In 1996, Spike Lee director of films from Do the Right Thing to Malcolm X to the recent documentary Kobe Doin' Work traveled to Brazil with Michael Jackson to produce the music video for his controversial song "They Don't Care About Us." He talked to TIME about his experiences, Michael Jackson's legacy and having the Gloved One as a houseguest.
What's your favorite Michael Jackson song?
I was born in 1957; he was born in 1958. And so I grew up, literally, with Michael Jackson. We both reached adolescence at the same time. And I had a big Afro like he did, and I hoped that the girls would like me the way they liked Michael but that wasn't happening. And you know, I loved him as a solo artist, but I have a special place in my heart for the stuff he did with the Jackson 5: "I'll Be There."
Do you remember the first time you heard it?
No. My memory's shot. I'm in Cannes, France, for a conference; I left dinner last night, got home, I turned on CNN and there it was him being rushed to the hospital. I didn't go to bed the whole night. I just kept watching CNN. So it's a big, big, big, big loss for the world. And I'd like to make this comment: I've seen too many people talking about Michael like they knew exactly what he did. Let's celebrate his genius, his musicality, his gift, his talent, and leave the other stuff at least till he gets buried. Let's celebrate his life now. That's the way I feel.
I can hear Michael Jackson in the background right now.
Yeah, my friend is driving me to Monaco for dinner, and I went out to this store and bought Michael Jackson's greatest hits. So, as we got in the car I said, "This is our driving music!" Going from Cannes to Monaco, listening to the greatest hits of Michael.
What was he like when you worked with him on the video for "They Don't Care About Us?"
Michael was great. He had a sense of humor. He worked hard. People talk about how hard Kobe Bryant works; he didn't work harder than Michael Jackson. This is what I've come to learn. You know, I did a documentary on Kobe, I know him; Michael Jordan, I worked with him a little; Michael Jackson when you love what you do that much, it's not work. So you can go longer and harder and faster and quicker because it's not a burden. You love what you're doing.
And did you talk to him on the set? Was he accessible?
Oh yeah! Michael was a citizen of the world. I said, "Mike, let's go to Brazil to do this." And he said, "Let's go, Spike!" And it's great when you work with people who say stuff like that it's not a matter of budget. He wanted to do it? We were going!
Had you met him previous to that?
Yeah, I met him at dinners and stuff like that, but that was the most intimate time I had been with him. Can I tell you a quick story? Michael Jackson called me up and said, "Spike, I want meet you, I'm coming to New York." I said, "Well where you want to meet?" He says, "I want to come to your house." I live in Brooklyn! He wants to come to my house! So, Michael Jackson came to my house in Brooklyn, New York this was when I was living in Fort Greene. And he said, I want you to direct a video for me. My new album's coming out, pick a song. So we listened to all the songs and I picked "Stranger in Moscow." And he said, I don't want you to do that one. And I said, "Michael, just tell me which one you want me to do! Why ask me to pick one?" And he laughed and he said he wanted me to do "They Don't Care About Us." That's how it happened.
How did he like Brooklyn?
Well, I dunno if he'd ever been there before. We spent like two or three hours just talking. I mean, we're the same age. I'm less than a year older than him. To be honest, I dominated the conversation, because I was trying to really tell him how much impact he had on my life. And I could just not believe that Michael Jackson was sitting in my living room in Brooklyn, New York. It was amazing.
I just want to get back quickly to "I'll Be There." What sort of associations did you have with that song? What did it mean to you?
I just remember being young, loving that song, starting to get interested in girls; it was just that period of time. And here's the thing that I remember: growing up, as far as girls, everybody didn't like Michael. They liked Tito, they liked Jackie, they liked Jermaine it was like the Beatles, the girls had their favorites. It was not always Michael, Michael, Michael.
Was he always your favorite Jackson?
Oh yeah. But I wasn't a girl though.