Whatever you thought of his last film, " Miracle At St. Anna" (and we'd argue that it's better than its reputation suggests), most would agree that three-and-a-half years is too long between Spike Lee feature films (though his excellent documentaries have been a good placeholder). One of our most vital filmmakers, behind classics from "Do The Right Thing" to "25th Hour," he delivers work that is always thought-provoking and fiery. And he's not mellowed in his absence; when his latest film, the self-financed "Red Hook Summer," premiered on Sunday night at Sundance, it instantly became one of the most controversial, divisive films of the festival, with some calling it a real return to form, and some calling it among his weakest, scrappiest efforts.
Our reviewer, Todd Gilchrist, fell firmly on the former side of the equation, and had some time with two members of the cast, Clarke Peters (best known as Lester Freamon from "The Wire" who plays Bishop Enoch, the grandfather of protagonist Flick), and Nate Parker (who plays gang member Box), as well as the film's co-writer James McBride. Read on to see what they make of the film's prickly subject matter, and how they see its place in African-American cinema as a whole.
Clarke, when you read the script, how much were you familiarized with what the character was, because the movie does have this incredible turn that occurs towards the end?
CLARKE: First of all, Spike called, and when he calls you answer. That's number one. Number two is I knew that there would be something poignant, because he said it was his. This wasn't going to be studio, it was coming out of his pocket. When somebody says that to you, you realize that their heart is on the line as well. I read the script and I saw what needed to be said in it, and I still feel that that conversation has got to continue, and all this is doing is hopefully extending a platform for that conversation to continue. It's an incident that happened in the black community, but it's something that's pervasive throughout organized religion as we know it today. I'm going to start defining the difference between religion and spirituality. It's not God's fault, it's religion’s fault. That's what I'm getting from the dialogue, part of the platform of the conversation from this. When I finished reading it I said I'd love to do this, I'd love to be part of this conversation.
JAMES: Not at all, I think it's a film that explores, that really is a platform for conversation and national discourse about where religion fits in American society.
NATE: It humanizes religion. Here's the thing, we understand that a huge platform in politics is religion. Policy is created based on religion. Religious ideas, these overzealous ideas, they leverage morality against something that has nothing to do with anything. It's like a very close friend whose family is very, very poor, but they're Republican. It seems like an oxymoron but they're Republican because they're pro-life. One issue, right? They are literally day in and day out destroyed by the very ideals they support, yet, for that one issue they would live in that situation, I just don't understand it.
JAMES: But the important thing to point out is these are his close friends and that kind of discourse is what this film is about.
NATE: Exactly and that's what it does. What you can do is...the bad version of this is regular church. You can go uh huh, you leave, you feel fulfilled. But you really talk about these issues. When I looked around, there were so many points where people were uncomfortable, and that's what you want. I was so excited about the fact that people didn't come for a Spike Lee joint and just walk out. They were challenged. Religion is just a backdrop, it's a tool. You know what I mean? It humanizes it. Because these things happen in the church all of the time. And like you said not just black churches, happen in white churches, not just in America, they happen all over the world.
CLARKE: And not just in Christian churches.
NATE: But it's politically incorrect to talk about, right?
How much do you feel that this movie is a rejoinder for the kinds of films for black audiences that Spike has been very vocal about sort of not liking? Do you feel like consciously or subconsciously it's I can do that?
JAMES: Spike has a huge audience. Black audiences like anything that speaks to their community. I think it's a mistake to assume that just because the film doesn't have Big Fat Mommas in it laughing and giggling, and, you know, slap happy jokes, that black audiences won't flock to it. There are a lot of complicated reasons why good black films don't reach audiences. Not the least of which is that the big studios don't promote them, and there's no black person in Hollywood who can green light a film like this. So I think it speaks to the talent that Spike assembled for this film, particularly the two leading men sitting here, that this is something we're real concerned about. Because whatever happens in black America, you can believe it's going to hit white America in four or five years. It used to be ten or fifteen years, now it's four or five years. In about ten years it won't matter at all. So people know that Spike likes to talk about real things, real elements that affect real lives, and that's what we attempted to do. I think we did it very successfully. People are going to talk about religion, and if they talk about this film, then we've started the kind of discourse that's necessary to keep reason and discourse in the sociopolitical environment in America.
