Spike Lee's Turning Point and Living With 'Summer of Sam'


Once upon a time, there was a great city on an island. The people who lived there woke up one morning to find out their city was broke. They asked everyone for help, even the president of the United States. He told them, in so many words, to drop dead.

The people were very sad. Suddenly it was summer. And the city seemed, all at once, to go, well . . . a little crazy.

Isn't that how a Disney movie tells a story? It's possible that "Summer of Sam," being released today by Disney's Touchstone Pictures, could be recounted in such a manner, but not likely.

For one thing, it's set in New York and the summer it chronicles is 1977, a season during which the city, still reeling from near-economic apocalypse, tumbled head-first into a state of mood-swinging anxiety. There was, for one thing, a massive citywide blackout, followed by rioting in the streets. Meanwhile, the Yankees were contending for a championship when they could remember to stop contending with each other.

And, as the movie's title acknowledges, the streets were haunted by the specter of David Berkowitz, a.k.a. "Son of Sam," who slaughtered innocent people at random before he was finally arrested.

For Spike Lee, the film's director, producer and co-writer, it was also the summer that he finally figured out what he wanted to do with his life.

"I had just finished my sophomore year at Morehouse College in Atlanta," Lee recalls one morning in the Madison Avenue offices of Spike/DDB, his advertising agency. "I came home trying to find a job, and there were no jobs to be found. I had gotten a Super-8 camera and spent the whole summer shooting stuff all over the city. Block parties, some of the blackout-related stuff, people dealing with the heat, dances, DJs. All that was happening.

"What happened to that film? I put it all together under this very amateurish title called 'Last Hustle in Brooklyn.' The important thing for me was that as soon as I went back to school, I declared my major in mass communications. All because of that summer."

Film's Action Focuses on Bronx Neighborhood

"Summer of Sam" appears to have much in common with that long-ago amateur film in its effort to take in as much physical and cultural territory as it can. Its central location is an Italian American neighborhood in the Bronx, where the tumultuous events of the '77 summer--indeed, the cultural upheaval of the late 1970s--are filtered through the experiences of a few neighborhood residents.

Lee says the script came to him from actors Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli from TV's "The Sopranos." The latter, who also is the film's executive producer (and has a small role in the movie), had worked in Lee's films such as "Clockers" (1995) and "Girl 6" (1996). It was after that last film had wrapped that Imperioli showed Lee what he called their script about the blackout.

"I loved it, but it was never meant for me to direct," Lee says. "I just figured that, with the little juice that I had, I could get it produced somewhere. And for two years, we couldn't get any interest in front of or behind the camera. Then after [last year's] 'He Got Game,' I had another project that couldn't happen fast enough. So I went back to this script and said, 'Well, let me do this.' "

Other than Roger Guenveur Smith's detective and Lee's WABC-TV newsman, there are no major African American characters in "Summer of Sam," which, among its other attributes, offers further evidence of Lee's affinity for and facility with Italian American street culture, demonstrated in such films as "Do the Right Thing" (1989) and "Jungle Fever" (1991).

"Ben Gazzara complimented me on [knowing] the Italian American milieu. He says to me [affecting a gruff Gazzara imitation], 'Musta grown up in an Italian neighborhood, huh?' But that wasn't the case. I mean, I had a lot of Italian friends growing up, but I don't want to say that because it'd be like a white director saying, 'Some of my best friends . . . ,' you know?"

Lee says his main contribution to the Colicchio-Imperioli script was most of the stuff outside the neighborhood. "I just wanted to open it up more." In doing so, he's brought truckloads of verisimilitude, starting with the bookended narration of Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin, who found himself communicating with the .44-Caliber Killer, as Berkowitz was also known that summer, while the latter was still at large. The period atmosphere is enhanced by a soundtrack that runs from ABBA to the Who and through shrewd deployment of such cameo players as Reggie Jackson and local New York TV anchors.

From the time he made "She's Gotta Have It" (1986), with its depiction of black female sexuality, through the skin-tone prejudices analyzed in "School Daze" (1988), to the hotly disputed ending of "Do the Right Thing," controversy almost never fails to follow a Spike Lee movie into the multiplexes. And now several families of Berkowitz's victims have publicly complained about the movie's release, saying that it exploits their very real tragedies.

Concerns Over Sex and Violence

In a written statement, Lee addressed such concerns by saying, "There is nothing we can do to bring back to the parents, to the loved ones, the relatives that are gone, and there's no way in the world I can actually feel the loss that they have. At the same time, these tragedies did happen. We feel this film is accurate in its depiction of the events during this time."

Maybe that will be enough to put out that fire. But there may well be others related to that troublesome pair of sex and violence. Despite the movie's climactic bloodshed, it was its sexual content that caused the most problems at the outset, with Lee and company working to tone down the sex to avoid an NC-17 rating.

It is suggested to Lee that if he'd made "Babe," somebody somewhere would find a reason to indict him for cruelty to animals.

He laughs at this. But it's a curt enough laugh to be mistaken for a grimace.

"Well, that's the double-edged sword of being a public face as well as a director. A lot of times, it seems to get in the way of the movie."

To coin a phrase, however, there's no such thing as bad publicity, right?

"Yeah, but this leads to some really bad journalism, especially on the part of the critics when they want to write how they feel about the persona of Spike Lee instead of the movie, and that's a disservice to the technicians and the actors. There's nothing I can really do about it, except wish that when they review the movie they don't just talk about me on the sidelines at Knicks games and whatnot. That has nothing to do with the movie."

He is asked about the resurgence of the debate over the impact of violence on American culture after the Littleton, Colo., school shootings. What did he think was missing from this debate?

"I just feel this whole assault on TV and the movies again, it's a knee-jerk reaction. If we really talk about violence, we should stop lying and talk about guns. That's the real issue. That doesn't mean I'm in favor of mindless violence on TV. I've never tried to run away from responsibility. I do understand that film is a very powerful medium. At the same time, I feel that we're artists. I don't think we can be put in a straitjacket all the time and assume that if I put this or that in a story, someone's gonna go out and do the same thing. It's a tough, complex issue and I don't have all the answers. I definitely know that the way not to go is to say we should not have any violence in films or on television or in music."

So would he concur with filmmakers who say they are merely documenting and depicting violence, not promoting it?

"Yeah, but I gotta be honest. Some of those cats try to use that as an excuse, as a front for mindless violence, and that's all it is with them. Like I said, there are no easy answers."

On another complex issue: Does he sense a growing nervousness on the part of major Hollywood studios toward films on African American subjects in the wake of "Beloved's" box-office crash-and-burn?

"That's been happening all the time," he says. "Remember when 'The Wiz' bombed back in 1979, even with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, and the studios said, 'Well, black [film] doesn't cut it'? It's like we get one chance and that's it. And here they are again, saying that if a big-budget movie with one of the most famous faces in America ["Beloved" star-producer Oprah Winfrey] can't bring enough black or white audiences in the theaters, then they need to reexamine.

"Look, the studios are like that and the only way to challenge it is to bring in more filmmakers with different points of view. And the one thing I'm always gonna stress is that white corporate America still doesn't understand that African Americans are not one monolithic group!

"Instead, they will tell you until they're red in the face that black people dress alike, think alike, see the same movies, buy the same products--and they get mad if you try to tell them different."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World