The Culture Caught Up With Spike Lee — Now What?


He led me to the wraparound porch off the main house, to a white table with his papers spread on it. When he had checked and silenced his BlackBerry — he still uses one — I brought up Kathryn Bigelow’s latest movie, “Detroit,” which opened the African-American Film Festival two days earlier. The film, about the violence inflicted by white police officers on black residents of Detroit during the 1967 riots, had upset audiences. Many black critics, and some white ones, had been making the case that it wasn’t Bigelow’s right as a white person to tell such a story in the first place — that her lingering and detailed depiction of the violence took on the qualities of pornography. I asked Lee if he agreed with that assessment.

“I haven’t seen it,” Lee said. “She’s a very good director. She knows what she’s doing.” He thought for a moment, then added: “But I do understand the flip side. Black folks get kind of funny now with other people telling our stories.” Lee himself has long been one of the most outspoken critics of such work. He has famously feuded with Quentin Tarantino over what he views as Tarantino’s appropriation and exploitation of blackness, particularly in “Django Unchained.” “American Slavery Was Not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western,” Lee wrote on Twitter. “It Was a Holocaust.” And he wrested “Malcolm X” away from the director Norman Jewison on the grounds, according to Jewison, that he lacked “the deep understanding of the black psyche” required to handle the subject. Sitting on his porch, Lee lifted his cap and ran a hand across his freshly buzzed scalp. “I don’t want to sound like a cliché,” he said, laughing, “but people are kind of woke.”

Cliché or not, it’s true: People are kind of woke these days. And it must be vindicating and also somewhat disorienting for a figure like Lee, a man who hasn’t changed one bit but whom the wider culture has increasingly come to resemble. Beginning with his third film, the masterpiece “Do the Right Thing” (1989), about a feverish day in Bedford-Stuyvesant that culminates in a deadly race riot; intensifying in his fifth film, “Jungle Fever” (1991), a blunt cautionary tragedy of interracial romance; and culminating in his sixth movie, “Malcolm X” (1992), a three-hour biopic brought to fruition through force of will alone, Lee has earned and never really shaken the reputation of a talented but polarizing director — something of a professional black crank.

For much of his career, Lee was either the black — or the only serious black — filmmaker around, and this combination of gravity and rarity allowed him to navigate a singular course both inside and outside the studio system, telling artistically ambitious, unapologetically black stories and reaping significant financial and critical rewards in the process, practically in a vacuum. (There have certainly been more commercially successful black storytellers, but by and large they have lacked broad cultural cachet.) But what does the formerly isolated black filmmaker do, then, in a time of sustained racial awakening, a cultural moment when politically conscious black storytelling is not only flourishing at the margins but also making deep incursions into the center, a time when audiences can eagerly anticipate black-helmed blockbusters like Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” and Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time”?

In such a context, Lee’s decision to remake “She’s Gotta Have It” can seem like an advertisement for himself, a savvy, scripted campaign to remind a viewing public with a very short attention span just who was here first. But for someone who has cut against the grain for so long and from so many angles, this return to the beginning can also look like a tacit concession that one of America’s sharpest, most provocative personalities may have finally run out of grain to cut against.

In 1992, Esquire ran a cover article with the incredible title “Spike Lee Hates Your Cracker Ass.” It contained many quotes like this from Lee: “We’ve been robbed of our names and robbed of our culture. When you’re told every single day for 400 years that you’re subhuman, when you rob people of their self-worth, knowledge, history, there’s nothing worse you can do. We got told that if we could ride in a bus next to a white person, take a leak next to a white man, everything would be fine. Well, we got those things.”

But those victories didn’t amount to much, in Lee’s estimation. The journalist, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, grew increasingly despondent. “Why should I have expected more than any other white interviewer has elicited from this 35-year-old producer, writer, director and world-class hustler who courts the media and simultaneously repels inquiry with set speeches, set postures, attitude? Why should I have entertained the hope that we could leap over the dividing wall of color?”

One of the most striking aspects of reading the article in 2017 is Harrison’s reaction, not Lee’s statements. What he says, from our current vantage, seems unexceptional — talking like that about race has practically become an orthodoxy. And this is one of the more intriguing challenges Lee, who recently turned 60, will be facing with “She’s Gotta Have It.” In terms of the racial politics of the day, he is more in tune than ever with mainstream liberal thought. In terms of sexual politics, however, to borrow Lee’s own phrasing, women are also getting kind of funny about other people telling their stories. And younger female auteurs like Issa Rae and Lena Dunham have seized the means of narrative production, portraying female sexuality and desire in ever more urgent and original ways.

