In the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, where she grew up, the other kids called her Joy the Boy, she says, “because I was such a bully.” As a teen she Frenchified her name to Joie (pronounced Zhwah), but “even now most people call me Joy or Joe Lee or Joey. It’s all fine with me. The only time I correct them is when they refer to me as Spike Lee’s sister.”
Beneath a wild hedge of hair shot through with orange, Joie Lee, 28, has the same massive brown eyes as filmmaker Spike, 33. As the only girl in a rough-and-tumble family of four boys, this tomboy turned actress has been scrapping for independence all her life. But if she’s still taking orders from her big brother, this time his direction could make her a star.
In Spike’s Mo’ Better Blues, Joie breaks through as the long-suffering Indigo, one of two women in love with Bleek, a self-absorbed jazz trumpeter (Denzel Washington). Previously she had roles in She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze and in 1989’s controversial Do the Right Thing, in which she plays Spike’s levelheaded sister who unsuccessfully tries to shape him up. Her latest part called for a seminude love scene with Washington, and she admits she was uncomfortable when, after rehearsing, her brother told her to take her top off. “When we were kids, Spike was more uninhibited than I was,” Joie recalls, sitting in Junior’s, Brooklyn’s famous deli. “He’d run around naked, but I wanted privacy from my brothers.”
The five Lee siblings are tightly bound to Brooklyn and to each other. None are married, only Joie drives a car, and all work one way or another for Spike. David, 29, a photographer, shoots the production stills; Chris, 31, is in charge of merchandising movie memorabilia at Spike’s Joint, Lee’s new Brooklyn store; and Cinque, 24, videotaped the documentary on the making of Do the Right Thing.
Raised in a household where their father, Bill, was a jazz trumpeter and their mother, Jackie, the first black teacher at St. Ann’s (a tony, mostly white private school in Brooklyn Heights), the Lee children were exposed early to the arts and ideas of black culture—everything from Broadway musical theater to the writings of the abolitionist Harriet Tubman. The parents rationed the children’s TV time, forbade rock music in favor of jazz and folk and had each of the brood learn to play an instrument. Joie studied flute and later became a good enough bassist to jam regularly with her father (who did the musical arrangements for Mo’Better Blues).
Spike’s detractors complain that his movie persona as a street tough is a bit of a put-on, given the family’s classy background, but Joie argues, “People have this impression that we came from an upper-middle-class upbringing because we had a Citroën car and three kids went to private school. But there were lots of times when the phone was cut off and the utilities cut off, and we had meager servings for dinner.”
Lee credits her mom with holding the family together. With Bill’s musician’s income spotty, Jackie was the main breadwinner and disciplinarian. She was also the teacher of black pride. “She started experimenting with African hairstyles long before anyone else did,” Joie recalls. “We’d walk down the street together wearing beads and cornrows. She saw it as history, not fashion. She researched everything. People laughed at us, but it didn’t matter.”
It was crushing to 14-year-old Joie when Jackie died abruptly of cancer in 1976. An indifferent student who flunked out of Sarah Lawrence College after two years, Lee started doing odd jobs for Spike and cooking for his crew while he was making student movies at New York University. After appearing in She’s Gotta Have It, Joie drifted to Seattle, but when the movie took off, she returned to New York City to join Spike’s company full-time.
Unlike Indigo in Mo’ Better Blues, “I was not raised to be someone’s wife,” Lee notes firmly. “I was raised so that things should be evenly distributed. Indigo is very soft-spoken, and I can get loud. Still, I can understand being somebody’s significant other.”
Perhaps that’s because Joie has acquired an other of her own. He’s Cliff Booker, 33, a college classmate of Spike’s and a hairdresser. They met a year ago when he styled her radical hedge hairdo for an Essence magazine cover. Booker calls her “beautiful, exotic, but it’s the aura within that really attracted me.” (Joie has an earthier view of herself: When one reviewer likened her to Prince, she laughed and said, “A female Prince. Androgynous. Not too bad.”) Recently she and Cliff moved into a two-story house in Brooklyn that they’re decorating together.
As much as Joie has enjoyed working in Spike’s familial nest, she now feels secure enough to try her own wings. In December she will appear in the murder mystery A Kiss Before Dying, her first non-Spike role, with Sean Young and Matt Dillon. She even turned down a part in her brother’s next picture, Jungle Fever. “I decided this would be a good time to branch out,” she explains. “People don’t know if I can do things on my own.” She and brother Cinque are also developing an “urban” children’s TV show.
It’s obvious when she leaves Junior’s deli that Joie has developed her own following in Fort Greene. “Hiya, baby!” the guys greet her. “You look great in the movie! Whoo!” When a woman asks, “Are you Spike’s sister?” it rankles, but she maintains her cool. “I’m Joie, Joie,” she insists patiently. Boyfriend Cliff is certain that Joie is strong enough to get what she wants. “Often you see boys guarding their toys and girls getting their toys taken away from them,” he says. “Joie hangs on to her toys.”
—Marjorie Rosen, David Hutchings in Brooklyn