Spike Lee is a visionary director and beloved New York City icon, known for legendary films such as Do the right thing (1989) and Malcolm x (1992), as well as his ever-present and effervescent position on the court at Knicks games. So it was no surprise that the Brooklyn Museum decided to honor him with Spike Lee: creative sources, an exhibition highlighting the many inspirations behind his work, which runs until this Sunday, February 11. When I visited the show for the first time in November, I found a packed room. I haven’t seen a crowd like this since The Met held its Alexander McQueen show in 2011. And the material in Lee’s collection is fantastic: artifacts related to his films, important moments in black history, a phenomenal photography section, and pieces related notables. to sports, particularly basketball and boxing.
One section of the exhibition gave me pause: a hallway-like area connecting its photography collection to its movie poster room was filled with original World War II propaganda posters, printed by both the Axis and the powers. allies. As a poster historian, I’ve written before about how curators often ignore this type of material, so I was excited to see that so much care was given to it 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 considered important enough to have their own, albeit small, place in this successful exhibition. 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 documents of history.
Hyperallergic: When I first watched this show, I was expecting the movie memories, the iconic moments of black history. But I was very surprised that you had war propaganda. Can you tell us why you started collecting these pieces and what they mean to you?
Lee Lee: One of the things American history has done is omit the commitment, service, and sacrifice of black people 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 were not even considered full citizens. So I made a movie called Miracle in Santa Anabased on the great novel by James McBride, because I wanted to salute the brave Americans who fought for freedom and justice, things that, in many cases, were still denied to them.
We were fighting a war against the Axis (Japan, Mussolini’s fascist Italy, Hitler’s Nazis) and we were dying for this country. However, in many ways, the military and other divisions of the service were segregated. Black people are trained to kill Germans, kill Japanese, kill Italians, and where many of these black soldiers are trained, there were also camps where there were Nazi prisoners of war who received better food and better medical care. They’re training us to kill these Nazi sons of bitches, and their POWs are still treated more like human beings than we are. It’s not crazy?
And when I was in Italy to make this film, I located some poster shops in Rome. These are Italian fascist posters 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 it says. This (points to “Venus de Milo” (1944) by Gino Boccasile) It says that on April 7, 1944 this town was bombed and that these savages bombed this town. It was bombed by Americans, but they were not black soldiers. We weren’t flying bombers. It’s fascist propaganda.
h: But also that first Boccasile poster is great because there is no text. The image is very striking on its own. And generally speaking, those are the most effective propaganda posters because they allow a message to be conveyed instantly, without the viewer having to read anything. It also means that anyone can understand the message regardless of language. And furthermore, these two Italian posters would not have been realistically seen by American soldiers, as they would have been plastered with wheat paste in cities that had heard about the American bombings and infiltrations, but had not yet witnessed them. They were a fear-mongering tactic to stir up local desire to keep Americans out and equate all Americans as, as you pointed out, black savages, presenting racism as the root of fear. And both are pretty rare: I’ve been a poster historian for almost 20 years and I hadn’t seen the poster about the April 7 attack. Beyond the fascist propaganda, do you have any favorite posters from the show?
SL: This (points to a poster of American boxer Joe Louis from 1942). “We are going to do our part. “We will win because we are on God’s side.” She said it at Madison Square Garden. One guy (New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, in a speech) said, “You’ve been a great American. . . “You have put a rose on Abe Lincoln’s grave.” So that’s the hypocrisy, the crazy madness of racism where you can die for a country, but you’re not really part of our country.
h: That sign is actually pretty weird. I’ve only seen it once and it’s a pretty inspiring piece of propaganda, especially considering how important Joe Louis was to the black community and American culture in general at the time. Where do these posters live in your life? They are at your house? Your studio?
SL: They are in my office. All of these things were in my office and in my storage room until I had this program.
h: What’s it like to be surrounded by things like this, especially racist material?
SL: It is a reminder. I’m a collector, so they are very valuable. He knew what Mussolini thought about black people. I mean, look what he did in Ethiopia. It’s historic and it’s not like, “Awesome. I made them.” This is the real shit here. This is the real fascist Mussolini.
h: You also have a lot of different styles represented on these posters. You have European illustrations with fascist posters; photomontage on many of the American posters printed by the Office of War Information; There is 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 determining what makes an effective propaganda poster? Which of these do you think is the most impactful? If you saw this on the street, what would move you the most?
SL: The Boccasil. When you think of Italy, you’re thinking of some of the greatest works of art of all time. This (poster) says: “Our culture, our nation, with music, art, we are the great artists of the world.” These (Lee uses the N-word) Come here, and the Father of Art, art that is worth millions of dollars, to them is worth two dollars. And on top of that they are going to rape all our women. That’s what it says right there. And he looks at this. What is this?
h: Uh… it’s a crayon.
SL: No, what is this supposed to be?
h: Oh, it’s his… cock.
SL: Black cock. They will come here and rape all our women. See? You didn’t even realize that, huh?
h: When you compare them to American posters that project a very positive view of black contributions to the war, what do you think black Americans felt and saw when they looked at them?
SL: They felt patriotic because this is our country too. Despite how they treat us, we still believe in America. We believe in democracy. And despite everything we’ve been through, we’re still going to believe in this country. So when people say African Americans aren’t patriotic, they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. Because we’ve been dying for this country since the beginning.
h: And there are great stories behind many of the American posters. in his collection, as many of the black heroes are identified in the text of the images, which is not always the case with wartime propaganda. Soldiers are usually anonymous.
SL: (In “Above and Beyond the Call of Duty”): American hero, Doris Miller, Pearl Harbor. Her story is great, but they did her wrong.
h: The government only ended up giving him a medal after the black press lobbied hard for recognition.
SL: Yes, they tried to ignore it. “Need the best equipment/buy more extra bombs” (a 7th War Loan Drive poster showing a black soldier pointing his gun). Now this brother here (points to a poster showing black American soldier Obie Bartlett) He lost his left arm at Pearl Harbor. But he is a true American: although he lost his arm, he works in the shipyard. Tuskegee Airmen: “She’s a fantastic plane/Give us more.” (He points to a sign titled “United we win.”): black people united, white people, we are all Americans and the home of the brave. Yes Yes Yes. Maybe in 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 is your favorite poster from one of your movies?
SL: Cheated (2000) (a poster featuring two black-clad figures posing in an exaggerated minstrel style) is one of them. Jungle fever, Do the right thing. There is another sign for Cheatedthat New York Times He refused to run. He was the type, 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 negrokklansman. I think it’s actually the strongest poster because it says it all in one concise image. What do you think is the role of the poster in promoting your films?
SL: As a general rule, you should explain what the movie is about.
h: Yes. The most important thing is always that if a poster does not convey what you want to convey in less than a second, it fails because it needs to capture someone.
SL: Simplicity. You can’t beat that.