Director Spike Lee was just 29 years old in 1986 when he released his first feature film, She's Gotta Have It. The movie told the story of a young black artist named Nola Darling who loves sex but isn't interested in a committed relationship with any of the three men she is dating.
Lee, now 60, says he made She's Gotta Have It because he wanted to show a woman "living her life, and not really caring about what people feel."
Now, more than 30 years after the original film came out, Lee has adapted it into an expanded and updated 10-part Netflix series of the same name. "It's the universe from two different Spike Lees," the director says. "I didn't know what I was doing with the first film ... and now I turned 60 while shooting this."
On the film that inspired the original She's Gotta Have It
I was heavily influenced by the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's film Rashomon. I saw that in film school and I liked this conceit where several people are witnesses to a rape and a murder ... and they present their facts, or what they thought they saw, and it's left to the audience to decide what is true. I wanted to do that about a woman who was having three relationships with men at the same time and let the audience decide who was telling the truth.
On the challenges of making a successful independent film
It wasn't fun to make it, but it was very fun to write it. ... Because, to shoot a film, you have to raise money, and it was a brutal task to raise $175,000 for this film. She's Gotta Have It was shot in the summer of 1985 from July 1 to July 14 — two six-day weeks. And it almost killed me. ... Making a successful independent film has to be one of the hardest things known to humankind.
On how the original She's Gotta Have It was received
There were many critics. She's Gotta Have It was not a [universally] acclaimed thing, especially among black feminists. So it was split down the middle. Half of women were saying, "This is a new, liberated woman who we haven't seen before." And the feminists were saying that, "This is the same old tired, super sexually charged black woman." So it was split down the line.
On adapting the film into a Netflix series
The film was only 86 minutes. With this Netflix series, we have 10 episodes. So there's much more time to spend on who [the main character] Nola is. ...
Also, [it was] even more important, that this Netflix series could not be strictly a male gaze. ... There was a huge presence of black women in the [writers'] room, because it was the right thing to do. And also [if there weren't women on staff], I knew that it would be giving people an open shot to say this is told clearly through the male gaze. So we wanted to negate that. We wanted to nip that [in] the bud. But also it was the ... most truthful thing to do.
On gentrification in Brooklyn, a central theme in the new Netflix series
Here's the thing about gentrification ... I just think that there are too many gentrifiers [who] move in who don't come with humbleness. ... For example, we had this thing like, what the ef is "New Fort Greene"? ... That's what some people call it. In fact, there's a sign in Fort Greene Park, which we show the picture of it in Episode 2, "New Fort Greene."
Just because you move in does not make it new. I call this "Christopher Columbus Syndrome." Something ain't discovered if people been there already. And so when people, a lot of these gentrifiers, when they move in, they don't respect the culture or the people who were there already. That's where I got beef.
Now, you come here with love — that's cool. But with this other stuff — I got beef with that.
Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Spike Lee, has returned to his first feature - the 1986 film "She's Gotta Have It" and has adapted it into an expanded and updated 10-part Netflix series of the same name. Spike Lee has written and directed many other films including, "School Daze," "Do The Right Thing" "Mo' Better Blues" "Jungle Fever" "Malcolm X" and "Chi-Raq."
We're going to talk about lots of things, but let's start with "She's Gotta Have It." The film earned him a place as a central figure in independent cinema and black cinema. The central character in the original film and the Netflix series is Nola Darling, a young artist who loves sex but isn't interested in a committed relationship. She's seeing three men, each a different type but each wants her to himself.
In Episode 1 of the Netflix version, Nola, who lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where Spike grew up and continues to have an office, is walking home from her friend's house one evening when a man starts harassing her and grabs her. She pulls away and flees. But it leaves her with a new feeling of vulnerability. She starts doing street art, but her posters are defaced with misogynist epithets.
