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"Sit, Wagner!"

In an interview with Katja Nicodemus Spike Lee talks about American cluelessness, the culture clash in New York and his new film "Inside Man"

Katja Nicodemus: Do you know that you're considered, of all the directors in the world, the one with the worst mood?

Spike Lee: Oh yeah? Why? Who says that?

Pretty much every journalist that's ever met you.

I think that's a stupid cliche. In the American press, I'm often referred to as an "angry black man." It's true that a lot of things have made me furious and still do. But that shouldn't be confused with a bad mood. Plus which, I no longer get excited about everything.

Your new film "Inside Man" is one of the most laid back you've ever made. And full of ironic sidekicks.

Although it's a thriller.

That's largely due to Denzel Washington, who has an unshakable sense of honour as Detective Frazier. Whether it's a bank robbery or every day racism, he has a quip for everything.

Humour is also his weapon. For example, when he stands opposite the arrogant white banker that's played by Jodie Foster, he simply says, "You can kiss my black ass."

"Inside Man" is about all the old and new forms of racism. Yet again, you tackle the idea of the American melting pot.

I've never believed in that melting pot shit. You have to be white for that.

Either way, the melting pot doesn't seem to have functioned as a national fiction or metaphor since 9/11.

First there was just the shock for everyone. In my film "25th Hour," there's a shot where suddenly the view from an apartment is of Ground Zero. That's exactly how we felt. We just stared in shock at this unbelievable hole in the city. In "Inside Man," I show how life has changed in New York since 2001.

Your film begins with a multicultural tableau in a bank lobby. We see blacks and whites, Asians, Hispanics, Italians, a Sikh and a Rabbi...

New York is the most culturally and ethnically varied city in the world. Even here, in the streets next to Park Avenue, there are little Jewish, Italian, Hispanic and Black shops. That's what made New York great. That's what that shot is about.

But it also seems like an invocation of something that your film doesn't believe in. The bank robbers are going to force these people to put on black plastic bags. The police are not going to be able to distinguish between hostage takers and hostages. The American paranoia, torture, Guantanamo, that's all there in those pictures.

You can show New York post 9/11 without screaming it in every scene. I love this city, I've always been proud of its cosmopolitanism. Still, I can denounce its intolerance, its ethnic and social inequalities, which have gotten even more acute.

One of the hostages set free is a Sikh in a turban. When the policeman tears off his black hood, he screams "It’s a fuckin’ Arab." Is this confusion a product of nervousness or ignorance?

Sikh or Muslim, it's all the same. Of course the New York police don't know the difference. 99 percent of Americans don't know the difference. They call them "Scarf-heads". People who wear turbans are the brothers of bin Laden. Taliban, al-Qaida, that's associated automatically. I asked the actor playing the Sikh to improvise in his interrogation scene. I said to him, "Think how it is since 9/11 when you go to the airport." And he talked about the annoyances, the random controls that he's always subject to.

Christopher Plummer, Jodie Foster

Is the "culture clash" a phenomenon that surprised you?

Yes and no. I've been making films about racist and ethnic tension for thirty years. What surprised me was how fast and extensively global events changed life in a city like New York. The worst thing about it is that all conflicts and grievances are now being forced into this culture grid. For example, I can't judge European integration policy. But looking at the revolts in the French suburbs – you can't treat people like second class citizens for decades and then be perplexed when they erupt in violence. It doesn't take much to set that off.

In your film of 1992, "Malcolm X," Denzel Washington says. in the role of the Muslim civil rights activist, "There is only one thing I like integrated. My coffee." That was tough but also quite prophetic.

It was just one of several phrases from Malcolm X. It was the time when he was taking very radical positions within the Nation of Islam.

He called all whites the devil. That puts him in roughly the same camp as today's fundamentalists. Could you still shoot a film in today's climate where the hero says, "Islam is the only religion that takes up the rights and concerns of the Blacks"?

I doubt it. It would be harder.

You used to take fairly radical positions on co-habitation of the races yourself.

Which ones?

For example, that the black and white couple is based only on a sexual myth.

