HEROES: SPIKE LEE
The legendary director looks back to move forward
You know Spike Lee, you love Spike Lee, you at least have an opinion about Spike Lee. And, of course, his work, that continues to help steer the conversations we have around the treatment of people of color in America. But his legacy has spread far beyond being just a “filmmaker.” He’s a voice of reason, an advocate, a pioneer, and above all, a storyteller, whether with his motion pictures, commercials, music videos, or his upcoming book, SPIKE. It’s been coursing through his veins from the very beginning carrying on a family tradition of bucking the traditional 9-5 shuffle and opting instead for the creative route. “A lot of things happened to me in my life,” Spike says. “Some higher being looked over me – pushed me in another direction, from the place I wanted to where I needed to go.”
It continued to flow throughout his upbringing in Brooklyn, where his family was the only black unit in the entirely Italian neighborhood of Cobble Hill, surrounded by parents who spoke candidly of African-American enslavement and folklore. This helped foster a spirit of pride in his community and history, wanting to show people like him embracing their life and emotions as any other human would, as opposed to their stereotypical “otherized” depiction at the time. “It was just the right time for a young black filmmaker to break through,” Lee says. Day in and out, from his film school years to his breakout with 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It, the sheer desire to get out there and have his vision be translated to film was what he yearned for. “A spine to my films that’s become more evident to me is that many are about the choices people make, and the reverberations of those choices,” he says. “You go this way, or that way, and either way, there’s going to be consequences.”
From Paul’s impassioned monologue in Da 5 Bloods, to the moment Mookie decided to throw the trash can through the window in Do the Right Thing, it’s all about the visuals with Spike. What you see is your story, what you take away from it is your story, how you feel afterward – there’s your story. Spike’s films aren’t Spike’s films just because they’re about bringing timely tales of race, politics, culture, and pride to the forefront. They’re all about painting the picture, setting the scene, creating the mood. He takes every avenue possible to make you cry, shift, gasp, smile, uncomfortable, inspired, angry, proud. It’s the same manic drive he’s had since he was a teenager with a camera, waking his younger brother David to help him shoot a protest in the wee hours of daylight.
Spike doesn’t think that, though. In his mind, he is just a figure outside of the mainstream, who still can’t cash in his own checks. “I’m an indie filmmaker and I will always be an indie filmmaker. Indie filmmakers are always in search of financing because their work, their vision sometimes does not coincide with studio pictures,” Spike says. “I self-financed Red Hook Summer. My fee for Malcolm X was put back into the budget. The truth is I’ve been doing Kickstarter before there was Kickstarter.” Does that stop him? Heck no, as long as there’s a story being told, it’s a Spike Lee joint after all.
Read the exclusive interview below with David Lee, brother and longtime collaborator of Spike Lee.
V Magazine: Take me back to the very beginning, what was it like for you and Spike growing up in Brooklyn? How would you say the borough influenced your upbringing?
David Lee: Oh man! Brooklyn is just, in the most tribal way, part of our identity. New Yorkers are their own nation. First of all, you break it down to New York City, and then you break it down to the boroughs. So Spike absolutely had it. And just [looking at] our very specific upbringings, a combination of having been brought up in an Italian neighborhood in Cobble Hill, just being the first black family, Spike’s told that story a bunch of times. Our block was pretty much crazy Italians throwing fireworks at each other on Fourth of July, trash cans and cherry bombs and M-80s. It was old school Brooklyn. Spike befriended them early on and he would just draw parts of his characters from them, like Sal in Do The Right Thing. And his best friends were two Italian brothers. It’s all about this loyalty to the neighborhood, to the people that you knew. He’s four years older than me, so he might have been six, seven, eight years old, maybe even younger, when they all became friends. But Brooklyn is absolutely in the DNA, it’s part of our identity.
V: Was there any spark or formative moment in those early years that led Spike to filmmaking?
DL: The one thing that I’ve come to know, the magic word is storytelling. I was writing early on, doing photography. My dad is an incredible, incredible storyteller, he wrote all these jazz operas. His reference growing up was vaudeville. And that was the TikTok of the day, kids today have that and YouTube and whatever the hell else. But all the references for us growing up were the vaudeville routines our parents knew, they know these routines of these old black vaudevillians. It’s all about storytelling.
My grandma was a great storyteller, it’s just a tradition in many, many, many cultures. Of course, in African-American culture, oral history is how stories got passed down. My grandma, [who we called] Mama, my mom’s mom, she was just a natural. She literally sat at the foot, of her grandmother who was born into slavery. So Mama would would listen to her grandmother’s stories and then she would tell us. So right there, that’s five generations, that takes us back. And mama lived to be 100. And I don’t know how old her grandmother lived to be. But Mama, her storytelling spans from her grandmother to stories of us when we were babies.
Filmmaking, photography, writing, art, it’s about storytelling. You’re mining something that spans generations, it connects you. So just inherently, everyone in my family is in the arts, going back generations we’ve always been educators and artists and mostly musicians. So there’s that through line, it’s generational. Everyone in our family of five children, from my dad and my mom, no one ever held a nine-to-five job.