At the suggestion of a friend, she starts seeing a therapist. In this scene from Episode 4, Nola is talking to her therapist about how her love life now includes a woman she started seeing again. The therapist is played by Heather Headley. Nola who speaks first is played by DeWanda Wise.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT")
DEWANDA WISE: (As Nola Darling) This woman is like whoa. I'm legit feeling her. I feel so safe. You know I don't believe in labels. But as a sex-positive polyamorous pansexual, words like monogamy and family have never even seemed like a remote possibility. But she owns her own nursery. She's a horticulturalist. It's so hot, right?
I can talk about work with her. My parents - my parents would love her. And she has a kid already from a turkey baster with a friend from college. So I get insta-daughter (ph) without labor pains or stretchmarks. I can see the three of us skipping down the street holding hands like we're in some commercial for products only white folks would buy. And the key is that, unlike the men I've been dealing with, she's not trying to own me. That's real talk.
GROSS: Spike Lee, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on your Netflix series and thank you for coming. So let me ask you a basic question. What was your interest in creating a woman character who describes herself as a sex-positive polyamorous pansexual woman?
SPIKE LEE: Well, "She's Gotta Have It" was my first feature film. It came several years after I graduated from NYU graduate film school where Ang Lee and Ernest Dickerson were my classmates. The basis for the film was - I was heavily influenced by the great Japanese filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa's film "Rashomon." I saw that in film school. And I liked this conceit where several people are witnesses to a rape and a murder, and it's left to - and then they present their facts of what they thought they saw to the audience. And it's left for the audience to decide what is true.
I wanted to do that about a woman who's having three relationships with men at the same time. And again, let them - let the audience decide who's telling the truth and who's doing what. And then on top of that, I'm - I just was very fascinated with a lot of my male friends who were sleeping around with many, many women and would brag and boast about it. And then one of those ladies they were seeing happened to see somebody else, they would go berserk. So I wanted to flip it. And show this woman who's living her life and not really caring about what people feel.
GROSS: How did your male friends react to "She's Gotta Have It" the first time around (laughter)?
LEE: Oh, they loved it because they saw themselves in it.
GROSS: But not necessarily in a positive light.
LEE: Yeah, but they were still happy to know that I gave them material.
LEE: And also they were very happy because the film was a hit. And you know...
GROSS: Well, that's certainly true. Yeah. So how did you want the character of Nola to change from the original 1986 version to this new Netflix version?
LEE: Well, what people forget - I know the film came out in 1986, but the film was only 86 minutes. With this Netflix series, we have 10 episodes. So there's much more time to spend on who Nola is. You never saw Nola doing her art in the movie. Now we see it all the time. And also, even more important, that this Netflix series could not be strictly a male gaze.
So we had several - the writers' room, you had Lynn Nottage, who's won two Pulitzer Prizes for her plays. You have Eisa Davis. You had Radha Blank. You had my sister, Joie Lee, my wife. Tonya Lewis Lee was executive producer, but she's the one that came with idea to do this as a television show. My daughter, Satchel, was in the writers' room. So there was a huge presence of black women in the room. It was the most truthful thing to do.
GROSS: Did you get that the first time around - like, Nola is a woman through a man's point of view? The whole movie about a woman is through the male gaze. Did you hear that? Although, male gaze was not an expression yet, I don't think, in '86.
LEE: Yeah, we heard that. But - I mean, here's - let's not get it twisted. There were many critics. "She's Gotta Have It" was not a universal acclaim thing, especially among black feminists. So it was split down the middle. You had - half of women were saying this was a new liberated woman that we haven't seen before. And the feminists were saying that this is the same old tired super-sexy charged black woman. So it was split down the line.
GROSS: So in the Netflix series, Nola is assaulted on the street walking home at night from her friend's house. She fights - she successfully fights off the guy who's trying to assault her. But it just is very upsetting and unnerving to her. She starts to paste a series of posters around outside on walls with things like - my name isn't mamacita (ph); my name isn't sweetie; my name isn't honey.
LEE: My name isn't cutie-ho (ph). My name isn't shorty.
GROSS: Yeah. So these posters are inspired by a series of actual posters that an artist did. And this is an artist who you brought on to "She's Gotta Have It," the Netflix version, to be the art consultant for the series. And her name, if I'm pronouncing it correctly, is Tatyana Fazlalizadeh.
