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Rewind That: Spike Lee Almost Directed Michael Jackson’s "Strangers In Moscow"

Ralph Bristout

 // Jun 10, 2016

Almost a year after having directed masterpieces like "Crooklyn" and music videos for artists like Naughty By Nature ("Hip Hop Hooray"), Spike Lee received a phone call that went a little something like this:

Spike Lee: "Hello?"

Phone call: 'Spike!'

Lee: "Who is this?!"

Phone call: 'Michael.'

Lee: "Michael who?!"

Phone call: 'Michael Jackson.'

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In disbelief, Lee cut the phone call short — not once, or twice, but three times. "I thought it was a prank," he would tell REVOLT. Eventually, after coming to terms with the caller's persistence, Lee's bat phone came ringing again and after finally picking up, the famed director discovered what would become his latest task. As it turned out, Michael Jackson, the real Michael Jackson, wanted Lee to direct one of the short films for his album at the time, HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1. So after extending the offer, the King of Pop made a surprise visit to Lee's home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn ("This is when Fort Greene was Fort Greene," he clarified). Not before long, a decision was to be made.

"We went in my living room and sat down. He gave me his CD and said, "Spike, this is my new album HIStory," Lee recalled of the conversation. "'Half of it is greatest hits and the other half is new material. I'm going to sit with you here, you're going to put the CD in the CD player and whatever song you like, you're doing a short film." Keep in mind, MJ had already released the music video for "Scream," a highly-stylized visual that remains the most expensive music video ever made. Not to mention, the video for "You Are Not Alone" played as the follow-up to "Scream." All of that is to say, the pressure behind the words "You're doing the short film" should have been as thick as the attention that had spread across Fort Greene once word got out that MJ was in town. However, with Lee being who he is, the director was more than ready.

"So I said I'll pick one. He was like "What is it Spike?" I said "Strangers In Moscow" and he goes, "No! You don't want to do that. You want to do "They Don't Care About Us." Michael was slick because he knows a lot of time, it's best to have people think that it's your idea, but it's really what they want to do. And because of "Do The Right Thing" and "Malcolm X," he thought automatically that I was going to pick "They Don't Really Care About Us."

So with Mike taking the liberty to make Spike's mind up, the pair ventured off to the favelas near Rio de Janeiro, where HIStory was made...

Real Talk | Spike Lee remembers directing Michael Jackson's "They Don't Really Care About Us"
"We had the time of our lives. Brazil went crazy."
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