For those of you looking for a place to vote with your dollars in favor of more diverse depictions of New York in general and Brooklyn in particular, I’d humbly submit that you should be getting really, really excited for Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer, which was one of my two favorite movies at Sundance this year. It’s a glorious movie, often joyful, sometimes shattering, about the black church, about white gentrifiers who freak out when African-American kids write their initials in her cement, about air pollution and asthma and the high cost of inhalers, about falling in love for the first time when you’re a young teenager. I would be willing to lay money that the horror with which Lee’s Sundance pronouncement that Hollywood doesn’t care much for or about black people was greeted is part of the reason it’s taken so long for Red Hook Summer to find distribution. I’m also willing to bet that the movie will be criticized for its frank politics and for its attention to Lee’s personal areas of interest—Deadline, for some reason, has decided that it’s “controversial,” which says more about Deadline than Lee or Red Hook Summer. If you’re in New York, mark your calendars for August 10 for the movie’s release date. The rest of us will have to wait a little bit longer.
Stories tagged with “Spike Lee”
It’s been tremendously disappointing to watch the kind of celebrities who could have used their influence for good in the wake of the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin target George Zimmerman and his family instead.
First, Spike Lee tweeted what he believed to be Zimmerman’s address. It turned out to be the address of an elderly couple who have a son whose middle name is George, but who have no relation whatsoever to the self-appointed vigilante who shot and killed Martin. The Zimmermans say they had to leave their home for fear that they would be targeted for retaliation, and Lee has since apologized to them personally and financially compensated them for the hardship and inconvenience he caused them.
As if that wasn’t enough, comedian Roseanne Barr, who happens to be a candidate for the Green Party nomination for president and is preparing for her return to network television with the NBC sitcom Downwardly Mobile this fall, last night tweeted George Zimmerman’s parents’ correct address. She subsequently deleted the address and tweeted “At first I thought it was good to let ppl know that no one can hide anymore,” a pretty disturbing statement from a long-term feminist who might want to consider what that means for abused women, “But vigilante-ism is what killed trayvon [sic]. I don’t support that.”
Whether the address was right or wrong doesn’t matter. It brings us no closer to justice for Trayvon Martin to terrorize or scold his parents. Holding out the possibility of revealing their address again if Zimmerman isn’t arrested, as Barr did, is utterly ineffective. They don’t have the power to arrest him, or to turn him in to a police department that’s failing to act. No matter how grieved or angered we are, the only way to honor Martin’s death is by demanding that the system work to punish his killer, rather than by joining Zimmerman in abandoning it.
There’s been an awful lot of furor over Spike Lee’s declaration at Sundance, made with justifiable anger (and to my mind considerable accuracy), that Hollywood doesn’t know much about black people and doesn’t much care. The response to that statement, and a couple of other recent incidents, really seem to make clear how correct Lee is, and how loath the industry is to acknowledge his fundamental correctness.
Even before he got to Sundance, the Hollywood Reporter framed a Q&A with him by saying that Lee discussed “what he sees as a dearth of influence among African-Americans in Hollywood.” That kind of framing makes a fact seem like an opinion. During the Q&A, Lee asks his questioner multiple times to name an African-American in the entertainment industry who has the power to greenlight a movie, and the only person THR can come up with is an animation executive. All the studies of race and gender representation in the industry show that people of color are dramatically underrepresented in directing, writing, and producing positions. The only way that Spike Lee’s observations about race and Hollywood are an opinion rather than a fact is if the industry consensus is that it’s fine for people of color to be underrepresented in entertainment relative to their actual presence in the population. And if that’s the case, I’d really rather someone in Hollywood say that up front than listen to folks pretend that getting racial and gender diversity in positions of power is important to them.
And I think a lot of people in Hollywood want to believe they’re squarely committed to racial justice, or at least proportional racial representation. You see that in Charlize Theron trying to buck up Viola Davis after the latter says that not looking like Halle Berry makes it harder for black women to get good roles in mainstream entertainmentby telling Davis that “You have to stop saying that, because you’re hot as shit,” a statement that asks Davis to ignore the assumptions that have measurably governed her career and suggests that self-esteem can overcome institutionalized racism.