What Harrison missed about her subject is that Lee has never been anything other than a first-rate color-line traverser. Born Shelton Lee in 1957 in Atlanta, the eldest of six, he moved with his family to Brooklyn when he was small. The Lees became the first black family to integrate Cobble Hill, a heavily Italian-American neighborhood near the waterfront. “We got called nigger this and nigger that,” he said with a shrug, when I asked what that was like. Once his new neighbors discerned that there were no more black families following his, they seemed to relax. From that point on, Lee — whose mother, Jacquelyn, had taken to calling Spike because he was “a tough baby” — made friends mostly with white kids. “But my mother was a visionary,” he said, so his parents saved and bought a brownstone facing the park in Fort Greene, which was then all black, “for like $45,000.” (Houses on that street now routinely top $3 million.) Jacquelyn died from cancer in 1976 and never saw her son’s success. His father, Bill, remarried a Lithuanian-American Jew with dreadlocks who referred to herself as “spiritually black.” Bill still lives in that same brownstone.

Lee descends, as he puts it, “from a long line of educated Negroes.” After graduating from John Dewey High School in 1975, he went to Morehouse College, just as his father and grandfather did. His mother went to Spelman, and so did her mother, Zimmie Shelton, the granddaughter of a slave, who went on to teach art, and, Lee says, “saved the Social Security checks” so that she was able to put him through both college and N.Y.U. film school, where his contemporaries included Jim Jarmusch and Ang Lee. Today he is the artistic director of N.Y.U.’s graduate film program.

Perhaps Lee’s most important influence, however, was Bill, who scored his son’s first four movies. He was a bass player talented enough to record with Bob Dylan, and the family’s sole breadwinner. But when the industry veered electric in the ’60s, he refused to adapt, and the work vanished. Jacquelyn, who had been a homemaker for years, was forced to return to teaching high-school English, at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn Heights. That kind of self-sabotaging bohemian purity seemed to make a defining impression on their son — a perfect example of how not to be an artist. Since Lee’s very first feature, all of his films have been made through his own company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, a defiant nod to the broken Reconstruction-era promise. “I want to wet my beak,” he told me. “I wet my beak ’cause there’s been a history of black artists, athletes being taken advantage of, and other people are making fortunes off our blood, sweat and tears.”

Claude Grunitzky, an entrepreneur and the founder of the pioneering urban-culture magazine Trace, has known Lee and collaborated on commercial and editorial projects with him since the ’90s. He explained to me that Lee was always aware of his own value, and that as a result, he made significantly more money from his films than a typical independent director. Because he owns 40 Acres, Grunitzky said, “he can find a way to pay himself as opposed to being victim to a Hollywood studio.” I asked Grunitzky why everybody doesn’t do that, and his response was simple: “Very few people can get away with it.” Lee’s near-solitary status as a black auteur for much of his career allowed him to find financing in unconventional places. When, for example, Warner Brothers balked at putting up the money to produce the version of “Malcolm X” Lee wanted to make, he was able to circumvent the studio and petition the most prominent members of the black 1 percent, including Magic Johnson, Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby, to open their pocketbooks.

Lee also brought in lucrative advertising deals through his company Spike DDB. The eight black-and-white Air Jordan commercials he directed for Nike in the early ’90s — and in which he co-starred as his character Mars Blackmon — were nearly as pivotal in embedding the product within the culture as the young M.V.P.’s offense. (To this day, Nike continues to make a highly coveted riff on the sneaker called the Spizike.) In “The Spike Lee Reader,” the film scholar Paula J. Massood noted that “Lee’s production and advertising companies (the latter in particular) provide the financial foundations” for him to pursue deeply original work without caving to market imperatives. Selling out, in other words, to avoid selling out.

Yet despite having cracked the code of how to be a well-compensated artist — one whose beak, in real terms, is practically soaking — Lee is resistant to being thought of as wealthy. Whenever the conversation turns to money, he tends to compare himself not with everyday Americans — let alone black people — or even with other artists, but with billionaire moguls. “I didn’t make as much as Spielberg or Lucas, you know,” he told me. In 2008, he told The New Yorker that he was “not rich rich.” He went on: “Rich is Spielberg. Lucas. Gates. Steve Jobs. Jay-Z! Bruce Springsteen. I’m not complaining. But that’s money. Will Smith. Tyler Perry. Oprah Winfrey — that’s a ton of money. Compared to them, I’m on welfare!”

