Sunday, 19 October 2008


An African American icon in London, October 2008…

Spike Lee signs books at Waterstones

I wasn’t quite happy.
I wanted more time with the so called little man (he is not small at all; his size is accentuated by wit and intelligence,a strong personality, brilliant sense of humour, presence); I felt restricted.
He was actually quite modest when I approached him prior to the talk... and he said to write whatever I wanted to ask him down.
But at the meeting i felt restricted by the moderator at Waterstones….
Kwame Kwei- Armah
was a strict ( though fair) moderator, articulate, loud and clear. I was only allowed one question …because of time.
I felt restricted by one of the Waterstone’s staff who hissed:

After which I was matched out of the room. Yes, that is the world of celebrities and the famous. And a chance to see or meet people like Spike Lee is hard and rare...

The most regular question and re-occurring theme was why doesn’t Spike Lee make films about other blacks outside the USA. One chap mentioned Haiti. Another wondered if Lee would make a movie about Caribbean soldiers in the Second World War. Another inquired about Africans.

This particular one merely finished off where I wanted to continue. The industry is blooming in Nigeria and South Africa. Lee could collaborate with film makers from there.
The confident film maker had answers for all of them.
Answers that travelled in several strands.
Movie-making costs money. Who will foot the bill? (Here I wondered whether Spike Lee is a rich man or not. All these years? Can’t he produce an international film in Africa? I was questioning but there was no time for lengthy discussions). Who shall distribute the film? IT IS ALL ABOUT MONEY.
How much do we know about movie making?
He also gave hints and solutions.
The pirate industry, for instance. Meaning as long as there is a piracy and such shaky market we cannot convince the big guns of film making to invest in subzero film making. They cannot invest without using known faces of Brad Pritt, Tom Cruise, Will Smith. These guys demand huge salaries.
It is big business…
“Use the crew or gang mentality…”
Which means…
Getting together in groups and co-operating with each other. “Most new films by independent film makers are made by directors who have written their own scripts…”
That was the point he was making.
And then he rammed in the theme of the night. A theme that Kwame, the moderator had mentioned earlier, recalling the first time he had met (and heard) Spike in person back in 1988 (those days when theBrooklyn born
writer and film maker had released just released She's Gotta Have It….

Kwame said Spike Lee had advised black film makers in Britain to DO THEIR OWN THING.
And Kwame rephrased it into a political statement: “We need to self-determine, in other words be self reliant.”
(I could almost hear Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania back in the 1970’s)

Mwalimu Julius Nyerere first President of Tanzania, who died in 1999 always emphasized the self reliance and self determination that Spike Lee and Kwame Kwei-Armah are talking about.

Waterstones bookshop became a learning curve. Spike Lee was now speaking of African Americans and what they mean to the rest of the world. That everyone (especially blacks) depend and look up to them as saviours.
I agreed and disagreed at the same time.
Celebrities can play a huge role in developing other less fortunate people. This is because of their fame and recognition. Someone like Paul Simon twenty years ago, for example.
The singer-songwriter made albums with and in Africa and Brazil and they were quite controversial. A polemical project seen as exploitation. Here was a white successful artist from the richest country in the world going to poor countries, making music with them to enhance his credentials. That was one angle.
The other is the fact that the project had a positive result. A lot of musicians whose careers had dwindled like Miriam Makebawere once again in the limelight. And then there were groups that were out of the blue rocketed stardom and recognised.
Such as Olodum
from Brazil. Who did not enjoy
Obvious Child
on the Paul Simon’s album: Rhythm of the Saints ?
Soon after singer Michael Jackson recorded one of his videos
with Olodum. The director of the clip was Spike Lee.
Olodum is now one of the most known percussion bands in the world alongside mesmerising groups like the Japanese Kodo
That is the effect some of us are talking about.
It is not true that Africans have no film makers.
That we are waiting for redemption from our brothers in the Diaspora.
When Spike Lee was still a boy, the Senegalese film maker and novelist Ousmane Sembenewas already making films. Ousmane died last year. He has done so many films about the Senegalese condition as message oriented as Spike Lee’s films.
That is why I asked how does this Bronx brother research and find his scripts?
How many in the English speaking world (let alone rest of the globe know Ousmane’s films and work? How many?) Spike Lee could have collaborated with someone like Ousmane Sembene. Now …can you imagine the fire of creativity that would have erupted?

Sembene Ousmane

That is one perspective of the evening, from my point of view.
The other?
Spike Lee was a newspaper, a teacher, chronicler, narrator…

America has been the number one nation in the world solely on its use of culture. American thinking dominated the 20th century through music, hip hop, dressing and fashion, Coca cola, films, television…these things are powerful. Now America is going down. Just like the way Britain went down as a colonial power. There was an expression that Lee used, The Sun Never Sets in the Empire (“used to be expression of the British in the 19th Century”) which is no longer valid.
He reminded us.
He was also happy to say Barrack Obama is going to win. It is “historic” he said…That is why there are so many efforts to find faults in the presidential candidate.
I didn’t understand when Lee and his moderator, Kwame mentioned the “One Drop” thing in Obama’s ancestry. Is it because he is half Kenyan half American?
What did they mean exactly?
Spike Lee was in London to promote his new film and a book
The Miracle at St Anna
which he says is one of the three most difficult films he has made. The others were Malcolm X
because it was expensive… (He had to go to rich known black celebrities asking for money) and She’s Gotta to Have It… his very first commercial film in 1986.
Spike Lee at Waterstones, was much more than my words here.

There were questions some significant others totally stupid. One lady was told to do her homework because she wanted to know whether Spike makes TV documentaries. There is always a nice thing about silly questions though. The silly question made the African American reaffirm his main principles. He makes films. He loves cinema. He does not set out to make a documentary then a TV commercial or a feature film. “For me it is all moviemaking…”
Or the other lady who wondered why he wasn’t going somewhere, (I couldn’t quite hear her, but Spike and Kwame were visibly perplexed by her silly statement). Lee said he has a busy schedule; he had to make a 9 hour flight from New York. Meaning, he is a hard working guy.
Kwame wanted to know.

Kwame with admirers...

Lately Spike questionedClint Eastwoodabout lack of black soldiers in one of his latest war films. That was blown out of proportion Lee replied. All he wants is truth.
He is an outspoken guy who speaks his mind.
Lee was quiet, almost subdued.
The way he looked suddenly reminded me of the many looks I have seen in films, on the news, of people who have been tortured, betrayed, harassed, bullied, oppressed…for a long time. They have done nothing wrong.
When we were making these films, “we had to say how we felt…”
He did not, therefore, brag or that he is brave so and so.
He did not have to say that he is a tough chap, fearless artist. He is simply expressing himself, most of the time telling what Chinua Achebesaid last week, “his story.”

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