You see that in the affection for The Help, a perfect example of the kind of movie that Red Hook Summer co-writer James McBride is talking about when he says, “Nothing in this world happens unless white folks says it happens. And therein lies the problem of being a professional black storyteller– writer, musician, filmmaker. Being black is like serving as Hoke, the driver in ‘Driving Miss Daisy,’ except it’s a kind of TV series lasts the rest of your life: You get to drive the well-meaning boss to and fro, you love that boss, your lives are stitched together, but only when the boss decides your story intersects with his or her life is your story valid.”
But complaining about this, even for 30 seconds, which is about as long as what the press has called Lee’s Sundance “rant” or “tirade” lasted. As McBride put it in that same essay, “When George Lucas complained publicly about the fact that he had to finance his own film because Hollywood executives told him they didn’t know how to market a black film, no one called him a fanatic. But when Spike Lee says it, he’s a racist militant and a malcontent.” The easiest way to marginalize a truth that would require you to make genuine changes if you accepted it is to marginalize the person telling it, to make him out to be crazy, or extreme, or whiny, or demanding rather than justifiably angry. That’s what’s happening to Spike Lee. Journalists should be thoughtful about what kinds of perceptions they’re abetting, and whether they’re framing the reaction to the Red Hook Summer session, or the reaction to The Help, or any other discussion of race in Hollywood in a way that’s the best representation of the truth, or a representation of a mass mentality that’s running scared.
The Triumphs And Tragedies Of Spike Lee’s ‘Red Hook Summer’ — And The Fear Of Truly Challenging Movies
It’s difficult to encapsulate Red Hook Summer, Spike Lee’s new movie about an Atlanta teenager and potential future documentarian named Flik spending the summer in Brooklyn’s housing projects with his preacher grandfather. To some, the return of Mookie, dispensing advice about proper pizza conveyance and wondering about a sold-out condo across the street from the projects, makes it a sequel to Do The Right Thing. To many critics, it appears to be an uneven and overlong combination of coming-of-age story, love letter to Brooklyn, exploration of the black church, and strikingly dark twist. To me, Red Hook Summer is likely to be one of the most misunderstood movies in years. And I’d be willing to lay money that it will be one of the most intriguing, moving things I see this year, a profound challenge to the apolitical whiteness and cliche storytelling that define so many mainstream movies.
For a movie significantly set in and around a church, there’s something fitting about the structure of Red Hook Summer, which follows two narratives that rise together like the arcs of a masonry vault, each held in place by the keystone that is Clarke Peters’ performance as Enoch Rouse, bishop of struggling Red Hook church Little Piece of Heaven.
The first arch involves the search for a villain, or at least a source of menace in the neighborhood where Flik finds himself spending the summer. The first candidate is a white gentrifier in the neighborhood who is outraged when Flik and Chazz, the neighbor girl who attends Little Piece of Heaven faithfully with her mother Colleen, write their names in the fresh cement outside her house. “Are you two out of your minds?” she screams at them, all out of proportion to the slight, which a less proprietary homeowner might view as a sweet touch of the neighborhood. “Come on, show me what you got! Go back to your home and stay there!” as if by confining Flik and Chazz to the housing projects, she can have the Red Hook that she wants.
Later, the sense of menace shifts from gentrifiers to a new generation of neighborhood residents, specifically Box, a Blood gang leader who used to attend Little Piece of Heaven with his mother, Sister Augustine. On his arrival, Enoch warned Flik to stay away from Box, but Flik can’t resist trying to interview Box as part of his neighborhood tapestry. “What kind of questions?” Box wants to know when Flik makes his request. “Like what you do to make my granddaddy so mad?” the boy explains. Enoch told Flik from the beginning that he should “be careful with that thing out here,” when his grandson seemed determined to see the world through the lens of his iPad 2, and it’s Box who proves that the power to witness, and to record, can be threatening, and make the observer a target.