It’s an almost ludicrously self-indulgent way of interpreting gradations of hyperaffluence, but I could also see Lee’s point. It was Lee who discovered and first cast Halle Berry. It is Lee whose homes are filled with signed photos saying “thank you” from Michael Jordan. It was Lee who was the first in the hip-hop era to aestheticize both the black college milieu that Kanye West used as a launchpad as well as the brownstone Brooklyn landscape that anticipated the borough’s 21st-century renaissance. All of which is why it may be incongruous, yet on some level not outlandish, to think of Spike Lee as still not having gotten his full due.

In 31 years, Lee has achieved a rate of productivity that is rivaled in America only by Woody Allen. His body of work is prodigious: 22 feature movies, of which at least three are absolutely first-rate; a half-dozen more are flawed classics, and all of them are at least sporadically brilliant, artistically daring and always intellectually ambitious. There are also many documentaries, which cover a wide range of black American topics, including two on Michael Jackson and one on Kobe Bryant. Of these, “4 Little Girls” (1997), about the Birmingham church bombing, and “When the Levees Broke” (2006), about Hurricane Katrina, are two of the best documentaries ever made about black life — or perhaps just life — in the South. Yet many of his projects have been commercial flops, and he has scored just one legitimate box-office smash in his career, “Inside Man” (2006), a slick bank-robbery thriller starring Denzel Washington and Clive Owen that grossed in the nine figures.

“He basically cashed in all the good will he had from ‘Inside Man’ to raise funds for ‘Miracle at St. Anna,’ ” said James McBride, the National Book Award-winning author of the novel from which the script, about a real-life all-black regiment in Italy during World War II, was adapted in 2008. It, too, was a commercial failure. “That’s the dilemma of a talented black artist in any field,” McBride told me. “You have to recreate the genre, otherwise you don’t survive. Stevie Wonder is not a pop musician; Stevie Wonder is a genre. Michael Jackson is a genre to himself. Spike Lee has moved into that territory. Spike Lee is not short on talent. What Spike Lee is short on is friends in the industry, and the kind of space to fail. He has no room to fail.” Rosie Perez, a longtime collaborator of Lee’s, echoed McBride’s sentiments over the phone. “For someone of Spike’s stature to have to extend himself the way he has to to get something done is just insulting,” she told me, growing emotional as she spoke.

Photo

Tracy Camilla Johns and Spike Lee in “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986).

Credit
Island Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

These observations about the specific plight of the black genius — that lack of margin for error — called to mind something the comedian Chris Rock has said: True equality would look less like a black president than like a black Sarah Palin. In culture as in politics, while many profess to value diversity, there remains scant space for a thriving black “middle class” within the industry, a healthy ecosystem of artists and others working at varying levels of talent and acclaim. (In a 2016 Annenberg survey of Hollywood directors, 87 percent of respondents were white.) This winner-takes-all system has led to some magnificent black art in recent years, from Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight” to Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” to Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” But such breakthroughs can be counted on five fingers at best.

As Lee sees it, the solution to the problem will not come from the artists themselves. “Even now with ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ ” Lee said to me on his porch, “many people had passed on it. The reason it got made was because Netflix has three black women executives — Pauline Fischer, Tara Duncan and Layne Eskridge — who knew the cultural significance of Nola Darling and Mars Blackmon. Other people didn’t get it.”

“Why do you think all the others passed?” I asked.

“Every time someone says no, they never tell you why, they’re very polite. They’re not going to say, ‘This sucks,’ because they don’t want to burn a bridge, and they want you to come with the next thing.” He shook his head. “But all the people who said no — there was no black person in the room with them!”

Three decades into his career, Lee’s singular achievement seems to have led him to the realization that he cannot, in fact, do it alone. Making a Hollywood with more diverse gatekeepers is an issue of such importance to him that he says it would be worth giving back his Oscar — a point he made to me emphatically and repeatedly. But it’s not just a matter of fairness. He sees it as an issue of practical importance, and in the service of this point, he brought up the excruciating Pepsi ad from this spring. In it, Kendall Jenner wanders off a fashion shoot into something like a Black Lives Matter protest and hands a can of soda to a cop, bringing joy to all, police officers and demonstrators alike. “If there were just somebody advising the room with any common sense,” he said with a laugh. “Like, ‘Yo! My man — that [expletive] is [expletive] up!’ ” He grew serious again. “Getting those gatekeeping positions. That’s the last — that’s where the battle is.”

