Spike Lee Returns to Sundance (and His Old Brooklyn Stomping Ground) with Red Hook Summer

Director Spike Lee at the premiere of his film Red Hook. Photo by Jonathan Hickerson.

Eric Hynes

On screen and off, Spike Lee always makes it interesting. Returning to Sundance with the entertaining and explosive Red Hook Summer, which in turn is a return to Lee’s micro-indie and Brooklyn roots, the director was on hand along with his cast and crew for the film’s World Premiere the Eccles Theater on Sunday night.

The film takes place over the course of a hot summer in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where 13 year-old, Atlanta-raised Flik (newcomer Jules Brown) spends an eventful school break with his old school preacher grandfather, Enoch (The Wire’s astonishing Clarke Peters). On hand were actors Brown, Peters, and Toni Lysiath, co-writer James McBride, composer Bruce Hornsby and musical director Judith Hill.

Stalking the stage in his trademark baseball cap and New York Giants vest, Lee talked about his love for Brooklyn and why he made the film with his own money. He then worked himself into a passionate speech, worthy of the charismatic Enoch, on how Hollywood studios “don’t nothing about black people,” and why the celebrated filmmaker had to “do the film independent.”

Just as the final credits rolled, the New York Giants were finishing up an overtime victory against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game, prompting the following.

(Shouted from the audience) Hey, Spike, the Giants won.

Spike Lee: What? What score? New York Giants! Going to the Super Bowl. Kick Tom Brady’s ass for a second time. All you people from Boston you can leave if you want to. (Laughter) Anyway. Is Brooklyn in the house? (Roar) All right. We doubled the black population of Utah, maybe tripled it.

Spike, how much time did you spend in church when you were growing up?

SL: All the church stuff came from Mr. James McBride. He grew up in a church. In fact the church you saw in the film, his parents founded in Red Hook. The only time I went to church was when my parents sent me down south, to spend summers with my grandparents and I had to go to church. In Atlanta, Georgia, and Stonewall, Alabama. So I did not grow up in the church. Next question.

The Enoch character said that TV and movies were corrupting children, yet this is what you’re giving us, a great film. How would you argue with your character?

Clarke Peters: I’m not too sure it’s necessarily TV. And it’s certainly not the theater that’s corrupting theater. I’ll stand on theater until the end. These illnesses seem to pervade all religions, all cultures, all philosophies, and I think that’s what’s undermining our ethics, our values, our virtues. And that’s why I wanted to do this. We need a platform, a way to speak about this. So when Mr. Lee came round with this, I said it’s right on time. We need to hear this. If this is corrupting children, we need to educate them. Speak up, don’t be afraid.

The look and feel you gave to the film was absolutely brilliant. You brought us into the neighborhood, it felt so real. Talk to us about the style of the film.

SL: I’d like to say first that when you talk about the look of a film it’s not just cinematography. There’s also a production designer, a costume designer, all those people, hopefully under the leadership of the director, who put the look of the film onto the screen. We shot the film in 19 days.

The reason we had to do it so quickly is that we knew we had a limited amount of resources. So the whole film was shot within a ten-block area in the Red Hook projects. There was Super 8 footage, and stuff that Jules shot on his iPad 2. That’s right, 2. All those things determine the look of a film.

I want to thank you very much because you’re the very first audience to see this film. And do me a favor, when you go out and talk about it, please tell them that this is not the motherfuckin’ sequel to Do the Right Thing. Or Mookie’s return. Please. This film is what I call another installment in my own chronicles of Brooklyn.

The great Borough of Brooklyn, New York. The Republic of Brooklyn. The first installment was She’s Gotta Have It back in 1986, Do the Right Thing in 1989, I forgot the year for Clockers, and I forgot the year of Crooklyn. But here we are back in 2012, and we’re going to continue showing the many different levels of a borough that I love.

The story was extraordinarily textured, not only on the level of characters but on the level of religion. It was honest and truthful. We’re a country that’s very divided right now regarding religion. What drew you to this story now?

James McBride: I don’t think religion is a timely event. It’s something that is part of this country, and this is a very conservative country in many ways because of religion. I sat down with Spike in a diner and we started talking about making a multi-dimensional portrait of an African American as a young boy.

And then Spike mentioned that he had done a commercial with the basketball player Carmelo Anthony in Brooklyn, which was right around the corner from the building where I used to live. So it just started. I grew up in the church and was very religious. I mean, not very religious. But I went to church a lot more than most people in this room did. And I’m very grateful for that.

Some of these things were very difficult for me to write, personally. Spike and I had lots of very heated discussions about some of this stuff. Especially about the flashback scene. And Clarke will tell you that it was one of the most difficult things that he’s ever had to do.

But we wanted to be honest to the truth in black American life and American life in general. People don’t really talk honestly about religion. But I still believe in God, I still believe in Jesus. In fact, this film has helped me believe in God even more.

CHRIS ROCK (from the audience): Hey! It’s Chris Rock. That’s Chris Rock, man. In real life. So Spike, you spent your own money, whatever. What would you have done differently if you had actually gotten a bunch of studio money? Because I don’t know what you have done. I just want to know. What else would have happened? Would he have blown up or some shit? (Laughter)

Spike Lee: Brooklyn in the house! Chris, thank you for the question. We never went to the studios with this film. I told you. I told you. I bought a camera. I told you what camera I bought. I bought a camera and we said we’re going to do this motherfucking film myself. We didn’t even go to the studios. The plan was to make the film, bring it to Sundance. Well, first (to Festival director John Cooper), show it to you, John. (Laughter) And he’s the reason we’re here.

So this whole thing was planned out. Do the film independent. I don’t want to hear no motherfucking person from a studio telling me something about Red Hook. They don’t know nothing about black people. Nothing. They’re going to give me notes on what a young 13-year-old black boy is doing in Red Hook? Fuck no. So we made the film ourselves. We didn’t have any notes.

My wife is looking at me like I’m crazy. But I don’t know. What else are we gonna to do? We had to do it ourselves. We shot She’s Gotta Have It in 12 days back in 1986. And I’m going to wait for Universal to do the sequel to Inside Man, my biggest hit ever? I can’t wait any longer. We had to do it ourselves.

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