I think one of the reasons for me that the movie works really well, is you have these incredibly impassioned interesting speeches that are commentaries on what's going on, and what you're seeing done, but it doesn't lose the focus on the story.
JAMES: Because nobody's a bad person. I don't see gang members as bad people and I don't see ministers as bad people. As a writer, you better understand folks. So when I hear Nate talk about when he hit 15, or 16, he just opted out of church, and all of the little tricks he used to get out of church, I have to laugh because I did the same thing. We understand as artists that people make mistakes based on small decisions that happen in their lives. The smaller story you can tell, the simpler story you can tell, the greater impact it will have, because everyone makes those small decisions. No one wakes up hating Christians or Jews. No one wakes up hating Muslims, these are learned behaviors, learned attitudes. And they're supported most often by the environment we're in, by the culture. The design of the church, the Ten Commandments, these are the morals by which all human beings should live by. That's not Christian or non-Christian, that is humanity. These morals, thou shalt not kill, thou shall not commit adultery..
CLARKE: These laws have been here from time and century, from languages that have been lost. The reason why they're there is because it's human nature. And I think it speaks to the whole idea of you reap what you sow. In this script, you look at all of these characters, you reap what you sow. You know? What this character planted fifteen years ago came to fruition. I won't say religion, but these ideas, these morals, they hold you accountable. What's happening with our move away from the church there's no accountability. When I talk to people about religion, about Christ, a lot of the times their main issue is accountability. I don't want to feel like if I do something wrong there's a consequence. Whether it be physical, spiritual, emotional. I want to feel like I can do whatever I want and tomorrow I'll wake up and it will be over. When you go to Church you feel bad. I think this challenges us. You know with Spike Lee when you walk in you're going to be challenged.
NATE: And he understood that, that's not a black thing. It's patriotic. It's patriotic to want to see everyone in your community rise. We celebrate Batman and Robin, Spiderman and Superman but we don't celebrate real heroes. So I think a lot of times you can take the color out of it, and it goes back to the human condition. George Lucas says, there have been other human beings from whatever community, that have contributed to this Country and they're the reason why we're free, because Europe was on the verge of not being free. The Red Tails, those men had an incredible impact. And he understood that story needed to be told. James and Spike sat down saying where's the story presenting a young African American youth as a human being, going through human issues? If we don’t have something that challenges us, then what can we say to the young man that's saying "Yo man, I’m getting this music thing started. But I'm not going to school."
It seems like there's a constant struggle to make films that focus on important subject matter, that may not make a lot of money but they probably need to be told, more so then Superman or whatever. You know how careful or conscious do you guys have to be about creating or trying to participate in those kinds of stories, regardless of whether they create opportunities down the road?
CLARKE: I do believe what goes around comes around. I believe that my actions are going to have a positive and equal opposite reaction. So if I'm just picking up films that will just help me pay the bills, and believe me there's lots of those about, my bills are paid, but I'm empty. Then you pick up something like this or like "Red Tails," which resonates with my soul and with yours. You locked in your white skin there, you as well, this resonates with you. It feeds my soul, it feeds me, it feeds you and brings us somewhere closer together. So it's important to use our celebrity in the right way.
JAMES: There's too many bad representations of black men on television shoved down your throats. It's necessary for us to fight against the devil, because that's the devil's work. You can put it in those terms. That's some negative greedy shit that someone knows they're going to make a lot of money off of. So we have to be conscious of what we're doing. We know the influence. That influence in a very short time has changed the whole perspective of America’s morality, in a very short space of time. I wasn't here when it was going down, but I see it then and I see it now.
NATE: I think we're all going to be held accountable for our actions. If we live to be old, we're going to look back on the decisions we made, the impact we had, for better or for worse. I like to look at my career as going the wrong way on an escalator; if you're standing still, you're moving backwards. Life for me is a hustle, you've got to push, if you stand still you move backwards and you're right back where you started. I don't want that to be a representation of my life. I don't want that to be my contribution. Spike could easily do a lot of things that would pay more money, but he wouldn't be Spike. We wouldn't be sitting there, the conversation wouldn't be happening, he made an impact on society with his choices and that's my stance.
"Red Hook Summer" will hit theaters later in the year. -- Interview by Todd Gilchrist