COVER STORY : A Kinder, Gentler Spike? : Spike Lee has always seemed to thrive on controversy. But with ‘Crooklyn’ he’s moved into a quieter zone. It’s about the daily life of a Brooklyn family in the 1970s. But not just any family--sounds like a family Spike knows pretty well
Spike Lee’s father, Bill, stands at the oven on the first floor of his brownstone in Fort Greene, cooking a noontime breakfast for his young son Arnold, shooing away some of their 19 cats, and talking about his family--about everyone except Spike Lee.
He talks about his great-great-great-grandfather Mike, the defiant son of an African king, and his great-great-great-grandmother Phoebe, who was taken from her mother in Africa when she was 9.
He talks about his grandfather William James Edwards, descendant of Mike and Phoebe, an educator who went to school with Booker T. Washington; “ I went to school with Martin Luther King,” he adds. Then he talks about his father and mother, his sisters and brothers, all--like himself--trained musicians.
Finally, Bill talks about the children of his first marriage, who each also started out playing music--David, piano; Joy, bass; Cinque, drums; Chris, trumpet, and Spike, cello.
“David got interested in photography,” he begins, “Joy got interested in acting; she’s also a dancer and a singer. Cinque got interested in writing; he’s also an actor. Chris became interested in art; he’s still an artist, but he hasn’t pursued it.”
He pointedly leaves out his oldest son, Spike. He says, when asked, that he has no idea what Spike’s new movie is about, even though it is a movie he in a real sense spawned; even though he scored his son’s first four films.
“I don’t have anything to do with Spike now,” he says of troubles between the two, which included the elder Lee’s arrest for heroin possession in 1991 and subsequent request to his son for a loan--which was refused--in early 1992. “We haven’t talked for two years.”
“Crooklyn,” Spike Lee’s seventh film, which opens May 13, focuses on a family with a daughter and four sons growing up in a Brooklyn brownstone in the 1970s. The father is a jazz musician, the mother a schoolteacher, their car, a Citroen station wagon. The Lee family arrived in Brooklyn from the South when the eldest, Shelton Jackson--Spike--was a toddler. The Lees, who drove a Citroen station wagon, soon numbered one daughter and four sons, who did much of their growing up in the 1970s. Father Bill Lee plays jazz bass. Mother Jacquelyn Shelton taught art.
“Some things are based on our family,” Cinque Lee, 27, the youngest of the four sons, concedes.
“Very, very, very loosely based,” says Spike Lee, 37.
Faced with the same question, their brother David, 33, simply falls silent.
Their sister, who now calls herself Joie, 31, says as little as possible.
The four of them are spending the summer of ’93 making their movie together in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section, outside an elegant brownstone on Arlington Place--a block chosen to be the set for the film because of its Brooklyn neighborly feel, a brownstone chosen because of its resemblance to the one, some three subway stops away, where the Lee children all grew up, where Bill Lee still lives.
“Crooklyn” is a family picture, in many ways.
“I gave birth to this project; Spike delivered it,” says Joie. Joie, the only girl in the family, wrote the screenplay, which tells the story through the eyes of the only girl, Troy. Her co-writer (in addition to Spike, who joined the process later) was her brother Cinque, who is also her partner in a company they named Child Hoods.
“We wrote the script for ourselves,” Cinque says. “Then we showed Spike and he said, ‘Hey, I’ll do it.’ We were surprised; we didn’t think he’d be interested.”
But he was. “After ‘Malcolm X,’ he wanted a rest,” Cinque says. “I’m sure he wanted to do something light, that didn’t ruffle any feathers.”
“My little brother doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Spike replies, clearly still willing to ruffle feathers, at least in his own nest.
“It would’ve killed me to do a film like ‘Malcolm X’ right afterward,” Spike Lee was saying. “So the script of ‘Crooklyn,’ you know, really fit. Because of the scale.”