As soon as Lee and I entered the main house, a meticulous study in contemporary New England chic, a yappy, rabbit-size dog named Ginger rushed me and bit my leg with a ferocity mitigated only by a mercifully weak jaw. In the airy kitchen, Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen” sat on a marble countertop. On the walls were several framed prints by the black painter Romare Bearden. There were numerous other paintings and pictures of icons of black culture, like Joe Louis and Lee himself, as well as those thank-you notes from Jordan. “That’s a, what’s his name? Sharpley?” he asked, pointing to a signed Shepard Fairey print of candidate Obama. We crossed the yard and entered his “writer’s cottage,” where a gold-framed, historical-size Kehinde Wylie oil painting of a black man in Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers jersey loomed over the work area. The books on display ranged from “iPod and iTunes for Dummies” to one of those gorgeous $6,000 Taschen monographs on Muhammad Ali. Lee seemed genuinely indifferent to all of it.

The weather was gorgeous, and we continued back outside and toward the fence that separated his property from the golf course, walking with no particular goal in mind. It is fun, I learned, to stroll around with Spike Lee and to gauge other people’s reactions. Everyone recognizes him. No sooner had we set foot on the fairway than a Boston Brahmin kind of white woman called out: “Spike, what’s with your flag? We’re Red Sox fans around here!”

“Twenty-seven world championships! Thank you!” Lee shot back without missing a beat or betraying the least bit of surprise to be addressed so familiarly by a perfect stranger.

Lee pushed ahead in his customary, slightly pigeon-toed gait, torso tipped forward, necklaces swinging from his neck. I told him that I recently rewatched “Do the Right Thing” and was astounded by the degree to which it felt au courant and even prescient. The scene late in the film when an N.Y.P.D. officer places Radio Raheem in an illegal chokehold, killing him, was shattering to watch, melding in my mind with phone-camera footage of Eric Garner, who was killed in 2014 on Staten Island in similar fashion. And the question at the heart of the drama — just whose vision of black life can (or should) prevail, anyway, Malcolm’s or Martin’s — was trenchant. Lee’s own views on that question remain satisfyingly ambiguous. While the film seems to imply that it is Malcolm who personifies genuine integrity, Lee has also observed that Radio Raheem could have behaved differently and avoided his violent fate.

Yet the film amounts to much more than mere social commentary: Like “She’s Gotta Have It” and “School Daze” before it, it was itself an engine of culture. And in addition to Samuel L. Jackson, it gave us our first glimpses of Rosie Perez, Giancarlo Esposito (“Before he was Gus in ‘Breaking Bad,’ the culture knew him as Buggin’ Out,” Lee reminded me) and a fresh-faced Martin Lawrence. It caused a sensation at Cannes, but back home, critics including Stanley Crouch and Joe Klein worried that it would start riots. It is mind-blowing to pause and think that a film as forward-facing and potent as “Do the Right Thing” was released the same year as “Driving Ms. Daisy.” “Driving Ms. [expletive] Daisy.” Lee shook his head. “The best film of the year 1989, brought to you by your Academy members.”

As we walked on, Lee seemed to grow weary of talking. The afternoon heat was fatiguing, and we got turned around and lost in a dirt-road labyrinth along the golf course, doubling back on ourselves until we came to a cafe in a clearing, where two beautiful black women, who looked as if the universe itself belonged to them, were facing the course, sipping rosé of the hue the French call gray.

“Oh, [expletive], there’s my wife,” Lee exclaimed, leading me over to Tonya Lewis Lee, a statuesque, green-eyed blonde whose hair was sheared shorter on the sides than on top. She glanced questioningly at her husband and then extended her hand.

“I did not tell Spike I was going to be here.”

“He just slipped a LoJack in your bag,” her friend Crystal said, laughing.

Tonya is an attorney and an entertainment-industry force in her own right. She is the executive producer of the new “She’s Gotta Have It,” the impetus for which she describes as twofold: a chance for the two of them to work together and to present as fresh a vision of contemporary Brooklyn as Lee first did in the ’80s. “It was her idea,” Lee acknowledged. “I did not see it.”

