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Sunday, May 10, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Spike Lee's Temper Rises Over Criticism Of Film

The Virginian-Pilot

Spike Lee takes no prisoners, on either side of the color line.

Now that "He Got Game" has opened as a commercial success, he's willing to talk about what happened on the night of the first preview. The prickly temper that is as much a part of his persona as his incisive, controversial films comes to the surface.

"Maybe black women are not going to like the film," he admitted, but pushed forward with his own counterattack.

"I'm sensitive to black American women. I'm married to one. But I'm not going to let black American women, or anyone else, tell me how to make my movies."

The new film is a basketball drama about the vagaries of recruiting star hoop players - young men who go from poverty to millions in a single bound and the hangers-on who try to take both their money and their souls.

If there was to be any controversy from "He Got Game," it was presumed to surround the questionable tactics of recruiters, who offer cars, women and money to heretofore poverty-ridden boys.

More notable, though, have been the cries of protest from African-American women rather than from sports businessmen. "Denzel, NO," one woman screamed when actor Denzel Washington appeared in an onscreen love scene with white actress Milla Jovovich.

"Denzel, YOU PROMISED," another female voice yelled.

The New York movie theater, to put it mildly, was in an uproar. After the lights went up, the offended black women added specifics to their protest. "Denzel Washington is the leading black American actor in the world today," one said, "and he's been publicized as being against doing love scenes. Then, in this film, directed by Spike, of all people, he makes love to a white woman. It's a bit much to take."

"I can see your face is bent out of shape," Lee said to a female black reporter the next day when approached on the subject - even though she claimed she only spoke for the "other" women in the audience. "This is the plot of a movie. I figured African-American woman might be upset. So what? This is the way I feel this character would behave. Because a love scene was cut out of `Pelican Brief,' am I going to censor myself? I'm sorry if black women think Denzel should not go to bed with white women, but what has that got to do with my movie?"

(Love scenes between Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington were reportedly cut out of the hit thriller "The Pelican Brief." Washington himself denies that any such scenes were in the script.)

Lee has almost single-handedly changed the face of African-American cinema. Making "She's Gotta Have It" on over-extended credit cards in 1986, he drew critical raves. He went on to make "Do the Right Thing" to more critical raves only to stumble when he went too far over budget on the 1992 biography "Malcolm X." Subsequent films, including "Crooklyn" and "Get On the Bus," have been modest successes.

Lee is either a persistent whiner or a roaring fighter, depending on your viewpoint. He berated the Cannes Film Festival when it didn't honor "Do the Right Thing," even though the festival had previously lauded his debut film, "She's Gotta Have It," a major factor in putting him on the cinema map.

New York newspapers have lambasted him for his motormouth taunting from his $1,000 courtside seat at Knicks basketball games, claiming that it's had countereffect, inspiring the other teams to win. "Thanks a lot - Spike!" a banner New York Daily News headline screamed. sarcastically. "I've got a right to cheer at a basketball game, just like everyone else," he replied.

When the studio demanded that he cut 30 minutes out of his epic-length "Malcolm X," which was already way over budget, he went to friends Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and raised the money to release the film at the length he wanted. He drew criticism, though, when he urged all black children to skip school and attend "Malcolm X" on the day it opened. The proposed school boycott was not a success, and the film itself had trouble breaking even, in spite of critical praise and an Oscar nomination for star Denzel Washington.

Recently, he lambasted filmmaker Quentin Tarantino for the overuse of the heinous "N word" in the movie "Jackie Brown." Lee admitted he had used it often in his own films, but he counted 38 times in "Jackie Brown" and asked "What does Quentin want? To be declared an honorary black man?"

He added, "I want Quentin to know that not all African Americans think that word is either trendy or slick." The comment drew a rebuttal from actor Samuel L. Jackson, who appeared in "Jackie Brown."