Not all couples but many. I said that women are only after the myth of the black stud and black men want to hold a white woman like a trophy in their arms. But today I'm a little less dogmatic.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Denzel Washington

In 1988, you showed in your film "Do the Right Thing," how the black-white racial conflict in Brooklyn was leading to murder and manslaughter. Would you make the film the same way today?

I don't think so, although the relations haven't changed fundamentally. But in my view, the other, geo-political cultural conflict has changed. At the time I was making a film about our little Brooklyn. That was important and right. Today it's about the entire Islamic cultural realm, the fear of a third world war.

Are you not annoyed that the hysteria about the culture clash is covering up the other, every day racism?

You know what? When Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, I was at the Film Festival in Venice. I stared in awe at the pictures of the black population on CNN. At the time I swore to myself that that must not be forgotten. I vowed to make a documentary about it, because it's a horrible milestone in American history. Because it didn't look like the United States of America, but like a war-torn African country. The problem really is that we are waging war abroad and forgetting the battlefields at home.

What exactly will the documentary be about?

About the fact that millions of black, white and Hispanic Americans live in absolute poverty. And that this natural catastrophe actually had a human logic to it. A government has priorities, concerns itself with this segment of the population but not that one. It's no wonder. You could put Denzel Washington's opening speech in "Malcolm X" over the shots of the black people waiting in vain for help. "For us there is no democracy. Just hypocrisy."

Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster

Listening to you now, you really do sound less aggressive than you used to. A little more clear.

You can't be worked up for thirty years non-stop. Nonetheless, I'm still not one of those people who likes to hold hands and sing "We Are the World." But it's important not to confuse the dwindling anger with an improvement in relations. As a young kid I saw "Gone with the Wind." Even then, I found the film terrible. This romanticising of the black mama! Those were not slaves, but buddies. And today? Today people still have the nerve to shoot a film like "Cold Mountain," a film that's set in the 19th century in the southern states, where we see Nicole Kidman in a bonnet and not a single black person. And nobody gets excited. Insane.

What happened to New Black Cinema, which came on stage in the 1980s, committed to making blacks in American cinema more visible?

Oh. Bad topic. There was this black wave. But unfortunately, it kind of ebbed. Really ebbed. There are definitely more African American directors. But not enough political power. Stupid comedies, gangsta, HipHop and druggie films are being shot. The glorification of the gangsta, their power in the black macho world is a political problem for me. When was the last time you saw a film about middle class blacks? Why are blacks in mainstream cinema either brain-amputated clowns or pimps or rappers? Why do black youth today consider it uncool to go to college?

In your new film, there is one black kid among the hostages in the bank. He's paying a computer game in which one gangsta shoots another. After he blows one of their head off with a grenade, the words "Kill that nigger" appear. Does this game really exist?

We made that up. But there are many similar games out there.

What do you do when your own kids play these kinds of games?

They don't. My wife Tonya and I are careful about what games they get and what music they listen to. We try to get clean rap versions for them. They're also not allowed to watch everything on TV.

How old are your kids?

11 and 8.

Things are only going to get worse.

I know. But I cling to the illusion that my kids are going to follow the instructions of their parents when they're teenagers: Down with the gangsta rapper shit! Now, can I ask a question for a change?


Who is Germany's greatest female film star?

Hard to say. Nina Hoss, Martina Gedeck, Franka Potente

I'm looking for a German actress for my film about Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. She should play Max Schmeling's wife. I really don't know German cinema that well.

When you talk about Germany, you have something of a gangsta rapper about you. You've said that Beethoven was black and that Germans only eat Schnitzel.

When I was in Germany, there was only meat. Huge mountains of meat. Maybe I was in the wrong restaurants. By the way, when I was a kid, my family had a German dachshund whose name was "Schnitzel".

And you get excited about cultural stereotypes.

Why? We were proud of the name. For a dachshund it was at least better than Hitler or Goebbels or Wagner. Sit, Wagner!


Spike Lee, was born Robert Shelton Lee in 1957 in Atlanta, Georgia. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Since his film "She’s Gotta Have it" (1986) he's been considered the most important director of the New Black Cinema.

The interview was conducted by Katja Nicodemus.

This article originally appeared in Die Zeit on March 16, 2006.

translation: nb - let's talk european