LEE: Yeah, that's it. You said - I always have trouble pronouncing her last name, so I thank you.
GROSS: Oh, thank you. Is that your phone?
LEE: No, that's the buzzer at Madison Square Garden last night.
LEE: The Knicks' victory over the Los Angeles Bulls (ph).
GROSS: Well, we always ask people to silence their victory buttons and devices (laughter).
LEE: Well, there haven't been too many of those going on in Philadelphia lately, but that's all right.
GROSS: All right, thanks - thank you.
LEE: Uh oh, shots fired.
GROSS: Thank you.
GROSS: But getting back to these posters. Did you see those original posters which were, Stop Telling...
LEE: Oh, yes. I was walking down...
GROSS: Tell us what they said, yeah.
LEE: I was walking down downtown Brooklyn. I saw these things - Stop Telling Me To Smile. And I put it up on my Instagram because I was intrigued by it. And I said, who is this person? And I got a lot of answers pointing me to this artist was. And we met, and I told her that I was getting ready to do "She's Gotta Have It." I'd like her to - number one, I wanted her to do the art in the show. So every time you see a piece of art, Tatyana did that. Also, wanted her to teach the actress who I would cast to know what it means to be an artist. So she came aboard. And she was very integral to the success of the show. And people love Nola's art, which is Tatyana's art.
GROSS: So I want to play another scene from - this is going to be from the original "She's Gotta Have It" because the new version has a very similar scene, but we'd have to bleep every other word. So, like, it's not going to work for us (laughter). So Nola's talking about herself. And then we see - and she's talking about men, really. And then we see this kind of sequence of men talking about...
LEE: Yeah, we call it the dog sequence.
GROSS: (Laughter) Because?
LEE: These guys are dogs.
GROSS: (Laughter) Right. OK. And they're all giving their, like, come-on lines. So...
LEE: But you know the funny thing, though, before you run the tape?
LEE: As crazy as it seems, some of these most-insane lines must work once in a while or they would stop saying them. That's the crazy thing to me.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's a good point. OK. So here's the scene from the original 1986 version of "She's Gotta Have It."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT")
TRACY CAMILLA JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) In my experiences, I've found two types of men - the decent ones and the dogs. It seems that men are taught not to be in touch with themselves, with their true feelings. But the things that they do say - weak.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You so fine, baby, I'd drink a tub of your bathwater.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Congress has just approved me to give you my heat-and-moisture-seeking MX missile.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I just want to rock your world.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Baby, it's got to be you and me.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) You may not realize it tonight, but you're sending out some very strong vibes. May I continue? Well, you're lonely. You're alone. You're sad. You're confused. You're horny. You see, you need a man like me to understand you, to hold you, to caress you, to love you. You need me. What's your number? I know I only saw you for the first time in my life a minute ago, but I love you.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) I know I only saw you for the first time in my life one minute ago, but I love you.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) I love you.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) I love you.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) Look, baby. Let's go to my house right now. Let's do the wild thing. I mean, let's get loose.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As character) I got my BA from Morehouse, my MBA from Harvard. I own a new BMW 318i. I make 53,000 a year after taxes, and I want you to want me.
GROSS: (Laughter) I love that scene. That's from the 1986 original version of "She's Gotta Have It." My guest is the writer and director, Spike Lee. Was it fun to write that sequence?
LEE: Oh, yeah. I mean, a lot of the stuff we did in that first film was fun. It wasn't fun to make it, but it was very fun to write it.
GROSS: Why wasn't it fun to make it?
LEE: 'Cause to shoot a film, you have to raise money. And it was a brutal task of raising $175,000 for this film. "She's Gotta Have It" was shot in the summer of 1985, from July 1 to July 14 - two six-day weeks. And it almost killed me.
LEE: I mean, no one knew where I was. I was, I mean, I graduated NYU grad film school in 1982. So from that moment I graduated to - began to shoot somewhere in '85, every day was spent trying to get a feature film made.
