Since arriving on the scene in 1986 with She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee 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, a Broadway play with Mike Tyson. ABC just acquired the TV rights for his newest nonfiction film, Bad 25, about Michael Jackson’s 1987 record.
With his latest, Red Hook Summer, a 13-year-old boy 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. Lee, 55, recently chatted by phone with Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday:
How did “Red Hook Summer” begin?
I co-wrote the script with my man [writer/musician] 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.
Bishop Enoch fulminates against ills that plague the black community — from violence to coarsening pop culture to gentrification.
Three out of four African-American families are headed by a single mom. That’s 75 percent. And I will put my left hand on 10 Bibles and my right hand to God and say that’s the main correlation to the highest dropout rate and the highest prison rate, and it manifests itself ultimately with these young brothers killing each other with this insane pathological genocide that’s happening. It all comes back to the fact. And I’m not trying to demonize these single moms, they’re doing the best they can, working two or three jobs to keep it together. But these young boys, and young women, with no father in their lives, how can that not affect their relationship with black men? It’s the domino effect.
Using different film stocks has always been part of your grammar. In this film, you even include sequences shot on an iPad.
The way I see it, and what I tell my students at NYU: You have to use technology, not let technology use you. No matter what the technology has been — painting pictures on cave walls or oral history — it’s always going to be used for storytelling. So you have to work on your storytelling craft.
Do you see a difference between your students today and back when you were at NYU in the 1980s?
I was 100 percent driven. I’m not trying to be condescending, but they don’t have the drive that my classmates and I had. For us, it was life or death. Ang Lee, Ernest Dickerson, those were my classmates. I’m not blaming, I just think with all this reality TV and stuff, they want to be delivered right away. I’d say students today are burning, but they’re not burning as hot.