The Root Interview: Spike Lee, Part Two

The director talks about a missed opportunity with David Simon’s Treme, gentrification and why so many black politicians are in trouble right now.

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The Root caught up with Spike Lee at his temporary offices in New Orleans, where he is filming his latest documentary, If God Is Willing and The Creek Don't Rise.

The Root: Black politicians in New York and New Orleans--Gov. David Paterson, Rep. Charlie Rangel, Rep. William Jefferson, Mayor Ray Nagin--and beyond are under fire, justifiably or not. What are your thoughts on that?

Spike Lee: Well, Gov. Paterson didn't take $10,000 [laughs] It's not just New York. Look at Kwame Kilpatrick in Detroit. There are a whole lot of incidences where black politicians really reneged on their commitments and promises to black voters who voted them into office. It's sad. And I think African Americans are sophisticated enough to vote beyond skin complexion. I think we're past the point of--we have elected officials. I was just talking with my uncle the other Sunday who was torn between rooting for the Saints and the Colts for the Super Bowl. He said, "I'm gonna root for the Colts because they have the black coach." I said, "You know, two black coaches already won the Super Bowl. It's not a big thing anymore. My man, Mike Tomlin, won in Pittsburgh, and Tony Dungy already won with the Colts. You gotta go with the Saints." He said, "That's right."

So, a lot of these firsts, they're not firsts anymore. So we have to vote who's going to do the job and because it's right for the city, the state and the country. As I said before, we've been betrayed by African-American politicians, so they're not going to automatically get the vote anymore, even if they're running against the white candidate.

The Root: Have you visited some of the new developments they've put up in place of the old public-housing projects?

Lee: We went through what used to be the St. Bernard projects. I mean, gentrification is a motherfucker. Now they're trying to say Bedford-Stuyvesant is Stuyvesant Heights (laughs). That's Bed-Stuy! Do or Die! Don't come with this real estate realtor shit-you going to rename the neighborhood, so that you can attract more white people there. It's the same thing here. They're not even calling it St. Bernard's. They are going to change the street name, too. There's no mention of St. Bernard anymore. What's the guy's name, [former HUD Secretary] Alphonso Jackson-this whole mixed-income thing, I just think it doesn't happen. They knock down these inner-city dwellings under the guise of progress, under the guise of multi-mixed-income stuff, but how many of those poor people move into these new buildings that they build? I would say a very low percentage.

The people have to move out of the places here, and in Bed-Stuy, Ft. Greene, Harlem; places in Chicago, but where do those people go? No one has ever come up with the answer to: Where do poor blacks, poor Hispanics live in these so-called, new, hot neighborhoods? When they can't afford the rents anymore where do they go? I think that from Obama down this issue of affordable housing is a major issue. People can't afford to live here. And it's coupled with the white flight to suburbia. They ran to the suburbs, and people got tired of commuting four and five hours--oh and add D.C. to it now. D.C. ain't Chocolate City anymore. When George Clinton, Parliament Funkadelic had that song--that's not true today.

The Root: HBO is also here for David Simon's (The Wire) new series Treme. Have you had a chance to talk with him while here?

Lee: No, but they wanted me to direct the pilot of Treme. We couldn't work out the schedule. But I'm happy that Wendell Pierce is in it. To me, The Wire is one of the best shows ever on television, so I have no doubt that it's going to be great. The series hopefully will get the numbers that the show deserves. I have faith in David Simon and that he will be true to the material, true to Treme, true to the city and true to the period it takes place in, which is post-Katrina, and the struggle that people are having to get their lives back on track.