More than 25 years after releasing his debut film, “She’s Gotta Have It,” Spike Lee remains one of the most important and influential directors in Hollywood. His portraits of black life in his early works, including “Mo’ Better Blues,” “Jungle Fever” and “Crooklyn,” set an important precedent that countless filmmakers of color have followed, while his forays into more broadly commercial work, such as “Clockers,” “25th Hour,” “Inside Man” and even “Malcolm X,” are significant achievements of both entertainment and bona fide art. In his latest film, “Red Hook Summer,” which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, Lee returns to his old stomping grounds of Brooklyn, NY, where he examines life in the Red Hook housing project as seen through the eyes of a teenager who comes from Atlanta, GA to visit his grandfather.
The morning after “Red Hook Summer” was screened for the first time for festival audiences, Lee sat down with The Playlist for an in-depth discussion about the film. In addition to discussing its specific challenges and his artistic priorities in getting the film made, Lee disagreed with some of the assessments we made of the film (read our review here), before reflecting on both the short and long-term ambitions and attitudes that have produced such a rich and varied body of work.
How much do you feel that this film is a rejoinder to the kind of films made for black audiences that you have been critical of?
I don’t know how to answer that question. I mean, I think there’s an audience for this film. I know there is. And this film is not just made for black audiences. We feel that there’s people who aren’t black that are going to want to see this film too. Or aren’t African American.
“Red Hook Summer” has this really fascinating examination of the difference between religion and personal responsibility. How difficult was that to juggle?
Well it is difficult, but I had a great co-screenwriter, James McBride, who grew up in the church, which I did not. In fact, the church we filmed in is in Red Hook, it’s called the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church. James’ parents founded that church. If you read his book, “The Color of Water,” his mother’s Jewish, his father’s African-American. So the way I like to make films [is] I don’t like to make a film that’s just one something, so I like to change tones, have more than one subject matter and then put it all together.
Cinematically, much less personally, how do you distinguish between spirituality and religion? Do you feel like this is an anti-religious film?
No, not at all. One, I would never make a film like that, because I’m not anti-religious. I did not grow up in the church, but I believe in God, and I think that we made a film that is going to ask the audience questions about their own relationship with God, or religion, or the religion that they don’t have. So it’s more about what are they going to do with it than [what] James and I feel.
Even though it’s Flick’s story, his grandfather Enoch is the character who goes on the greatest journey. How did you look at the film – is it really Enoch’s story filtered through Flick’s perspective?
It’s intertwined. It’s a grandson and grandfather who have never met before, and they’re coming to terms with each other.
In one of the Q&As at Sundance, you talked specifically about not wanting to comfort audiences by providing a conclusion to certain aspects of this story.
I’ve never done that.
But even if you don’t want everything to be wrapped up too neatly, what do you think is the resolution of the journey that happens in this film?
The audience has to decide that. I have been in this too long, and if you do it long enough you know that nothing good comes out of telling the audience what they should think. And I don’t do that.
One of the things I noticed in the movie was a series of stylistic homages or hallmarks of your earlier films. How conscious were all of those?
Oh yeah, of course. Michael Jackson used to reference all of his own stuff; artists do that. So that was conscious.
How careful do you have to be about interjecting them into a film without calling too much attention to them? Or is the point to call attention to them?
It’s Brooklyn. As I’ve said before — I don’t know if you heard this — this film is another installment of my chronicles of Brooklyn. In 1986, “She’s Gotta Have It,” 1989, “Do the Right Thing,” I forget the year for “Clockers,” I forget the year for “Crooklyn,” and now in 2012, “Red Hook Summer.” I mean in my first film, “She’s Gotta Have It,” what’s the character’s name? Nola Darling. She showed up in this film, and now she’s a Jehovah’s Witness.
How much do you feel like this film may have rekindled some of your creativity?
I disagree, I disagree. I know people have said that “Spike has refound himself,” “Spike has recovered his voice,” “Spike has gone back to his roots,” “Spike was lost in a winterland and now he’s come back.” I mean, that’s people’s opinions, but I don’t agree with that at all. I mean, that’s the way I see it, I don’t agree with it.
Throughout your career you’ve very successfully told stories that also examined important issues through speeches or explicit dialogue about them. How tough is it to balance those two things?
It’s hard to do, but we like to do it. But it’s not easy — making a film is a hard thing to do. If filmmaking was so easy, everybody could make a great film, that’s the honest to God’s truth (laughs). So, James and I, we’ve never shied away from anything that’s hard, but it’s also part of our storytelling process. And I’ve always felt that I’ve made a successful film if there’s some discourse or some discussion about it, whether people like it or hate it, if there’s interaction and they try to grapple with the world they’ve just been introduced to or seen.
How important is it to you to continue to make normalized portraits of black life as you did with so many of your earliest films?
It’s very important, but I’ve done films that aren’t like that – “The 25th Hour,” “The Summer of Sam” – so I think I’ve been unfairly pigeonholed as just a director who does one type of film. But as I’ve said on many occasions, if people are lazy, and they don’t know the breadth or width of my work, they just go by “Do The Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever” and “Malcolm X,” then that’s it.
In the opening-night Q&A, you talked about having to finance this yourself.
But here’s the thing, though. I’m not trying to make myself a martyr – I want people to understand that. Very few directors in today’s Hollywood climate get to make the movie they want to make. Very few! It’s a very, very hard climate to get a film made in, if you’re not doing 3D, big super-effects, shit-blowing-up, an old comic book, an old TV show, and if that’s not your thing, it’s hard.
Is Hollywood just not interested in the stories that you want to tell?
I stopped trying to analyze what they do, and when people ask me questions about what Hollywood does, I say, you’ve got to speak to them. You’ve got to speak to them and ask them why they do the things they do. And you’ll be lucky if they’ll speak to you on the record.
How important, and how difficult is it to make films about stories that you feel need to be told, as opposed to ones with maybe more immediate commercial appeal?
It’s difficult. As I said before, very few directors are getting to make the films they want to make – it’s a very select group that can do what they want to do, basically.
Well, does the success of something like “Inside Man” give the leverage to make “Miracle at St. Anna” or other movies going forward?
That helped. But I don’t really talk about stuff that’s pie in the sky, but no matter what happens, we’re going to make a way. By hook or crook, any means necessary, independently or within the Hollywood system, I’ll continue to make films.
“Red Hook Summer” continues to play the Sundance Film Festival. Spike Lee is aiming to have it in theaters by this summer.