The Republic of Brooklyn and its ongoing chronicles have taken director Spike Lee all over New York’s brightest and best borough (its estimated that if Brooklyn was its own city it would be the fourth most populace one in the United States). “Do The Right Thing” took place in Bed-Stuyvesant, parts of “Jungle Fever” took place in Bensonhurst, while Harlem-centric “Mo’ Better Blues” homebase was Dumbo, “Clockers” was set among the Boerum Hill projects, “He Got Game” landed in Coney Island and “She’s Gotta Have It” was centered in Fort Greene where Lee lived for many years, to name a few.
And so for his latest effort “Red Hook Summer,” Lee looked to one of Brooklyn’s isolated corners, Red Hook, the North-Western most tip, extending to the water and only a minor kayak ride away from the Statue of Liberty. As Lee said in our exclusive Playlist interview, Red Hook is largely cut off. “There’s no subway out there, the only way out there is the B61 bus.” And tucked away in the middle of Red Hook are its projects, a focal point that Lee and his co-writer James McBride (“Miracle At St. Anna“) examined for their story. A non-traditionally narrative picture, the intimate “Red Hook Summer” is a coming of age tale that centers on Flik, a young, suburban, well-to-do teenager who receives a rude awakening when his mother sends him to stay with his baptist preacher grandfather (“The Wire” star Clarke Peters) in the Red Hook projects.
But the multi-faceted picture also thematically looks at religion and salvation while examining the effects of race, gentrification, class and the aspirations of fleeing ones limited circumstances. It’s classic Spike Lee on paper and yet actually quite different in its playful, nostalgic and yes, sometimes somber tone. Even comparing it to “Crooklyn” does not quite do it justice. It’s its own thing especially with religion at its center. The Playlist recently had the opportunity to sit down with Lee to discuss “Red Hook Summer” the ongoing chronicles of Brooklyn, some of the new projects he wants to tackle (an adaptation of the musical “Porgy & Bess“), his upcoming documentary Michael Jackson documentary “Bad 25” and much much more. “Red Hook Summer” opens in limited release on August 10th.
What was the impetus for telling this story and why now?
Anytime I do a film, there’s a story I want to tell at that particular moment in time and space. In the spring of 2011 I called my man James McBride, a great novelist — we worked most recently on “Miracle At St. Anna” — we met at a coffee shop on 61st and Madison and I just bought that camera [points to his Sony digital camera] and I said, ‘You’ve got to come up with something and I’ll fiance it,’ and this is the final product.
When talking to James, did you have a story in place, did you want to write something about religion?
That stuff evolved. The first thing that happened was we wanted to do something with children. James and I both have children. These days you never see these kids in films unless it’s in a gang bang film or something like that, so that’s the first thing we did. Then we the idea of the kid coming up from the South, James grew up in Red Hook, I’d just done something with [New York Knicks star] Anthony Carmelo who’s from Red Hook. Red Hook’s very…have you been to Red Hook?
Yeah, I live nearby. I’m often there on the weekends.
It’s hard to get to Red Hook, the B61 bus, the train is ten blocks away, but now you’ve got Fairway, the Pier, the Brooklyn Terminal, the ferry and all this, you know, gentrification in the neighborhood and right in the middle you’ve got the projects. And gentrification is happening everywhere. I mean D.C. used to be chocolate city, not anymore. Chicago’s South Side, it’s all gentrified.
So that was a theme you wanted to explore?
Yes, we knew gentrification would be something in it. We just go to Ft. Greene and witness what is happening here. We bought a brownstone for $40,000 dollars in ’68. They were giving them away. I mean they wouldn’t list Ft. Green, they would just say “downtown vicinity.” But look at “Do the Right Thing,” John Savage’s character, he was the pioneer [laughs]. That was the beginning of gentrification when he stepped on Buggin Out’s Jordans [played by Giancarlo Esposito].
The cameo of Mookie in “Red Hook Summer” is small, but it’s two-fold meaningful as it also points to gentrification and explains what happened after “Do The Right Thing.” I read the ending as much more cynical at the time.
Yep, Sal [played by Danny Aiello] left Bed-Stuy. If he would have known it’d be gentrified he would have stayed [laughs]. This was before the influence and so Sal, with insurance money rebuilt his house from the ground up, in Red Hook. And Sal was having trouble with the Mexicans he hired they just couldn’t deliver like Mookie. THey always get the wrong addresses, pizza’s cold, people complaining. So Sal called Mookie who’s unemployed at the time and then Mookie said I’ll think about it and he said you’ve got to make sure that me and Pino are straight and then what really made Sal, what really made Mookie take the job is that Sal finally put sisters and bros up on the wall [laughs] They came to Jesus.
