In case you haven't noticed, Spike Lee has been making the publicity rounds for his latest feature, "Red Hook Summer," which opened on Friday and took in $42,100 on four screens over the weekend. That may not sound like a lot, but it's decent business for a film with no special effects, no recognizable characters and no big-name stars. And did I mention that it's set in the projects, but doesn't use them to terrify the audience into double-locking their doors to keep the bad guys away? The Red Hook Projects, as seen in their namesake film, are a place of danger, yes, but also real beauty. It's a community of mostly poor people, struggling to find their way just like the rest of us.
The main attraction, then, is Spike. And the fact that he's going back to Brooklyn, to continue the saga he began with "She's Gotta Have It" and continued with "Do the Right Thing" and beyond. The main characters in "Red Hook Summer" are Bishop Enoch, a thunderously righteous Baptist preacher (played magnificently by Clarke Peters of "The Wire" and "Treme"), and his estranged 13-year-old grandson, Flik (newcomer Jules Brown). Flik's mother lives in middle-class comfort in Atlanta, but for some reason she decides to entrust her boy to what we will eventually learn -- mild spoiler alert -- is her very troubled father for the whole summer. (You can read Spike's explanation for her decision toward the end of this Q&A.) This being a Spike Lee film about Brooklyn, we also meet a host of colorful characters, including Flik's young friend Chazz (Toni Lysaith), the boozing and ranting Deacon Zee (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) and a gang-banging drug dealer named Box (Nate Parker).
Reviews have been mixed, but I have a feeling we will eventually learn to forgive the film its technical flaws and treasure the way it so generously invites us to share in the joys and sorrows of a community most of us have been conditioned to avoid at all costs. Because I found the film so fascinating -- I saw it once at Sundance and then again, in its final, shorter version, at a press screening -- I asked Spike to spend a half hour talking to me about it and some of the issues it raises. I had a million questions and asked about five of them, but I'm pleased to say that he sounds off on a host of topics: the unfairness of not paying student athletes, the technological changes that have made it easier to make a film and harder to distribute it, the importance of religion to the black community, the future of Hollywood and the reason he believes Mike Tyson didn't rape Desiree Robinson.
So what's the No. 1 thing you wanted to accomplish with this film?
Tell a story. That's always the goal with the films I do. That's what I tell my students at NYU. Learn how to tell your stories well. That's it, really.
I read that the original story you wanted to tell was about a boy meeting his grandfather.
Well, it's like, you start with something, you add something, it starts evolving and mutating. But James McBride and I -- my screenwriter -- we knew it was going to take place in Red Hook. And he didn't know it, but I knew it would be a continuation of my chronicles of Brooklyn, New York. This is the sixth film: "She's Gotta Have It" in '86, "Do the Right Thing" in '89, "Crooklyn," "Clockers," "He Got Game," and now "Red Hook Summer" in 2012.
I feel like one of the accomplishments of the movie is to bring the Red Hook Projects to life. I live not too far from there --
Yeah, in Carroll Gardens.
I grew up in Cobble Hill.
I remember reading that. But I thought it was interesting that there were two views from characters in the film. There's Enoch, who said, "Red Hook is a window to God's inspiration," and then there's Deacon Zee, who says, "If you want to take pictures of dead things, you came to the right place." So what do you think about that?
There's beauty and ugliness. Beauty and ugliness can exist in the same place. Simple. I love Brooklyn in its beauty, but I don't like waking up and seeing on the front page of the Daily News young black men killing each other, and the headline says "When will this stop?" You get both.
And you get both with the church, right?
Well, yeah. [Laughs.]
Do you think the church has an important role to play in the black community?
Oh, yes. The church will always have an important role to play in the black community. It's the pillar of the community. Many of the great African-American leaders have come from the church. Or the mosque. Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X. So that's not even a debate. But people are starting to think about: how has the church evolved, with the present condition of many African-Americans in this country? And there's this new type of church, which I'm -- look, I don't go to church, so maybe I shouldn't be talking about this. I don't go, but if I went, I would not be going to a former basketball arena that sits 20,000 people to go to church and watch the preacher on a Jumbotron. And not seeing a plate being passed around but garbage cans. And this whole philosophy of prosperity: "Give me your money and you, too ... I'm gonna have my G4 plane, my Bentley, whatever car, my houses, whatever luxury items you want to say, and you too can be like me, because Jesus will bless you." I'm not with that. [Laughs.] I'm not with it! I'm not with it.
So the church in the film --
Is not like that one. Come on, this is a storefront church.
I love the cross made of fluorescent lights on the ceiling.
You know, that church exists in Red Hook. It's called the New Brown Memorial Church, and James McBride's parents founded that church.
