With his new movie, “Red Hook Summer,” Lee pays homage to a part of Brooklyn that, with its view of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty, stands strangely apart not just from New York City but from the rest of Brooklyn. In the film, a 13-year-old boy from Atlanta named Flik (Jules Brown) visits his grandfather, Bishop Enoch (Clarke Peters), for a summer that will expose the spoiled middle-class kid not just to poverty, crime and the grimmer realities of life, but also to the hard-won wisdom of his elders and the spiritual grounding of the church.
Since arriving on the scene in 1986 with “She’s Gotta Have It,” Lee, now 55, has pursued a protean, sometimes uneven, but always fascinating career, enthusiastically trying new genres (a musical with “School Daze,” a biopic with “Malcolm X,” a thriller with “Inside Man”), always with a bold visual signature. In 1997, Lee made his first documentary, “Four Little Girls.” His newest nonfiction film, “Bad 25,” about Michael Jackson’s 1987 record, will have its premiere this month at the Venice Film Festival. And Lee recently directed his first Broadway play, boxer Mike Tyson’s one-man show “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth.”
Spike Lee was in Washington recently and chatted by phone with Post film critic Ann Hornaday about “Red Hook Summer” and kids today — his own and the film students he teaches at New York University.
The Washington Post: How did “Red Hook Summer” begin?
Spike Lee: I co-wrote the script with my man James McBride. We’re both fathers of teenagers, and we were talking about how . . . our kids are all up into crazy stuff. I said, “One of my favorite films is ‘Stand by Me’ — where is that type of film for young black kids?” That’s what the germ was.
TWP: In “Red Hook Summer,” Clarke Peters plays a Baptist preacher, and some of the film’s most memorable scenes take place in church. His sermons are so passionate and spontaneous, I assumed he improvised them.
SL: Those sermons were scripted, but here’s the thing. We also had room for call and response. There were times when he got caught up and the congregation got caught up. It’s the Holy Spirit. That’s what we wanted to achieve. I didn’t want it to be stale or stagnant or constricted or confined by what James and I wrote. It’s more important to cast the spirit.
You know, James grew up in the church. In fact, the church we used in the film, his parents founded that church, the New Brown Memorial Church, right across the street from the Red Hook Projects. It’s very personal for James. Seeing a lot of church scenes [in other movies], they don’t look like any church I’ve been to, not that I’ve been to many churches. But in no way, shape or form do we trivialize or mock the way people worship.
We captured the black church, which is call and response. I went to my great Morehouse man, Dr. Uzee Brown, who arranged the negro spirituals, and they were singing and praising the Lord and we definitely caught the Holy Spirit — not on film, but on digital card. We were having church up in there.
TWP: Bishop Enoch fulminates against a number of ills that plague the black community — from violence to coarsening pop culture to gentrification. In one pivotal conversation, he and Sister Sharon (Heather Alicia Simms) speak candidly about the pressures on African American parents trying to bring kids up, often alone. Those sequences felt like very personal statements from Spike Lee.
SL: Three out of four African American families are headed by a single mom. That’s 75 percent. And I will put my left hand on 10 Bibles and my right hand to God and say that’s the main correlation to the highest drop-out rate and the highest prison rate, and it manifests itself ultimately with these young brothers killing each other with this insane pathological genocide that’s happening, whether it’s in D.C., New Orleans, Brooklyn, Chicago. It all comes back the fact that — and I’m not trying to demonize these single moms, they’re doing the best they can, working two or three jobs to keep it together. But these young boys, and young women, with no father in their lives, how can that not affect their relationship with black men? It’s the domino effect.
I feel for these single moms and I feel for the children of single moms because they’re crying out for help and they need their daddy and Daddy ain’t around. Daddy ain’t been around. So where are these daddies? A lot of these guys are locked up or just out on the street. It’s not a good look, okay? All I’m saying. It’s not a good look.
TWP: Even though the scene with Bishop Enoch and Sister Sharon speaks most urgently to the African American community, I think it speaks to universal anxieties that aren’t often addressed in mainstream films.
SL: Look, Chris Nolan is a great filmmaker. But there has to be something else for me. It can’t always be people flying though the m------------ air wearing tights, with m------------ s--- blowing up. It can’t be that. That scene exemplifies what this film’s about: Two people sitting on a sofa, just talking.
TWP: I love the language in “Red Hook Summer,” all those figures of speech that Bishop Enoch uses, like describing someone working “from can’t see in the morning to can’t see at night.”
SL: I got that from my grandmother. That’s direct from slavery. Because they’d have you out there before the sun came up and you’d be out in the fields when the sun went down at night. It’s “cain’t,” spelled with an i: “Cain’t see in the morning to cain’t see at night.”
Another thing we’re trying to do [in the film] is bring back this tie between the North and the South. Because some of these people, these Tyler Perry people, say, ‘Well Spike doesn’t like people from the South.’ B-------. I was born in Atlanta, I had numerous summers in Atlanta, being sent down from Brooklyn, I went to Morehouse. As Mike Tyson would say, that’s ludicrous. It doesn’t make any g------ sense. There are ties. There are ties. Like we say in the film, nowadays with gentrification, people are moving back to the South because they can’t afford New York anymore and can get more bang for their buck in Georgia and North Carolina.
TWP: Using different film stocks has always been part of your grammar — you’ve liked to mix up different textures and saturations in your films. In “Red Hook Summer” you shoot digitally and even include sequences shot on an iPad.
SL: Here’s the thing. The way I see it, and what I tell my students at NYU: You have to use technology, not let technology use you. No matter what the technology has been – painting pictures on cave walls or oral history – it’s always going to be [used for] storytelling. So you have to work on your storytelling craft. My favorite filmmakers are great storytellers. So I don’t really get caught up so much in technology myself.
TWP: Do you see a difference between your students today and the film student you were when you were at NYU in the 1980s?
SL: I was 100 percent driven. I’m not trying to be condescending, but they don’t have the drive that my classmates and I had. For us, it was life or death. Ang Lee, Ernest Dickerson, those were my classmates. I mean, I’m not blaming, I just think with all this reality TV and stuff, they want to be delivered right away. It took four years for “She’s Gotta Have It” it to happen after I finished NYU. It didn’t happen overnight. I finished in 1982; “She’s Gotta Have It” came out in ’86.
I’d say [students today] are burning, but they’re not burning as hot. But here’s another thing. The technology that we have today, people were just dreaming about. For filmmakers of my generation in film school, we didn’t go for a degree, we went for the equipment, because you could not get the equipment back then. Film school was one way to get the tools to make your film. Plus your classmates were your crew, NYU had an agreement with the Screen Actors Guild, so you could work with professional actors, all those things played a part.
TWP: I can’t let you go without asking about the current presidential race.
SL: It’s gonna go down to the wire. But my guy will pull it out.
Red Hook Summer
is playing at the West End Cinema.