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Gary Younge
Spike Lee on Oldboy, America's violent history and the fine art of mouthing off

With the interview over, Spike Lee finally opens up. For 40 minutes the film director has sat in a defensive crouch, with his arms folded and his legs crossed, parrying questions as though they were accusations. More evasive than abrasive, he insists that neither new technology, changes in his personal life or the way that he's perceived have any effect on him or his work. A couple of times he responds as though there was another interviewee in the room.

Asked a perfectly reasonable questions such as: "How does an independent filmmaker like yourself measure success?", he'd say: "It depends who you ask."

"Well I'm asking you," I keep pointing out, hoping, in vain, for a credible answer.

Lee is small, slender and stylish. He is dressed all in black – sneakers, windcheater, jogging bottoms and top – as if the interview was still-born and he has shown up for the funeral in casual wear. A slight man with thin skin.

But when it's over he uncoils to volunteer a tour of his Brooklyn offices. First he goes to a huge French poster for On the Waterfront signed by director Elia Kazan; then the Italian poster of The Godfather signed by Francis Ford Coppola; then La Strada and The Dolce Vita signed by Fellini. By the end of the tour there's been an ANC flag signed by Nelson Mandela, an Obama campaign poster signed by the president and several things signed by Michael Jordan, to list but a few.

Only 20 minutes ago he had patted away a question about how he navigates negative public perceptions of him. "I don't think about it," he said. "I can't worry too much about what people say or think or what their perception of me is because that gets in the way of me doing the work."

Now it's clear just how disingenuous that answer was. Anxious to showcase the appreciation of his peers, he clearly cares deeply what people think about him. Some people anyway. So much so that he's framed their good wishes and surrounded himself with them lest he, or anyone else, forget. "He's very concerned about having a place in film history," says an old screenwriter friend who has known Lee since he started out but did not wish to be named. "Paradoxically, it's the one thing he doesn't have to worry about. It's already assured. It's difficult to think of many film directors who are as well known as he is. Anywhere in America and on pretty much any continent people know him by sight and want to connect with him. I've seen it. James Cameron doesn't get that. But that's still what Spike is worried about."

In the 28 years since he emerged as a director with She's Gotta Have It, Lee has made 19 movies and four documentaries for the big screen and more than a dozen movies and documentaries for TV. Inevitably, given the volume, there have been some duds. Everybody who knows his work well has their own list (Girl 6, She Hate Me and Bamboozled often come up). But even those who know his work well are likely to have missed some gems, too. It's an impressive body of work not just because of its quantity but its quality (he has won two Emmys and been nominated for two Oscars, a Golden Globe and an Emmy) and its range. He has done a blockbuster heist movie (Inside Man), documentaries about hurricane Katrina and the Birmingham church bombing (When the Levees Broke and Four Little Girls), adapted books (Clockers and Miracle at St Anna) and has just released a reinterpretation of the classic Korean thriller Old Boy. Shortly after this interview, Lee became embroiled in a row over posters for the film – a freelance designer claimed his artwork had been stolen by an advertising agency but Lee has denied any knowledge or responsiblity.

"People sometimes forget all the films that we've done," he says. "They remember the likes of Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing. But I've been working since 1986. From the beginning I was determined to not just be a flash in the pan. I've got to keep up with Woody Allen. He's lapping me." But Lee's doing his best to catch up. As well as Old Boy, he has announced a sequel to Inside Man and has a film in post-production called Da Blood of Jesus, about people who are addicted to blood. The latter was funded through the fundraising site Kickstarter. Hoping to raise $1.25m in 30 days, Lee ended up raking in more than $1.4m from 6,421 backers.

But his renown goes beyond his work. He's a cultural figure in his own right. Barack Obama's first date with Michelle was to see Do the Right Thing. In the early 90s Lee managed to get the recently released Nelson Mandela to quote Malcolm X at the end of his film.

