There were several of us (film critics, writers, filmmakers, geeks, press, etc.) at a round table in a banquet room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills waiting for one of the best movie directors of the last 50 years to enter the room.
Spike Lee showed up a tad late (in his defense–he was going from room to room at the hotel meeting with press). His attire suggested he was ready to shoot hoops rather than discuss his latest film, “Red Hook Summer.” He had a red 40 Acres and a Mule ball cap (his film production company) turned backwards on his head and a shirt with a young Michael Jackson on it.
Lee’s small, fit frame only served to contradict the no bullshit confident swagger one fully expects from the man who made “Do the Right Thing.” We were told he does not like intros–he’ll just sit down and start talking it out with you. This proved to be accurate. The man is taut, energetic when need be, very engaging and willing to indulge you if you’re worthy (a notion he challenges immediately upon first glance). I found him to be a comfortable spirit who is quite serious about what he does (not a surprise).
Lee said he shot “Red Hook Summer” in 18 days (that is old school discipline) and cast some of the young leads from a former teacher’s arts class (including the movie’s protagonist, 13 year-old, Jules Brown). Lee spoke of a “sit down” with a representative of the Bloods. Spike evidently had to (or smartly chose to) get a blessing from the Bloods to film in Red Hook (a tough-as-nails neighborhood on the outskirts of Brooklyn). “I’m just making a film. I won’t interfere.” The idea conveyed by Lee was, you don’t waltz onto the gang’s turf and do as you please without notifying them.
Spike also spoke of the dangers/problems of gentrification in NYC. “Without lower income classes, there’s no New York City. Hopefully the next mayor will concentrate on public schools, housing, etc.”
There’s an easy route to examining Lee’s canon that most filmgoers love to indulge. Many choose to see his films as violent, overt, campy and (let’s just say it) racist against white folk. I have always disagreed with these assumptions and sitting next to the man in an interview setting further convinced me.
Lee is not as concerned with race as he is the injustice of class division. He’s also preoccupied with moral order and ethics. He likes to laugh and kid (he did so several times). He is not a man who betrays his emotions (and this emanates from his films if you watch closely). Lee’s movies are very emotionally intelligent (see 2006’s “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” his amazing doc on the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina).
Lee is an artist sincerely concerned with socio-economic conditions and the marginalization/eradication of low-income families in this nation.
“Red Hook is a peculiar neighborhood on the tip of Brooklyn with one bus going in (and out) and a subway system under repair. The unemployment rate is 80 percent.” Lee spoke of the Red Hook section of Brooklyn as if the inhabitants were stranded by society (indeed, they are). They’re isolated to the degree that they EXIST as foreigners in their own country. They are the lower classes–stripped of opportunity–denied a future by the inhumane engine of Imperialist White Culture and the gasping, wobbling machinations of Capitalism.
Lee co-wrote the script with James McBride. “This is the story I wanted to tell at this moment in time and space” was the extent of Lee’s verbiage concerning why he made the movie. A measurable flare of enthusiasm emerged when Lee mentioned some new projects. His documentary on the making of Michael Jackson’s “Bad” album is first up. Lee mentioned footage and fresh (unseen by the public) photos, documents, handwritten notes by Jackson–displaying the performer’s diligent work ethic. Lee is also preparing a feature for release called “Old Boy” starring Josh Brolin.
“Red Hook Summer” has already opened to a few theatres in NYC and New Jersey. It gets a wider release (including L.A.) August 24. The flick is a return to form for Lee and it’s a powerful film with a mesmerizing Oscar worthy performance from Clarke Peters (as a fire and brimstone preaching Disciple of the Lord). Not to be missed–see it! And after spending 30 minutes with the man, it should be known that Spike Lee (at 55) is hardly past his prime. He may have been just warming up for the past 25 years.