Spike Lee has returned to Brooklyn.
Spike's one of the best filmmakers of our lifetime, and his greatest movies have had Brooklyn, his home boro, as a backdrop. Red Hook Summer returns to Kings County, and it brings back Mookie, the pizza delivery boy from Do the Right Thing, who is now a pizza delivery man. This time out Spike is focused on the black church; a young boy named Flik, who films everything on his iPad, spends the summer with his preacher grandfather in the projects of Red Hook. Flik learns about faith and about love and about the way that gentrification changes communities. It's a big, wild, expansive movie that sees Spike back in the territory that suits him best.
As a fervent fan of Spike (I think Do the Right Thing is one of the top five movies ever made), it was beyond exciting to sit down with him for this film. Our talk ranged from Tyler Perry to high school basketball stars, but the most important part comes at the end, where Spike judges whether or not this LA transplant still has any Brooklyn in him.
Red Hook Summer is now playing in limited release. Support it!
The church scenes are these big set pieces. They’re almost like musical numbers in a way. Can you talk about shooting these scenes?
Music is part of the African American experience. When we were slaves we went off to sing our Negro spirituals and pray to God to deliver us from our bondage, and that continues to the church of this day. In no way, shape or form do we want to disrespect the black church, and we wanted to have what we felt was a true representation of that special thing that happens in the black church, the Baptist church, where you get this call and response. They weren’t acting! We were having real church up in there.
Were you in a real church, or were you on a set?
No, that’s a real church. You see the exterior. In fact that church in Red Hook is right across the street from the projects and is called New Brown Memorial Church, and the co-writer, James McBride, his parents founded that church.
So he brought you to that church?
[laughs] Nah! We had to find out because he didn’t actually tell me! I knew, because I read [his memoir] The Color of Water, but he did not volunteer that this was the church! But it has the cross lights in the ceiling, that’s the church.
The energy in the room is real.
That was no acting. People were having a religious experience. Especially Clark Peters. He was catching the holy ghost!
Without spoiling anything, there’s a subversion of that towards the end of the film. While the big set pieces create that fervor, in the end you undercut it with some reality. How do you think people will respond to that?
I don’t know. I will tell you that the response to what you’re talking about - which we can’t really talk about - is going to be all over the place. It’s that type of thing. People are going to react differently.
We’re in a cycle where there are a number of black films that are faith-based. In this in some way your response to the Tyler Perry thing?
No. We did Jungle Fever way before Tyler Perry. The Good Reverend Doctor, played by Ossie Davis. We dealt with religion in Malcolm X. We were there first!
And if I can say, as an outside observer, you did it better.
[smiles] Thank you.
You have this character Flik, a young kid in Brooklyn obsessed with filmmaking, in this movie. Is this you reflecting on your own youth?
No, that’s my son. And my daughter. And their friends. What they can do with technology, and their mastery of technology, amazes me. It’s second nature. I can’t do that. My mind - the people of my generation don’t think the way they think. It’s amazing.
When you look at your kids -
I’d like to say first I have two teenagers. My daughter Satchel is 17, my son Jackson is 14. They’ll be seniors and sophomores in high school.
So you look at this as the future of film, these kids with the tools in their hands.
And editing on their laptops.
You came up in a system where the goal was to eventually get into the big studios, to do Universal. Is that the case now for these kids?
That wasn’t the goal. I didn’t go to USC. I went to NYU. That’s different. It was just to make a film. My generation - Jim Jarmusch, Ang Lee - we were all at NYU together. We didn’t go for the degree. We went because that was the only way to get access to the equipment. Plus you had the facilities of the school, your class was your crew. When you came out of film school you wanted to have a film.
Do kids still need that? I know you teach...
There’s still a need for film school now. But not everybody can go. Not everybody wants to go. Not everybody can afford it! It’s crazy - you have to pay tuition, live in New York and pay for your films too. You come out of there with loans up your yin yang.
You worked with your students on this film.
Yeah, I think eight or nine of my students worked on that film.
