Thursday, August 9, 2012

Talking to Spike Lee: We Had the Crystal Ball in Do the Right Thing

Red Hook Summer, Spike Lee’s latest movie, is the most recent entry in what this often great and always interesting director calls his “chronicles of Brooklyn,” which also includes She’s Gotta Have it, Do the Right Thing, Clockers, Crooklyn, and He Got Game. I talked to Spike this week about his new movie and more in his Fort Greene production office.

What they say about journalism, that it’s the first rough draft of history, could also be said of most your films. Plus, you’ve popped up as a sort of an expert witness on black history in other people’s films, like Hoop Dreams, When We Were Kings, and Brooklyn Boheme.
[laughs] Yeah, I’m trying to cut that down. Can’t talk on every documentary. Can’t do it!

How much of that comes from having a conscious desire to correct the record because so much of black history has been pretty much swept under the rug, and how much is it just that these are the stories you are interested in?
I think artists reflect who they are, their culture. That’s what it is. I mean, Kurosawa, what’s he gonna do? He’s not gonna make a movie about Eskimos. What did Fellini do? Visconti? Satiyajit Ray? Artists tend to do stuff about what they know, who they are, how they grow up, their environment.

When you started developing Red Hook Summer, did you start by thinking, “I want to do something about gentrification in Brooklyn?” Or did you start with the characters, or what?
No, no, the issue of gentrification was not something that came right away. The initial kernel of the story James McBride and I wrote together was about this young kid from suburban Atlanta being sent up north to spend the summer with his grandfather, who’s a Baptist preacher, and who’s someone he’s never met before. And then after that, all the other stuff came with it.

What interested you guys about that part of Brooklyn?
James grew up in Red Hook. And we both had kids who were Flik’s age, and we wanted to see young black kids in a movie. Who aren’t in gangs.

You were also born in Atlanta and came to Brooklyn as a boy– only I guess you were a little younger than Flik.
A lot younger.

How old were you?
Two years old.

You’re so identified with Brooklyn now. How would your life have been different if your parents hadn’t moved here?
I wouldn’t be a filmmaker. My mother was an art teacher, my father was a jazz musician. Where else were they going to be able to do what they did except in New York City? That impacted me as an artist.

Can you talk a little about growing up here?
We first moved here, we lived on 1480 Union Street in Crown Heights. We moved to 186 Warren Street between Henry and Clinton. I went to P.S. 29. We were one of the first black families to move into Cobble Hill. It was really strong Italian-American.

Then my mother, who was a visionary, said let’s buy a brownstone. So 1968, we bought a brownstone on Washington Park, which faces Fort Greene Park, for $40,000. That was back when realtors wouldn't even say Fort Greene. They would say “downtown.” [laughs] So I witnessed firsthand the gentrification that took place in my neighborhood. We had the crystal ball in Do the Right Thing. John Savage’s character, he was the start.

I’ve seen them all get gentrified: Lower East Side, Harlem, Williamsburg, Bushwick, Bed-Stuy.

Can kids in Brooklyn now have the same kind of experience there that you had growing up?
No, because, number one, they don’t play the street games that we played growing up. It’s a different world now. Technology’s changed everything. They’re doing this [mimes thumb-typing on a keyboard] and video stuff. Zombies. That stuff’s not just Brooklyn. That stuff’s all over the world.

So you don’t think they’re going to interact with each other and feed off each other’s creativity as much as you could?
Well, number one, how is their creativity gonna be fed when, in public schools all across this country, music, art and gym are being cut? I’m a product of the public schools here in New York City. From kindergarten through John Dewey High School here in Coney Island. When I was in elementary school, we had to play an instrument. It was required. I played the violin. I was good. Art was just a part of the curriculum.

Ossie Davis said you subverted the image of black men in media: before you, a black man had to smile and nod and be a little angel, and you made yourself into a little devil instead and made it work for you. First of all, you got anything to say about that?
I miss Ossie. I miss Ossie very much.

Did you consciously decide to go out there and be confrontational, or is that just the way you were made? I know your mom nicknamed you Spike because you were kind of a spikey kid.
I wouldn't say I was confrontational.

You used to be. When you were younger, you used to say some pretty controversial things about other people.
Here’s the thing, though. If you say something that does not go along with the program, that makes it controversial? I don’t necessarily agree with that.

I don’t think I’ve ever said stuff just to be saying it, just to hear myself speak. What I have done is speak about stuff I feel is important. And then as a filmmaker, a lot of the films we’ve done – not all of them, but a lot – just hold a mirror up to what’s happening. There’s a lot of stuff we’ve done that was like a premonition of stuff that followed shortly after. Do the Right Thing had the crystal ball on what happened in LA, with the Rodney King verdict.

You talk about “we” a lot when you talk about your movies, and I understand there are a lot of people on your crew that you’ve been working with for a long time.

And you’ve always been a mentor and door-opener to other African American artists, including [cinematographer] Ernest Dickerson and a lot of actors—Halle Berry, Giancarlo Esposito, Rosie Perez, Samuel L. Jackson. And now, as a teacher at NYU—
Fifteen years.

Yup. You’re almost like an elder statesman. In the time you’ve been doing this, have you seen things getting easier for black filmmakers in this country?
Easier? I wouldn’t say easier. But what has changed is that the technology revolution has made it easier to get access to the equipment. My generation who went to film school, we didn't go to get a master of fine arts. We wanted access to the equipment. That was the thing that stopped you. You couldn’t get the equipment.

Right. And the film itself was expensive, and processing it was really expensive. The lights – everything cost more. Editing equipment.
But now with technology, you could edit your film with this laptop you got in your lap.

Is getting your films seen harder now, though, because there are so many more out there?
Well, yeah. Unless you really have something that’s distinct and you stay true to your voice, you’re gonna get lost in the sauce, lost in the films everybody’s making. Everybody and their mama. Everybody and their grandmother is making a film today.

You’re obviously a good interviewer. I can’t believe you got George Wallace to say his best friend is black, in 4 Little Girls.
That’s one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever been a part of.

It was really something. And the expression on that guy’s face [the black orderly Wallace called his “best friend”] was quite eloquent.
[laughs] His face. When he walked out of there, he said: “Let me get outta there.” You couldn’t have planned that one.

So if you were interviewing yourself, what would you ask yourself?
I really – my wife, Tonya says this all the time. I’m not really one of these hypothetical people. I can’t interview myself, so why even think about it?

You never did get to make that Jackie Robinson movie you were trying to make for so long.
No. Someone else is making it.

Is there something else you’re really like to do that you’re having a hard time getting money for?
Oh, I’ve got scripts that, you know, eventually… I’ve come to realize that everything is timing, so in due time these projects will get done.

You’re living on the Upper East Side now, but you come here a lot to work?
Every day.

This is certainly a nice neighborhood. Has it changed a lot in the years since you’ve been based here?
Fort Greene? Yeah, it’s changed a lot. [laughs] You walked around here? [laughs]

So how do you feel about that? It’s some good, some bad, that kind of change, right?
It’s good changes and bad changes.

You don’t want to elaborate, huh?
Just trying to get along. [smiles]

Written for Brooklyn Magazine

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