His father's a preacher?
He was. And his mother too. Who was Jewish, but she … It's funny because we were looking for churches, when we were scouting for locations: "James, you know any churches?" He was very hesitant. [Laughs.] I remember saying, "We found a church that somehow you're related to?" But it was great. It was great.
And it's struggling, the church in the film, right?
Oh, they're struggling. I mean, a church like that, whose flock, its members are in the projects. It's not like these megachurches. It's a difference of night and day. Like Deacon Zee says in the film, they still owe money on the heating bill, the sewage is messed up, and there's a hole in the roof. But despite that, Bishop Enoch had this vision that someday they're gonna get a visitor who's gonna see the great job he's doing and the great things happening in this house of the Lord and he's gonna write a check and everything will turn around. And that visitor comes, but he came to cash a check. He didn't come to write one. Blessing came to cash a check. That's a good line. [Laughs.]
That is a good line, thank you.
Use it. But you gotta be careful, because we don't wanna give it away.
The church scenes are amazing --
No one -- I'm not bragging, and I'm not talking about documentaries, but a feature film, a church like that, you never seen that before, a black church like that. This is not, what was that scene? The one in "The Blues Brothers," people flying through the air? [Laughs.] Look, even though I didn't grow up in the church, I still respect the church, and in no way, shape or form did I want to mock the black church. So we were very respectful how we shot these three scenes. The thing about it, though: it was church in there. It was church. In those scenes, Clark was saying stuff -- it wasn't scripted, but he got the Holy Spirit. Because the tradition of the black church, it's a thing called call-and-response. So you get this back-and-forth between the preacher, between the bishop and his congregation, his flock. And what we shot was authentic: people there singing and praising the lord. They forgot the cameras were there. They were singing and praising the lord, and we were having authentic, bona-fide religious experiences while we were filming those scenes.
But my sense is that you're ambivalent about religion.
Look, I don't go to church. And for me -- not for anybody else, but for me -- I never felt I had to go to church to deal with my spirituality or deal with the most high, the Almighty. It's a personal thing, I didn't have to go down to church to do that. Now, other people, that's great. And when I do go to church once in a while, it's a great experience. Like, my wife, Tonya, her parents are from a small town in Virginia, and once every two years they have a homecoming and we go down there and it's great.
But it's not your thing.
It's not my thing.
But I feel like this is a respectful film about religion --
It has to be.
-- despite the fact that you're throwing a proverbial garbage can through the window.
But here's the thing, though. And I know you understand this, because you write for Huffington Post: you can have something that you love and still be uneasy about certain parts of it. There's no need to just torch the whole thing. Example: I love sports. I love basketball. Basketball is one of the greatest games ever created to man. And woman. But you look at "He Got Game," we showed a lot of good -- especially with the opening credits sequence, where we showed everybody shooting balls all over the country to Aaron Copland's beautiful music. Despite all that, you still have to deal with the underbelly of collegiate sports. It's a rotten business. Rotten to the core. And look at what's happening. Stuff only could happen to Penn State -- not just Penn State. I don't want to pick out Penn State, because it happens other places; they just happened to get caught. Stuff like that happens at these institutions when there is a win-at-all-costs attitude. "Whatever we gotta do, we're gonna win. We're gonna forge grades. If something happens, we're gonna sweep it under the rug." These schools -- and if you have a big-time, Division 1 football and basketball program, they generate money not just for the rest of the athletic department, including the women's teams because of Title IX -- they generate revenue for the whole college.
Everybody except the players.
Yes! And that's my biggest beef. These guys need to get paid. A stipend -- or something. Put it in escrow. These guys are pimps. That old argument, well, they're getting a free tuition -- that argument was all right when CBS wasn't paying how many billions contract for basketball. Things have changed, and the student athlete -- they're getting the short end.
And also, another thing: If you go to a big-time, D1 football or basketball program, that is a job in itself. Forget about going to class. The fact is, you gotta watch film, you gotta be in the weight room. You barely have enough time to go to class. And specifically -- I know I might get in trouble for this; people might not agree -- the African-American athlete is steered away from taking challenging majors.
You think so?
I know that for a fact. Watch these games, look at these guys' majors. When I was growing up, they were Phys-Ed majors. Now, it's Sports Marketing. Sports Marketing is the Physical Education of … It's a racket. It's a racket.
How important is it for you to use a film like this to present perspectives that aren't getting shown elsewhere?
