'Malcolm X' star Lonette McKee defends Spike Lee: 'Hollywood is racist'

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Lonette McKee has enjoyed a film career spanning more than 30 years, and she has no plans of slowing down now. The actress who has starred in films including Jungle Fever, He Got Game, Malcolm X, and Men of Honor is next slated to appear alongside rapper/actor Common in Luv, which hits theaters in January.

McKee is also an accomplished musician and started out in the entertainment industry writing music, singing and playing the piano. In 1976 she had her film debut staring as Sister in the cult-classic Sparkle, where she performed the film’s hits with Irene Cara and Dwan Smith.

Tomorrow, McKee takes the stage at Aaron Davis Hall in New York City for her illustrious one-night concert, A Night to Remember. She spoke to theGrio while preparing for her performance, weighing in on this year’s remake of Sparkle and assessing the current state of black actors and filmmakers in Hollywood.

McKee, who has written seven of her own screenplays and appeared in three of Spike Lee’s films, defended the director’s recent body of work and the poor reception some of his films, like Red Hook Summer and Miracle at St. Anna, received at the box office.

“The very real issue is that we are living in a racist society and this country does not like black folks,” McKee said.  “He’s [Spike Lee] been an outspoken advocate for black folks and the white people with the money don’t like it.”

theGrio: What did you think of the Sparkle remake? Did you get a chance to see it?

McKee: Yeah, I thought it was wonderful. And I thought that it was such a beautiful tribute to all of us who were a part of the original. I think we have to feel honored when young, intelligent, creative producers, writers and directors deem something that we’ve been a part of worthy of remaking. I think that’s really significant and I think we have to have gratitude for that.

Did Whitney Houston or any of the film’s producers ever reach out to you for your input, or to ask you to make an appearance in the new version of Sparkle?

No she didn’t… But I think that their concept for the film was to not include in any way the original people, and I think that was a smart move. I think it would have been a little over the top to have any of the original cast members, and it would have made the new cast members a little uncomfortable to have the originals around. They didn’t reach out to me, and I don’t resent it in any way.

I spoke to Spike Lee recently about his film Red Hook Summer, and one of the questions I asked him was, why does he think his more recent films didn’t generate the same level of box office success as some of his earlier work? Some of which you starred in. Why do you think his most recent movies didn’t have the same success as his earlier films? Do you think Spike Lee has peaked as a director?

No I don’t. And I think that has everything to do with marketing and promotion. I think that Spike has been a very outspoken advocate for rights of black folks. He broke the glass ceiling and he’s never been a brown-noser. He’s never been able to suck up to white people and I think he tells them like it is, and a lot of them don’t like it. So when he goes to these big white powers to do his films, I think that they give him a bad deal in terms of marketing and promoting. If they pump the marketing money into what you are doing, you will peak again. He’s been an outspoken advocate for black folks and the white people with the money don’t like it.

You having been trying to cut your teeth as a director. Talk to me about your directorial efforts.

I am working on a project now called Dream Street, a screenplay I’ve written. It’s about a group of people who all at one time were very successful in the entertainment industry, but because of life and hard time[s] and finding themselves on the fringes of society, they’ve lost their dreams.

It’s been a struggle raising the money for my projects. The very real issue is that we are living in a racist society and this country does not like black folks; Hollywood is racist….So a white girl straight out of film school can go and get five or $10 million dollars to do her movie, and I’m still struggling to find finance for mine.

The entertainment industry is merely a reflection of societal issues. It’s not really entertainment, it’s really just mirroring what is happening in life, and as long as we’re living in a racist society it’s going to difficult for filmmakers like Spike and me to get our project done because we don’t make fluff.