Indeed, most everything about “Crooklyn” is on a scale less than half that of “Malcolm X.” “X” cost about $35 million for an 80-day shoot; “Crooklyn” was budgeted for $15 million and was shot in 52 days last summer. “Malcolm X,” which was filmed here, in Africa and in the Middle East, took about two years to make, swept through 40 years in the life of a historic figure, and employed 200 actors with speaking parts, more than 400 crew members and tens of thousands of extras. “Crooklyn,” which stars Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo as the parents, covers about six months in the life of a family and their neighbors on one block in Brooklyn, with time out for a trip to Maryland (filmed in New Jersey).
Spike and his producers say that “Crooklyn” is not really a departure; it is a return to the scale of all the films he made before “Malcolm X.”
But the scale is not all that is different. “Crooklyn” is “neither angry nor confrontational . . . nobody will feel alienated in this one,” Spike himself said in March, 1993--despite his belittling of his brother Cinque for saying much the same thing on the set.
The Brooklyn of “Crooklyn,” though filmed in the same neighborhood, is far from the literally explosive terrain of 1989’s “Do the Right Thing.” Lee gained notoriety in that movie for the character he played who throws a garbage can through the window of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, sparking a riot in which the business burns to the ground. There were several fiery scenes in “Malcolm X” as well.
For “Crooklyn,” the Lees filmed another scene of smoke and screams and chaos, of a father gathering up his hysterical children. This time, though, it was an oven exploding in the kitchen. The scene, which did not make it into the film’s final version, was a true event in the Lee family history.
David, a photographer who has been working for his oldest brother “since I was 11,” recalled the real-life incident vividly. “My eyebrows were singed off,” he said, then noticed his listener’s attention on his brow. “I’m wearing prosthetic eyebrows,” he added, arching them.
Spike does not remember the incident quite as distinctly, but he admits, “ ‘Crooklyn’ is the Brooklyn of my youth"--a 1970 of dancing to “Soul Train” and singing along with “The Partridge Family,” of miniskirts and platform shoes, of Curtis Mayfield and the Jackson Five, all shown in the nostalgic tints of a 1970 Ebony. “I’m not going to say that this was the age of innocence. But you know . . . the worst thing you had when I was growing up was the glue sniffers.”
Unlike many films featuring African Americans, Lee said, “ ‘Crooklyn’ is not about a dysfunctional family, where the mom is a crack-head.” But the film does feature some lowlifes, including one named Snuffy (played by Spike), who sniff glue. Criticized for leaving out the drugs from the world of “Do the Right Thing,” Lee put drugs in both “Jungle Fever” and “Malcolm X,” though he left them out of 1990’s “Mo’ Better Blues,” a film about a jazz musician--the last of Spike’s films scored by his father, and the one in which Bill Lee appears in a cameo at the end. A year after that film’s release, Bill Lee was arrested in a Brooklyn park police sweep on suspicion of possession of heroin. (The case was eventually dismissed.)
Spike won’t talk about his father, but Cinque credits Bill Lee with inspiring “Crooklyn.”
“When we were growing up, our father had a name for everybody on the block,” Cinque recalls, sitting on a stoop in Arlington Place. “ ‘Conk,’ because his hair was conked. ‘Slide,’ because he wore slippers, and he would always slide when he walked.
“We still live in the same neighborhood--that’s a Brooklyn thing--and we hear about the neighbors: ‘Slide got a new dog.’ ”
It was from that, Cinque says, that “Crooklyn” was born. He and Joie decided to create some 35 characters, mostly from their old block. “It’s hard to remember which were real characters and which were fictional.”
As he speaks, some studious children play Scrabble nearby; a 5-year-old adds an “s” to “exam.” Not far away, Eulalie Richards talks about the history of the block, how in 1947 when she moved in “there were still five white people on the block.” Now she is 93, and the block is full of large families, many from Barbados. “Everybody here’s very tight.”