And there are the very public clashes with others in his profession. The list of those he's fallen out with reads like a Who's Who of Hollywood. Since the mid-90s he's been in a feud with Quentin Tarantino over racialised language. "I have a definite problem with Tarantino's excessive use of the n-word," he said. "I think something is wrong with him ... It's just the n-word, the n-word, the n-word." More recently he blasted Django Unchained, saying: "It's disrespectful to my ancestors" and tweeting: "American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust." Tarantino has called Lee a "racist"; Lee has called Tarantino "stupid". He blasted Clint Eastwood for the absence of African Americans in Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. "In his vision of Iwo Jima, Negro soldiers did not exist," said Lee. "Simple as that ... Not everything was John Wayne, baby." Eastwood said: "A guy like that should shut his mouth." Lee replied: "He sounds like an angry old man right there ... First of all, [he] is not my father and we're not on a plantation either."

He has also slammed Tyler Perry, the popular black director and screenwriter, for the "coonery and buffoonery" of his television series, popular comedies that trade in stock characters from black American life. Lee compared them to minstrel shows. "The imaging is troubling and it harkens back to Amos'n'Andy," said Lee. " We got a black president, and we going back to Mantan Moreland and Sleep 'n' Eat?"

 Lee, meeting President Barack Obama in 2011 Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP
Lee, meeting President Barack Obama in 2011 Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP

Perry responded: "Spike can go straight to hell! You can print that. I am sick of him talking about me."

What kind of response does he expect when he makes these interventions? "If I was really thinking about the comeback I would never say anything," he says. So does he make any calculation about whom he criticises and how? "As you get older you try to be more judicious," he says. "You don't always comment on stuff. You think a little bit more first."

Evidently, thinking more before commenting is a work in progress. Last year, following Trayvon Martin's killing, he tweeted to his 240,000 followers the address of what he believed to be Martin's killer, George Zimmerman. Only it was the address of an elderly couple, who received hate mail and needed police protection. Lee apologised and paid them a five-figure sum. Now they are taking him back to court for more.

He still exasperates many. "The question for me is: where's Spike Lee coming from?" asked Jamie Foxx, who starred in Django Unchained. "He didn't like Whoopi Goldberg, he doesn't like Tyler Perry, he doesn't like anybody. I think he's sort of run his course."

That's not quite true. He says he liked Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave and has been impressed by the black British acting talent enjoying success in the US. "They're good," he says. "They're well trained. They came through on the stage not on a music video or whatever. So their acting's impeccable and then they go into films."

Recently Lee was present when McQueen was questioned about his right to portray the African American experience during slavery. Lee defended him. "It's a trick to divide us," he said. "Black British people were slaves." He lists a series of black American iconic figures who were not solely the product of the American slave trade. "Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley, Malcolm X ... Our ancestors were all taken from Africa."

Far from being indiscriminate, his criticisms, whether one agrees with them or not, are usually about something and not just someone. They stem from an understanding of America and its history that is out of the mainstream but by no means outlandish.

"It would not be a hard argument to make that this country is the most violent country in the world today," he says. "This country was built on violence. The enslavement of black people and the genocide of the Native Americans were the two things on which this country was founded. Where are the Native Americans today? They're not on reservations. They're more like concentration camps. We never hear anything about Native Americans except John Wayne and John Ford movies where they're treated as savages."

Braggadocious, brazen, playful, cocky and combative, the one adjective that doesn't fit him, even as a difficult interviewee, is the one with which he is most commonly associated: angry. For all the stand-offs he has been associated with, he has rarely provided chum for the tabloids. There have been no temper tantrums on YouTube, accounts of drunken brawling or humiliating waiters. As such, the showmanship in these apparently fearlessness, forthright outspoken episodes owe more to the temperament of Muhammad Ali than Russell Crowe.

One person who has known him for a long time says these scrapes have always been very calculated. "His first film was low budget and put out by a small distributor. So it was really down to him to publicise it and he did so, aggressively, through himself. And he's very good at it. He loves publicity. He loves being a rascal. It's very calculated even when what he says genuinely reflects how he feels about something. Whenever he has a new film coming out, my friend and I joke: 'That means Spike's going to say something crazy.' Lee is a one-man brand."