It's very important. But I'm being careful about saying this, because I don't want people to continue to read that Spike hates Hollywood. Spike Lee says Hollywood doesn't do this. Spike Lee says Hollywood doesn't do that. That's not the case at all. If that was the case, I wouldn't have made "Red Hook Summer." This was something where I knew, Look, I'm a grown man. They're not making this film. And I'm making it. It doesn't fit what they do, and that's cool. So what's the alternative? Am I going to continue to bitch, scream and yell about what Hollywood doesn't do? Can't do that. That's pointless. That's not doing anybody any good. So I finally wrote the check myself.
But I'd like to say, this is not just about Spike Lee. This is the environment of Hollywood today. If you're not James Cameron, Clint Eastwood, Scorsese, Spielberg, Christopher Nolan -- and I might be leaving some people out; please don't get mad because I left out your name -- it's hard for anyone to get a film made. I don't care if they're white, black, I don't care. It is hard, period, because if you built a very fine career -- I'm not talking about myself -- in adult-themed pictures, those films aren't getting made anymore. Not in the same numbers.
I'm a little older than you, but when I was growing up, big blockbuster films were neatly dropped into the summer, between Memorial Day and Labor Day. After Labor Day, it was, All right, get all of that child's stuff out of here, now come the serious themed films, the Oscar material. That stuff is out the window.
Or there aren't as many anymore.
Now it's big blockbuster films for 12 months a year. It's not just relegated to that summer period.
But as Flik suggests in the movie, now you can make a film with an iPad or a cell phone.
Yeah, but at the most that's just going to YouTube. That's not making the AMC.
I wanted to ask you: Who's the next Spike Lee?
You know what, I really don't like -- no disrespect. I didn't like people saying I was the next, I was the black Woody Allen after my first film, "She's Gotta Have It." I think a lot of times -- I've done this in the past; I've been guilty of it too -- we don't take the time to describe somebody so we give them one-name labels. How many times you heard this person was the new motherfucking Michael Jordan? Come on, now. No more new Michael Jordans.
OK, but here's what I mean: Do you see folks coming up who are doing things --
Yeah, they're my students. All the time. Dee Rees, who just did "Pariah." There's this young guy named Scott Sanders, who did "Black Dynamite." Yeah, there's young people coming up.
Do you think it's harder for them than it was for you?
I think it's easier to get a film made. But it's still hard to get distribution for it. But feature films now, you got a five-minute film, you put it on YouTube, you don't know how many million looks you're gonna get. That wasn't around when I was coming up. My generation, we didn't go to film school to get a degree. We went to film school to get the equipment, because back then you could not get access to the equipment. Now, you could edit a feature film on that [points at my laptop]. Shoot it on your iPhone. So technology in a lot of ways -- and it's good, I think -- has brought us some democracy to people having the tools to tell their story. Whatever that story might be.
So the diversity of stories available is amazing, but the number that actually get money behind them is not that high.
Well, as I said before, I don't want people to think I'm always kicking Hollywood, but I will say this. The United States Census Bureau has said -- not Spike Lee, not 40 Acres, not Mr. Mookie, not Mars Blackmon, not shorty -- the United States Census Bureau has said in the year 2042, white America is gonna be a minority in this country. That's not me saying that. That's the United States Census Bureau. And if I'm a businessman -- forget about Hollywood -- if I'm a white businessman, that has to be an alarm that if I want to continue being in business, my workforce, whatever I do, is gonna have to start trying to reflect this new complexion of the United States of America. Because if you don't do that, and your competitor does it first, you're gonna be ass out.
I mean, look at what happened to IBM. You can be a giant, but there's no guarantee you're gonna be around forever. Apple came out of nowhere, kicking much ass. People just thought this is some little bullshit, rinky-dink, they don't know what they're doing. Boom. So if you're not in tune to the future, whatever it is, you're gonna be behind. And we all know, this business, any business is competitive. And people are looking for that competitive edge. And if they see that fact, they're gonna put 2 and 2 together. They're not gonna wait until 2042. You wait until 2042, it's too late.
But when I look back at 1989, when I saw "Do the Right Thing," I was 14 years old --
Where'd you grow up?
In New Jersey. And that opening sequence with Public Enemy --
Rosie Perez --
And Rosie Perez, I literally went out of that movie and back to my high school and told my friends, "There is a whole world out there that you idiots don't know about."
You guys never came into the city? Were you way, way out in New Jersey? In Morristown?
Well, I was actually going to high school in Jersey City, but I'm talking about my white friends. And we were just starting to hear, because our black friends were introducing us to --
-- Slick Rick and stuff like that. But it was a "holy shit" moment. And we were in Jersey City!
A PATH ride away, right? [Laughs.]