You’re throwing these kids right in the deep end.
Right in it. Hye Mee Na was the editor, she had never done a narrative feature before. Alan Blanco did sound, he never did sound for a feature before. I had three or four people in the camera department. And they got paid too.
Speaking of cameras, this is digital, right?
Is this your first fully digital narrative feature?
A lot of Bamboozled was digital.
But that was generations ago, technology-wise. How do you like working digital?
I love film, but we couldn’t afford it for this one. Couldn’t afford it. I financed the film myself. I had to get it done.
When you have the budget for it, will you return to film?
Oh yeah. Oldboy will be film. 35mm.
That’s a dying breed now.
Some guys claim they’ll stick with it to the end. Is that you?
35 or Super 16. I love Super 16. I prefer film.
What is the status of Oldboy right now?
We’re in pre-production.
Why do a remake?
I hadn’t done it before. Like before Inside Man I had never done a heist film. Like before Mike Tyson on Broadway I had never directed a play on Broadway.
We’re a few years from the 25th anniversary of Do the Right Thing. How different is the Spike Lee who made that movie from the Spike Lee who is bringing Mookie back in Red Hook Summer?
Older and grayer. Married with two kids.
Does being older and grayer change how the fire burns in you?
Oh no, that has nothing to do with the fire burning. How old was I when I did Do The Right Thing? I was 32, now I’m 55.
At the time you were seen as the firebrand. Do you still feel like that?
What do you mean?
When Do The Right Thing came out I was living in Queens and Brooklyn...
What part of Brooklyn?
East New York, City Line, by Ozone Park.
What high school you went to?
I went to Dewey in Coney Island. What’s that guy’s name? The basketball coach?
He’s like 90 years old! And he coaches baseball too!
Yeah. I was there when Kenny Anderson was there.
He was in your class?
He was a couple of years ahead of me.
That guy is a legend.
You should have seen him in school. He walked and the hallways parted, like Moses and the Red Sea. Nobody wanted to get in his way. But at the time, that film was one that divided the Italian community I was raised in. That was a movie that our very Italian cousins said, ‘Don’t go see it, that’s a dangerous movie!’ That excited me.
You were in high school when that came out?
I was 15. I was a movie nerd in high school, it was dangerous, it was exciting. Do you feel like what you do is still dangerous?
I don’t want to use that word. I respect your way of looking at it like that, but I never ever look at myself saying ‘OK, Spike, this next film is going to be dangerous.’ I know this is maybe bland, but all I ever wanted to do, ever since I started making movies, was to tell stories. And to tell as many different ones as possible. That’s my approach to filmmaking - the intent isn’t to make dangerous films.
But is the intent to make films that get people talking?
To get people talking. But I don’t know how that turns into dangerous.
But that was New York in 1989. It’s different now... or is it?
The New York of Do The Right Thing is very different from the New York of Red Hook Summer. You don’t have that animosity with the cops. You don’t have the animosity between Italian-Americans and African-Americans you did. I have friends at Fort Hamilton, when school came, they had to run to the train station. Vinny wasn’t playing! “These fuckin’ moulignons over heah! These fuckin’ moulignons! You fuckin’ moolie! I’ll break your muthafuckin... sunuvabitch! Moolie bastards!”
I grew up with those guys! Vito in Do the Right Thing - I grew up with that guy!
So you think it’s better now? Even with Stop and Frisk? Even with the conflicts arising from gentrification?
Look, take your pick. Under Koch... not that there isn’t racism, not that we don’t have Sean Bells today, but it was like, in my opinion, NYPD had the green light. They were getting the wink-wink from Koch. But I don’t think you have that animosity. For me. I don’t think you have the historical animosity between African-Americans and Italian-Americans you saw in Jungle Fever and Do the Right Thing. I think so.
Thank you so much, Spike. I appreciate you taking the time.
We’re doing it for Brooklyn, baby!
I feel like such a traitor, living out here now.
You still got Brooklyn in you.