Spike Lee is at Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea International Film Festival in the port city of Jeddah this weekend to present a screening of his Oscar-nominated 1992 epic biopic Malcolm X and participate in an In-Conversation event.
The whirlwind trip coincides with the 30th anniversary of the film, which was the first fiction feature to shoot in Mecca, using a Muslim crew to shoot a B-roll for scenes in which the human rights activist makes the Haj pilgrimage to the holy site.
“It was imperative that we shoot, that we film Malcolm’s Haj so we were the first film ever allowed to bring a camera in the old city of Mecca. I couldn’t go. We hired a Muslim crew. The highest law court they didn’t do that for me, they realized how important Malcolm was to Islam,” he said.
“We had a screening yesterday. That is the first time Malcolm X has ever been screened in the country on a movie screen. We’ve come full circle.”
Asked if he would be interested in coming to shoot in the Arab world or film another language, Lee batted back the idea.
“I can barely speak English. I speak fluent Brooklynese. There are so many things I want to do but to come into a culture you don’t know is dangerous territory. I’ve seen that in many attempts to make films about Black people,” he said.
“I am not going to do a film about a subject matter I don’t know. You cannot rely on other people to tell your story that is basic 1O1.”
He added later in the press conference: “I’ve never ever said it saying it can’t be done, BUT, I think there have been more examples than not where the culture was appropriated, or the story was twisted and told from the viewpoint of the dominant culture.”
Lee said he was focused on finishing his EPSN-backed “multi-series documentary” entitled The Saga Of Colin Kaepernick, about the American civil rights activist and American football quarterback who has been ostracized by the National Football League since 2016, for taking the knee before matches.
We’ve been shooting for over a year,” he said. “He hasn’t played. People use the term ‘black-balled’ but turn it around, he has been ‘white-balled’. This is the seventh year that Colin has not been allowed. There are 32 teams in the National Football League, each of them with at least two quarterbacks, but still, no team has signed him.”
“He works out six days a week, waiting for that phone call, because he took a knee to bring notice to the murder that was happening to black and brown people in America he was deemed a pariah.”
Questioned on whether he felt parallels between his own trajectory and that of Kaepernick, Lee said there was “no comparison”.
“I have been blessed. I have not gone seven years without doing a film or a documentary. What he has done is sacrifice his career because he said we must bring attention,” said Lee.
“He kneeled in 2016, so before George Floyd. People were kneeling all across the world with the murder of George Floyd for those eight minutes plus a racist cop had a knee applied to George Floyd’s neck.”
Lee seemed to suggest, however, that he did sometimes feel “tastes” were against him on the awards and festival circuit when quizzed about whether accolades or audience response was most important to him.
“This award stuff is very, very tricky. The thing I love about sports is that when two teams are playing, it’s about who gets the most points wins. When it comes to art, the Oscars, the Grammys, it comes down to taste and the Oscars and the Grammys have a history of lesser works winning but you go into that knowing that is the game,” he said.
“For me, it started early in Cannes, where my good friend Steven Soderberg, we’re cool, we’re good friends, you know – Sex, Lies And Video Tapes won over Do The Right Thing. Or most recently, Green Book over BlaKkKlansmann, but you know going in what the deal is and you just gotta keep moving.
Lee also talked about his love of soccer, expressing disappointment over America’s Qatar World Cup defeat against the Netherlands in a match on Saturday evening.
The director said he would not be rooting for Brazil, but revealed he had also hoped Cameroon, which was also knocked out on Friday on points, despite beating Brazil in their match, would go through.
“I desperately wanted Cameroon to win and here’s the reason. Many of you here have the privilege of knowing your lineage going centuries back,” he said.
“My ancestors were stolen from Africa but with technology, afro-Americans can know our ancestry. It’s amazing. a Q-tip. On my mothers’ side, the ancestors are from a region now known as Sierra Leone. On my father’s side, my ancestors are from Cameroon.”
“Jokes aside, it was one of the most exhilarating feelings when it came back in the post,” he said, before launching into a more incendiary reflection on the origins of the U.S..
“You got to write this down, the foundation of the United States is stealing land from the Native people and the genocide of the land, and my bringing my ancestors from Africa to work the land that was stolen… that is what the foundation of United States of America, that’s what this motherfucker is built on.”
While on the topic, Lee also brought up the news on Saturday that Brazilian soccer legend Pelé, who diagnosed with colon cancer last year, had entered a palliative care unit over the weekend and was receiving end-stage of life care.
“I liked to say a blessing to Pelé who is very ill… We should all say our prayers before we lay our heads down,” he said.