PARK CITY, Utah — Spike Lee prompted a squall of controversy at the Sundance Film Festival when he accused the Hollywood studios of “know(ing) nothing about black people” after a screening of his new film, which polarized audiences and critics.
Lee’s movie, “Red Hook Summer,” which he directed and co-wrote, is about an Atlanta boy who goes to live with his preacher grandfather in a Brooklyn housing project one summer. It had its world premiere here Sunday night, followed by a question-and-answer session with filmmakers.
Asked by actor-comedian Chris Rock, who was seated in the audience, if his movie would have turned out differently had it been made by a studio instead of as an ultra-low-budget independent production, Lee replied; “They (studios) know nothing about black people ... and they’re going to give me notes about what a 13-year-old boy and girl are doing in Red Hook?
“(Shoot) no,” he said, defiantly repeating it several times (only without saying “shoot”).
The comments stunned to silence as many as 1,000 moviegoers at the festival’s high-profile Eccles Theater, with the session continuing awkwardly for a few more minutes as Lee sought to make a few jokes to defuse the tension. Lee is shopping “Red Hook Summer” to distributors here.
Lee has worked with the studios before, most recently, with his World War II picture “Miracle at St. Anna,” in 2008, which was made with the Walt Disney Co.
But he also has famously tussled with studios and studio figures; at the Cannes Film Festival several years ago he got into a media sniping match with Clint Eastwood over the director’s omission of black characters in “Letters From Iwo Jima” and “Flags of Our Fathers.”
In an interview Monday, Lee said he’d prefer not to elaborate on the comments, saying he has been asked by his wife not to “defeat the purpose” of the premiere and instead focus on promoting the film.
But the director still said he made his new movie because he felt Hollywood had shirked its duty to portray young people of color.
“One of my favorite films is ‘Stand by Me,’” he said. “But there’s no black person in it. It’s a great film, but where’s the African-American version? You know, kids growing up. It doesn’t have to be all ducking bullets and ...”
Lee added that he still would be interested in working again with a major studio if the material and circumstances were right for that.
On Monday, festival-goers around this Utah resort town could be heard debating the premiere incident, with some voicing support for his position and others arguing that it shouldn’t distract from the more problematic issue: his controversial film.
Lee’s new movie is a look at a young man coming of age on the streets of Brooklyn, and is a companion piece of sorts to his 1989 classic “Do the Right Thing,” even featuring Mookie, the character he played in that film. “Red Hook” does not yet have a distributor, but Lee said that he was confident it will find a backer and be released to theaters this summer.
The movie deals with contemporary urban issues including gentrification, black poverty and the influence of religion. It takes an unexpected dark turn in its final half hour in raising the issue of sexual abuse in a scene that dismayed many in the audience.
Entertainment Weekly called the film “shocking” and “ranting.” Several of the actors told the Los Angeles Times they were surprised when they read the script. Lee co-writer James McBride said he had argued that the sexual abuse incident be referenced in the film instead of depicted.
But in the interview Lee remained emphatic about his choice.
“It was one of the most difficult scenes I’ve ever done,” he acknowledged. “But I knew it had to be done. It would have been cowardly and gutless and punkish to not deal with it straight on.”
“And here’s the thing,” he added. “It’s my money. I financed the film because I didn’t ... want people to tell me there’s no audience for this film so we need to change this or that.”