An interview with veteran filmmaker Spike Lee

Veteran filmmaker Spike Lee will release a new documentary about Colin Kaepernick this fall — and he and I will get into it in more detail — but he’s eager to discuss the newest hot topic in the cultural world: artificial intelligence.

Spike Lee, photographed by Ian Gavan. Ian Gavan/Getty Images

Sometimes, he muses, we go too far, and he warns in no uncertain terms about the dangers AI poses to the film industry and perhaps to all of us. “I’m not going to mess with it because it’s like playing God and making machines that end up doing things that we have no control over,” he tells me.

According to Lee, things also get tricky when it comes to art. How can we determine what is original and what is AI-generated? He’s not in favor of studios using AI to write scripts or television shows – something that probably won’t come as a revelation to anyone with any knowledge of his long, storied, and groundbreaking career.

For those unfamiliar with his early work, Lee debuted in the 1980s with an independent short film titled “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads”, and rose to fame with his first feature film, “She’s Gotta Have It”. which was released in 1986 and won the Youth Foreign Film Prize at Cannes that same year Fast forward through the decades, and you can still see it splashing around at Cannes, where it recently won the Creative Maker of the Year award.

Cannes Lions Festival 2023 - Day Five
Lee speaks at Debussy Theater at the ‘Creative Maker of the Year Seminar: Spike Lee’ at the Cannes Lions Festival. Photo by Richard Bord/Getty Images

Right now, Lee is preparing for the release of the aforementioned seven-part Kaepernick documentary for ESPN titled “Da Saga Of Colin Kaepernick. He’s been working on the high-profile project for a year, chronicling Kaepernick’s journey, dispelling falsehoods and emphasizing his unwavering commitment to spreading awareness of police brutality against black and brown people. Despite challenges and setbacks, Kaepernick continues to train diligently, preparing for an opportunity to showcase his skills and prove his worth on the field that may never come. This fall marks the seventh time the footballer has been denied a chance to play.

“False stories have been spread that he wants a higher salary or a guaranteed contract, but all he wants is a chance to try and prove what he can do,” Lee explains.

Whether the documentary will change minds remains to be seen, but Lee’s work, which explores social justice, identity and history, has a weight and impact that resonates long after the credits roll. “Da Saga Of Colin Kaepernick” is bound to be a deep dive into true Spike Lee style – a style largely defined by Lee’s dedication to highlighting lesser-known events or marginalized experiences.

“I don’t think many people knew about the black detective in ‘BlacKkKlansman’ or the events in ‘Da 5 Bloods’ that touched on the Vietnam War,” he tells me. “Movies have been made before that highlight unknown events or deal with important historical moments, but there are always more stories to tell.”

I ask him to talk more about depicting issues related to social justice and history in “Da 5 Bloods.” He tells me his goal was to acknowledge the lived experiences of Black Vietnam veterans by depicting in a very real way what they went through.

“The purpose of the film was to bring light, love and recognition to young black men who were brought around the world to fight and kill,” says Lee. “We wanted to talk about the unjust war, the Vietnam War and the sacrifice of our brother Muhammad Ali, who refused to participate in that unjust war. African-American soldiers suffered more deaths and injuries than white soldiers, and many who returned home were addicted to heroin.”

Da 5 Bloods (left to right): Director Spike Lee, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, and Norm Lewis.
From left to right: Lee, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters and Norm Lewis of ‘Da 5 Bloods’. David Lee/Netflix

The trajectory of Lee’s forty-year career is fascinating and will be seen in Spike Lee: Creative Resources, which will open at the Brooklyn Museum in October. Co-hosted by curator Kimberli Gant and curatorial assistant Indira A. Abiskaroon, the show brings together 300 film props, posters, paintings, musical instruments and more in thematic segments built around Lee’s films and the black culture, history, politics and experiences that inspired him.

I’m asking Lee to share a memorable moment from a career marked by memorable achievements. Looking back on his past, he tells me that “it was a lot of fun working with Michael Jackson on ‘They Don’t Really Care About Us’.”

It’s an unexpected answer. Spike Lee is someone who uses film as a tool to address important social issues – someone whose contributions to the film industry can aptly be described as profound. But who says that depth and fun can’t go hand in hand, both in the past and in the future? The filmmaker, as he himself tells me, is “not done yet.”

Spike Lee on where he's been, where he's going and the dangers of AI

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