The second arch revolves around a series of three services at Little Piece of Heaven, which seem likely to be the most misunderstood parts of the movie (and already one place many critics are suggesting cuts), but are a powerful and subtle exploration of the growth of faith, the role politics play in people’s lives, and the power and fragility of community. There are three important elements in each of these sermons, each of which contributes in a significant way to the movie’s powerful denouement, which happens at the end of the third church service.
The Times Magazine’s profile of George Lucas is very interesting, particularly in its description of how his long-term girlfriend, Mellody Hobson, or as Al Sharpton calls her, “black America’s business princess,” has transmitted Lucas’s dedication to racial equality and channeled it more directly into politics, whether calling Obama a Jedi or showing up for the White House Correspondents Association Dinner. And it captures his determination to make Red Tails a truly black movie (he’s joked about Spike Lee making a prequel to it):
“They say, Now, who are you making this for?”
“I’m making it for black teenagers.”…
“And you’re going to be very patriotic — you’re making a black movie that’s patriotic?”
“They have a right to have their history just like anybody else does,” Lucas said. “And they have a right to have it kind of Hollywood-ized and aggrandized and made corny and wonderful just like anybody else does. Even if that’s not the fashion right now.” [...]
To execute his popcorn vision of “Red Tails,” Lucas turned to Anthony Hemingway, a 36-year-old director who made his name on TV shows like “The Wire.” Hemingway, who had never directed a feature film, comes from the church of David Simon, which values moral murkiness over naïveté, documentary detail about East Baltimore over an ethnography of the Ewok village. It was like hiring a “Hill Street Blues” veteran to direct “Return of the Jedi.”
But from the beginning, Lucas wanted “Red Tails” to have a black director. “I thought, This is the proper way to do this,” he said. Indeed, to scan the credits in “Red Tails” is to see Lucas’s fidelity to African-American filmmakers. There are two black writers and a black executive producer. Terence Blanchard, a Spike Lee collaborator (“Jungle Fever,” “Malcolm X”), wrote the score, and Art Sims, another Lee veteran, designed the one-sheet.
I really hope Red Tails does well not simply to disprove the idea that black leads can’t open blockbusters or that black history is a niche genre. Lucas has said that this will be his last blockbuster. So if the movie makes bank, maybe Lucas could do for black artists what Tyler Perry hasn’t entirely done yet, and what Queen Latifah still might do: spread the wealth and give a financial springboard to projects that could be commercially viable if only they could find financing and support, and an imprimatur that would reassure distributors. The battle might be to get individual non-white (or for that matter, female) writers and directors credentialed and established. But the war is about getting a lot of them in the game.
When Eddie Murphy followed Brett Ratner in withdrawing from the Oscars, it was an open and interesting question as to where his career would go next. Would he find another prestige project in time for audiences to remember that he’s got actual chops (however much I liked Tower Heist, it’s been five years since his last truly elevating project, Dreamgirls)? Or would he drown his sorrows in fat suits and voice work? Fortunately, it looks like the former: Spike Lee’s going to direct Murphy in a Marion Barry biopic for HBO.
I’m excited for this, and not only because I live in Washington, D.C. or because (full disclosure) my coworker Harry Jaffe, who wrote a fantastic book about D.C. and Barry called Dream City, is going to be consulting on the project. I’m not a Barry fan: it’s hard to be if you’re a fan of clean and effective government, equal marriage rights, or paying your taxes. But he stands as a refutation to the idea that technocratic good government ideals will win everyone over, that voters will pick their representatives based on resumes and campaign platforms rather than on neighborhood, religious, or racial or ethnic affiliations. Barry’s continued role in the public life of the District of Columbia is inexplicable to a lot of folks, and therein lies his importance as a goad to the sense that the way folks in one quadrant of Washington see the world — or just the District — is shared by everyone around them. That’s not a particularly comfortable conversation. And Barry may not be the best of all possible representatives to communicate it. But the question is less why people keep electing Barry, and more why other alternatives don’t seem compelling or trustworthy to his constituents. And there’s no question that he’s a messy, small American icon, and deserves a movie that communicates his significance in a tough, clear-eyed way.