That’s interesting because at the end of “Do the Right Thing” it’s very ambiguous as to what’s going to happen but you sort of subtly explain that.
Well what people are missing is that Nola Darling [actress Tracy Camilla Johns] is in this film. The Jehovah’s Witness, that’s Tracy Camilla Johns’ character from “She’s Gotta Have It.” We’ve done this before in “Jungle Fever,” two cops almost arrest Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra and one of them is in “Clockers” and in “Inside Man” Sal’s pizza is being delivered to the hospitals [ed. note: we discussed much of this in an article charting the cinematic Spike Lee universe, and note: Isiah Whitlock Jr. aka Clay Davis from “The Wire” also reprises his role of Detective Flood in “Red Hook Summer.” He was previously seen in “She Hate Me” and “25th Hour“].
At Sundance when you discussed the Chronicles of Brooklyn I noticed “Jungle Fever” wasn’t mentioned nor “He Got Game” and “Mo Better Blues” which features parts of Dumbo.
“Mo’ Better Blues,” Denzel‘s apartment is by the Brooklyn Bridge, but it’s not specifically in Brooklyn [parts are set in Harlem]. “He Got Game” is Coney Island for sure. Here it goes: 1986 “She’s Gotta Have It,” Ft. Green, Downtown Brooklyn. 1989 “Do The Right Thing,” Bedstuy. “Clockers” is Boreum Hill, “Crooklyn” is Bedstuy again.
What about “Jungle Fever”?
“Jungle Fever” is in Bensonhurst, but a lot of it takes place in Harlem too. It’s not exclusively Brooklyn.
You knew “Red Hook Summer” was something Hollywood wasn’t going to touch?
Yeah we knew that. From the get-go. From the very moment we had the meeting we knew we would do it. I told them I’m financing it myself, that was the whole plan from the beginning. You’ve got to have money.
Did you consider well known actors?
This film didn’t need stars. Who’s going to do a better job then Clarke Johnson? He’s phenomenal in this film. This is a film that from the outset was made with outside the system. I mean stars ain’t doing this. Also we wanted to be under the radar.
You shot this on the sly, why so secretive?
I like it…when people have to know something I’ll let them know [laughs]. Because we didn’t want any distractions, we just wanted to do the work. We shot this three six day weeks, 18 days, last summer.
You’ve done a lot of TV.
I’ve done a lot of documentaries for HBO and I’m doing another documentary called “Bad 25” which is about the making of Michael Jackson’s Bad album and we’re going to finish it for the film festival.
And they’re giving you a lifetime achievement award.
A nice watch.
How does it feel to be receiving a lifetime achievement award at 55?
[long pause] Better than when I’m dead [laughs heartily].
Speaking of “Bad 25,” I noticed some irony. You have this 1986 New York Times profile framed in your offices and in it you give Michael shit for dating Brooke Shields and Elizabeth Taylor and never having a black woman on his arm.
I’ve always loved Michael. I mean, all the stuff he did never affected my appreciation for his music and that’s what the film’s about, his music, the Bad album. [Michael Jackons’s estate] wanted to do Bad, they’re going to do all three eventually… So the great thing about it if the estate comes I have access to Michael’s…they’re opening up all of his archives, there’s stuff in this film that no one’s ever seen before, ever, ever.
Is that going to hit theaters in the U.S.?
Well they’re still trying to work it out how it’s going to be seen.
It’s a landmark album, you’ve got the Scorsese video [he directed the video for “Bad”].
Yeah, we filmed Scorsese watching the video, he hadn’t seen it in 20 years.
You shot at least one of his videos.
Two. I did two versions of “They Don’t Care About Us,” we shot one in Brazil and one here. Then the one after Michael died, “This is it.” Not the documentary but the video.
Looking back on your body of work, how do you see it? What are your favorites? What doesn’t work for you?
The only thing that makes me wince is “She’s Gotta Have It.”
Just some of the acting and stuff. I could see it in someone who’s inexperienced. As a director I didn’t feel confident until “Do The Right Thing,” that was my third film. Even the second one, “School Daze,” I didn’t feel comfortable doing it.
I was at the 10th anniversary of 25th Hour, that film’s grown in stature like none of your films outside of “Do The Right Thing.” It was really overlooked at the time.
