Filmmaker Spike Lee has become synonymous with New York, particularly his home borough of Brooklyn. Lee’s storytelling, while sometimes controversial, never fails to be thought provoking. Red Hook Summer, his new film about the Brooklyn nabe is no exception. It’s the story of young Flik (Jules Brown), who comes to spend the summer with his preacher grandfather (Clarke Peters), but along the way learns lessons about life, friendship and the harsh realities of the environment in which he finds himself. Spike and co-star Nate Parker (Red Tails, The Great Debaters), who plays a gang leader, sat down with TIME to talk about Brooklyn, the King of Pop and unwavering basketball loyalty.
TIME: This is your sixth film in the “Chronicles of Brooklyn” series, which started with She’s Gotta Have It in 1986. Why did you decide to go back to the borough?
SPIKE LEE: The way I look at it, I never left. I do the things I do when I feel it’s time to tell that particular story. James McBride and I co-wrote the script, and this is the story I wanted to tell about this neighborhood—Red Hook.
Why Red Hook? Did that neighborhood need its story told? You’ve been in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Coney Island…
SL: …Fort Greene and before it was DUMBO with She’s Gotta Have It. Two things really happened. Number one, James McBride grew up in Red Hook. The church we use in the film, his parents founded that church. Also when Carmelo Anthony got traded to the Knicks, he signed a Boost Mobile phone deal, and they contacted me to do a short film on him. So we started in Madison Square Garden and we jumped in an SUV and we drove to Red Hook.
A lot of people don’t know this but he was born in Brooklyn—born and raised in Red Hook—then his family moved to West Baltimore. So there’s really those elements of Red Hook James and I discussed—and we said we should make it take place here.
You brought back old characters from some of your previous films for Red Hood Summer. Mookie (Do the Right Thing), who’s now Mr. Mookie and Nola Darling (She’s Gotta Have It), who’s now Mother Darling. Why?
SL: Yeah, Nola Darling is a Jehovah’s Witness now. This is something we’ve done before. The two cops that murdered Radio Raheem [Do the Right Thing] appeared in Jungle Fever, and they nearly arrested the characters played by Wesley Snipes and Annabella [Sciorra]. In Inside Man, the pizza delivered to the hostages was from Sal’s Famous Pizzeria [Do the Right Thing], so we do stuff like that.
Red Hook Summer is seen through the eyes of the kids, Jules Brown and Toni Lysaith. You’ve done a lot with kids—Crooklyn and other films. Is it easier to tell your stories through the eyes of children? Do they have a way of seeing things that makes it easier for people to digest?
SL: I don’t think it makes it easier, but I like working with children. Toni and Jules go to my old junior high school, and there’s a drama teacher there named Mr. Edward Robinson who’s phenomenal. So once I wrote this script I knew I would find the two kids there in Mr. Robinson’s class.
Nate, you just came from a great turn in Red Tails, where you portrayed a war hero. Is this a big departure to play a gang member?
NATE PARKER: I don’t know if I would call it a departure—I’d just say it’s something new. When you get a call from Spike in this business when you’re a young black actor coming up, it’s kind of like that paternal feeling, you know? This is someone that I’ve looked up to my entire life, so for him to ask me to be a part of this—he could have asked me to do anything, any role for any reason, and I would have said yes because I trust him.
I welcome difficulty and challenges in roles because I think it gives an opportunity to touch a different aspect of life that can touch someone else. You know there’s a Brooklyn Blood or there’s a Cali Blood that will identify with Box’s character. With that feeling of being abandoned, that feeling of not having someone there to support him in his transition period from young man to man, that 13-, 14-, 15-year-old period. So I feel like it’s impactful, not just in Brooklyn but anywhere there’s a ‘hood, anywhere there’s despondent young males.
Is that what attracted you to Box’s character?
NP: What attracted me was Spike. I think if anyone else would have come to me with the material, I would have turned it down. One thing I’ve learned in this business, one thing I actually learned from Denzel (Washington), he said go into a project looking at one thing—the filmmaker, can you trust the filmmaker. The material can change, all kinds of things can change, the environment can change. If you trust that filmmaker, you can go with him anywhere and he’ll take care of you. And there’s no better opportunity than to work with Spike. He could have said ‘I need you to be an extra,’ I need you to be in the background doing pushups for the whole movie, I’d have done it.
So do you think there’s more work for the two of you to do together?
NP: I hope so.
SL: It’s not hope, it’s gonna happen!
Is this the conclusion of the “Chronicles of Brooklyn?” Are there more stories to tell? More ‘hoods?
SL: No, no, no. Remember that show The Naked City? The line was ‘there are 8 million stories in the naked city.’ Well, there’s 4 million left in Brooklyn (laughs). It’s a lot more to tell. What the story will be, what neighborhood, I don’t know. But it’s not done, it’s not done yet.
What’s next for your studio 40 Acres (and a Mule Filmworks). Is there going to be more work like Four Little Girls [on the 1963 Birmingham church bombing], or the latest one If God’s Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise [on the rebirth of New Orleans]?
SL: We have another documentary we’re finishing now called Bad 25. It’s about the making of Michael Jackson’s Bad album.
That’s going to bring people back to the whole Michael Jackson phenomenon because its been three years since he passed away, 25 years since Bad. Is there a lot of stuff that we don’t know about Bad?
SL: Oh yeah. I did this film, this documentary with the cooperation of Sony Records, Epic Records and the Michael Jackson estate. So I had full access to the Michael Jackson archives. So there’s stuff in this documentary that people have never seen before. Never.
One more question: The Nets are coming to Brooklyn. Does that mean you’re gonna become a Nets fan or will your heart always lie with the Knicks?
SL: Orange and blue, baby!