Yes, it takes place in the same neighborhood melting pot as that earlier film and Lee allegedly reprises the character of Mookie, the conflicted delivery boy at Sal's Famous Pizzeria all those years ago. But "Red Hook Summer" focuses on a young, sheltered Atlanta resident visiting New York relatives and going through an eye-opening experience. The focus has shifted to different characters and, more importantly, different times.
"I'm not stuck in the past," a typically feisty Lee told Indiewire during a phone conversation last week. "I'm dealing with what I'm looking at right now in this time and space that we occupy."
But it is a return, of sorts, to a realm that Lee hasn't explored in a while. He calls it "The Chronicles of Brooklyn," a sprawling term encompassing innumerable Spike Lee joints from over the years starting with his scrappy debut, "She's Gotta Have It," and followed not only by "Do the Right Thing" but "Crooklyn" and Clockers."
"It's my continuation of this specific world," Lee said, pointing out various links between his works, from the reappearance of two murderous cops from "Do the Right Thing" in "Jungle Fever" and "Clockers" to the cameo by Sal's Famous Pizzeria in "Inside Man."
Recalling that last title, the 2006 hostage thriller that grossed nearly $100 million worldwide, Lee sounded practically nostalgic. "My biggest hit ever," he said the moment the movie came up. Unable to get a sequel off the ground, he made the ill-received 2008 World War II drama "Miracle at St. Anna," then turned his attention to TV documentaries. "Red Hook Summer" marks the first bonafide Spike Lee joint in four years.
He blames the delay on industrial challenges. "Here's the thing," he said. "There are just certain films that, in today's tough environment, I was not gonna do. But you might get a better welcome on cable. That's just the reality."
As if to illustrate that point, "Red Hook Summer" arrives at Sundance without a theatrical distributor, although Lee insists the movie will come out this summer, no matter who buys it. "That's my number-one intention," he said. "It's why we've been working so hard to get it ready for Sundance, because we want to sell it here, which will give us enough time to set up for a summer release."
He may feel the pressure of competing at the the festival with younger filmmakers, but doesn't show it. "We haven't had to resort to Kickstarter," he said, then added: "We haven't yet. And hopefully we won't."
If Lee is working on a smaller scale than his other recent narrative features, it certainly hasn't impacted his themes. "Red Hook Summer" promises to delve into the same racially charged situations percolating throughout his career, while expanding his repertoire to explore the impact of gentrification.
"We're dealing with reverse migration, which is happening in many urban areas," Lee said. "African Americans historically have fled the south for D.C., for New York, for Chicago, for Detroit, for California. Now, many years later, they're moving back to the south."
That makes "Red Hook Summer" not only a political narrative but a chronicle of returning to one's roots. The young protagonist heads to the Red Hook housing projects to spend the summer with a grandfather he has never met. "All we were trying to do is tell a story," said Lee, who co-wrote the story with "St. Anna" scribe James McBride. "All I ever try to do in a film is be a storyteller. It's the story of this young boy's journey. It's very simple."
Few have seen the movie ahead of the festival, but early reports suggest a sudden twist late in the game that takes "Red Hook Summer" in an exceedingly dramatic direction. Considering the massive street riot that closed "Do the Right Thing," this should come as no great surprise. When that movie initially made waves, much discussion centered around Mookie's decision to hurl a garbage can through Sal's window, officially taking sides in the climatic racial battle. But Lee never wanted that moment to take on the symbolic reading it received.
"That wasn't me," he said. "That's what people did then."
Lee wouldn't speculate whether "Red Hook Summer" will instigate similar conversations, but sounded especially glad just to have finished making it. "I can't wait around for somebody to do something for me," he said, referring to the film's financing. "So we were proactive and made 'Red Hook Summer.' That's our statement."
The filmmaker's committed approach has influenced new generations of directors, most obviously in the classroom; Lee continues to teach graduate film production at NYU. Oddly enough, he's now following in the recent footsteps of his former students, several of whom directed movies that landed distribution at Sundance just last year: Dee Rees, who assisted Lee on "Inside Man" before making her directorial debut with the acclaimed Harlem drama "Pariah;" Alrick Brown, whose "Kinyarwanda" won a prize in the festival's international competition; and Rashaad Ernesto Green, the director of "Gun Hill Road."
Lee talks about their accomplishments like a proud parent. "I take education very seriously," he said. "I interact with the students, so it's very gratifying that those three sold their films at Sundance." He expects more to come.
"I've got a lot of talented people coming down the pike," he said. "It's very gratifying to me when people get their first feature feature made, because that's the biggest hurdle."
He made a point of saying that his advocacy as a teacher applies to all his students. "There's this perception now, with Dee, Rashaad and Alrick, that I only speak to black students at NYU," he said. "That's crazy. My class is very diverse."
And everyone receives the same advice.
"You gotta make your own way," Lee said. "You gotta find a way. You gotta get it done. It's hard. It's tough. That's what I tell my students every day in class."
It's easy to imagine he tells himself that as well. "I've been very fortunate," Lee said. "Some people might call me a hardhead, but I'm not going to let other people dictate to me who I should be or the stories I should tell. That doesn't register with me."