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By Keith Murphy
February 12, 2021 at 11:00 AM EST
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If his 41-year career had ended after the 1992 epic Malcolm X, Spike Lee would nevertheless be hailed as an indispensable change agent in Hollywood, not to mention a rebel-rousing truth teller. But of course, he continued and recent years have included the one-two punch of winning a 2019 Oscar for BlacKkKlansman, and releasing 2020's Vietnam war film, Da 5 Bloods, which, while shut out of the Golden Globe nominations, earned Best Director, Best Ensemble, and Best Film from the National Board of Review, a frequent predictor of Best Picture Oscars. For EW's new special edition, A Celebration of Black Film, Lee had a wide-ranging conversation, excerpted below, with guest editor Keith Murphy about films past and future — next up will be a musical exploring the origins of Pfizer's erectile dysfunction drug, Viagra.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What did you do after your first Oscar win in 2019?

SPIKE LEE: The morning after, I'm on a plane to Thailand to begin Da 5 Bloods. My lovely wife, Tonya, took the Oscar back to Brooklyn. As soon as the plane landed, I hit the ground running — we had a start date based on us getting out before monsoon season started!

That film has one of Chadwick Boseman's last performances. How did it feel learning that?

Chadwick meant a lot to people. Think about the roles he has played: Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, then Black Panther. I knew he would be great in Da 5 Bloods because Stormin' Norman is a heroic character. Chadwick comes with that kind of weight. When our brother made his transition from the physical world to the spiritual world, my wife and I went back and watched Da 5 Bloods. It was a different film. 

I had a debate with one of my boys. I argued that Delroy Lindo was Robert De Niro to your Martin Scorsese

Hold up… so where's Denzel then? 

See, I think when you started working with Denzel on Mo' Better Blues, he came into the room with an Oscar already in hand. With Delroy — it could be argued — film fans discovered him as West Indian Archie in Malcolm X, much like they first did with De Niro in Mean Streets. 

So let me ask you a question. When have you ever seen a performance like Denzel did in Malcolm X? Name me one. 

Ah…  

Thank you. [Laughs] See, you answered the question. 

There was a time from 1986 to 1990 when you represented the hopes, dreams, and rancor of all Black people with regard to ­Hollywood. Did you feel that as a weight on your shoulders?

The only pressure I felt was on Malcolm X. Me and Denzel used to say, "Hey, bro, you got your passport on you?" Just in case we had to break out under the cover of darkness. [Laughs] Now, we were joking, but we were serious at the same time. Before filming, I had to meet with [the Nation of Islam]. We didn't want no shit jumping off. Malcolm X is now everyone's favorite Spike Lee film, but that was a hard one to make. It almost broke me.

How so?

Warner Bros. let the bond company take over, and they fired everybody. But Malcolm saved me. I read and saw everything about Malcolm X. Two things kept coming into my mind: self-reliance and self-determination. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew I had the private phone numbers of some Black folks who I could ask for help. This wasn't a tax write-off, and they weren't going to get money from the film. It was just a gift. I was humbled. I watched it on November 16th [last year], which was the 20th anniversary. And I thanked the people who helped me get Malcolm X made… Ms. Winfrey, Tracy Chapman, Magic Johnson, the late, great Peggy Cooper Cafritz, Janet Jackson, the great Prince, Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson… they made that film possible. 

How does it feel to have 20-year-olds who were not even born when Do the Right Thing came out discovering your films now?

Keith, here's the thing. If you stick around long enough, kids are going to see your work. Not just me. Kids are discovering Jay-Z and Tupac. I'm a tenured film professor at NYU grad school. What I tell my students is, "Don't let the cutoff point be your birthdate. Believe it or not, there's some great shit created before you were born. And some of those films may be in black and white too." 

So you've done biopics, romance, heist films… Will we ever see Spike Lee direct a superhero film? Some of your directing brethren have dismissed Marvel movies as not legit filmmaking.

I have nothing against Marvel. I grew up reading Spider-Man comic books. To me, DC Comics was always corny. 

Oh, are you trying to get the Marvel and DC stans at each other throats? 

[Laughs] I'm just saying. I was all about Marvel. If the right opportunity comes across, I'm not campaigning for it, but I will give it consideration.

EW's A Celebration of Black Film is available on Amazon and wherever magazines are sold. 

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