Spike Lee: The fix is in

The director tells Salon new voter-registration rules are designed to keep President Obama from a second term

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 7, 2012 10:40PM (EDT)

Spike Lee       (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
Spike Lee (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

Shot in three weeks in and around an isolated pocket of housing projects in southwestern Brooklyn, “Red Hook Summer” might be the quickest, cheapest and most street-level production of Spike Lee’s career, or at least since his 1986 debut film, “She’s Gotta Have It.” As I wrote after seeing the picture at Sundance, it’s a messy experiment, driven by a restless spirit of invention. I could nitpick around the edges of “Red Hook Summer” all day long: The soundtrack by Bruce Hornsby feels oddly intrusive at inappropriate moments, and there’s an unexpected narrative left turn at about the three-quarter pole that will leave many viewers uncertain how to feel about this story and its characters.

This is not a movie for everyone, and the fact that it’s about African-American life (and African-American life in the ghetto, at that) is only part of it. Still, there’s a level of purity and passion in “Red Hook Summer” that isn’t always present in Lee’s bigger films, and I would argue that its improvised, shambolic quality is essential to its spirit. If you’re interested in Lee’s career as a whole, and especially in his ongoing attempt to capture the New York African-American experience in all its complexity, just skip what the other critics have to say and give this a chance. Like the other personal films in Lee’s Chronicles of Brooklyn series – “She’s Gotta Have It,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Crooklyn,” “Clockers” and “He Got Game” – “Red Hook Summer” is about capturing a mood and a moment, a place and its people. It’s about heart and soul, and whatever its flaws may be, this film has those things in abundance.

Lee shows us Red Hook through the eyes — and sometimes through the iPad — of Silas, aka Flick (teenage discovery Jules Brown), a middle-class, private-school kid from Atlanta who’s been shipped north to spend the summer with his Brooklyn grandfather for unclear reasons. Said grandfather, played by the tremendous Clarke Peters (a veteran of many stage and screen roles, but well known to aficionados of “The Wire”), is known as Bishop Enoch, and serves as minister of a tiny, struggling old-school Baptist congregation in the shadow of the projects, and in an enclave of black Brooklyn increasingly hemmed in by redevelopment and gentrification that offer few or no benefits to longtime residents. Do Lee and co-writer James McBride (a Red Hook native) really have to include three fire-breathing, social-gospel sermons by Bishop Enoch? No, not for narrative reasons — but they’re so awesome, so tragic, so heart-rending and so inspirational I never wanted them to stop.

As Flick navigates his uneasy relationship with his grandfather, the ominous local gangbangers and noble upstanding citizens and his tentative friendship with a brazen, fast-talking project girl (the irresistible Toni Lysaith), Lee’s various themes regarding race, poverty, religion and the internal conflicts of African-American society come into focus. Ultimately this is a passionate, painful, tragic, haunting love letter to Brooklyn and New York City, to black America and the black church and perhaps most of all to the possibilities offered by childhood – and by summer romance! – even in dire circumstances.

I met Lee on a sweltering August afternoon worthy of “Do the Right Thing” at his production office in the multiracial Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene, where he grew up. It also happens to be the neighborhood where I live now, literally across the street from the middle school Lee attended, and where he discovered Brown and Lysaith, his young stars. As a result of this coincidence, much of our conversation was Brooklyn-specific, and I apologize to outlanders for that. As you might expect from such a passionate fan of both classic film and New York sports, Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule headquarters is a museum of amazing memorabilia. You go from a wall-size photograph of the 1956 Brooklyn Dodgers to a fragment of the Ebbets Field scoreboard (demolished when Lee was a baby) to commemorative posters of the 1973 NBA champion New York Knicks (signed by the team’s six leading players) to Italian theater posters for “Taxi Driver” and “Mean Streets.” (The inscription on the latter reads: “Spike – Thanks for all your inspiring work. Love, M. Scorsese.”)

I could have hung out there all day, and in fact I pretty much did, as Lee, Peters and “Red Hook Summer” co-writer James McBride worked their way through a squadron of journalists, publicists, drivers and other apparatchiks. Finally, with just minutes to go before he had to head into Manhattan for a red-carpet premiere, Lee ushered me into a back office and closed the door. As you’ll see, the only time he got testy with me came when I accused him of Brooklyn sports apostasy – and the heretical offense of actually rooting for the New York Yankees.

