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Spike Lee, a beloved New York City icon and visionary director, is known for his legendary films such as Do the Right Thing (1989). Malcolm X(1992), and his ever-present, effervescent position at Knicks’ games. So it was no surprise that Brooklyn Museum chose him as its honoree. Spike Lee: Creative SourcesThis Sunday, February 11, a show highlighting the inspirations behind his art will be on display. When I first saw the show in November, it was packed. 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. 

I was a little surprised by one section of the exhibit: a hallway connecting his photography collection with his movie posters room, which was filled with original World War II propagandist posters printed both by the Axis powers and the Allies. 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 an edited and condensed version of our conversation, which I hope demonstrates how incredible these items are, as both art and documents of history. 

Spike Lee speaks to Angelina Lippert, curator of his collection, about a fascist Italian 1944 poster depicting a Black American Soldier holding the Venus de Milo (Gino Boccasile) (1944), whereas the one beneath is “Venerdi Santo Passione di Cristo e di Treviso (Good Friday, Passion of Christ and Treviso)”Unknown designer (1944).

Hyperallergic: When I first saw the show, I expected to see movie memorabilia and iconic moments from Black history. I was surprised to see war propaganda. Why did you start collecting these pieces, and what do they mean to your? 

Spike LeeThe history of America has omitted the service, sacrifice, and commitment of Black people to this country. The first Black man to die in the United States of America’s service was Crispus Attucks. Crispus Attucks is his name. In every war, we fought for this country —at times when we weren’t even considered full citizens. So, I made 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. The army and other service divisions were segregated in many ways. Black people were trained to kill Germans. They were also trained to kill Japanese. They were also trained in camps where Nazi prisoners of War received better food and 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?

When I was in Italy for this film, I found some poster shops in Rome. These posters were created by Italian fascists for the Italian people, warning that Black savages would soon be arriving. They will rape women and destroy art. That’s what that says. This one [points at “Venus de Milo” (1944) by Gino Boccasile] The article says that this town was attacked on April 7, 1945 by savages. It was bombed by Americans, but it wasn’t Black soldiers. We weren’t flying bombers. This is fascist propagandist propaganda. 

H: But also, that first poster by Boccasile is great because there’s no text. The image has such impact on its by itself. These are, in general, the most effective propaganda poster because they convey a message instantly without the viewer having to read anything. This also means that the message can be understood by anyone, regardless of their 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 fearmongering tactics to stir locals to want to keep Americans away and to equate them with, as you pointed, Black savages. Playing up racism as a 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. Do you have any favorite posters in the exhibition, besides the fascist fliers? 

Spike Lee discusses the extensive collection of photography he has, including the impressive images by Gordon Parks.

SLThis 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 in Madison Square Garden. He said it in Madison Square Garden. [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: The poster is 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 you hang these posters in your life today? Are they in your house? Your studio?

SL: They’re in my office. All this stuff had been in my office, and then in storage, until I did 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 how Mussolini felt about Blacks. Look at what he accomplished in Ethiopia. It’s historic and it’s not like, “Awesome. I made them.”Here is the real shit. This is the authentic fascist Mussolini.

Spike Lee points to some of his favourite movie memorabilia on display at the exhibition.

H: These posters also feature a variety of styles. 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 believe there is a certain visual recipe that makes a poster effective? Which of these do think is most impactful? What would you feel the most if you saw this in the street?

SLThe Boccasile When you’re thinking about Italy, you’re thinking about some of the greatest art ever. This is the best art ever. [poster] says, “Our culture, our nation, with the music, the art, we’re the great artists in the world.”The following are some of the ways to get in touch with each other [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. Here’s what you see. What is this? 

H: Uh … it’s a crayon. 

SLWhat is this supposed to mean?

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: What do you think Black Americans saw and felt when they compared these to the American posters which portray a very positive image of the Black contribution to World War II?

SLThey felt patriotic. This is also our country. 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: There are some amazing stories behind many 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. Soldiers are usually anonymous. 

SL: [In “Above and Beyond the Call of Duty“]Pearl Harbor: Doris Miller is an American hero. His story is wonderful, but they treated him wrong.

H: The government finally gave him a medal only after the Black Press really pushed for his recognition. 

SLYes, they tried 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]. This brother here. [points at a poster featuring Black American soldier Obie Bartlett]His left arm was lost 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.

Spike Lee reveals some of his favourite movie memorabilia from the exhibition.

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 TimesThe Jigaboo refused to run. It was 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.

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