Exactly. But I wonder what you think about the difference between 1989 and now. Where what you guys did, that was like a shot. And now it's such a different environment. I mean, we have a black president, so it's a better environment in many ways --
Well, I'll just say that the people who were doing what they were doing at that time -- whether it was hip-hop, film, comedy -- it really wasn't so much commercialized. Everybody wants to make money, but wasn't the sole purpose of why you were doing your art. Nowadays, in my thinking, it's the dollar signs. I have to do this to achieve this number of zeros in front of the thing. So, for me, I don't know, in art in general, I'm gonna make a generalization, but when the goal is to make a ton of money, to win an Oscar or a Grammy, or whatever it is, when that goal comes first, before the art, that could be problematic.
But there are some people who -- Michael Jackson did both. Not a lot of people can deliver with the art and have that knack that their art aligns perfectly with what everyone will want. That's a hard thing to do.
That's genius. And that's what Michael did.
There's a line where Enoch complains, "Movies define what our boys should be." Is that how you feel, or is that a complaint you get sick of hearing?
No, no, no. I teach film at NYU. I'm a student of film. I know the impact of imagery, and when you don't have a balance, it's not a good thing. And so often, images that we see might not be the best thing. Something I hate: grown-ass men walking around with their underwear showing, with their ass hanging out. That shit came from prison. Because in prison, you can't wear a belt. So the guys got out -- here's the thing, I just thought about this. They got out of prison, but they didn't get the prison out of them. The stuff they were doing, they kept doing it, and then the young people saw it: "Oh, this shit is hip." What is the purpose of wearing pants so low that it shows your ass? I mean, to me that's insane. And maybe people are gonna say I'm old. "Oh, Spike, you're 55, you don't know what's happening, you don't know what's hot, you don't know what the shit is, this how we do." How you do is ignorant. For me. And then the kids pick it up.
But do you think that's through movies and music?
They see it in the videos!
So do you think people should work harder to have more positive representations of black folks on film? Would it be better if --
Look, I'm not the black cultural czar. All I can do is what I do. I'm slowly getting out of the business of telling other people what to do. [Laughs.] As my wife, my dear lovely Tonya, has told me repeatedly: "Just focus on your own shit, Spike!" [Laughs.]
That sounds like good advice.
I said slowly it's happening.
OK, talking about this movie, then, my No. 1 question: How could Flik's mother leave her son with this man? Knowing what we're pretty sure she knows.
Well, that happened 15 years ago. And for 15 years, Bishop Enoch has pleaded, cried, begged for a reconciliation between him and her, his daughter. And for 13 years, Bishop Enoch has begged, cried, pleaded to see his grandson. And after 15 years, coupled with her husband being killed in Afghanistan and Flik coming to the age where he's starting to act out and needing a man in the family, that's why she did that.
But she wouldn't want to be there herself?
She can't stay in Red Hook the whole summer. She works! She's a single parent.
All right. I love how you have these back stories. I read your Mookie back story on Moviefone. You have back stories for everybody?
Well, yeah. Nola Darling, as you know, from "She's Gotta Have It," she was -- as Mike Tyson would say -- she was having sexual relations with three men at the same time. And fast forward, now she's a Jehovah's Witness. She found the Lord. I kinda made an allusion to the Prince effect, you know how all of Prince's girlfriends -- Appolonia, Vanity -- they're all preachers now.
You mentioned Tyson, and I wanted to ask you about that because I saw the show the other night.
Yeah, how did you like it?
I liked it. It's fascinating to see him up there, telling those stories. He's got some great lines.
He's got some great stories. I think he has great storytelling ability. And Mike is the most honest person I've ever met in my life. We all know people who will go on and on and on and on about how great they are. They'll talk about their great accomplishments, but you won't hear one word about something that's not so nice. Mike will share his pitfalls, his mistakes, the horrible things he's done, with the same ease as he does his triumphs. He's the youngest heavyweight champion of the world, a record that might not ever be broken. And he's at equal ease telling the audience about both.
Do you believe him about Desiree Robinson? Because he's so honest?
I believe him. I don't think he's a liar about that. And in Broadway, most directors after the show opens, they drop in now and then. So I've been to a lot of the shows since opening night, and every night it's evolving, he's getting a standing ovation every night. And the night I went, he did something he hadn't done in the past. You know the montage at the end with his kids?
Well, this night he talked about one of his children. He said, "I did not graduate 8th grade. I was arrested over 30 times before I was 13. My daughter just turned down her early acceptance at Duke University, is now going to Brown University. I have Ivy League kids." For me, that's worth the price of admission, just to hear him say that on stage. He grew up in Brownsville, New York, where many of the people he grew up with are dead or in prison. And he has Ivy League kids. It's amazing.
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