OK, first and arguably most important: Jeremy Lin! What’s your take?

He's a Houston Rocket!

Yeah, I know that. Did the Knicks make the right decision?

Time will tell! History will tell.

Oh, you’re being cautious. OK. Here’s my other sports insight. When I saw you on TV earlier this summer with Thierry Henry [the French soccer star who now plays for the New York Red Bulls] I told my friends, “Now soccer has arrived in the United States, as a mainstream spectator sport. It’s gotten the Spike Lee seal of approval.”

Listen, I've been a big soccer fan for a while now. I first met Thierry in London, when he was playing for Arsenal. My son played soccer at Chelsea Piers, and I was an assistant coach. So, you know, it's been a minute.

So, I’ve been thinking about this movie in the context of Brooklyn – and, like, the media’s image of Brooklyn as this super-hip place of bars and nightclubs and artists.

What are you talking about -- Williamsburg?

Sure, Williamsburg. But also other places. Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, Fort Greene. Are you trying to remind us that there’s more to Brooklyn than organic grocery stores and fabulously restored brownstones and white people with strollers?

No, I wasn't doing that. It's really just another installment in my chronicles of Brooklyn, New York. “She's Gotta Have It,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Crooklyn,” “Clockers,” “He Got Game” and now “Red Hook Summer.”

Sure, but if you take all those movies together, you get the sense that you’re telling the story of the African-American community in this city, or at least in certain parts of this city, across three decades or more. That’s a lot of history and a lot of change.

Yeah, I mean, the first one was "She's Gotta Have It" in 1986. Brooklyn has changed in all that time that's gone by, and so have the neighborhoods where I grew up. First of all, we lived in Cobble Hill. [Today that’s an extremely gentrified neighborhood at the heart of “brownstone Brooklyn.”] You had Cobble Hill on one side, Atlantic Avenue in the middle and then Brooklyn Heights [a riverfront neighborhood that’s been an elite preserve since the 19th century]. Night and day! Now there's not a big difference between Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill, or not that much.

Not much at all. There can’t have been many black people in Cobble Hill when your parents first moved there. There aren’t that many now!

We were the first black family, or one of the first. We're talking about '62, '63, when it was stone Italian-American, because of the docks. People walked to work at the docks and then walked home. Then my mother said she was tired of paying rent and she had always loved brownstones, so we bought a brownstone house [facing Fort Greene Park] for $40,000 in 1968. Realtors wouldn't even use the words "Fort Greene." They would say "downtown vicinity." That Fort Greene no longer exists.

Was it an entirely black neighborhood back then?

Black and Hispanic, yeah. There weren’t any white people, or hardly any, until the whole black renaissance thing started happening here, and it became hip. Wesley [Snipes] was here, Chris Rock, Rosie Perez, Branford Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis, Vernon Reid. That's when it turned.

You say that Fort Greene no longer exists, but this neighborhood still has a strong black cultural presence and tradition. I mean, that’s part of the draw for whites and blacks alike, right? It’s one of the few neighborhoods anywhere in the country that’s been gentrified without turning predominantly white.

Yeah, it's still here. I'm still here. 40 Acres wouldn't be here if that weren't the case. There's pros and cons to gentrification, I’ve said that all along.

You know, in my days as a sociology grad student, we used to wonder about that: Is there a version of gentrification that can benefit existing residents? I mean, it improves law enforcement in the neighborhood, stuff like that.

Yeah, yeah. You can play that Disney movie if you want to. Here I want to talk about the reality of gentrification. I've said before that there are benefits to it, but here's the key thing about gentrification, which might make another film. We never hear about what happens to the people who get pushed out. Where do they go? Where do the people go who get pushed out of the Lower East Side? Where did the people go who got pushed out of Williamsburg? Where did the people go who got pushed out of Harlem?

And this goes into a bigger thing, this goes across racial borders. When is it gonna be: We need more affordable housing in New York City? I don't care who you are, I mean, it's becoming crazy to live here. People can't afford to live here! Everybody keeps moving further out, further out. But once you get past Coney Island you're in the Atlantic Ocean! Where you gonna go? Live on the beach? Under the boardwalk?

You do capture this sense in “Red Hook Summer” that the people in those projects feel like they’re under siege.

