As I pull up to meet the iconic Spike Lee, I'm half-expecting to see a 40-acre compound and a mule somewhere. To my surprise, there's no mule in sight. Instead, Spike's headquarters is a distinct reflection of his persona: a brownstone in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
Spike grew up here and never left, purchasing a brownstone so lustrous it rivals the community’s namesake park down the block. In a very Spike move, the name of his production company, Forty Acres and a Mule, brings new life to the phrase that populated the South following the Civil War. Spike bought his own property in his own neighborhood to set up shop for his own production company and poetically established it outside a 30.2-acre park dedicated to a hero of the American Revolutionary War.
Walking into the brownstone is like looking into the mind of Spike himself. The entrance way greets you with a giant paper-mâché of Radio Raheem from Do The Right Thing; two fists showcasing his legendary “Love/Hate” rings. Upstairs is an international poster of a Martin Scorsese film, and African art referencing slavery adjacent. This duality, being a student of film and a staunch political mouthpiece for black relations, is present in almost all of Spike’s works. The music room is appropriately decorated with a soundboard, record plaques, and artwork depicting iconic musicians, most noticeably Prince, who Spike hosts a block party for every year in Brooklyn. One of the block parties is even prominently featured in the new season of Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have it premiering May 24.
When Lee broke new ground with his directorial debut She’s Gotta Have It (1986), which grossed over $7,000,000 USD on a budget of just $175,000 USD, it proved independent black filmmakers have a rightful place in the world of cinema. He cemented the point once more when his third film Do The Right Thing was nominated by the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1990.
“You do what you want but — it's still going to be Bed-Stuy. [It’s] Still going to be Harlem. [It’s] Still going to be the Fort. I mean, 'cause we're not moving. A lot of us moved outright but we just can't leave completely."
Fast forward a couple decades and Spike is still paying it forward for a new generation of would-be filmmakers. She’s Gotta Have It now lives on as a Netflix series dissecting the shapeshifting race relations of our current generation, while Lee’s latest film, BlacKkKlansman, earned him his first long-overdue Academy Award. But underneath the surface, these successes break new ground for the old guard of iconic filmmakers to launch projects with a new platform. They also paves an alternative road for future directors beyond going through traditional studios. Most of all, his Oscar win proves Spike has something to say, now more than ever.
It hasn't been a career without trip-ups however, and Spike’s outlook has evolved with the times. While the original 1986 She's Gotta Have It featured an African American woman’s sexuality in a new light with protagonist Nola Darling (played by Tracy Camilla Johns), it also featured an aspect even Spike has come to regret. The film showcased a male suitor raping Nola Darling for being sexually liberated and for having multiple partners. Spike publicly admitted during his press run for BlacKkKlansman that if he were able to have any do-overs in his career, that would be it, chalking up the decision to include the scene as being stupid and immature. Now older, he feels he took the act of rape too lightly and has promised there will be nothing like that in the TV adaptation of the film.
Filled with journalistic integrity and the angst to conduct an interview worthy of the man, I attempt to ask Spike profound questions about the diverse sexuality displayed in the series’ upcoming season. I inquire about how motherhood plays a part in Nola (played by DeWanda Wise) and Opal Gilstrap’s (played by Ilfenesh Hadera) relationship. But the Spike of today still doesn’t have all the answers about women he may have thought he had in ‘86. The difference is that he now knows it. “Well, first I'd like to say that I had great women writers in the room,” Spike replies. “All African-American. Who could write sisters? Who could write better about sisters than sisters themselves?”
Pants & Sweatshirt: Louis Vuitton; Shoes: Spike's Own
The biggest difference between ‘80s Nola Darling and 2010s Nola Darling is that the latter is an artist who likes what she likes, who is more militant in enforcing that stance about herself than anything. Spike says she's not going to let society, her family or friends dictate how she's going to live her life. “I mean, Nola's gonna do Nola.” The Nola of today is a woman who encompasses a number of identities, but, like all of Spike’s characters, she is human and therefore flawed. “Doing BlacKkKlansman and people talking about my work and stuff over the years, I've noticed that a theme has been in my films. That theme is the choices people make and the ramifications of their choices. And, Nola be fucking up. But, I think that's why people like her.”
The new second season revolves around the lyric “My soul’s too high to gentrify,” sung by Tony Award-winning songwriter and playwright Stew in the season’s first episode. It not only thematically speaks to Nola, but is showcased in several different moments for other characters unwilling to sell out to get ahead. Nola takes umbrage with her art being commercialized, and the neighborhood of Fort Greene chant “reclaiming my time” in the face of highrises overtaking ma and pop establishments, echoing the now iconic phrase from U.S. Representative Maxine Waters.
Spike says the lyric is a direct response to companies and states pushing people out of the communities they built. “You do what you want but -— it's still going to be Bed-Stuy,” Spike proclaimed. “[It’s] Still going to be Harlem. [It’s] Still going to be the Fort. I mean, 'cause we're not moving. A lot of us moved outright but we just can't leave completely. Harlem, we still gotta hold these places down. These are neighbors, these are hoods, these are heritages, this is our ancestry. We gotta keep it.” His statement feels all the more relevant -- and tragic -- now when thinking about like-minded men such as Nipsey Hussle, who bought up property and created businesses within his community before being gunned down in front of his own establishment.