I asked her what it’s like to work with her husband.

“Being married to Spike is crazy every day,” she said matter-of-factly. “Working with him, it’s like: ‘We’re going to do it the way I do it, because, by the way, have you seen my résumé? Do you need my bio? Here’s my bio — I’ve done 30 films in 30 years.’ You know, and that’s how it goes.”

Lee stood off to the side staring into the distance, a slightly amused expression playing on his face, and did not contradict her.

It is hard to overstate how radical, and attention grabbing, “She’s Gotta Have It” was when it debuted. Lee announced himself, practically fully formed, as someone who intended to do for Brooklyn not only what Woody Allen did for Manhattan but also what James Joyce did for Dublin, what Borges did for Buenos Aires. The original “She’s Gotta Have It” is an electrifying production, sumptuously scored by Lee’s father and beautifully shot by Ernest Dickerson in stretches of crisp black-and-white and vivid color. It is redolent of “Annie Hall”-era Woody Allen and bursting with references to Kurosawa and the French New Wave. It manages all this while staying fully situated within a natural black American vernacular spanning distinctions of class and color — a deeply impressive feat.

The film tells the story of one Nola Darling, a 20-something with a spacious loft in Brooklyn and lots of scented candles, who is basking in her youth and in the world’s reaction. Played by Tracy Camilla Johns, she is pursued by men and women alike, unashamedly enjoys sex and has it regularly with a persistent square named Jaime Overstreet, a ludicrous B-boy named Mars Blackmon — played by Lee — and an equally preposterous, self-obsessed male model called Greer Childs. All of the men are in possession of more resonant personalities than Nola, who is something of a cipher. In the film’s denouement, an act of consensual sex turns so ugly so fast it can be described only as a rape, and it is difficult to stomach, though Nola herself seems to take the brutality in stride and even suggests that she deserved it. More shocking, the scene functions as a moment of epiphany through which her character is able to develop into a better, more stable person. By the end of the story, she has decided to commit herself to the very man who violated her.

In a scathing essay titled “Whose Pussy Is This: A Feminist Comment,” the scholar Bell Hooks described Lee’s protagonist as “ ‘pure pussy,’ that is to say that her ability to perform sexually is the central, defining aspect of her identity.” The film, in Hooks’s view, was contaminated by “the pervasive sense that we have witnessed a woman being disempowered and not a woman coming to power.” Lee seems as close to chastened as possible by the criticism, and emphasized to me that five writers on the Netflix reboot are women. That is either an overdue development or an earnest act of penance or both. Yet as I compared Lee’s original creation with the Netflix series, the effort to atone for that rape scene — and all the other ambiguous attitudes it rendered explicit — felt forced, even conformist. And such lack of edge is compounded by society’s shifting sexual mores: “Everybody’s got three lovers now,” Samuel L. Jackson, another longtime collaborator of his, told me skeptically. “That’s not controversial, that’s kind of normal.”

For these and other reasons, the series can seem a lot less interested in eros than ideology, functioning as a platform to disseminate right-thinking messages about black culture and beauty standards, misogyny, homophobia, mental illness and policing. Toward the end of the first episode, a millennial Nola Darling, played by DeWanda Wise, turns straight into the camera and declares out of nowhere that “Black Lives Matter.” It’s a move so timely and didactically on the nose that it permanently ripped me out of the fictive dream. And ever since then, I have thought of that scene more than any other, and of its meaning for the project as an artistic endeavor.

I could not shake the suspicion, watching “She’s Gotta Have It,” that Lee made better, more bracing work in the era in which he was more conscious and more irreverent than the culture at large — a time when he found himself freer to enlighten as well as offend. The shift seemed to come somewhere around 2015’s “Chi-Raq,” a surreal spin on Aristophanes’ play about the Peloponnesian War, updated to take on the fraught subject of homicide in Chicago. In the movie, as in the play that inspired it, women impose a sex strike to pressure their men into a cease-fire. Critics liked it. Yet before it was even released, the film was consumed by controversy over the title and by concerns over whether the city’s miseries should even be appropriated for cinematic purposes — let alone for ones with a self-critical bent.

