With his new movie, “Red Hook Summer,” Lee pays homage to a part of Brooklyn that, with its view of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty, stands strangely apart not just from New York City but from the rest of Brooklyn. In the film, a 13-year-old boy from Atlanta named Flik (Jules Brown) visits his grandfather, Bishop Enoch (Clarke Peters), for a summer that will expose the spoiled middle-class kid not just to poverty, crime and the grimmer realities of life, but also to the hard-won wisdom of his elders and the spiritual grounding of the church.
Since arriving on the scene in 1986 with “She’s Gotta Have It,” Lee, now 55, has pursued a protean, sometimes uneven, but always fascinating career, enthusiastically trying new genres (a musical with “School Daze,” a biopic with “Malcolm X,” a thriller with “Inside Man”), always with a bold visual signature. In 1997, Lee made his first documentary, “Four Little Girls.” His newest nonfiction film, “Bad 25,” about Michael Jackson’s 1987 record, will have its premiere this month at the Venice Film Festival. And Lee recently directed his first Broadway play, boxer Mike Tyson’s one-man show “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth.”
Spike Lee was in Washington recently and chatted by phone with Post film critic Ann Hornaday about “Red Hook Summer” and kids today — his own and the film students he teaches at New York University.
The Washington Post: How did “Red Hook Summer” begin?
Spike Lee: I co-wrote the script with my man James McBride. We’re both fathers of teenagers, and we were talking about how . . . our kids are all up into crazy stuff. I said, “One of my favorite films is ‘Stand by Me’ — where is that type of film for young black kids?” That’s what the germ was.
TWP: In “Red Hook Summer,” Clarke Peters plays a Baptist preacher, and some of the film’s most memorable scenes take place in church. His sermons are so passionate and spontaneous, I assumed he improvised them.
SL: Those sermons were scripted, but here’s the thing. We also had room for call and response. There were times when he got caught up and the congregation got caught up. It’s the Holy Spirit. That’s what we wanted to achieve. I didn’t want it to be stale or stagnant or constricted or confined by what James and I wrote. It’s more important to cast the spirit.
You know, James grew up in the church. In fact, the church we used in the film, his parents founded that church, the New Brown Memorial Church, right across the street from the Red Hook Projects. It’s very personal for James. Seeing a lot of church scenes [in other movies], they don’t look like any church I’ve been to, not that I’ve been to many churches. But in no way, shape or form do we trivialize or mock the way people worship.
We captured the black church, which is call and response. I went to my great Morehouse man, Dr. Uzee Brown, who arranged the negro spirituals, and they were singing and praising the Lord and we definitely caught the Holy Spirit — not on film, but on digital card. We were having church up in there.