When Lee first became a national figure he was not yet 30 and living in Brooklyn. Born Shelton Jackson Lee to middle-class parents (his father is a jazz musician; his mother was a teacher) he was raised in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and went to Morehouse College in Atlanta, one of the most prestigious, historically black colleges, which counts Martin Luther King and Samuel Jackson among its alumni. He raised money for his first feature film, She's Gotta Have It, by writing to friends and relatives and even collecting bottles and cans for cash. "We were doing Kickstarter before there was Kickstarter," he says. "We actually put pen on paper and then we licked stamps," he smiled. Much of his early work draws heavily on his knowledge of and experience in Brooklyn, bringing the New York borough alive in film in the same manner that Paul Auster was doing in print.

Today, he's 56, married to a former corporate lawyer, lives in a townhouse on the Upper East Side that was featured in Homes & Gardens, has two children who attended an elite private school and a holiday home in Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard – the holiday destination of choice for well-to-do African Americans. including the Obamas.

'He's mellower now' ... Spike Lee Photograph: Timothy Fadek

In 2004, his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, co-wrote a novel, Gotham Diaries, about intrigue within New York's black bourgeoisie, into which she was born – her father was the most senior black executive at Phillip Morris – and into which Lee married. "Not my world," Lee told New York Magazine, which makes you wonder which world he does live in if not the same one as his wife. While touring his office I asked him how he managed to remain grounded while receiving plaudits from the likes of Fellini and Kazan in his early 30s. "You get married. That's how."

He insists that neither the advance of years nor the elevation of his circumstances has had any impact on his work. "It has no effect. It's only time and a number," he says. "And those numbers don't bother me. Kurosawa was still making films when he was in his 80s."

So he's learned nothing as he's aged? "Well as you get older you learn more things and you mature," he concedes. And his departure from Brooklyn? "We're still here," he says casting an arm around the office. "And we're still going to be here."

This is difficult to take seriously. Of his first eight films, six are based in Brooklyn and one at a historically black college – only Malcolm X escapes some biographical connection to his own story. Over the last decade only one movie, Red Hook Summer, has Brooklyn as a central character. This comes less by way of criticism than description. Evolution, both personal and professional, is a positive thing. It's just interesting that he would claim that it has left him untouched. For even if he hadn't changed, the world around him has. The president's black, Fort Greene is now over-run with hipsters and the funding model for the film industry has been turned on its head. He is far more likely to have produced movies for television in recent times than the cinema and has been increasingly likely, of late, to do non-fiction. None of this, he says, makes any difference to his work. "It's all storytelling," he says and you just get the money whatever way you can.

One person who has known him for a long time says this denial also harks back to the early days. "When he started out he was the firebrand and the radical, even if he wasn't that radical. He was blacker than the blackest man there's ever been on the planet. He's mellower now but he hung on to that self-image dearly partly because he likes it and partly because it's served him well all these years."

As an act it may still work. But as an argument it begins to look a little daft as he coasts towards 60 with his salt-and-pepper goatee. The recurring soundtrack to Do the Right Thing was Public Enemy's Fight The Power. Now Lee, as an elder in the industry, a rich man in his own right and embedded in a social elite, spends most of his time among the powerful.

He's an Obama devotee, praising the president not so much for what he's done but who he is. "Obama had travelled the world ... I don't think Bush had been off the continent of America. So there was no worldview there. He didn't know how people lived. Not everybody likes us and maybe some of those reasons why they don't like us are good reasons. I'm not championing terrorism, just saying in general."

But what do you get with a black president that you wouldn't get with a white one?

"Think of the world if John McCain would have won or, what was the other guy's name, the last guy ..."

"Mitt Romney?"

"Romney," he says. "Lord save us. The Lord did save us."

While touring the office he shows me posters from the second world war, one from the axis powers portraying a bestial black American soldier desecrating a Venus de Milo. "They're saying they'll take our women and ruin our culture," he explains. Then he points to some American posters. One says "Jap ... You're Next" while another shows the swastika looming over some children. "Look at that. White kids, apple pie," he laughs and points out that from the American propaganda you'd never know black people fought in the war.

I ask if he's seen Red Tails, a movie about black fighter pilots that was widely panned. The kind of movie I imagine he would have liked to make if someone else hadn't got there first. He nods.

"What did you think?" I ask. He pauses, smiles more to himself than me. And then moves on to the next poster.

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