Two young men are strutting down the street, oblivious of the rain-making machines, the sky-high lighting, the huge trailers, the fat coils of wire crowding the street. “You have five apples and 12 people,” one young man says to the other. “How do you give each person an equal share?”
“You cut it.”
“No, you can’t cut it.”
They turn the next corner, as he supplies the solution: “You make applesauce.” These are scenes from the neighborhood, not the film, part of the normal swirl of a Brooklyn block. Only the Scrabble players are actors in “Crooklyn,” waiting for their summons to the camera. Cinque looks very much at home.
“We wrote it as a television series for children,” he says. But Nickelodeon screened a pilot for the series, had it tested with a group of inner-city kids, and gave it thumbs down. “It had no hip-hop music, no dancing. It had jazz.”
Not wanting to waste the characters, Joie and Cinque put many of them in a film script. As they wrote--faxing pages back and forth, even though they live two blocks from each other--they narrowed their focus further and further, first on a neighborhood, then on one block, then on one family, finally on one character (the girl, Troy). The resulting film, Cinque said, is “95%" from their imagination, although they had a hard time persuading even the crew of that.
“In one scene, a dog gets caught in a sofa bed and dies,” Cinque says. “And people kept on coming up and saying"--he mimics shock and outrage--" 'Did you really kill that dog?’ It’s a fictional movie!”
But there are scenes that even his siblings admit are based on their childhood.
In one, while a camera crowds a small bedroom on the second floor covered with basketball posters, Alfre Woodard talks to a young actor named Carlton Williams, who plays the oldest boy.
“Clinton, you’re the eldest and I expect more from you,” she says while Clinton sits on his bed, pouting. “I’m going to let you make your own decision.”
“Why did Daddy have to have his concert tonight?” Clinton says. “The same exact night of the seventh game of the NBA championship. The Knicks and the Lakers--and I got tickets.”
“You’ll make the right decision,” his mother says. “Which is more important? Your father or the Knicks?”
“I definitely remember that,” Spike Lee says later. “That was the seventh game of the NBA championship in 1970; that’s the game that Willis Reed dragged his leg on the court and the Knicks beat the Lakers. I got one ticket for the game, I got it through my father’s lawyer . . . who lives down the block, who went to school with John Havlicek.” Lee tells the story with great detail and animation, which brings to mind a line he used to tell interviewers: “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a basketball player, but I stopped growing.”
There are no such details about his father’s concert, making it clear which choice he made.
Does he regret it?
“It was unfortunate my father had to schedule a concert . . . but I mean, there would be other concerts; it was only going to be this one championship game. But it . . . I think it hurt (my father). I think it hurt very much. Shoot, when my sister did (the musical) ‘Mule Bone’ on Broadway, their opening night was a night the Chicago Bulls were in town. You know where I was at.”
If, as Spike Lee likes to say, “it’s a scientific fact that a child’s character is formed by about 5, 6 years old,” what kind of child would he cast to play himself?
“Someone real quiet,” he answers. “You know, very observant, but real quiet.”
And difficult? Stubborn?
“I think that I’ve been stubborn at times, but I think that any artist has to be stubborn.” If at age 37 Spike Lee continues playing the rebellious child--the arrogant older brother, the stubborn son--he seems to have taken on some new roles as well. You could even say that he is a family man now, having married Washington lawyer Tanya Lynette Lewis in October.
He is also, metaphorically at least, a father.
“Crooklyn” marks the first time he actually has had to discipline his lead actors, most of whom are children. Few are professional (professional child actors “stink . . . they’re not natural,” the director says), many recruited from local schools throughout the boroughs. During the shoot, “a lot of time was spent playing parent: ‘Shut up, sit down, why you doin’ that? Stop it! Why you hittin’?’ Stuff like that.”
Lee has also played father in a way as a filmmaker, mentor to members of a younger generation who see him as the grand old trailblazer, even though his first professional film, “She’s Gotta Have It,” debuted a mere eight years ago.
