Spike Lee is a visionary director and beloved New York City icon, known for legendary films like Do The Right Thing (1989) and Malcolm X (1992), as well as his ever-present and effervescent courtside position at Knicks games. So it came as no surprise that the Brooklyn Museum would choose to honor him with Spike Lee: Creative Sources, an exhibition highlighting the many inspirations behind his work, running through this Sunday, February 11. When I first visited the show in November, I was met with a packed room. I hadn’t seen a crowd like that since The Met held its Alexander McQueen show in 2011. And the material in Lee’s collection is fantastic: objects relating to his films, major moments in Black history, a phenomenal photography section, and remarkable pieces related to sports, particularly basketball and boxing.
One section of the exhibition made me pause: a hallway-like area connecting his photography collection to his movie poster room was filled with original World War II propaganda posters, printed by both the Axis and the Allied powers. As a poster historian, I’ve written before about how curators often ignore this type of material, so I was thrilled to see them given such care to be included in this show. As I’m sure the exhibition is just the tip of the iceberg of Lee’s collection, I wanted to know why he kept these posters and why they were seen as important enough to have their own, albeit small, place in this blockbuster show. Below is a condensed and edited version of our conversation at the exhibition, one that I hope expresses how incredible these objects are, both as art objects and as documents of history.
Hyperallergic: When I first saw this show, I was expecting the movie memorabilia, the iconic moments in Black history. But I was so surprised that you had war propaganda. Can you talk about why you started collecting these pieces and what they mean to you?
Spike Lee: One of the things that American history has done is to omit the commitment, the service, the sacrifice of Black folks for this country. The first person to die for the United States of America was a Black man. His name is Crispus Attucks. In every war, we fought for this country —at times when we weren’t even considered full citizens. So, I did a film called Miracle at St. Anna, based on the great novel by James McBride, because I wanted to salute brave Americans who fought for freedom and justice, liberty — stuff that, in many cases, they were still being denied.
We were fighting a war against the Axis — Japan, Mussolini’s fascist Italy, Hitler’s Nazis — and we were dying for this county. Yet, in many ways, the army and other divisions of the service were segregated. Black people are being trained to kill Germans, kill Japanese, kill Italians, and, where many of these Black soldiers are being trained, there were also camps where you had Nazi prisoners of war who are getting better food, better healthcare. We’re being trained to kill these Nazi motherfuckers, and their POWs are still treated more like human beings than we are. Isn’t that insane?
And when I was in Italy to do this film, I tracked down some poster stores in Rome. These are Italian fascist posters that are made specifically for the citizens of Italy, saying that these Black savages are coming here. They will rape our women and destroy our art. That’s what that says. This one [points at “Venus de Milo” (1944) by Gino Boccasile] says how on April 7, 1944, this town was bombed and that these savages bombed this town. It was bombed by Americans, but it wasn’t Black soldiers. We weren’t flying bombers. It is fascist propaganda.
H: But also, that first poster by Boccasile is great because there’s no text. The image is so impactful on its own. And, generally speaking, those are the most effective propaganda posters because they allow a message to carry instantly, without requiring the viewer to read anything. It also means that anyone can understand the message regardless of language. And also, these two Italian posters wouldn’t realistically have been seen by American soldiers as they would have been wheat-pasted in towns that had heard of American bombings and infiltration, but who had not yet witnessed it. They were a fearmongering tactic to stir local desire to keep the Americans out and to equate all Americans as, as you pointed out, Black savages, playing up racism as the root of fear. And both of them are rather rare — I’ve been a poster historian almost 20 years, and I hadn’t seen the poster about the April 7 bombing. Beyond the fascist propaganda, do you have a favorite poster in the show?
SL: This one [points at a poster of American boxer Joe Louis from 1942]. “We’re going to do our part. We’ll win because we’re on God’s side.” He said it at Madison Square Garden. Some guy [New York Mayor Jimmy Walker in a speech] said, “You have been a great American . . . you have laid a rose on Abe Lincoln’s grave.” So that’s the hypocrisy, the mad insanity of racism where you could die for a country, but you’re not really part of our country.
