The converted Fort Greene, Brooklyn, firehouse headquarters for 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks resembles a closed-to-the-public museum, full of memorabilia from nearly all 18 Spike Lee Joints. Bottles of Bamboozled’s Da Bomb malt liquor line a windowsill; a Sal’s Famous Pizzeria pizza box from Do the Right Thing hangs framed on a wall; walk upstairs and you’ll spot a Gamma Phi Gamma fraternity brick from School Daze. Far from a creaky relic embalmed in his own collectibles, 55-year-old veteran director Spike Lee stalks his HQ with stride in his step, serving up quips to journalists present to discuss his (yes, controversial) latest drama, Red Hook Summer.
Religion centers Red Hook Summer (co-written by Spike and Miracle at St. Anna author James McBride), as 13-year-old Flik Royale comes up from Atlanta to spend a summer with his grandpa—Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse—in Red Hook, Brooklyn, for the first time. Flik retreats behind his iPad and gets into tweener hijinks with his summertime crush Chazz Morningstar, as Bishop tries to convert him. Being preachy is only natural in a film focused on a Christian ministry; the movie is full of three official sermons from the Lil’ Peace of Heaven Baptist Church pulpit, and some unintentional others in the dialogue.
Lee isn’t one to pontificate, at least not in person. His answers were brief and to the point, then he was ready to move on. His third annual "Brooklyn Loves Michael Jackson" celebration jumps off in the borough’s Prospect Park on August 25, just six days before his Bad 25 documentary about the 1987 MJ album debuts in Italy. Lee gladly discussed Red Hook Summer, Bad 25 and more, with little sign of his infamous prickly personality.
EBONY: Why does Colleen Royale trust her 13-year-old with her father for the summer if she knows his shady history? She’s aware of it?
SPIKE LEE: She’s aware. But this is something they’ve discussed for many, many years. Bishop wants to meet his only grandchild. And they’ve discussed it. And people… family things are very complex. It’s just hard to cut off somebody. She’s at a point too where she’s having issues. Her husband got killed in Afghanistan. Flik is startin’ to act up, he’s at that age. It’s rough being a single parent. And she needs a break.
EBONY: In terms of the back-story, how is the relationship between Collen and Bishop?
SL: You saw she didn’t hang around. [laughter]
I think [the 1990s was] a much more interesting time to be an African-American moviegoer, to see different types of films than we do today.
EBONY: How pissed will she be that Flik gives Chazz his $400 iPad?
SL: But he’ll say, “I got this too.” [Shows the ornate crucifix of Chazz Morningstar hanging around his neck.] He’ll say it’s a trade. She’ll give him a big hug. She’ll be happy to see her son.
EBONY: Discuss independent production, the difference between She’s Gotta Have It and Red Hook Summer.
SL: Technology has really been the biggest difference. We shot She’s Gotta Have It in the summer of 1985: 12 days, two six-day weeks. Super 16mm, $175,000. We shot Red Hook Summer in the summer of 2011: 18 days, three six-day weeks, digitally [with] the Sony F3 camera. The performance stuff was shot in film. The digital we shot in Bamboozled [in 2000] is nothing compared to the quality of these new digital cameras.
EBONY: Flik’s iPad 2 is almost a character in the movie; the iChat with his mom is an important scene. Is the Apple product placement official?
SL: [laughter] I mean, they’ve been good to me, but it was really not just product placement, just… it’s young kids, what’s happening with my kids. These kids, they’re into technology. Tech savvy.
EBONY: Legendary Pictures is filming 42 right now, the life story of Jackie Robinson. You pitched a three-hour Jackie Robinson movie starring Denzel Washington years ago. Discuss your relationship with Hollywood studios at the moment. Is it contentious at all?
SL: Well, it depends on what studio you’re talking about. I have friends at some studios and… not-so-much friends [laughter]. So, that’s just the way it goes.
EBONY: Did the Black film renaissance of the 1990s crest and fall the way you expected? You spoke out at the time about the danger of it being a fad for Hollywood. What led to Black directors getting less opportunities?
SL: Well, I was kinda right. Those questions you have to ask the studios, I can’t answer for them. But I will say that it was, I think, a much more interesting time to be an African-American moviegoer, to see different types of films than we do today.
EBONY: Most Michael Jackson fans put Off the Wall and Thriller over Bad on their favorites list. Explain what makes the Bad album ripe documentary material.
SL: Number one, Sony Records and the estate wanna do it because it’s the 25th anniversary of Bad. It’s August 31st, the 25th anniversary of Bad. So that’s why they chose it.