"The President of the United States cosigned alt-right. The President of the United States cosigned Neo-Nazis. He didn't say ‘nah, that sh*t's f*cked up.’ He didn't say ‘nah, that sh*it's unpatriotic.’ Well, both sides bullsh*t. Ain't no both sides about the Klan.”
New storylines on She’s Gotta Have It also go beyond the black experience and show how characters in the Puerto Rican community have been affected by Hurricane Maria, as Spike believes that blacks and Hispanics on the East Coast have developed a kinship through hip-hop. “Look, I don't know what's happening on the West Coast, you know, there's its own dynamic between African Americans and Hispanics,” he explains. “But, here in New York City, it ain’t. Blacks and Puerto Ricans invented motherfucking hip-hop. They always leave out Puerto Ricans. Puerto Ricans was right there. That's Blacks and Puerto Ricans living side by side in the Boogey Down. Developed a great art form, hip-hop in the Bronx. It was Puerto Ricans and Blacks did that shit. Out of the experience of living together in the city. They don't talk about that enough I think.”
Certainly, She’s Gotta Have It’s second season has its own thoughts on American culture as a whole, as seen through the lens of a Brooklyn woman in a multicultural community. However, Spike left his most sizzling commentary on black relations in the United States for BlacKkKlansman, with one of its key messages centered on structural racism and how and the so-called plight of the white man has and never will change. In the film’s 1970s setting, it’s white supremacists colluding in the back of seedy bars; today, you find those same supremacists on online forums like Reddit. Instead of the Ku Klux Klan, today we have the alt-right. ”They're terrorists. That's homegrown American terrorism. There's nothing patriotic about it at all,” Spike declared. I asked what he thought this generation can do to push back against racism. “Call that sh*t out,” he tells me.
A last-minute scene added to the movie, in particular, puts the judgment squarely back on today’s audience, with footage showcasing the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and President Donald Trump’s subsequent “both sides” rhetoric. Not much has changed now from the film’s 1970s setting to today, and we the people are to blame, the film suggests. “The President of the United States cosigned alt-right,” Spike continued. “The President of the United States cosigned Neo-Nazis. He didn't say ‘nah, that sh*t's f*cked up.’ He didn't say ‘nah, that sh*it's unpatriotic.’ Well, both sides bullsh*t. Ain't no both sides about the Klan.”
Although Spike busted down the doors for filmmakers like Ryan Coogler, Coogler and star Chadwick Boseman have done the same with the critical acclaim of Black Panther. “I tell him all the time, ‘Man, you changed history,’ cause they be trying to give black films the okie-doke. Like black films don’t make money overseas.”
Spike is now working with Boseman on his next Netflix project, Da 5 Bloods, a film that examines black soldiers during the Vietnam War. Spike was 10 years old in 1967, and saw black men getting drafted, but only later did he realize that blacks were drafted at higher rates than whites. The dynamic of there being a war in Vietnam but also a war at home with the Civil Rights movement resonated with him as well. “Martin Luther King was the first public figure to say the war was immoral. That's when they really got on his ass then because LBJ (President Lyndon B. Johnson) felt that was like betrayal.” But it wasn’t betrayal to King, and it wasn’t a betrayal to Spike, who believes “the war was immoral.”
While there have been many Vietnam films, few, if any, have centered on how it affected the black community, and it doesn’t seem that Hollywood is interested in changing that. That’s where platforms like Netflix come into play, which is now competing with traditional studios by signing deals with the likes of Steven Soderbergh, The Coen Brothers, and most notably, Martin Scorcese. “Whatever people think about Netflix, the fact remains is that Scorcese did The Irishman there. I'm doing my next film there,” Spike says. He adds that everybody else passed on his film, which was the case with Scorcese’s The Irishman before the platform stepped in.
“Whatever people think about Netflix, the fact remains is that Scorcese did The Irishman there. I'm doing my next film there.”
With big names like Spike joining the fold, Netflix is legitimizing a new avenue for filmmakers, similar to what SoundCloud did for independent artists looking to bypass traditional record labels and release music to a wide audience. As more legends filter through, streaming platforms, which are under their own criticism within the industry, will continue to be legitimized and create alternative paths for upcoming directors. “Look, nothing is certain with film, and I understand that people are looking at the numbers and stuff like that. But, I'm thankful that Ted Sarandos (Chief Content Officer at Netflix) said, ‘Spike I'll make the movie,’ and he did.”
Of course, the evolution within the industry and where it should go from here doesn’t have an inherent right or wrong answer. And I was reminded that as we wrapped our interview and I was once again confronted by Radio Raheem and his golden love/hate fists. Visiting 40 Acres HQ was like attending a Spike Lee-themed amusement park. It just so happens that as a person, Spike is an individual of passionate love and passionate hate. He loves film and uses it as a tool to provide social commentary on subjects he abhors. But such is the way of life, as Raheem so eloquently puts it in the movie. The silver lining, however, is that out of this eternal conflict of opposing forces, love always wins.
And the next generation’s, too.
By: Isaac Rouse
Photographer: Renell Medrano
By: Isaac Rouse
Photographer: Renell Medrano
Pants & Sweatshirt: Spike's Own; Shoes: Spike's Own