His wrath, too, has been leveled at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for what he considers ill treatment at the Oscars. "She's Gotta Have It" was ignored in 1986. "Do the Right Thing" received a screenplay nomination in 1989 but was otherwise ignored. "Malcolm X" was not nominated in either directing or best picture category. Lee was nominated this year for his documentary "4 Little Girls," about the 1963 bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala.

He attended the Oscar ceremony, but lost to "The Long Way Home," the documentary about Israel's birth. "I didn't have a chance. I knew that. Against a rabbi? Put the Jewish vote in the academy against the one or two black members and what do you think?"

It isn't the first time he's been associated with anti-Jewish statements. He was accused of making the characters of Moe and Josh Flatbush into Jewish caricatures in "Mo' Better Blues." Newsweek magazine's review of the film called them "villainous Shylocks," claiming that "coming from a self-proclaimed enemy of ethnic stereotyping this is inexcusable."

But he hasn't spared his own race. In "School Daze" (1988), he exposed, for perhaps the first time on film, color biases within the black community itself.

"They can't just say I've always been sympathetic to the black characters," he told the New York Times. "If you look at the body of my work, I've been hard on my people."

In one scene of "He Got Game" he pictures two white women having sex with the naive basketball player who is being seduced into a collegiate choice.

"I'm not trying to diss all Caucasian women because of the menage a trois scene. This is how they seduce these men sometimes - a young player from nowhere, getting all this attention," he said.

"And check out what's going on around sports parties. You ain't going to see many players with a sister on their arm. It ain't gonna happen."

Frustrated in his attempts to raise funds to make his "The Jackie Robinson Story," Lee admits that he had trouble getting "He Got Game" made. He has a three-year, first-see, agreement with Columbia pictures, but they turned down the film.

It was made, instead, by Disney's Touchstone Pictures.

"He Got Game's" main character is Jesus Shuttlesworth, American's No. 1 high school prospect who must decide whether to go to college or go pro. He's played by babyfaced Milwaukee Bucks star Ray Allen. The recruiters spring his father, played by Washington, from jail in an effort to persuade the player to attend Big State, which just happens to be the alma mater of the governor.

Spike Lee employed by Disney? And turning out a movie in which Aaron Copland music is used as the background? Has he mellowed?

"People are saying that," he said as his often-surly exterior expanded into a mischievous smile "but that doesn't mean I've sold out. I have just learned to pick my battles."

Born Shelton Jackson Lee in Atlanta, Ga., Lee returned there from Brooklyn to attend Morehouse College. He is the son of a jazz musician and a schoolteacher, who died when Lee was 21. He received his master of fine arts degree in film production from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. He created his 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks for films and Musicworks for recordings.

In "He Got Game," Lee uses Copland's classical music, combined with rap group Public Enemy, as a soundtrack. "I wanted, from the first, to use Aaron Copland music," he said. "When I think American, I think basketball and hear Aaron Copland. Basketball is played on the sides of barns in middle America and on asphalt in urban America."

Copland music featured includes selections from the ballets "Billy the Kid," "Rodeo," as well as "Appalachian Spring," "Lincoln Portrait" and "Fanfare for the Common Man." "I knew it would work," Lee said. "I spent more time in post-production than ever before on the music."

Washington took a pay cut to be in "He Got Game." He, too, was a little surprised at the audience's reaction to his love scene, and to the screams of "Denzel, you promised" in the theater.

"I never made such a promise," he said. "What promise? Not to play an onscreen love scene with a white woman? Nope. No such promise. All the hoopla about there not being love scenes in my movies has been a bit overdone. Now, I have a love scene and they don't like that! There never was a love scene in the script for `Pelican Brief,' so nothing was really cut. Interviewers have printed that I object to any love scenes, but that isn't really true. I'm not comfortable doing them, but if the script requires them, I'll do them. And, always, I'm playing a character. No kind of personal statement has been made."

Spike Lee himself laughs when he considers the unlikely turn of events.

"I expected the basketball people, but now I got the sisters on my case."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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