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]
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. Then, they’re gonna go back and do Off the Wall and Thriller. They’re gonna do all three. I can’t talk about this stuff that’s in the film, but here’s the great thing. Since it was done in conjunction with Sony Records and the Michael Jackson estate, I had full access to the Michael Jackson archives. So we got stuff in there that people have never ever seen. Ever. Ever! [laughter] And the world premiere is at the Venice Film Festival, August 31st.
EBONY: Having worked with Michael Jackson and Prince, how would you compare and contrast them?
SL: Both of them are quiet. But the video I did for Prince, he wasn’t in it—“Money Don’t Matter Tonight.” We talked on the phone a couple of times [for the Girl 6 soundtrack]. I had much more contact with Michael doing the two versions of the single song, “They Don’t Really Care About Us”: the one we shot in New York and the one we shot in Brazil.
EBONY: Soundtrack albums were a lot more important to the packaging of movies in the past. Nowadays, not so much.
SL: The whole record industry is in the tank itself. That’s why, that’s the explanation for that. People don’t buy records, they download ’em and they get singles. People don’t pay for stuff. I love the music in Red Hook Summer. Bruce Hornsby did the score. And a really bright, young, talented singer named Judith Hill did the songs for the film.
EBONY: Have we ever seen authentic Black church scenes like this in the movies? I haven’t seen The Preacher’s Wife—
SL: I haven’t seen it either. [laughter] Well, we have to be authentic. The church we’re shooting at, James McBride’s parents founded that church. Both his parents were preachers.
EBONY: Speak on the appearance of Nola Darling in the film. The sexually liberated lead of She’s Gotta Have It shows up as Mother Darling, Red Hook’s Watchtower-selling Jehovah’s Witness, with a son who passed away from AIDS.
SL: I find it funny because, Nola Darling, she was juggling three boyfriends in She’s Gotta Have It. Now, she got saved. And it reminds me of all those ex-girlfriends of Prince. [laughter]
EBONY: Vanity! And…
SL: Who else?
EBONY: Sheila E., actually [at Understanding Principles for Better Living Church].
SL: Apollonia! I don’t know what [Prince] did, but they all found the Lord! [laughter]
EBONY: You once said that studios are more likely to allow you to direct if you write what you’re directing; essentially, become a writer first. With all the strides in tech—with digicams and Kickstarter and Vimeo and YouTube, etc.—is that still your advice?
SL: I still believe it. Yes. Any young filmmaker, if you could work on your writing skills, you’re giving yourself a much better chance of getting your film made. Whatever the technology, it’s still all about storytelling. You gotta work on your craft.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Lewis is a former editor at Vibe, XXL and BET.com. Follow MML on Twitter at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.