‘I don’t think of myself as the conscience of Hollywood’ … Lee. Photograph: Christopher Lane for the Guardian
Twenty-five years after the LA riots, Spike Lee has made a film about Rodney King, whose beating by the police triggered the uprising. Does he think things have improved in the US? ‘Race is always going to be an issue in this country’
Spike Lee can’t recall the first time he saw the grainy video of Rodney King being beaten by LAPD officers in March 1991. Those shaky, now infamous images shot by then 31-year-old plumber George Holliday reverberated first around the United States, and then the world – setting off a chain of events that culminated in an acquittal for the officers involved and five days of protest, violence and looting during which 53 people died. “I don’t remember,” Lee says, “but we used the footage in the opening to Malcolm X.”
Lee set it against audio of Denzel Washington delivering the searing Malcolm X speech I Charge The White Man in the opening credits to his 1992 biopic to draw a clear line between the racism of the US that Malcom X was rallying against, and that of present day America.
“There’s a very powerful photograph by Stanley Forman, it won the Pulitzer prize,” he adds. “It’s of a black man being stabbed with the American flag – I had the same reaction to the Rodney King footage as when I saw that. The reaction was the same around the world, people were appalled – and appalled even more when that jury let those guys walk. Consequently, you had a – I’m not going to say ‘riot’ – let me say uprising.”
Riot, uprising, wakeup call: whatever you call the events of late April and early May 1992, there has been a serious effort to reevaluate what happened 25 years ago. Five major TV documentaries about the Rodney King verdict and the subsequent unrest have been made. Film-makers including John Ridley, hip-hop journalist turned documentary-maker Sacha Jenkins and LA’s most famous portrayer of African-American life, John Singleton, have all delivered passion projects. Lee has directed a film for Netflix called, simply, Rodney King, that adapts Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man play about the man who became synonymous with the US’s race and policing problems in the 90s. It’s a deeply researched, bravura performance from Smith, who takes King’s story from his youth in Altadena and life before the beating, to the troubled years leading to his premature death in 2012 at the age of 47 when he drowned in his swimming pool. For Lee, it adds much-needed nuance to a story that is often portrayed in black-and-white terms.
“I think we live in a society that puts labels on people,” Lee tells me across the table at the Chateau Marmont. “Labels can be used to demonise and belittle people, and it’s very lazy,” he says. His film starts with Smith mimicking those who called King an Uncle Tom for his “Can’t we all just get along” comments at the height of the riots. “This show says: ‘Wait a minute, there’s another side, this was a human being.’ He had a mother, he had a father.”
There are moments in the film that seem to draw parallels between King and other black men who have suffered at the hands of the police in the US. In one segment, Smith recounts the advice King received to not testify at his own trial because the appearance of a 6ft 2in black man discussing brutality at the hands of the police might not play well. We have since witnessed the testimony of Darren Wilson, who shot dead the black teenager Michael Brown and described the 18-year-old as being “like a demon”; does Lee think the American psyche is conditioned to view black men as inherently dangerous?
“You know the answer to that,” he says, before pausing. “Just look at the fact that black men are still viewed as predators. That has not changed since Rodney King. Race is always going to be an issue in this country, and a lot of times people don’t want to deal with it and it bubbles underneath the surface, and every few years there’s a spark and it comes to the forefront.”
The film is a departure from Lee’s usual approach to documenting seismic moments in African-American history, many of which he has chronicled in more straightforward documentary formats. His 4 Little Girls focused on the fatal church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, which killed four African-American children, and When the Levees Broke detailed the events of Hurricane Katrina in a four-part mini-series for HBO. Does he feel a duty to bear witness to these events? “It depends on the subject matter,” he says. “I don’t have the feeling: ‘I have to do this, this and this.’ For this film, it was my job to help put the camera in the right place so it’s still respectful of the play.”
Still, Lee is seen as a crucial voice of dissent for black America. Rev Michael L Pfleger, the Chicagoan preacher who inspired the John Cusack character in Lee’s Chi-raq, recently described him as the “conscience of Hollywood”. It’s not something that sits well with the director, though. “I didn’t tell him to say that,” he says. “I’m just trying to do my work, I’ve been in the game for 30 years. I don’t think I have this weight on me: ‘Oh, I’m the conscience of Hollywood.’ I don’t really think of myself like that at all.”
Nonetheless, Lee became one of the figures at the forefront of the #oscarssowhite pressure campaign and the Oscars boycott in 2016, after the second consecutive year in which none of the acting categories contained people of colour. After this year’s event, which was a historic night for black actors, does he feel the tide has turned? “Next year, it’s not inconceivable that no black people will be nominated again,” he says. So, no then? “It’s a wait-and-see situation. I’m very happy, but I want to see it sustain itself and not be like a Wall Street chart that goes up and down.”
For Lee, the problem, which he has been outlining since the 90s, is a structural one where not enough diversity exists in the upper echelons of studios and networks that green-light and sense-check ideas. “Every 10 years there’s a golden age and then there’s a drought,” he says. “So I’m not going to do any somersaults yet. I’m happy about it, but I’m not drinking the Koolaid.” To Lee, the recent Pepsi advert, which featured Kendall Jenner handing a can of cola to a police officer at a protest, signals just how far there is left to go. “There was nobody of colour in that group to say: ‘You know what, this might not be a good idea. To appropriate black lives matter and we’re going to change the world by handing a soda can to a policeman?’ I’m telling you, nobody of colour was in the room when someone said: ‘This is a great idea.’ It got made. Somebody must have thought it was a great idea. Now nobody is claiming it. It made itself. A multi-million dollar commercial appeared out of nowhere.”
Race remains central to Lee’s work, because it remains central to the politics of how we live. “My brother,” he says, “there’s this myth that there’s no racism in the UK. People are just a bit more undercover with it. Plus, you also hide behind – in my opinion – you use the class system as like a cover for that too.” The recent outcry over John Ridley’s casting of Guerrilla, the 70s-based drama about the British Black Panthers, which features no black women in lead roles despite their centrality to the movement, is a case in point. He has not seen the series, but says the anger around the casting plays into the larger issue of whitewashing. “People want authentic representations of historical characters,” he says. “People want to see their people and their history reflected as it was and stop lying and stop changing history. To me, let’s be about the truth, everybody: let’s be about the truth.”
Rodney King is on Netflix from 28 April
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