Spike Lee on His Revealing New Michael Jackson Documentary and Why Donald Trump Is 'Bananas'

Eric Ogden
Spike Lee photographed on Jan. 4, 2015 at 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Your new documentary, Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown to Off the Wall, is a lot of fun to watch. It was the simplest period of his life, wasn't it, before all the tabloid ­headlines and abuse accusations?
Back in 1979, there was no big pressure on Michael for Off the Wall. There were no expectations. It all turned after Thriller -- things get complicated when you sell the most records ever. People got swept up in Thriller, but Off the Wall's my favorite of the three records he did with Quincy Jones. Many people say that in the documentary, too.

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His mom, Katherine, says Michael was very hurt when he won only one Grammy Award for Off the Wall in 1980. How much did that motivate him?
Michael Jordan's a good friend of mine. Any ­negative thing someone says to him, he uses that as fuel. When Michael didn't win the Grammys he thought he should have won, it's like, "Alright, motherf--ers. I got somethin' for yo' ass." And that was Thriller.

Michael never seemed like an "alright, ­motherf--ers" kind of guy.
No, he was. Let's not get it twisted: Michael was competitive. Any record he did, he wanted the thing to be No. 1. He was hurt, and he came back with a vengeance.

 

Did you like Michael?
Yeah. Mike came to my house in Brooklyn. I put on the CD -- this was [1995's] HIStory -- and he said, "Pick any song you want to direct." So I picked "Stranger in Moscow." He said, "No, that's not the one you want! You want to do 'They Don't Care About Us.' " (Laughs.) Michael was slick.

When Michael was making Off the Wall, a lot of people thought his career was over, didn't they?
There were doubts. But Michael never doubted ­himself. He just knew he had been given the freedom to do his thing. And to do that, he and his brothers first had to get out of a Motown contract. And then he had to step away from his brothers, too. Family is a cross to bear.

In the movie, you don't address Michael's accusation that his dad, Joe, was physically abusive. Why not?
Here's the thing, and I appreciate your ­question: So many people focus on the other stuff. We wanted to focus on the music. People might say that's a cop-out. I don't care. Personally, I'm not going to say Joe Jackson was a bad guy. Have you ever been to the Jacksons' house in Gary, Indiana? There were nine kids sleeping on top of each other. He saw talent in his kids, and he made it work. Nowadays, if you hit your kid, you're going to jail. Back then, if you messed around -- I'm just talking for black folks -- you got hit. I don't think children should be beat, but sometimes, upside the head? (Shrugs.) Maybe I'm old-fashioned. And that house in Gary? That should be a national landmark. Alright, President Obama. You've got one year left. (Laughs.)

It seems like Joe was simultaneously the best artist manager of all time and the worst.
Joe's OK in my book. Of course, he wasn't my father! (Laughs.)

Michael's brothers Jackie and Marlon, who have good relationships with John Branca and John McClain, the executors of Jackson's estate, are in the film. But Janet, Jermaine and Randy, who have denounced the executors, are not in it. Why?
They didn't want to be a part of it. It's no secret that there's tension between [parts of] the family and the estate. Any time money's involved, there's going to be static.

There's one thing about your ­documentary that isn't great: the title. Why such a ­cumbersome title?
Wasn't me.

Was the title dictated to you by the estate?
It wasn't me. (Laughs.) Man, I should be running for office right now. That was a true politician's answer, wasn't it? Give me Iowa!

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Speaking of: Do you know fellow New Yorker Donald Trump?
I've seen him at Knicks games, before he was running for president. He was a nice guy. But it's bananas now, the stuff he's saying. When he says, "Make America great again"? What great you ­talking about? Great like when women and black people couldn't vote? Great like when gay people couldn't get married? Great like when Bull Connor turned water cannons and German shepherds on people in Birmingham, Alabama? There is a feeling that the stature of the white man is not what it used to be. When you're down on your luck, you look for a scapegoat.

Have you seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens?
My wife and I went to the premiere. I liked it very much. For me, the amazing part was during the opening scene, with the Flash Gordon crawl and the John Williams score. People lost their ­motherf--ing minds! That was powerful. People went ape shit! (Laughs.)

This is your second Jackson documentary -- the first was Bad 25. Do you want to do another one?
I'd really like to do a documentary about Thriller. I've let the estate know, but I've not been given the job yet.

Do you think the success of Thriller was bad for Michael's music? After that, he was ­obsessed with topping it.
Thriller became a monster on his back. Every record after that, he was trying to sell more records. I think there's a cost for that.

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 23 issue of Billboard.