The Hot Seat: Spike Lee
The British, gentrifiers and Staten Island all get it in the neck—but the director's no hater.
Mon Aug 16 2010
Illustration: Wendy MacNaughton
Spike Lee isn't afraid to speak his mind. He cast an unflinching eye on racial tension in his 1989 Academy Award--nominated film, Do the Right Thing; called Clint Eastwood out for ignoring African-American marines in Flags of Our Fathers; and is sure to make BP executives cringe with his newest project. If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise—the follow-up to his 2006 Katrina documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts—airs on HBO in two parts, starting Monday 23.
Despite being undeniably British myself, I received only a gentle ribbing from Lee (though he certainly didn't sugarcoat his views on gentrification). Turns out, the director's got a lot of love in him, particularly for his native borough: He recently collaborated on a limited-edition vodka called Absolut Brooklyn, its label inspired by the front stoop of his childhood home in Cobble Hill. And on August 29, Lee throws his second annual Brooklyn Loves Michael Jackson party in Prospect Park. I met with him in a half-built Habitat for Humanity house in Bed-Stuy (the site of the Absolut Brooklyn launch) to talk about the new documentary, and whether or not he can moonwalk.
RECOMMENDED: Full list of Hot Seat interviews
It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Lee—
It's not a good time to be a British guy. Besides the World Cup, there's BP, too.
It's always a good time to be a British guy in America. I get away with so much because of my accent.
All right, do me a favor. I want you to go to New Orleans right now in a Union Jack shirt. [Laughs] I want you to go to Venice, Louisiana, waving a British Union Jack and see what happens. They might mistake you for Tony Hayward. Nah, I'm just messing with you.
What we can expect from If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise?
It's a follow-up to my documentary about Hurricane Katrina and the breach of levees. We go back and visit the region, and the film has a very extensive hour on the whole BP oil disaster. We had finished the film, but once it happened we had to go back and include it.
How are the people of New Orleans coping?
They're devastated. They were barely getting over Katrina and now this thing happens. It's really fragile there.
Turning to brighter things, what have you got lined up for the Michael Jackson concert in Prospect Park?
It's going to be bigger and better than last year. It's going to honor and celebrate—to laugh, dance, sing on—Michael Jackson's birthday.
How did you feel last year during the event?
It was great. It's going to be a lot more people this year, too, so hopefully, God willing, it'll just be something we do for many years to come.
Can you moonwalk?
Did you ever try?
Yes, I can't do it. [Laughs] Don't have those skills. It's not like I tried it every day, I tried it once, couldn't do it and just left it alone.
You collaborated on Absolut Brooklyn. What are your thoughts on Brooklyn now?
Well, the Brooklyn I grew up in is not the Brooklyn today. Some people may say that's positive, some say it's negative, but for me, my biggest fear is that gentrification is displacing people who were the heart and soul of Brooklyn. We shot Do the Right Thing in Bed-Stuy back in 1988. There were no white people coming in—you were not coming into Bed-Stuy. Now, this is America and everyone can live where they want to live. I just think that when you move into a neighborhood, you can't necessarily come in and just change all the culture at the same time. That's my only problem with gentrification.
We did a Manhattan vs. Brooklyn issue a while back, and in response, a lot of TONY readers complained that we feature Brooklyn too much.
They were haters on Brooklyn? Brooklyn haters?
Look, can't all us New Yorkers love each other? Every borough has its attributes. I don't know about Staten Island, but... [Laughs]
If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise premieres Mon 23 and Tue 24 on HBO; Brooklyn Loves Michael Jackson is in Prospect Park Aug 29.