The acclaimed filmmaker on his love of the summertime and working on the MJ doc, Bad 25.
Spike Lee chronicles another hot summer in Brooklyn for his latest movie, Red Hook Summer. In true Spike Lee fashion, the tale of an Atlanta teen spending his summer in the Red Hook projects, tackles hot-button issues like gentrification, poverty and sexual politics in the church. The film expands its limited release this week. Lee spoke with ESSENCE.com about financing Red Hook, his love of the summertime and working on Bad 25, his documentary on the making of Michael Jackson's album.
ESSENCE.com: This is your fifth movie chronicling Brooklyn in the summertime. What is it about the summertime that inspires your stories?
SPIKE LEE: I love the summertime. I remember growing up and thinking summertime would never end. I'd leave the house at the crack of dawn and wouldn't come back until it got late. I remember just having fun. It was a great time.
ESSENCE.com: But your movies aren't necessarily always about a great time in the summertime. There's always some extra heat.
SPIKE LEE: Well it's documented that the murder rate goes up in the summertime. There are more shootings, more spousal abuse past a certain temperature. People in New York City are living on top of each other. They're irritable and they're hot.
ESSENCE.com: Most of your Brooklyn films are set in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Why Red Hook this time around?
SPIKE LEE: It’s a very strange peculiar neighborhood. It's out of the way, and as Bishop Enoch says in the movie, the projects were built for dockworkers, but over the years Blacks and Puerto Ricans populated it. And now, like much of New York City, it's been gentrified. There’s an Ikea, a Fairway [supermarket], the Brooklyn terminal where the Queen Mary [cruise ship] docks. And right in the middle you've still got the projects.
ESSENCE.com: Nate Parker, the star of Red Hook Summer, tells us you introduced him to some Bloods from Red Hook. How in the world does that happen?
SPIKE LEE: The Bloods run the projects. You just can't roll up in the projects and start shooting a movie without talking to people. In Jungle Fever there was a scene where Annabella Sciorra and Wesley Snipes were at the feast of San Gennaro. We had to pay for that in a brown paper bag; small denominations. [Laughs] I swear to God, there weren't any checks there. It was cash only...20's, 10's, all in a paper bag.
ESSENCE.com: You “wrote the check” for Red Hook Summer. Does it surprise you that after you've made big-budget hits, you still have projects you have to finance yourself?
SPIKE LEE: No, because I know what time it is. I know what films are being made and if I want a Red Hook Summer to be made, I have to write the check. I'm not trying to get a medal; I’m just trying to tell some stories.
ESSENCE.com: The movie obviously takes a very dark turn, as we learn about Flik's preacher grandfather. What are your personal feelings on religion, and how did that factor into what unfolds in your film?
SPIKE LEE: I never spent a lot of time in the church; that was [screenwriter] James McBride. His parents founded the church where we filmed. He grew up in he church. I've always been a spiritual person, but I've just never thought I had to demonstrate it in the house of the Lord. The stuff that's very specific about religion in the film — that’s James.
ESSENCE.com: You’ve also just wrapped up your documentary on the making of Michael Jackson’s Bad album. What did you learn about MJ that surprised you?
SPIKE LEE: Just how different he was. He was determined that Bad would sell 100 million records. He would put that everywhere: on his bathroom mirror, pieces of paper written "100 million" everywhere as a constant affirmation. Bad followed Thriller in sales [it's estimated to have sold 30 million worldwide], and even today, Thriller is highest-selling album in history.
ESSENCE.com: You keep MJ’s memory alive with your annual party for him in Brooklyn. And now Bad 25. What is it about him in particular that keeps you so dedicated?
SPIKE LEE: Genius. And we’re the same age, so I grew up with him. When I loved the Jackson Five with Michael Jackson, I had no idea I would ever meet or work with him. I was born in ’57, Michael was born in ’58, and so was Prince. People don’t know that. Prince and Michael were the same age. It’s amazing to me that I grew up with all these people and I got to work with them.
Red Hook Summer expands in limited release this week. Bad 25, Lee's Michael Jackson documentary, is premiering at Venice.