Skeptics took issue with Lee’s intentionally fantastical plot, calling it glib and insensitive. “ ‘Chi-Raq’ leans heavily on the not-at-all-modern but seductive power of enduring sexual stereotypes … to sell a sexual strike as a viable solution to Chicago’s staggering murder rate,” Janell Ross wrote in The Washington Post. “It puts us in the zone of facile, no-cost, no-government-or-public-​engagement-needed solutions to a big and complicated problem.” Representatives of the local hip-hop scene bristled at the notion of an outsider telling their story, from Chief Keef’s manager to the Grammy winner Chance the Rapper, who released a blistering fusillade of tweets deeming the film both “sexist” and “racist.” Lee responded by calling the rapper a “fraud.”

“Black Twitter is a [expletive], I’m telling you,” Lee said, shaking his head over the outcry that met his film on social media. “And it’s a force to be reckoned with.” Perhaps that is why, at the time of the movie’s release, he, too, began to justify himself not in strictly artistic terms but in primarily social ones: He told reporters that he wanted to save lives. As we spoke on his porch, he circled back several times to the Windy City’s mortality crisis, each pass growing more and more agitated. Finally, he began to sketch in his notebook a series of circles representing homicide rates in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles for 2016, the first one dwarfing the others.

“It’s always been my belief that if you’re really going to be an artiste, you really have to go after the truth,” he said when he was done. “I’ve tried to be honest. I got a lot of hell for ‘Chi-Raq,’ but I stand behind that film 100 percent.” He ripped the drawing out of the notepad and handed it to me. “Here’s the thing, though,” he said, raising his voice. “Chicago is the biggest segregated city in America. So people say, ‘the homicides of Chicago.’ ” But, he said, “it’s not all Chicago. It’s the West Side and the South Side. Half of Chicago had more homicides than all of New York City and all of L.A. combined!”

At that moment, Lee’s balancing act — as both representative and critic of black America — seemed simultaneously inescapable and overwhelming to me. I began to suspect it might seem that way to him as well.

While I was on the island, I visited a place called Native Cuts, a barbershop unlike any I had ever been to on the continental United States. The owner, a wiry black man with a neck tattoo, trimmed up and made chitchat with a marbles-in-the-mouth white senior citizen who could not have been more at ease. My barber was a white 20-something who seemed to be profoundly influenced by the speech patterns of ebonics. Martha’s Vineyard is a very strange place, racially speaking. Or maybe it’s the way things could be if everyone had a bit more money and job security and status and could meet on equal enough footing. I don’t believe Lee would see it that way, but the idea that he might somehow hate anyone’s “cracker ass” seemed hilarious to me in such a setting.

The following night, I accompanied Lee to his screening of a Netflix one-off called “Rodney King,” a film he made of an ingenious one-man show about Los Angeles in the ’90s — but really about America today — written and performed by Roger Guenveur Smith, another of his longtime collaborators. Lee wore a denim jacket that had Esposito’s face as Buggin’ Out airbrushed on the back of it. He does not even try to blend into crowds, and before we could get inside the building, he posed for a dozen pictures. A retired black physician pitched him a movie project about a retired black physician on Martha’s Vineyard. Lee politely declined.

Inside, the auditorium of the local high school was bustling. Branford Marsalis and Junot Díaz were milling about, as was Guenveur Smith. For an hour onscreen, his sweaty, wide-eyed face held the room rapt. The performance was so sui generis and captivating, Lee didn’t have to do anything but set up cameras at a variety of angles and record it. Yet it is precisely the kind of offbeat, hallucinatory and essential project that also requires a deeply attuned but independent force to bring about.

Two nights later, Lee closed the festival with a screening of a teaser for “She’s Gotta Have It” — again at the high school in front of another packed house. It was Saturday, Aug. 12, the afternoon when white nationalists brought death to the streets of Charlottesville, Va. In the taxi, Lee had mentioned that he spoke to Obama earlier in the day, when he reached the 18th hole, behind Lee’s house. Obama hadn’t yet heard about what was happening because he’d been out on the course all day. Somehow that image struck me as unbearably sad. Perhaps it struck Lee that way, too, and we quickly changed the subject.

