BlackAmericaWeb: You’re known for making films that examine the role race plays in America. What impact did Michael and his music have on race?
Lee: People forget that MTV initially did not want to play the “Billie Jean” video. It was (former CBS Records president) Walter Yetnikoff who threatened to pull every single Columbia/Epic artist off the network if MTV didn’t play “Billie Jean.” They had to cave in. At the time, MTV did not play any black artists. They told Yetnikoff that playing a black artist like Michael would turn off their viewership, but it was the exact opposite. In fact, you could say that Michael Jackson made MTV.
BlackAmericaWeb: You directed the music video for the controversial track, “They Don’t Care About Us.” What’s your feeling about the allegations of anti-Semitism leveled against Michael?
Lee: First of all, Michael loved everyone. He loved people, and he wanted to reach as many people as he could. That label ‘anti-Semitic’ hurt him deeply. I feel that what happened to Michael was unprecedented in the history of music. “They Don’t Care About Us” was on the “HIStory” CD. Under pressure from some groups, Sony Records was forced to pull the record off the shelves. They put it back later with some scribbled stuff over the track so that you couldn’t hear the lyrics. (Michael) had to have a disclaimer on “They Don’t Care About Us,” because of the couplet “Jew me, sue me, kick me, Kike me.” They took it out of context. I just found that amazing.
BlackAmericaWeb: But many would argue that those are, indeed, extraordinarily strong lyrics…
Lee: As a songwriter, it’s often not your point of view. If (Talking Heads singer) David Byrne writes a song called ‘Psycho Killer’—that’s not him. Nobody assumes he’s a psycho killer. There’s many examples. But they were out to get (Michael). A lot of people quietly were not friends with Michael after that. They just abandoned him, and it hurt him.
BlackAmericaWeb: In your documentary, a journalist comments about the severe discipline imposed on Michael as a child. What’s your take on Michael’s upbringing?
Lee: I’m not going to be one of the people that condemns (Jackson’s father) Joe Jackson. He got his family out of Gary, Indiana. His children did not have to work in the steel mills.
BlackAmericaWeb: What was the biggest challenge in directing this documentary?
Lee: Anytime you do a documentary, you have to work with people’s schedules. Their lives and schedules revolve around what we’re trying to do, so that’s why we weren’t able to get Quincy Jones. So here are the people we approached… we asked Prince, but he didn’t want to do it. Madonna was on tour. Justin Timberlake didn’t want to do it, and Lady Gaga was on tour. So we went with what we got. No matter the money, the schedule, or whatever, you always go with what you got.