It’s been four years since Spike Lee had a theatrically released film, the last being the not-very-well-received Miracle at St. Anna. Not that he’s been slacking: In the interim, he’s directed documentaries like Passing Strange, Kobe Doin’ Work and the equally epic When the Levees Broke postscript If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise, as well as the one-man Broadway show Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth. While doing pre-production on his long-planned remake of the South Korean shocker OldBoy, and with the Michael Jackson doc Bad 25 about to hit U.S. film festivals, he’s been doing press on Red Hook Summer, an indie he self-financed. PW spoke with Lee at Ms. Tootsie’s about the film, which tells the tale of a young teen, Flik, and his eventful visit with the preacher grandfather he barely knows.
What drew you to Red Hook as a location?
[Co-writer James McBride] grew up in Red Hook. The church of the film, his parents founded. And it’s a very interesting neighborhood. It’s isolated. Cut-off.
You have several characters from previous films wandering around here: Mookie from Do the Right Thing is working for Sal’s Famous Pizzeria again; Nola Darling from She’s Gotta Have It is now a Jehovah’s Witness.
We’ve done this before. In Jungle Fever, Buggin’ Out reappears as a homeless person. In Jungle Fever, the same two cops who murdered Radio Raheem try to arrest the characters played by Annabella Sciorra and Wesley Snipes. And in Inside Man, the pizza is from Sal’s.
One of the film’s themes is gentrification and how low-income families have been priced out of Brooklyn. At this point, where can they go?
People can’t afford to live in New York anymore, so they’re going back to Puerto Rico and back to Dominican Republic. They’ve gone back down South.
Are there other Brooklyn neighborhoods that you want to make a film about?
Yeah, but I don’t know what it is. This is the sixth one. She’s Gotta Have It was what is now known as Dumbo and Fort Greene. Do the Right Thing was Bed-Stuy Do or Die. Crooklyn was Bed-Stuy Do or Die. Clockers was Boerum Hill. He Got Game was Coney Island. And Red Hook Summer, Red Hook. And I’m not done yet.
Red Hook Summer was self-financed, but earlier in your career, smaller films like this—School Daze, Crooklyn—were studio films. It seems like the studios today aren’t interested in small, intelligent films.
I mean, if you want to do that film, you’re Clint Eastwood or Scorsese or Chris Nolan. There’s still a cache of directors who can get what they want. If you’re not in that cache, it’s much harder.
Did you find it freeing doing a small film with a relatively inexpensive camera? How did that change your aesthetics?
It didn’t. It’s filmmaking. I don’t let the tools change the way I do stuff. Film or digital doesn’t change the way I shoot something.
One of the main characters, Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse, turns out to have a troubling secret, and yet the film doesn’t completely damn him. That seems consistent with your films. For example, 25th Hour doesn’t let Monty off the hook for being a drug dealer who has poisoned and destroyed the lives of his clients. But he’s still sympathetic.
It really depends on who the audience is. Not everybody I’ve talked to has found his character sympathetic. He’s a drug dealer; they should throw him in jail. Other people felt differently. I don’t dictate to the audience whether they should feel one way or the other. I like hearing people with different views. It amazes me to hear people have two diametrically opposed views, and they’ve both seen the same film.
Can you talk about some of the differences between the Sundance cut and the new theatrical cut? I hear there was a scene where Flik [the young main character] interviewed Mookie.
The bulk of the stuff that got cut out was Flik’s interviews. We just saw that the audience gets the idea. He says himself: I’m making a documentary about Red Hook. And you don’t need to see everything he shoots.
I wanted to talk to you about race in America ...
I’m done answering questions about race in this country. I’m done. D-U-N. Done. It’s just tiring.
Well, I was hoping you’d speak a little about how racism has evolved with Obama in the office.
You got a real question? [Laughs]