GROSS: But, you know, watching "She's Gotta Have It," I felt then and I feel now having re-watched it that there's such a joy of filmmaking in it. And you're trying all these things out. You know, you're trying collage scenes, like the one we just heard. You have these like crazy zooms. You have really kind of like timely, sparkling dialogue. It's all obviously being done so cheaply, but it has such kind of style. So was it hard for you to preserve that love of filmmaking, that joy of filmmaking while you felt - while you were also feeling this film's going to kill me?
LEE: No because I was doing what I loved. And I made a decision, the summer between my sophomore year and junior year at Morehouse College, that this is what I want to do. I felt this is my calling, and I had to get it done. And we've been doing it for the last three decades.
GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Spike Lee. And his now-classic 1986 film "She's Gotta Have It" is now a Netflix series that he adapted with the help of several women writers. And he also directed each of the episodes.
LEE: All 10.
GROSS: All 10. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS' "SACRIFICE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Spike Lee. And his original 1986 film, "She's Gotta Have It," has been expanded and rewritten into a new 10-part Netflix series of the same name. Standing back and looking at both versions of "She's Gotta Have It," which examine relationships with an emphasis on sexual relationships, did making either of those versions - both of those versions - give you an opportunity or force you to really think about relationships in a way that you hadn't before?
LEE: Not really. And also, we've got to put this to a historical perspective. The original film came out in 1986, this just came out in 2017. I didn't know what I was doing with the first film. And then - I was a young man, a very, very young man. And now I turned 60 while we were shooting this. So it's a universe from those two different Spike Lees.
GROSS: So when you made the first version, your idea of commitment and monogamy was probably different than you made this version, since now you are 60 and you're married and you have grown children. Can you talk a little bit about that trajectory of getting to the point of commitment and - or what the idea of family meant to you, of having - of committing to making a family? Did you think you'd want to do that when you were making "She's Gotta Have It"?
LEE: Oh, yes - very good question. But here's the thing - I made a pact with myself. I was not going to be married or have children until I was successful.
GROSS: For financial reasons?
LEE: Yes. I did not want to have to choose between feeding my children and buying a roll of film.
GROSS: I can understand that. And your father was an artist. I mean, your father is an artist.
GROSS: Yes. He's still alive. He's a jazz musician. He's a bass player, composer, also plays some piano. So what did you learn about what it means to be an artist and try to support a family from watching your father?
LEE: Oh, well, I learned that there's nothing poetic about being a starving artist. I knew that. And I knew that I wanted to - to use one of the greatest lines from "The Godfather," I want to wet my beak. If my films made money, I wanted to be able to get my fair share of the money that's being made from my artwork. I just knew that - I just saw my father struggle - great, great, great musician - that there's nothing cute about being, you know, poor. At one time, my father was a leading jazz bassist, jazz folk bass, played with Bob Dylan, Judy Collins. That's my father on Peter, Paul and Mary's "Puff The Magic Dragon," Theo Bikel, Odetta, all those things.
And when Bob Dylan decided that he wanted to go electric. Everybody else in the folk world did too. And so my father, to this day, has never played one Fender bass or one electric instrument ever. And up to that point, my mother didn't have to work because my father was most - he was in demand. But when he made the decision that he was not going to play electric bass, my mother had to become a teacher. And, you know, in a lot of ways, I looked at my father's integrity. But on the other hand, he had five kids. But to him, it didn't matter - he wasn't going to play electric bass.
GROSS: Did you resent that? Did you want him to play electric bass so that the family would have more money?
LEE: No, nah. And even today, I don't hold that against my father. I mean, he - his integrity said, I cannot play electric bass. I'm not going to do it. I can only play acoustic bass. And I'm just very fortunate that I was able to use the great talents my father - he scored all my films in NYU film school. He did the score for "She's Gotta Have It," "School Daze," a great, great, great score for "Do The Right Thing," "Mo' Better Blues." So I was very happy that it came around so I was able to employ my father.
