There are few figures as emblematic of—and beloved to—New York City culture than Spike Lee. In the modern era, maybe Fran Lebowitz or Aaron Judge compare. Along those lines, a list would also have to include Lady Liberty herself.
But like that mighty green copper statue, Lee is as much a mascot of the city he grew up and lives in as he is a beacon of cultural light. Ms. Liberty may have a torch, but Lee has those spectacles through which he gazes with his unique and singular view of the world and delivers his iconic ‘Joints’. The Mets have that baseball-headed hero in the form of Mr. Met, but the Knicks have Spike; dutifully sitting courtside and watching over the game like a wise sage.
“I think you can’t think about a place like Brooklyn or New York City and not think about Spike,” as Brooklyn Museum’s Kimberli Gant puts it. “You also can’t think about Spike without thinking of Brooklyn. It’s a character within his films, and he’s always been a very strong supporter.”
The Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit “Spike Lee: Creative Sources” is a comprehensive retrospective of the life, times, career and inspirations of one of Brooklyn’s favorite sons. The eclectic, trailblazing career the NYU grad kicked off in the mid-80s with his directorial breakout She’s Gotta Have It is still going strong—his next film is reportedly a Broadway-set story dubbed Da Understudy—which means there’s a lot of Spike to mine.
“Creative Sources” captures Lee with a wide lens, with objects and artifacts ranging from movie memorabilia to items from his personal collection, including an African National Congress flag signed by Nelson and Winnie Mandela that Lee was gifted.“That flag is a piece of history I would have never expected you could have,” says Gant. “When I saw that I knew immediately that it had to be part of the exhibition.”
Observer recently caught up with Lee to talk all things Brooklyn.
You had an Academy of Arts and Science Museum exhibit on your career in Los Angeles recently, and now this. What’s having an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum like for you?
I’m grateful for the Academy, but these are two separate things. This is a full display of it. Not complaining, but we just didn’t have the real estate at the Academy for everything.
I heard you made an off-handed comment at the time: ‘I have so much stuff, it could fill the Brooklyn Museum.’ They called you up, and here we are.
Yeah, I mean, I don’t know if it was exactly like that. But, here’s the thing. The exhibit at the Academy led to this, so it’s all good.
Not many living people get this honor.
Well, not that many people have this kind of collection!
Here’s the thing: a lot of the stuff there was in my home in Martha’s Vineyard or in my office. So I was seeing this stuff every day. But again, it’s different seeing it in a museum; the Brooklyn Museum. And also, for many years people would come into my office and say, “This is like a museum!” I’d always say, “My office is not open to the public.” This is a chance to let people see all the stuff in a public setting—in a public setting—because they are not getting into my office in Fort Greene. The public is not invited there.
How did you decide what to offer up and what to hold back?
There’s nothing that’s been held back. To be honest, it was a struggle to get all that stuff in there. I was getting some pushback, but it all worked out in the end.
There are so many people from Brooklyn where every day I’m saying, ‘Wow, that person was born in Brooklyn?’ It’s insane when you look into it.
Considering all the famous people with Brooklyn roots, most don’t have a passion for the borough like you do. Why is Brooklyn so special to you, if you had to sum it up?
Well, you said earlier about all the great people who came from here and the great things that happened here. Look at Ebbets Field and Branch Rickey signing Jackie Robinson. That’s a moment in the history of the United States of America. There are so many things that happened here, and I don’t think it was a mistake. Walt Whitman… You can go forever, ever, ever. Lena Horn! Michael Jordan was born at the former Cumberland Hospital in Fort Greene, the neighborhood I grew up in. Actually, Mike Tyson and Michael Jordan were born in that hospital. Did you know that?
No, I didn’t.
Cumberland Hospital, right off Myrtle Avenue. I think Little Anthony from the Imperials was born there too. Biggie! Jay-Z! You can go on and on and on and on. It’s a special place. For the exhibit, I just hope people come to see it. There’s gonna be a lot of stuff people may not expect on the walls there. And if you’re not from Brooklyn, you’re still allowed to come and see the show. Because Brooklyn’s about spreading love to everybody: all races, religions. That’s what we do here in Brooklyn. Let me ask you a question! What were some of your favorite pieces?
The flag has to be up there.
Yes! The original ANC flag from the African National Congress. When Mr. and Mrs. Mandela signed that, South Africa was still under the tyranny of apartheid. And on the flag she wrote, “We will be free.” The story is that Nelson Mandela is at the end of Malcolm X. In fact, when we were in Africa, we shot scenes in Egypt with Denzel [Washington] and the Sphinx and the Pyramid. We were going to fly directly from Cairo to Johannesburg, but mid-flight we had to stop in Kenya to get off the plane because the plane had received a bomb threat. So we had to make a detour and land in Nairobi, Kenya. That flag is it for me—there’s so much history in that giant flag signed by Mrs. and Ms. Mandela.
