The last time Spike Lee passed through Chicago was election night 2008. He tells me he hasn’t returned since. “For what?” he asks, with a bit of a smile.
We’re at WGN studios near Avondale, where Lee has just taped a segment. It’s a timely visit: A day earlier, a Tribune piece on Louis Farrakhan’s decision to send Nation of Islam members into high-homicide neighborhoods to mediate violence began by evoking a scene from Lee’s Malcolm X. In the movie, Malcolm serves as a peaceful intermediary between police and protesters.
Lee, sporting a multicolor-pinstripe jacket and scally cap, addresses the comparison with a certain reticence. “Whatever they’ve been trying to do [to reduce violence] in the past isn’t working,” he says. “I’m glad Mr. Farrakhan is taking the initiative because it’s out of control.… These young brothers still killing each other.”
You could draw a parallel between areas Farrakhan will presumably visit and the eponymous Brooklyn neighborhood in Lee’s Red Hook Summer, which the director cowrote with The Color of Water author James McBride. The film, opening Friday 24, centers on Atlanta teen Flik (Jules Brown), who’s sent to New York for the summer to live with his bishop grandfather (Clarke Peters). Although it marks Lee’s return to the borough of Do the Right Thing and Crooklyn, Red Hook Summer has a different feel. This section of the city, where McBride grew up, isn’t so much a mixing bowl as a world set apart.
“Say this is all Red Hook,” Lee says, drawing a map on the table with his fingers. “In the middle of Red Hook are 31 buildings that make the projects. And you have streets that border the projects, a park, a Chinese food place, a laundromat, a supermarket, fried chicken. That’s about as far as [the residents] go. They don’t go beyond the street facing the projects. That’s why we had that line where [Flik’s friend] Chazz says she’s only been to the city twice. She looks from Valentino Pier at the skyline of Lower Manhattan—that’s like motherfucking Oz, the Emerald City.”
The production came about after Lee had trouble getting a handful of Hollywood projects financed; his last nondocumentary feature was 2008’s Miracle at St. Anna. “I wasn’t just going to Knick games courtside,” Lee says. “We just couldn’t get the films made, including the sequel to Inside Man.” But Lee bristles when I describe Red Hook Summer, shot in 18 days, as an “on the fly” production. “My man, my man—when I hear the term on the fly, correct me if I’m wrong, on the fly means, like, just winging shit,” he says. Careful planning, he notes, made the three-week shoot possible.
Over our half-hour chat, Lee is guarded when discussing the film’s content. When I ask why the movie takes a late detour into a hot-button issue, he replies, “Storytelling. Storytelling.”
Despite his hiatus from Hollywood, Lee hasn’t taken a break from telling stories. His new documentary on Michael Jackson, Bad 25, premieres at Venice August 31. Given unprecedented access by the Jackson estate, Lee promises “there’ll be stuff in this documentary people never ever seen before—or even heard.” He’s now in preproduction on his remake of Park Chanwook’s Oldboy. “I’ve been so busy—I just directed Mike Tyson on Broadway, that closes Sunday,” he says. “I haven’t even had a chance to really look at the Olympics.”
And then, characteristically: “I haven’t watched one game of the basketball team.”
Editor's note: Lee has in fact made visits to Chicago since 2008, including one earlier this year when he spoke at Chicago State University. Red Hook Summer opens Friday 24.