And Spike is insane, he’ll call me up at six in the morning. He’s been lying awake for a while. And I’m thinking ‘what the hell’s going on?’ But yeah, when he was 15 or 16, he was doing his films early on. And he would get me out of bed, he’s like, ‘Come on, let’s go watch. I’m going out and filming whatever, come along.’ So he had me shooting stills. And this was way, way, way before, when he was out of high school.
V: I love the craziness of that! Spike has always used his artistry to paint these beautiful pictures of people of color at a time when there were not a lot showcasing the black experience in America. How did this come about and why was it important to Spike to showcase Black Americans in the way he viewed them, rather than the stereotypes that had been built into the media?
DL: Again, credit there is given to our parents, very strong, very conscious. My mom taught African-American History at a school that was mostly white, but there were black students. And she was the first black teacher at the private school. You can call it a race pride, a pride in our heritage. And also in music. My dad was not just playing jazz, but he was also in the folk arts and folk music scene. A lot of the consciousness of the 60s was coming out of that. There’s just a pride in who we are, and a rejection of images that were being imposed on us by people from outside, the stereotypes. There was never a time that we weren’t proud. We had slave narratives in our home, we had African-American folk tales. We just had an awareness of wanting to tell our own story, not having other people tell her story.
Even when we didn’t have the power to tell our own stories, there was kind of a pride underneath the mask that you wear for white people.
All these things are issues, it’s a continuum. There’s no end point, no finish line. Whether it’s Black Lives Matter, the struggles in the 60s or stuff that was happening earlier on, Marcus Garvey, you can go back to slavery itself, it’s a constant struggle for being seen. That assertion, it’s universal, it’s a universal struggle to have your dignity acknowledged.
V: How do you think Spike’s style as a filmmaker has developed from that time when you first started going out and shooting together as teenagers?
DL: The thing that I like the most that he’s developed, and I think it’s underplayed a little bit, is all the documentaries that he’s done. That would definitely be one thing. Early on, when he would he just go out, photographing, filming, there’s that instinct, just to document things, that’s as much storytelling as anything else.
It’s hard for him to view the early stuff. With She’s Gotta Have It, he just didn’t feel like he did a good job of directing. He doesn’t blame the actors at all. He just felt that his visual sense was already developing, but his relationship to actually directing actors was maybe not as developed.
People always ask me ‘What are your favorite movies of Spike’s?’ And I’ve just got to say Do The Right Thing. After the movie came out, lots of black people will tell you that they spent two years trying to explain racism to white people, try to show them their own blindness, people like ‘why didn’t Mookie throw the trash can through the window?’ White people were so upset with it. He had a job and he was a good boy, you know, where do I start? First of all, you’re identifying with Mookie and not the character’s palatable view, that’s saying a lot about how you see the black community. They don’t understand their own blindness, their own prejudice, their own assumptions, white privilege, and they’ve never questioned themselves. I’m tired of explaining it to white people.
It’s hard, I can’t say there’s been a change in his technical style. But it’s part of our growth. Like we learn a language, you get better and better.
V: So I wanted to talk about the new book, SPIKE. How did the idea for this beautiful book come about and what was it like putting it together?
DL: Steve Crist was the editor and Steve approached me. Spike gave Steve my name. And it just went down a rabbit hole, six months later, still trying to find images and trying to find better images and trying to make it a better book. I’ve documented 99.9% of his ventures. And I try to keep a pretty good record, but there’s some things that were hard to find. I try to keep everything in a pack rat, and it’s not a good thing. And Spike has always been really aware of documenting the things he does. So Steve came and contacted me and said what he was doing, I was like ‘sure, sure, I’ll help find stuff.’ And then I just tried to find older stuff, I had to go into parts of the closet, parts of my shelves and cabinets that I hadn’t seen in 30 to 45 years. I found these old contact sheets and I was like, ‘Whoa!’
And there’s other stuff that didn’t make it in. Before we did She’s Gotta Have It, he was going to do another movie called The Bike Messenger. We had Giancarlo Esposito, we’d cast it, but the money fell through before we were about to shoot it. So to rebound from that disappointment, he decided to do something really quick and did She’s Gotta Have It. But the movie was much more ambitious and just would have been too crazy for a first time director to me.
I don’t know if the book is exhaustive, but it is…thorough, let’s say it’s thorough. I just tried to give them the strongest images to try to tell the story. I like the way we started, it starts off almost like a photo album or scrapbook, memorabilia, a nod to family. And then to the body of work itself. So the book itself is storytelling.
V: And for those who get this new book, what do you hope they come out of the experience with?
DL: It covers such a huge span that whether you’re very familiar with Spike’s films, or moderately so, or not so much, this should absolutely make the case for why he is one of the most important American filmmakers, of this or any age.
SPIKE is now available to purchase here