Oh, they do. If you go to Red Hook, it's like this, the neighborhood is a big doughnut, and the projects are in the middle. And the crazy mentality is that the people in the projects don't leave. They don't leave! People in the projects don't go to Manhattan. I have the girl in the movie talking about how she's only been there twice. They go to Junior's Restaurant in downtown Brooklyn, and that's like going to Europe! It's actually kind of sad. You know, they're not gonna go to Fairway [the high-end grocery store that opened six or seven years ago]. They go to C-Town [a downscale supermarket found in marginal neighborhoods], they go to little Chinese restaurants. It's amazing, they stay within Red Hook, and when they say “Red Hook” they really just mean the projects. It's not Red Hook proper, the larger neighborhood.

There is a degree of anger in this film. It’s not on the surface, or mostly it’s not. But it definitely comes bubbling up here and there.

Anger's good sometimes. It can be used creatively. Instead of getting angry, James McBride and I made a film. Gentrification is not just about New York City, it's happening all over. I'm all for diversity, but here's the last thing I'm gonna say: When you move into a historically black or Hispanic neighborhood, be humble. Have respect. Just don't come in bogartin', saying, “I'm here now and this is the way it's gonna run.” Don't do that!

Talk about the fact that you financed this movie yourself. Is that because you tried to sell it and everybody said no?

No, that's not true. From the very inception, the initial meeting with James McBride, I knew I was going to finance this film by myself. I knew it would have been futile to try to get this film financed. The studios are not going to make this film! It’s about black people who live in the projects. I had the money to shoot the film at this level, so I just wrote the check.

You had such a short shoot. I mean, 18 days for a full-length feature is almost unheard of these days. Did that pose any specific challenges?

Yeah, but we knew what they were going in. If you know what you're doing, you just do it. We had 18 days, three six-day weeks. There was no option, we had to do it. Everyone was committed to doing what needed to be done to get it done in that number of days.

What else do you have coming up? I know you’re working on a Michael Jackson documentary, and you have some exciting news about what comes after that, I hear.

Right now, we're finishing up “Bad 25,” which is a documentary about the making of Michael Jackson's “Bad” album. August 31 will be the 25th anniversary of that, and that will premiere at the Venice Film Festival. And then this fall, I hopefully will be doing "Oldboy," starring Josh Brolin.

So you’re actually doing that? That’s great news. Are you basing it on the script for the Park Chan-wook version? [Silence.] OK, you can’t tell me. But you’re a fan of his movies?

Oh, yeah. Big fan.

And what about a sequel to “Inside Man”? That was your biggest hit.

You're asking the wrong person.

Ah, it’s about the money.

You're asking the wrong person.

I thought that movie made a lot of money?

It made a ton of money. For very little.

Anyway, you want to do it, right?

Oh, yeah. So would Denzel, so would Clive Owen, so would Jodie Foster. So would Bryan Grazer and Ron Howard, who were the producers.

Getting back to “Red Hook Summer,” it’s no surprise that Clarke Peters is terrific. But he’s completely awesome in this role, and you ask him to do a lot. Just as we’re getting to like this guy, finally, this old-school, hardass Baptist storefront preacher, you pull a big switcheroo on us. It’s a huge acting challenge.

That's why I cast him. I'm not gonna cast some okey-doke to do what we needed to do in this film. He's a great actor, and it was gonna take a great actor to pull this off.

You like to do that, actually. You like to make us invest in a character and then reveal something nasty or make him do something unforgivable.

Yeah, but that's not something new, though! This is not new! We've been doing that since '86, baby! That's old stuff! Anyway, it’s not primarily about that. It’s more, why should I be doing the same formulaic stuff everybody else is doing? It's just boring to me. I got to interest myself, before the audience.

You know, when you first emerged you were considered part of that particular generation of independent filmmakers, in the mid-'80s. There was you and Jim Jarmusch …

Jarmusch was two years ahead of me at NYU. Ang Lee was a classmate of mine. Steven Soderbergh you have to include also.

Right. You could throw in Wayne Wang, who was on the West Coast. Alex Cox, some other people. You and Soderbergh and Ang Lee all wound up going back and forth between Hollywood movies and smaller, more independent projects.

I do both, which I like to do. One misconception about “Red Hook Summer” has been that this film is a declaration that I no longer wanted to work in Hollywood. That's not true at all. It's completely false.

