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The offices of Spike Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, have long been a sort of landmark in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where Lee has hosted pop-up stores, street fairs and other neighborhood celebrations. But on a recent afternoon, the large brownstone building is the site of a much more somber community focal point: Large banners commemorating the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and several other black men who have died in the last year during altercations with the police.
“We’re running out of space,” Lee told Yahoo Movies, referring to the new banners that he’s had to order to keep up with the recent string of high-profile cases. “That’s the sad thing: We’re running out of room.”
Lee, 57, is one of the godfathers of modern African-American cinema, and he’s been an outspoken critic of police violence since the release of 1989’s iconic Do the Right Thing, which famously ended with a race riot on a gentrifying block in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The clash in the film climaxes with NYPD officers using a nightstick to choke to death an unarmed black man named Radio Raheem, and when footage surfaced this summer of NYPD officers using a similar move on a resident named Eric Garner —whose desperate cries of “I can’t breathe” has become a rallying cry for protestors — Lee sprung into action. He called up his longtime editor, Barry Brown, and had him mash-up the Raheem death scene with the YouTube footage of Garner’s killing, and uploaded it to the internet.
“Here’s the thing: The inspiration for Radio Raheem was the NYPD chokehold of Michael Stewart,” he said, referring to the 1983 killing of a young graffiti artist by New York City Transit Police. “You see it in the film, Radio Raheem, I wrote that script in ‘88, Do the Right Thing came out in ‘89, and here we are in 2014 and when I saw it, I said, ‘This is the same thing as the movie.’”
Lee’s, new movie Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, a microbudget reimagining of the cult classic ’70s thriller Ganja & Hess, is available on Vimeo on Demand and hits theaters in limited release on February 13. The director spoke with Yahoo about everything from the tumultuous racial politics of New York City to Selma’s awards snub to his beloved Knicks.
Did you expect Do The Right Thing to still be so relevant, 25 years later?
With Do The Right Thing, in many ways, we had the crystal ball. We had the crystal ball with gentrification, [because] the John Savage character was the one that bought the brownstone. We had the crystal ball for the LA riots. Guys in that film talk about global warming; I wrote about it in ‘88! I couldn’t predict Eric Garner, because that was based on the real-life chokehold of Michael Stewart, but to see that happen — and knowing that there was supposed to be no more chokeholds, but [that] they’re still being applied today.
What do you make of everything that’s going on in the city, with the NYPD protesting against Mayor Bill de Blasio?
People want to jump on Al Sharpton, but they ought to jump on [police union leader] Patrick Lynch. He’s the one that’s not helping. Saying, “There’s blood on the steps of City Hall” and sending out emails to cops that say, “If you die in the line of duty, sign this, so the mayor can’t come to your funeral?”
And then the officer who killed Garner wasn’t even indicted.
They have to do something about the grand jury system, because it’s a known fact that for district attorneys to do their job, they have to work with the police. So it’s unreasonable to think that they’re going to do what they can — that they’re going to go to their fullest to indict a cop. They’re not going to do it. We saw this in Ferguson, we saw it in Staten Island. So I’m very confident that the feds, under the leadership of Eric Holder, [are] going to indict these people. There needs to be special prosecutors who could be totally independent, because you can’t rely on these district attorneys, they’re in cahoots. They’re not going to put a police officer in jail.
What did you think of the Oscar voters’ snub of Selma director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo?
I guess we’re not free at last. Ha! That’s the quote right there. That’s the quote! “Guess we’re not free at last, not free at last, we’re not — according to the Academy — free at last!”
You raised the budget for Da Sweet Blood of Jesus on Kickstarter, and now you’ve released it early on Vimeo. What made you want to go digital?
Because this is a special film, and I just knew when I made it, [that] it was going to be very challenging… it’s not going to be on 1,000 screens or something like that. And it’s a novel way, because a film like Red Hook Summer had the same number of theatrical screens. But there were a lot of places where people wanted to see the film. This way, they could go to Vimeo to see it, and before the theatrical release.
You’ve been a big-screen director for 30 years. How do you feel, then, about this whole new distribution paradigm, the new way people watch things?
We shot this as a feature. The whole mentality was, “We’re still framing it, all thinking that this is a film.”
What do you think about people watching it at home?
Well, I’m old and I’m old-school. It pains me to think that the first time that someone might be seeing Malcolm X or Do The Right Thing is on this [points to his phone]. Now if you’re on a plane or a subway, ok… but the first time that you see Malcolm X, Lawrence of Arabia, Apocalypse Now, 2001, it’s on this?
Malcolm X might drain the battery on the phone.
Well Apocalypse Now is longer. So is Lawrence of Arabia. Ernest Dickerson, my great DP, while we were in preparation for Malcolm X, we watched a restored Lawrence of Arabia at the Ziegfeld. Whew.
Since you raised the budget yourself, you had complete control of Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. Was it nice to not have a studio breathing down your neck?
The only time where there really was pressure was Oldboy. Other than that, I’ve been able to work with studios. Do The Right Thing was a studio film, Malcolm X was a studio film. But it was really refreshing to come in after Oldboy where I was able to make the film I wanted to make.
Oldboy was tough, right?
Yeah, Josh Brolin and I, we were united, we were simpatico. But the film we shot, we weren’t able to get on the screen. The edit wasn’t what either of us wanted. What Josh and I did, we felt was amazing. It just couldn’t come out the way we visualized it. It was just the powers-that-be.
She’s Gotta Have It is gonna be a TV series for Showtime, right?
Would you be bringing back the original cast?
Nah, it’d be a contemporary version. It takes place today, in gentrified Fort Greene.
Which changes everything.
They’ve shot episodes of Girls there.
That takes place in Fort Greene?
Some of them take place in Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Fort Greene.
The Knicks are in London today. Why aren’t you?
We’ve lost 16 motherf—-ing games in a row. 26 out of 27. And I’m gonna get on a plane for that?! I can take a cab to see them lose!
Are you still going to every home game?
I’ve been… sparse.
Has that been noticed? Have they been like, ‘Spike, where are you?’
They’ve asked me where I’ve been! But they understand.
When the Knicks lose Spike Lee, they’re really in trouble.
Well, I’ve been busy lately.
You’ve been busy for 25 years, hasn’t stopped you from missing a game.
[Laughs] I’m just oh-so-suddenly busy!