H: That poster is actually quite rare. I’ve only ever seen it once, and it’s quite an inspiring piece of propaganda, especially considering how important Joe Louis was to the Black community and to American culture at large at the time. Where do these posters live in your life? Are they in your home? Your studio?
SL: They’re in my office. All this stuff was in my office and storage until I had this show.
H: What’s it like being surrounded by stuff like this, especially the racist material?
SL: It’s a reminder. I’m a collector, so those are very valuable. I knew what Mussolini thought about Black people. I mean, look at what he did in Ethiopia. It’s historic and it’s not like, “Awesome. I made them.” This is the real shit right here. This is the real authentic fascist Mussolini.
H: You also have a bunch of different styles represented in these posters. You’ve got European illustrational with the fascist posters; photomontage in a lot of the American posters printed by the Office of War Information; there’s also American modernism if you look at one of my favorites, the United We Win design. Do you think there is a specific visual recipe for what makes a propaganda poster effective? Which one of these do you think is the most impactful? If you saw this on the street, what would move you the most?
SL: The Boccasile. When you’re thinking about Italy, you’re thinking about some of the greatest art ever. This [poster] says, “Our culture, our nation, with the music, the art, we’re the great artists in the world.” These [Lee uses the N-word] come over here, and the Father of Art, art that’s worth millions of dollars, to them it’s worth $2. And on top of that, they’re going to rape all our women. That’s what that says right there. And look at this. What is this?
H: Uh … it’s a crayon.
SL: No, what is this supposed to be?
H: Oh, it’s his … dick.
SL: Black dick. They’ll come over here and they’re going to rape all our women. See? You didn’t even notice that, huh?
H: When you compare these to the American posters that project a very positive view of the Black contribution to the war, what do you think Black Americans felt and saw when they looked at these?
SL: They felt patriotic, that this is our country, too. Despite how we’re treated, we still believe in America. We believe in democracy. And despite all the stuff we’ve gone through, we’re still going to believe in this country. So when people say that African Americans are not patriotic, they don’t know the fuck they’re talking about. Because we’ve been dying for this country from the get-go.
H: And there are some great stories behind many of the American posters in your collection since so many of the Black heroes are identified in the text on the images — which is not always the case with wartime propaganda. The soldiers are usually anonymous.
SL: [In “Above and Beyond the Call of Duty“]: American hero, Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor. His story is great, but they did him wrong.
H: The government only ended up giving him a medal after the Black press really pushed hard for his recognition.
SL: Yes, they were trying to ignore him. “He Needs the Best Equipment/Buy More Extra Bombs” [a poster for the 7th War Loan Drive featuring a Black soldier aiming his weapon]. Now this brother right here [points at a poster featuring Black American soldier Obie Bartlett] lost his left arm in Pearl Harbor. But he’s a true American: Even though he lost his arm, he’s working at the shipyard. Tuskegee airmen: “She’s A Swell Plane/Give Us More.” [Points at a poster titled “United We Win”]: united Black folks, White folks, we’re all Americans and home of the brave. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Maybe at this part of the war, I don’t know exactly, they were still segregated. We want you to fight with us, but you can’t really fight with us.
H: What’s your favorite poster from one of your films?
SL: Bamboozled (2000) [a poster featuring two figures in Blackface posing in an exaggerated minstrel style] is one of them. Jungle Fever, Do The Right Thing. There’s another poster for Bamboozled, which the New York Times refused to run. It was of the guy, the Jigaboo, eating a watermelon.
H: Oh yeah, I know which one you’re talking about. I’m a big fan of your poster for BlacKkKlansman. I think it’s actually the strongest poster because it just says everything in one succinct image. What do you think is the poster’s role in promoting your films?
SL: As a rule, it’s got to explain what the film’s about.
H: Yeah. My big thing is always that if a poster doesn’t convey what you want to convey in under a second, it’s failed because it needs to grab somebody.
SL: Simplicity. You can’t beat that.