Brooklyn's Baby Mogul, Spike Lee, Finds the Freedom He's Gotta Have
Back from two weeks in L.A., Spike Lee sweeps into his two-bedroom basement apartment in Brooklyn and flips on his answering machine. Beep: “Spike, hi, the Good Morning America interview is tomorrow. They’ll send a car.” Beep: “Spike, hi, this is Loretha, just calling to see if you want to hang out later.” Beep. Beep. Beep. The messages abound, the letters flutter in. One alleged school friend, Spike can’t remember who, sends a heavily perfumed note reminding him of their childhood days playing doctor and suggests that the writer is long overdue for a physical.
The fuss is all tied in with the surprise smash of Lee’s first feature, She’s Gotta Have It. Shot in black and white over 12 days last summer on a lean $175,000 budget, mostly in an unventilated apartment, the comedy tells the story of a candidly promiscuous black woman and the three lovers she strings along. Many thought the film might at best have cult appeal. Instead, it has grossed an astonishing $1.8 million in its first three weeks, and Lee, 29, is being hailed as “the black Woody Allen.”
Bedecked in a Mets baseball cap, T-shirt, black Reeboks and jeans, the 5’6″, 125-pounder says he always saw himself working outside the system. “If I had gone to Hollywood for money for this film with an all-black cast they’d have said, ‘Forget it.’ I always knew I was going to have to do this on my own.” As producer, director, writer, editor and star of She’s Gotta Have It, Lee raised the money from family and friends, save $18,000 from the New York State Council on the Arts. He hired an unknown cast and crew on the promise of deferred payment. Under the guise of a sex comedy, Lee had a point to make. “You never see black people kissing in a Hollywood film,” he says. “As far as Hollywood is concerned, we can only sing and dance.”
Scenes of romance, love and sex are frequent in She’s Gotta Have It, as are comic episodes lampooning the double standard that says what’s okay for men doesn’t apply to women. “A lot of my friends are into boasting about their stable of women,” he says. “Yet if one of their women sees another man, they go through the roof.”
Lee cast himself in the juiciest role, a bike messenger whose fast and funny rap with the ladies enables him to bed the heroine, played by Tracy Camila Johns, 23. “I’m not really like that character,” says Lee, who adds that he didn’t get over his shyness with women until his junior year in college. His brother David, 25, recalls that Spike’s interest as a teen was “stick-ball, not girls.” Now, says Spike, “I’m married to Mary Lou Cinema.” He bristles when the subject of women is pushed farther. Yes, there was someone special. They dated a year and split a year ago. “She did the breaking up, and she gave me a reason,” he says. “I’m not talking about it, though.”
Born in Atlanta (the family moved to Brooklyn when the future filmmaker was 2), Shelton Jackson Lee was nicknamed Spike by his mother, an art teacher who died in 1976. “I guess she thought I was a tough baby,” he says. As the eldest of six (he has three brothers and one sister, ages 20 to 29, and a step-brother, 15 months), Spike grew up with a well-developed sense of humor and an acute pride in being black. His grandfather went to the all-male, all-black Morehouse College in Atlanta, as did his father, a musician who was a schoolmate of Martin Luther King Jr. Spike followed in the tradition. His mother and grandmother went to Morehouse’s sister college, Spelman. “The family has always been educated and had a knowledge of self,” says Spike. “We didn’t have to wait for James Brown to scream it.” Spike’s father, Bill, now 58, an acclaimed bass violinist who wrote the score for his son’s film, says, “I think Spike’s size has had a lot to do with his determination to do something really big.”
Spike’s ambition has served him well. Several years ago, while a graduate student at New York University’s film school, he was faced with expulsion after his first year. “They didn’t think I was a good filmmaker,” he says with a blasé toss of the hand. Then the movie he made for his master’s thesis—Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, about a Brooklyn barber shop fronting a numbers joint, won the student version of the Oscar in 1983. “They had to let me graduate after that,” Spike says.
He is now graduating into bigger budgets. Island Pictures has signed him to a three-picture deal and forked over $3.5 million for his next film, School Daze. He will start shooting next spring on the Morehouse campus. The movie will deal with one of the most sensitive issues among blacks: the relationship of color to class. “Light-skin blacks have historically done better in this society,” says Lee. “I want to show that the vestiges of slavery are still with us in the way we think. The light-skin actors [in School Daze] will play the more affluent students and dark-skin actors will play students from the rural South. It’s just to make a point.” Adds the hot new director, his voice alive with mischief, “I know this film is going to piss people off.” Spike Lee wouldn’t have it any other way.