You mean at Lincoln Center. Ed [Norton] was there, Philip Seymour Hoffman was there. The unfortunate thing is that the marketing of the film was based upon Academy Award Nominations, Golden Globes, when it was released at that time. Once we didn’t get that…but people love that film and it’s really grown in stature. In fact it went out to Blu-Ray now, I’ve got to approve it. That came out of nowhere. I just did that commentary.
Do you have a favorite besides “Do The Right Thing”? Are they hard to pick?
For me I just look at it as a collective body of work. It’s funny, the more films you make the more films people have had as their favorite. “Do The Right Thing” isn’t everybody’s favorite, “Malcolm X” isn’t everybody’s favorite. “School Daze,” “She’s Gotta Have It,” a lot of people their favorite film is “Crooklyn.” So it’s what people respond to.
You have an ease with which you vacillate between documentaries and features. Is that conscious?
No, it’s storytelling. I mean I don’t let the medium trip me up, it’s just telling stories.
What about working with Mike Tyson on his stage show?
I’d never done Broadway before so that’s a treat, Mike’s doing a phenomenal job, and I hope to go back to Broadway.
But you do jump around a lot, featured, docs, TV. Your HBO pilot “Da Brick” didn’t get picked up. That’s a shame because I really like John Boyega.
From “Attack the Block”? Yeah, I mean this thing is not planned out, I mean someone told me about Mike Tyson doing his one man show in Las Vegas, I got a DVD and said I want to do it. I didn’t plan on Sony Records and Michael Jackson’s estate calling me to do this documentary. I mean some of its planned, this other stuff has just happened. People call me a workoholic sometimes, but I love the work. I wouldn’t call it that. Here’s the thing though. When you do something you love it’s not really work, that’s the way I look at it. Looking into the future,
I know you’re doing “Old Boy” which is already controversial for some fans, especially on Twitter. Did you expect people to be picking away so closely at this one?
People are passionate about certain films. No, it’s a good thing. Hopefully I’m doing that next.
That’s a studio gig. Is it one for them, one for me?
No, I mean I’ve always, I do both. So, it’s been interpreted like with “Red Hook Summer” that Spike doesn’t want to work in Hollywood anymore. That’s not the case at all, I just knew that Hollywood was not going to make this film. If the film’s going to be made I have to do it.
“Miracle At St. Anna” was a big studio project that audiences didn’t respond to —
That wasn’t the first one.
But is it disheartening when you do something like that? Especially when —
Any filmmaker, any artist wants to connect with audience. I mean whether you’re a musician and record a great album that you pour your heart and soul into and nobody buys it, it’s difficult for a filmmaker.
OK, how about a film like ‘Anna’ that talks about African American history that you presumably want African American audiences to respond to?
It’s not the first time.
People always say Hollywood doesn’t give audiences many good choices these days, but considering what people respond to in theaters these days, are the studios really to blame? Or it it an opiate of the masses type thing?
Well, audiences going to digest what they want to digest regardless but what’s different in the past Hollywood had more variety in the films they were trying to make. they really took seriously filming so called Oscar caliber. Here’s the problem, Spielberg and Lucas brought about the whole blockbuster, I’m not blaming them it’s a fact, they brought about the whole blockbuster thing and for the most part blockbusters were limited to Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Yeah, but that was ’75, ’77.
But still, it’s only been recently that they’ve decided, “Fuck summer we’re going to make these films 12 months a year.” So when we’ve done that then the section of accounting that is reserved for more adult stuff, that’s been pushed aside by every film, not every film but they want tent pole films. I’m not saying that’s the reason to make a film to get an Oscar nomination, but it’s special effects, computer generated effects, you don’t have to make a film unless you have that type of film.
So what does one do to combat that?
Well, what you do is something like “Red Hook Summer” where you find investors and also, I’m not condemning Hollywood. They can do what they want to do. But what they want to do I’ve got to try to have as little impact on what my artistic output’s going to be too. That’s what that initial meeting was with James McBride with what became the kernel, the germ for this film.
Do you think you’ll keep doing…
It depends on the story. If I want to do some big budget film it will be much more difficult raising the money.
What about “Inside Man.” Was it dispiriting that it didn’t provide the juice for a sequel despite being your biggest hit ever and a surprise success that year?
They didn’t want to do it, so that’s it. I just found it strange that that’s one thing the studios is good about, making sequels. Most sequels make a ton of money and don’t cost that much. You’d have to ask them why.
“Red Hook Summer” opens in theaters on August 10th in limited release.