The exhibit has artifacts that stand for things that are so much deeper than the movies.
They each wrote out, “To Spike…” on that giant flag. That’s hard to beat.
Aside from the movie memorabilia and stuff from your collection, I want to bring up one specific piece, considering this is a very rare month when we have a new Martin Scorsese film out.
Oh yeah, there’s a lot of stuff signed by my brother!
He’s the king of Manhattan and you’re the king of Brooklyn, I think.
(Laughs) Nah, he’s Little Italy.
But there’s that Raging Bull poster.
Funny story! I was going through my office at NYU where I’m a tenured professor and I saw this thing that was rolled up. I opened it, and it was the Raging Bull poster signed by [the late real-life boxer and Raging Bull inspiration] Jake LaMotta. I don’t even know where I got it, but as soon as I found it I rushed to get De Niro to sign it and got Scorsese to sign it, too, and made it in time for the deadline to get it in the show. I do not remember how I got Jake to sign it, though.
That film must have been a major inspiration for you. I know it came out around the same time you directed your first short.
The first Scorsese film my mother took me to was Mean Streets. At that time, I didn’t want to be a filmmaker. But Marty has played a very special part in my development as a filmmaker. When I was at film school at NYU, he screened After Hours, had a Q&A afterward and I was the last person in line. I asked some questions, and he easily could have said, “Kid, I gotta go.” But he stayed and was engaged. We had a conversation for like fifteen, twenty minutes. I knew he had to go. But he kept talking. That’s where our friendship started.
When you’re working on something or he’s working on something, do you trade ideas?
No, no, no. The only thing that was close to that was Clockers. Marty was supposed to direct Clockers from the book by Richard Price, and Bob De Niro was going to play the lead, but then they decided to do Casino instead. So I ended up directing it, and Harvey Keitel played the De Niro part.
What’s it like for you to have friends and family visiting this exhibit? What feedback are you getting from the people who know you the best?
Everybody’s overwhelmed by it, especially the family section, because my father has recently passed. That hits home for the family. What people don’t know is that I was collecting autographs as a kid. Me and my friend knew all of the hotels where the baseball players went; they stayed at Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. When the Giants would come, we knew and we’d bring our Willie Mays cards, Willie McCovey cards or Juan Marichal cards. When the Pirates came in, we went for Bruno Clemente. When the Braves came in, we went for Hank Aaron. I’ve been collecting forever. I also had a big collection of Marvel comic books, but I was the kid whose mother threw out their collection of baseball cards and comic books. Boy, I wish I had those comic books—they would go for a fortune now. But I’ve always been a collector. It did not start when I became a filmmaker.
Speaking of Brooklyn, someone asked me the other day why I liked where I live in Williamsburg. I had to think about it because when I first moved here, it was a different neighborhood.
Can I use the word “gentrification?”
Of course. This was an Italian neighborhood, and it stings to see the businesses owned by these old men and women disappear.
Fort Greene has Williamsburg beat! My parents bought our brownstone in Fort Greene right opposite Fort Greene Park for $45,000. That was 1968. Back then, realtors did not use the name Fort Greene Park, they said “Downtown Vincity.” Before we moved to Fort Greene, the Lees were the first Black family in Cobble Hill. That was 1963, and back then that was all Italian American. We were called the N-word for a week, and then when the neighbors saw Black people moving in behind us, we were okay! (Laughs) True story.
With all the changes, I still find ways to love New York. What do you think about how much New York City as a whole has changed?
That’s a very good question. There was a time in New York when young artists could afford to live here. Look at Basquiat, Madonna… the Talking Heads. There were also a bunch of people who lived in the Lower East Side; it was affordable. Young artists cannot live in New York City today. They’re going to places like Seattle and Detroit. So we’re losing this element of creativity because people just can’t afford to live here. And that’s just the artists… people can’t live here! There’s a large population of African Americans who have moved down south. A large population of Puerto Ricans who moved back to Puerto Rico. New York is unaffordable, and it’s not a good thing, I don’t think.
Someone like Basquiat used to live over on Great Jones Street, and now that’s one of the chicest neighborhoods in Manhattan. I have to think it has to turn around. What’s the new neighborhood that can harbor artists and writers? Is it gonna be another neighborhood in Brooklyn?
Where? That’s gonna be when they put some buildings off Coney Island in the Atlantic Ocean to extend the beachfront! I don’t know where that’s gonna be. People a lot smarter than me have to figure this shit out. Because if New York City is just made up of rich, rich, rich people…it’s not going to be exciting anymore.
The entire city will be sanitized with Citibanks and yoga studios, I guess.
(Laughs) Well, I’m not gonna jump on the people who practice yoga. Because they do it outside too, sometimes.
But if there’s anybody who can handle criticism, it would be people who do yoga.
(Laughs) I used to make fun of Birkenstocks, but I don’t do that anymore. Now they’re the norm!