A day after he provoked a Sundance Film Festival crowd by telling it that studios "know nothing about black people," Spike Lee sounded a more contrite note—sort of.
“My wife told me when I left this morning ‘You’re defeating the purpose. Just talk about the movie,’” he told The Times while sitting at a Park City, Utah, cafe on Monday morning. The movie Lee was referring to is “Red Hook Summer,” his new film about a preacher and his grandson in a contemporary Brooklyn housing project.
Lee said he’d prefer not to elaborate further on his belief about why studios couldn’t handle a black coming-of-age story. “I’m not here to condemn Hollywood—even if it may sound like that,” he said, giving a small laugh.
Lee had stunned an audience of as many as 1,000 people at the festival’s Eccles Theater into silence on Sunday when, responding to an audience question from Chris Rock, he said that "they [studios] know nothing about black people ... and they're going to give me notes about what a 13-year-old boy and girl are doing in Red Hook? [Shoot] no," he said, repeating it several times, only without saying “shoot.”
On Monday, Lee said he made the film because he felt Hollywood had shirked its duty when it came to portraying young people of color. “One of my favorite films is ‘Stand by Me.’ But there’s no black person in it. It’s a great film, but where’s the African American version? You know, kids growing up. It doesn’t have to be all ducking bullets and.…”
Lee's new movie tells the story of a young Atlanta boy named Flick who is sent to live with his preacher grandfather over one hot summer. In its look at a young man coming of age on the streets of Brooklyn, it is a companion piece of sorts to his 1989 classic “Do the Right Thing.” There are all sorts of callbacks to that film in “Red Hook,” including several scenes in which Lee reprises his role as the iconic Mookie, updating the audience on how his life turned out. (He’s still delivering pizza, though things didn’t work out with Rosie Perez’s Tina.)
“Red Hook” also deals with issues in contemporary Brooklyn, including gentrification, black poverty, the strong influence of religion and sexual abuse.
The movie takes an unexpectedly dark turn in its final half hour, prompting some in the audience to say they felt whiplash. But Lee was unrepentant. “They have these certain rules that you can’t do this or that. Who says that?”
Lee also remained defiant about the most controversial element of the film [Spoiler alert: please skip ahead to the next paragraph if you'd rather not know]—a scene in which a preacher molests a young boy while having him read the Bible. The moment has generated a backlash among some in the media and at the festival. Entertainment Weekly called the film “ranting” and “shocking” as a result
“It was one of the most difficult scenes I’ve ever done,” Lee acknowledged on Monday. “But I knew it had to be done. It would have been cowardly and gutless and punkish to not deal with it straight on” (that is, by just referencing it without showing it, as Lee said co-writer James McBride had preferred).
"And here’s the thing. It’s my money. I financed the film because I didn’t want to have notes and didn’t want people to tell me there’s no audience for this film so we need to change this or that.”
The movie does not yet have a distributor, but Lee, who hasn't made a feature in nearly four years, said that he was confident it soon would and that it would be released to theaters this summer.
Photo: Spike Lee at the Sundance Film Festival. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times