But in that time black directors have come into their own, including John Singleton, the Hudlin brothers, Mario Van Peebles and Ernest Dickerson (“Juice”), Lee’s cinematographer since film school; “Crooklyn” is the first movie Lee has made without him.
Some have called this a renaissance in black filmmaking. Lee’s reaction: “The door’s cracked; it’s not wide open.”
He takes his mentor role seriously, proud of the careers his films have launched, including those of Wesley Snipes, Rosie Perez, Martin Lawrence and John Turturro. He has also taught film at Harvard, and offers every spring term a kind of film institute at Long Island University, open to anybody.
“I’ve always been about the demystification of film,” he explains. “I think that’s what keeps people--in particular minorities and women--from entering the film industry. This whole hocus-pocus aura they try to put around filmmaking, the Hollywood magic, that’s just to make it seem inaccessible to people.”
Lee has become a serious businessman as well, not only with his own film company, but with three Spike’s Joint stores selling promotional jackets, caps, T-shirts and books; a music company; a management company for athletes; a soon-to-open advertising agency that will be a joint venture with BBDO Worldwide. He’s even become a Brooklyn landlord.
All this authority, some people have reasoned, must be making Spike Lee more mellow; they use as evidence his relatively restrained reaction when “Malcolm X” failed to get Oscar nominations for anything but best actor and best costume designer, and won neither.
“I’ve said more than my share about the Academy Awards,” he says now, in his Fort Greene office, a converted firehouse decorated with huge posters of his films. “People know how I feel. So why should I keep wasting energy about it?” But then he launches into it once again, winding up with his review of the relative merits of 1989 winner “Driving Miss Daisy” and 1989 reject “Do the Right Thing.”
Why does he think so many of his films cause such a ruckus?
“It’s part of the agenda that I stir up controversy,” he says. “At least I try to make thought-provoking films.”
As for his own work, he looks forward to making “musicals, romantic films, all kinds of films.” Including thrillers: His next film is “Clockers,” based on the gritty Richard Price novel about cops and drug dealers in New Jersey. The executive producer is Spike’s idol Martin Scorsese.
In each new film he expects the cast and crew to form a kind of family. “Some films are good family. Some films are bad families. But you definitely have family. Family does happen.”
Family and music seem to be the central themes of Bill Lee’s life, yet he has stopped talking about a particular member of his family. “I can’t dwell on that,” he says.
“He’s not even our son anymore,” says Lee’s son (and Spike’s half-brother) Arnold.
“I’ve never been a Spike Lee fan,” says Susan Kaplan-Lee, Bill’s wife, wearing a “Do the Right Thing” jacket.
The conflict began when Susan started living with Bill shortly after Jacquelyn died in 1976--when “my mother wasn’t even cold in her grave,” Spike has put it.
It grew during production of Spike’s “Jungle Fever,” about an interracial relationship: “That’s directly talking about me and my wife,” Bill says, with some heat.
Then early in 1992, Bill has said, he asked his son for a few thousand dollars to help pay his household bills; Spike turned him down, “and his attitude was very insulting.” (“Why should I dignify comments my father said,” Spike Lee replies, “or play it out in a public forum?”)
The loan request came not long after Bill’s drug bust; did drug use contribute to the split?
Bill Lee says no. “I’m glad I was arrested. It woke me up. . . . Dope was not part of my life until I was 40 years old,” adds Lee, now 65, which means he started getting involved with heroin when his children were young, around the time his wife was dying of cancer.
But all this, he says, is insignificant. “People remember you by the work that you do.” And Bill Lee, like his oldest son, has often used his life experiences as a source for his seven folk jazz operas. One of them, “Little Johnny,” is about the purchase of the Lee family home in Fort Greene that is the setting of “Crooklyn.” “It has old people and kids and a story,” he says vaguely. It doesn’t have conflict. “In all these operas, I never think about no conflict.”