I think that emerged because it had been several years since you’d gotten to make a bigger picture. You seemed very frustrated when I saw you at Sundance, like you weren’t sure you’d get another chance.

That film was “Miracle at St. Anna,” which was in 2008. [Extended pause.] It's not like I didn't want to make movies. I wrote several scripts, and I just couldn't get them up and going.

You’re being diplomatic. It’s usually more fun when you’re not. Listen, changing topics: A few years ago you probably would have said you’d never see an African-American president in your lifetime. But now we’ve got one, and did you know he would get all this? And the endless obstructionism? And the wacko conspiracy theories?

Yeah, I knew that, I knew that. Because I did not drink the Kool-Aid, and I did not think that racism would be eradicated at the exact moment he put his right hand on Abraham Lincoln's Bible. I knew there would be people whose every waking moment would be committed to making sure that President Barack Hussein Obama does not have a second term. That's their only goal in existence. Whatever he tries to do, they'll try to block him, and that's only going to get more intense as we get closer to the presidential election.

How much of that is directly due to racism? And how much is just, you know, people disagreeing about politics?

Is it racism? Look, I can't give you a number. But racism is interwoven with the very fabric of America. So why would that not be the case in this instance? I mean, it permeates everything. It's not his politics, I can tell you that much.

You might be interested in the book that my Salon colleague Joan Walsh, who’s also an MSNBC analyst, is about to publish. It’s called “What's the Matter With White People?”

Oh, yeah? That's gonna be a big seller! [Laughter.]

She tries to explain how working-class white people became Republicans, going against their own economic interests.

It's very simple. Did you ever see the film “Blue Collar,” by Paul Schrader? With Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto?

Yes. Terrific film!

Well, forget the book, I seen the movie! [Laughter.] No disrespect, but that was 30 years ago that movie came out! My wife and I were talking about this the other day, and I was agreeing with her, and that's where I came up with that reference, “Blue Collar.” The whole deal is to keep black and white people, workers, low-income people, against each other. Because if they become unified, there's gonna be problems. And that film is a great demonstration of that in effect. I haven't seen that film in a long time, I gotta watch that again. That's a great film.

This doesn’t directly address that issue, but obviously millions of white people voted for Obama the first time, or he wouldn’t be sitting there.

You're right, but what gets left out is that it wasn't just white people, it wasn't just African-Americans, it wasn't Hispanics, it wasn't Asians, it was a whole coalition of different people who came together. That's what needed to happen.

What’s your gut feeling about November?

It's gonna be tight! Down to the wire!

No question. The arithmetic is probably in Obama’s favor.

Yeah, but come on: We know what goes on! We saw what happened in Florida with all the voter registration shenanigans.

I have to say, for African-Americans this whole business about changing the rules for voter registration, mostly in Southern states or swing states, sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it? It’s old school, and not in a good way.

Look, we all know what this is about. We know that all these new rules have been implemented to stop this president getting a second term. It's the okey-doke! It's some tomfoolery!

I need to get back to sports before we’re done. This fall the Brooklyn Nets will open up their new arena, about three blocks from here. The first major sports team in Brooklyn since the Dodgers left! Are you gonna switch?

Can't do it. I'm a Knicks fan. I think it's great for Brooklyn, but I'm a Knicks fan.

I have to say, though, as a baseball fan you seem more inconstant. What’s the deal with the Yankee caps and the great seats at Yankee Stadium? I thought you had Dodger blue running through your veins.

Nah, I was a Met fan, not a Dodger fan. I was born too late to be a Dodger fan, and I never had any feeling for the Los Angeles Dodgers. But certain things continued: If you were a Brooklyn fan, you hated the Yankees and you were a National League fan.

Exactly. But you gave that up! You adopted the enemy!

Yeah. OK, that's true. But I'm talking about a different generation, the generation that was alive when the Dodgers left. I was born during spring training of their last year in Brooklyn. It was all different after that.

"Red Hook Summer" opens this week in New York. It opens Aug. 24 in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.; Aug. 31 in Birmingham, Ala., Charleston, S.C., Charlotte, N.C., Cleveland, Columbia, S.C., Dallas, Detroit, Greenville, S.C., Hampton, Va., Houston, Miami, New Orleans, Richmond, Va., Sacramento, Calif., San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., and Virginia Beach, Va., with more cities to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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2012 Elections Barack Obama Interviews Movies Race Red Hook Summer Spike Lee