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Get lost twice on the subway, only to get to Brooklyn and find Spike has zero time. Swamped with Diet Coke people. But he hands over his "Jointography," the video collection of his work, and points the way to the video room. It'll do.
Spike once described himself as "a black nationalist with a movie camera—and that's a dangerous thing." The first film he ever shot was dangerous—looters robbing Harlem shops the day after the July 1977 New York City blackout. "It looked like Christmas," he once said. "Everybody was leaving stores with a color TV under their arm." Fresh out of Morehouse in 1979, Spike enrolled at New York University's film school and made tuition by cleaning film at First Run Features. He nearly flunked out. "I knew going in that because I was black, I had to be 10 times better than anybody else," he says. He wasn't.
By 1982 he had one last NYU film to do, his senior thesis, and if it wasn't terrific, he could kiss Tinselworld goodbye. He made a short film called Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, and all it did was win a national student Academy Award. And still it took Spike four years to find enough financing to make his first independent film, She's Gotta Have It, and even then he was up against preposterous odds. Shot in 12 days on the streets of Brooklyn and one indoor location and featuring fewer than 10 actors, the movie was paid for nickel by nickel. "I can remember Monty [Ross, the co-producer] would run home and check the mailbox, hoping there'd be checks in there," Spike says. At one point, Spike's phone and power were turned off and his rent was overdue. Things got so tight that crew members used the deposits from their empty pop bottles to buy film.
"I'm flat broke," Spike wrote in his diary then. "STARVIN' like MARVIN. I hope I never have to go through this again, it's been killing me.... That last screening, I made a joke about selling tube socks on 14th Street. Well, it's no joke.... When I get some money I'm gonna purchase a typewriter so I can start sending out letters, and so I can type my own goddamn script.... I will, however, never quit. I was born to be a filmmaker."
You may know the rest. She's Gotta Have It, made for $175,000, grossed $8 million at the box office and became one of the alltime independent smashes. It was so good that it gave Spike room to make a critical bomb, School Daze, before he hit it big with the shining Do the Right Thing, a movie the Christian Science Monitor called the most important American film of the 1980s. Like any great artist, Spike took us places we (at least we white viewers) had never been before, like inside a ghetto that wasn't the least bit frightening and into the lives of blacks who were neither jocks nor junkies, crack-heads nor killers, pimps nor prostitutes, just people who explode when it gets too damn hot to be pressed any further. Spike told reporters that he hoped the film would wreck the 1989 reelection campaign of Mayor Ed Koch, whose confrontational style had contributed to the city's racial tensions. And it certainly didn't help Koch, who lost the Democratic primary to a black candidate, David Dinkins, now mayor. By any means necessary.
"What I like about [Spike's] movies," says Steven Soderbergh, the white director who made Sex, Lies and Videotape, "is that they're made from a totally black point of view. There's no attempt to make things clearer for whites. Which is fine. He's imploring you to learn."
Spike wants to make a sports movie—probably about college basketball—and five will get you 10 it's not going to be The Larry Bird Story. "I saw Rocky with a white audience, and it got scary," he says. "They weren't cheering for an underdog to win, they were cheering for him to beat the——out of this uppity nigger, Apollo Creed. Rocky hit a nerve. The white public was fed up with blacks dominating boxing. In Rocky, white America finally had a heavyweight champion. Which is sad, because that's the only way they're ever going to get one."
Which probably explains what happened when HBO asked Spike to produce a boxing feature on Mike Tyson. Spike focused on Tyson and his agent, Don King, and their tirades against prejudice and the white world. Boxing writers had heard King give these speeches 4,000 times before, but Spike ran them like they were war news. The film was broadcast just before Tyson gave Alex Stewart a leather facial in Atlantic City in December, and not only was the documentary longer than the fight, but it also was far more interesting.
Mike Francesa, the CBS commentator, hated the film. "Here were three black men, King, Tyson and Lee, who have risen above any disadvantages they have had," says Francesa. "But instead of telling kids, 'Hey, we did it, you can too,' they were essentially saying, 'Forget it. The system won't let it happen." Francesa writes Spike off as a fan—not a journalist but a "big-time sports groupie. He's always high-fiving Patrick [Ewing] at Knick games. That's what he's into."
But HBO vice-president Ross Greenburg, who gave Spike a free hand, says the film "changed the face of sports television. It has changed the way producers think about their presentation. Usually, they just let the gun go off and start the race. We've never taken it to the lengths Spike took it." The film won two Emmys.