Trust Spike Lee to shake things up a bit. The Sundance Film Festival has been ticking along quietly and unremarkably since the end of last week. Some films screened. Some were good. Some were bad. Yawn. But last night, Spike Lee premiered his latest film, a low-budget, self-funded return to his roots entitled “Red Hook Summer,” and it immediately became one of the most divisive pictures of the festival. Our own Todd Gilchrist landed firmly on the positive side with his review this morning, but it looks set to inspire arguments for months to come.
And of course, stirring the pot is Mr. Lee himself. Never someone to sit quietly by and politely answer questions at a post-screening Q&A, the event was a raucous affair, with seemingly half the cast and crew appearing on stage (plus, for no apparent reason, Cuba Gooding Jr), while the talk itself was full of profanity, special celebrity questioners and more than enough to make headlines. Below are some of the highlights. Warning: some pretty major spoilers lie ahead.
Don’t you dare call it a sequel!
Despite some early reports, and the presence of Lee as Mookie his character from “Do The Right Thing,” Lee is adamant that the film is not a sequel. “Do me a favor, when you go out and talk about it, please tell ’em, this is not a motherfucking sequel to ‘Do The Right Thing.’ Or ‘Mookie’s Return.’ This film is what I call another installment of my own chronicles of Brooklyn, the great borough of Brooklyn, the republic of Brooklyn. The first was a movie called ‘She’s Gotta Have It‘ in 1986, ‘Do The Right Thing‘ in 1989, I forgot the year of ‘Clockers,’ and I forgot the year of ‘Crooklyn‘ [1994 and 1995, respectively]. But we are back in 2012, showing the different levels of the borough that I love them.”
The film was made totally independently, because the studios “know nothing about black people.”
Prompted by a question, from Chris Rock, of all people, Lee explained, with increasing anger and volume, that he made it with his own money he wasn’t interested in studios interfering. “We never went to the studios with this film…I bought a camera and said we’re gonna do this motherfucking ourselves. We’re gonna ignore the studios. The plan was to make the film, bring it to Sundance… So this whole thing was planned out. Do the film independently! I didn’t need a motherfucking studio telling me about Red Hook! They know nothing about black people! Nothing! And they’re gonna give me notes about what a 13-year-old black boy and girl do in Red Hook? Fuck no! So we’ve been able to do it ourselves. We didn’t have any notes. What else can you do? We had to do it ourselves! We shot motherfucking ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ for 12 days back in 1986. And I’m now waiting for Universal to do the sequel to ‘Inside Man,’ my biggest hit ever! I Can’t wait anymore! We had to do it ourselves!” Calming down afterwards, he then apologized, tongue-in-cheek: “Sorry for that motherfucking tirade.”
Using his own money meant stripped-down resources, which in turn affect the look of the film.
In many ways, the film was a return to the resourcefulness of his breakout, with a similarly tight shooting schedules, albeit this time with the advantage of digital technology. “We shot this film for the most part digitally, on Sony Z3 cameras. It was very well thought out, we shot it in 19 days. The reason we were able to do it so quickly is that we knew we had a minimal amount of resources, so the whole film was shot within a ten block area, in the Red Hook Projects. There was Super 8 stuff, we used stuff that Jules (the young actor who plays one of the lead roles) shot on his iPad 2. So all those things determine the look.”
The film takes an uncomfortable, shocking turn in its third act, part of the film’s discussion of religion.
Nothing has caused more controversy about the project than its late left-turn, revealing *SPOILER* that Clarke Peters‘ central character, Bishop Enoch, was a child molestor. And it didn’t just result in heated discussion among the audience, but also the filmmakers. Co-writer James McBride explains that his own religious background partly inspired the film, even if they delve into darker places simultaneously: “Spike and I talked about making a multi-dimensional portrait of a young African-American, as a young boy. And Spike mentioned he made a commercial, in Brooklyn, right around from the building where I used to live. I grew up in the church, not very religious, I went to church more than most people in this room did. And so some of these things were very difficult for me to write, personally. Me and Spike had some very heated discussions about some of this stuff. Especially the flashback scene.”
Those controversial scenes arguably caused the most discomfort for the man who had to perform them, star Clarke Peters.
When Lee introduced his leading man, an actor best known as Lester Freamon on “The Wire,” he did so with the words **SPOILER**: “It’s very hard to make a pedophile a human being. And that’s why I needed a great talent…Mr. Clarke Peters.” And it’s clear that the dark nature of the character took a toll on the character, as James McBride told the audience. “Clarke can speak for himself, but he told me it was one of the most difficult things he had to do. But we wanted to be honest to the truth, and in black American life, and in white American life, people don’t really talk about religion.” The actor concurred, although expressed some sympathy for his character, saying “It’s still difficult, even to talk about. It was very uncomfortable sitting here, watching that. But I guess it’s a fine line between a caress and a molest.”
The actor is fully aware of the hypocrisies of his character, who speaks out against the corrupting influences of television and movies. “I’m not too sure that it’s necessarily TV that’s corrupting children. These illnesses seem to pervade all religions, all philosophies, and that’s what seems to be undermining our ethics, our virtues, our values. There’s a lot of adults out here who have been in that situation, and need a platform and a way to speak about that.”
“Red Hook Summer” will continue to screen at Sundance across the next week, and will hopefully be picked up by a distributor in the near future. Two new photos from the film below via EW.