"The digital revolution has brought democracy to filmmaking": Spike Lee at the Red Sea IFF

Thirty years after Lee's film 'Malcolm X' was the first ever international production to film in Mecca, the filmmaker returned to Saudi Arabia, to bring his film full circle and inspire film lovers in the Kingdom.
"The digital revolution has brought democracy to filmmaking": Spike Lee at the Red Sea IFF

Spike Lee is a legend. He's a filmmaker who never took "no" for an answer and created a cinematic movement. He is exactly the kind of icon who can inspire Arab filmmakers to create a movement here in the Region.

So when he spoke at the Red Sea IFF, and even entertained questions from the press during a morning conference, it was simply perfect.

The most important news he disclosed is that he's working on a documentary for ESPN on Colin Kaepernick, the American civil rights activist and football quarterback who stood by his beliefs and became a kind of sport pariah. The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback protested in 2016 by taking the knee, and refusing to stand during the US national anthem. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football,” Kaepernick commented at the time. Needless to say, white America didn't like that.

"For 7 years Kaepernick has not been allowed to play," Lee said, "he works out waiting for that phone call. He’s been denied his dream, even though he’s a stellar quarterback -- he took a knee to bring awareness and he was deemed a pariah." When asked if he saw any parallels with his own career, Lee denied it and said "I’ve been blessed, I’ve not gone seven years without doing a film or a documentary. What he’s done is he’s sacrificed his career. Kneeled in 2016 before George Floyd." And of course, once police held a knee to Floyd, causing his death in 2020, Kaepernick's gesture seemed prophetic. And still, no return for the star to football. "Once that happened people were kneeling across the world," Lee stated. The documentary's titled Da Saga Of Colin Kaepernick.

He talked about Malcolm X, the film starring Denzel Washington, whom Lee called "one of the greatest actors ever." He also admitted that "It was imperative that we film Malcolm’s Hajj We were the first film ever allowed to bring cameras into the Holy City of Mecca. We hired a Muslim camera crew," to shoot the b-roll to make the film feel authentic. And then, he said "Yesterday's screening marked the first time it was shown on the movie screen in Saudi -- we came full circle."

Could Lee imagine living in a country with no cinemas, as Saudi was from the early 80's until 2018? "I wouldn’t be a filmmaker," Lee admitted, "My mother loved movies and I was the eldest so I was my mother’s movie date."

Has the Brooklyn based filmmaker ever thought about making a film in an Arab country, or in a foreign language? "I can barely speaking English," Lee joked, "I speak fluent Brooklynese. There are many things I’d like to do but to come into a culture you’re not familiar is dangerous territory. I’ve seen that with many who have made films about Black people -- I wouldn’t make a film about any subject matter if I’m not familiar about it."

Addressing the discrepancy of big budgeted films helmed by Black filmmakers Lee said, "there was a false narrative in Hollywood that Black films made in the USA did not travel. But my brother Ryan [Coogler, of Black Panther] has changed that and blew that false narrative out of the water. Studios cannot say that anymore, that Black narratives don’t work around the world."

Lee also teaches filmmaking and was asked what is the most important lesson for wannabe creatives. "Before I talk about shots and stories I try to install in them, you have to have a passion, a drive and dedicate your life to this." He continued with a very important insight "you won’t get a job directing because you have a degree. We want to see a film to see what you can do. This digital revolution has changed everything and brought a great democracy to filmmaking people are making films on their phones and editing on their laptop."

The democracy he means is that "you don't have to have a whole lot of money to make a film, that’s revolutionary," the filmmaker pointed out.

Back in the day, Lee was one of the first to bring up cultural appropriation, not calling it by its PC moniker then though. He criticized filmmaker like Steven Spielberg who made films like The Color Purple and Amistad. But these days, Lee's impression of Spielberg has changed and that is the sign of a great man -- his ability to change his opinion by looking at all sides of the story.

I’ve gotten friendly with Spielberg recently," Lee said, and continued that it's great to have "friends with whom you can exchange thoughts" going on to call himk one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. Lee was on Spielberg's set for West Side Story and watched him shoot the song dance sequence 'America'. It was "amazing to see a master at work," he admitted.

What is cinema to Lee, finally? "Cinema, it’s what I love to do and that’s why I say I’m blessed because on this god’s earth if you can make a living doing what you love to do you are blessed."

Photo by Getty Images, courtesy of the Red Sea IFF, used with permission.

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