One of the things you hear over and over again about Lee is how loyal and generous he is in a business that is so often the opposite. He employs countless graduates of historically black colleges and universities in front of and especially behind the cameras, and many of them were at the screening, as well as hundreds of black Vineyard locals who had no particular connection but simply seemed grateful to be among the first to support one of their own, that rare voice who tells stories specifically for and about them. Lee calls black audiences like this his “base,” and he told me that he always tests out his work in front of them first because they’ll let you know “if this some [expletive].” He has cut scenes in the past after such encounters, including one from “Jungle Fever” that Wesley Snipes advised him never to show. The base, that night, erupted in applause. I wondered if my initial misgivings had been too harsh.

The poet Amiri Baraka once derisively wrote that Lee was “the quintessential buppie,” his work frivolous and bourgeois, but that is vicious. The Rev. Michael L. Pfleger, the real-life Chicago preacher behind John Cusack’s character in “Chi-Raq,” described him as “the conscience of Hollywood,” but that may be too generous. Roger Ebert, who recalled having been “too shaken to speak” after seeing “Do the Right Thing,” got the closest to the truth when he wrote about the fundamental “evenhandedness that is at the center of Spike Lee’s work,” a quality that is sadly “invisible to many of his viewers and critics.” It is this evenhandedness that causes some whites to recoil from him as angry, while at the very same time it makes some blacks cool to him as out of touch. It may be the most important, but by no means only, part of what makes him a genuine and lasting artist.

The most idyllic section of Fort Greene is found along the exquisitely preserved brownstone blocks of South Portland and South Oxford between DeKalb and Lafayette, and along stately Washington, which faces the procession of morning joggers, dog walkers and French-speaking nannies animating the park. It has gotten considerably whiter — and beiger — but it comprises an exceptionally confident mix that, in pockets, nearly rivals that of the Vineyard. Lee’s mother found her family’s brownstone on the park around the same time my elderly West Indian former landlord on South Portland acquired two abandoned addresses for the price of back taxes and the hassle of kicking out heroin addicts shooting up in the vestibules. Today the split between the black families who owned their homes and the population boxed in the projects is almost incomprehensible.

Yet Lee takes it as self-evident that race trumps class. As such, he is a man whose own phenomenal life can present certain contradictions. He is a vociferously outspoken critic of even mild gentrification, as discomfited by the erection of a skyscraper on Flatbush as the rent-is-too-damn-high guy. Chris Rock put his finger on the irony in “Brooklyn Boheme,” Diane Paragas and Nelson George’s 2011 documentary about the black-and-Latino creative community that blossomed in Fort Greene in the ’80s and ’90s. “Spike made ‘She’s Gotta Have It,’ ” Rock said, “and Fort Greene just became like — Brooklyn! Like, wow, there’s a place in Brooklyn where black people live, and it’s nice.” The complicated truth is that Lee, in film after film and more than almost any other single denizen, has played an integral part in his borough’s renewal process, with deeply urbane and humane portraits of his home that proved more attractive than even he may have intended.

The day after the festival ended, I met Lee at the 40 Acres and a Mule headquarters on South Elliott Place in Fort Greene, around the corner and down the block from where he grew up. It is a museum-like world unto itself that stretches over four floors all bursting with memorabilia, art, antique racial propaganda and movie posters with fond inscriptions from peers like Spielberg and Fellini. The outside of the building has always functioned as a way for Lee to communicate with the neighborhood directly. On that day, it was adorned with large, bright purple posters for the new “She’s Gotta Have It.” As he was locking up, three young black women approached him, took photos and thanked him for his work. He was still wearing the denim jacket with Esposito’s face on it (and for good measure, carrying an orange backpack adorned with his own likeness as Mars Blackmon). As he walked me across Lafayette Avenue and down Fulton, cars honked and strangers waved. Lee acknowledged all of them.

We had come to South Portland Avenue, where the local rap legend Notorious B.I.G. has for years now been reduced to a child-friendly caricature emblazoned on the side of an open-air Mexican-Cuban eco-cafe. “Brooklyn is gentrified!” Lee laughed, gesturing at all the new construction rising up around us. It is, and it has been for a long time now. Lee has solidified his own sort of landmarked status as a local and national treasure. But on that hot summer day, as we said goodbye and I watched him turn and walk away into that sanitized, rainbow-colored bobo wonderland, for the first time since I’d met him he seemed almost out of place.

Correction: November 22, 2017

An earlier version of this article misidentified the location of the 1963 church bombing that was the subject of Spike Lee’s movie “4 Little Girls.” The bombing occurred at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., not in Little Rock, Ark.

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