city. Los Angeles: where even the palm trees are fake.

They were inching their way along the 10 freeway. It was ten minutes to five. The driver had massaged the dial to an R&B station, and Jody Watley’s recent hit “Real Love” piped through the speakers. Spike immensely preferred Jody to Debbie, in so many ways, but in truth he wasn’t really listening. He looked down at himself and did a quick inspection of his ensemble: a black Sabato Russo suit. Vest, no tie. A green, red, and orange Kente scarf direct from Kenya. He didn’t have a mirror nearby, so he couldn’t see how his hat, a flattop with a wide circular brim, looked on him. However, he’d worn it often enough and was pretty adept at visualizing things in his head–he was a film director, after all–that he had a fairly good idea of the overall picture he presented: stylish but non-conformist, sophisticated but funky, born in the U.S.A. (like Springsteen) but black and proud (like James Brown).

He wasn’t concerned about impressing the fashionistas. He frankly couldn’t give a damn what Mr. Blackwell said about him. Fuck ‘m. But he knew he needed to look good. He was hardly the first black person invited to attend the Oscars (that was Hattie’s distinction), and probably not even the first black writer/director (hadn’t Gordon Parks gone one year?). But he would be the first black writer/director to attend who was also an Oscar nominee–the first one, in other words, who had a legitimate reason for being there.

Spike knew he was making history. Of course, making history wasn’t new to Spike. He’d done it when he won the student Academy Award for his NYU short Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, becoming the first black filmmaker to do so. He’d done it when his first feature She’s Gotta Have It came out, a film that helped usher in (according to the New York Times) the American independent film movement of the 1980s. And he’d done it when Do the Right Thing premiered at Cannes, and later in the United States, where it sparked a feverish mixture of adulation and outrage, prompting some critics (in particular Joel Klein at New York Magazine) to express fear that the movie would incite blacks to riot in the streets and attack white people. Those riots didn’t happen. But Do the Right Thing was the first time a film written, directed, and produced by a black filmmaker had catapulted into the national American consciousness–the first one that white people had to take seriously. Say what you wanted, whether you loved it or hated it, Spike had made history yet again.

But tonight he’d be making a different kind of history. And no matter what the outcome, whether he became the first black screenwriter to win a real Academy Award (as opposed to the student Academy Award he’d won several years earlier), or whether he lost to one of the four white screenwriters in his category (though hopefully not to Soderbergh, that motherfucker), he knew he had to represent. He was representing New York. He was representing Brooklyn. He was representing independent filmmakers (though admittedly, so was Soderbergh, as was fellow nominee and fellow New Yorker, Woody Allen). But most importantly–and the African scarf around his neck was intended to make this point crystal clear–he was representing black people. In particular black screenwriters and black directors, the ones who came before him (Oscar Micheaux, Melvin Van Peebles, Parks) and the ones who’d come after.

It was as if he’d wanted to say with his ensemble, indeed, with every fiber of his being: OK, I may not win. Y’all may give the award to your new golden white boy Soderbergh, or to Woody Allen (who, while I love the guy, is the only filmmaker I know of who can make movies about New York with no fucking black people), or to Nora Ephron or Tom Shulman–but let the record reflect I didn’t kiss ass or act like a house slave to win your approval. I didn’t try to make you forget I’m black just so I could win. I stuck to my principles. I didn’t compromise. I let you know where I stand. The palm trees in this city might be fake, but not Spike Lee. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Just the same, the thumping of his heart reminded Spike that he really wanted to win.

[Click here to read Part 2.]

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Angie Girl permalink
    May 10, 2011 9:18 am

    Wow, Im captivated. Is this all true? Can’t wait for part 2. Spike Lee behind the scenes. The man is a story unto himself.

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