Spike made similar comments when Norman Jewison and Richard Attenborough were going to direct Malcolm X
at one point. I think the argument has two sides, and a distinction needs to be made. I think Lee's correct in pointing out that a film directed by a black person will demonstrate a black point of view; these kinds of personal artistic idiosyncracies always come up -- films directed by gays, women, Hispanics, Jews, you name the minority, tend to have the sensibility of that minority, even if it's subtle and not at all what the heart of the subject matter of the film is.
That said, however, I strongly disagree with Lee that a white guy can't make a movie about a black person. In fact, I'm not sure he actually thinks that -- it's Shannon's paraphrasing. For him to say whites are documenting black history is one thing -- and for that, I think he has a point -- but white people can certainly make movies about black people, especially if the movie isn't even about race. David Fincher made a very fine movie called Seven
about a black cop, but since the movie wasn't about race, the issue never came up. With Malcolm X
, however, Lee would have a point because race is central to Malcolm's life story, and the perspective of a black person is irrefutably different. With Ali
, the case is a little more vague. Ali had ties to the Muslims and some of his life did indeed deal directly with race (as far as audiences want to see major events), but then again if you want to make a movie about a boxer who struggled with personal identity, then why does it matter what color you are? Michael Mann wanted to make a film about a guy who was being told by every institution and government agency how to think, and he succeeded the most when he became his own man. He chose as his voice Muhammed Ali, but it just as easily could have been a white man. Spike Lee's Ali
would have been a much different film, but I don't see why both Mann and Lee can't make good films about that boxer, or any black character for that matter. I guess my main point is that there's no mandate against white directors making films about black characters, for art is art and should be color blind, but the closer you get to historical figures that deal closely with black issues and the black experience, Lee is correct that black artists carry an identity with that subject matter that a white will not.