GROSS: What kind of music did your father introduce you to?
GROSS: And you have shout-outs to jazz in the series.
LEE: I mean, here's the thing, though. We - growing up in my house, we had to sneak to listen to Motown and the Beatles. My father would hear that and say, turn that bad music off.
LEE: It was jazz - the only music that could be played out loud when he was in the house was jazz. And if it wasn't jazz, you had to turn that mess off, as he would say. Turn that mess off.
GROSS: (Laughter) Did he introduce you to Johnny Hartman, who I think I heard in the new version?
LEE: Oh, yes. My father, I mean, he didn't play with them, but he knew everybody. Everybody knew him. I mean, I'll give you an example. Late in his life, I did a video for Miles Davis. It was called "Tutu" and did the album cover for "Tutu."
GROSS: Oh, you did the video for "Tutu"?
GROSS: Oh, yeah. OK.
LEE: Yes. And the first thing, he said, Spike, I know your father. I love your father's work, so I'm not going to curse you out.
LEE: First of all, it'd have been an honor for Miles Davis to call me MFer. That was his favorite word, so I wish he would have called me MFer. But he said, you know what? I know your father's ability, great musician, great composer, so I'm going to leave you alone - true story. I still think about that today.
GROSS: My guest is Spike Lee. His new 10-part Netflix series, "She's Gotta Have It," is adapted from his 1986 film of the same name. After a break, we'll talk about playing the character Mars Blackman in the original film. And we'll talk about growing up in Brooklyn. Here's music from the film, composed and performed by Spike Lee's father, Bill Lee. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with screenwriter, director and producer Spike Lee. He's adapted his first feature film, "She's Gotta Have It," into a new expanded and updated Netflix series of the same name. All 10 episodes are now available for viewing.
So in the 1986 original "She's Gotta Have It," you played Mars Blackmon. You played - describe your character, and describe what he wears in that film.
LEE: Well, Mars Blackmon is the original b-boy, the original sneakerhead. He wears a chain around his neck that says Mars. He was wearing the fresh Air Jordans. We'd call them FOBs - fresh out the box. I mean, Mars was just crazy. I got the - it's funny. I asked my grandmother. I didn't have a name for this character, and I asked my grandmother, who lived to be a hundred years old. My grandmother put me through Morehouse and NYU and gave me the seed money for "She's Gotta Have It." Not that she was rich - she just saved the Social Security checks for 50 years. She taught art. And I was the first grandchild.
But I said, I need a name. She said, I had a crazy uncle named Mars. I said, bang. All right, that's what it's going to be. His name is Mars. So the only reason why I played in the film is because we didn't have any money to pay for an actor to play Mars. So my whole life changed after that, not just because of the film but because two individuals - Jim Riswold and Bill Davenport at the Wieden+Kennedy advertising agency, their client was Nike. They saw the film and got the idea to pair my character, Mars Blackmon, with Michael Jordan. And that changed the world.
GROSS: So I get the impression from this that you never planned on acting?
LEE: Nope. I don't even like it, really, to tell you the truth. I don't even do it anymore.
GROSS: Why don't you like it?
LEE: 'Cause I'm not an actor.
LEE: But the pop-up - Mars Blackmon became so popular that, you know, people wanted me to be seen in other stuff, so I played Half-Pint and Shorty. My best performance, if I may say, of my limited acting skills is Mookie in "Do The Right Thing." I was good in that one.
GROSS: So I want to hear a - I want to play a scene with you in it from the original 1986 "She's Gotta Have It." And this is a scene where it's the first time Nola invites your character, Mars, up to her apartment. And Mars is surprised at how spacious and nice it is and how much of her artwork is around. So here's the scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT")
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) You know, Nola, it took you long enough to invite me up here.
JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) I don't let just anybody up here.
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) Am I supposed to be anybody?
JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) You're not anyone, that's why you're here.
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) Yeah. It took long enough. That's nice.
JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) Thank you. My birthday's May 19, you know what that is?
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) The 19 of May? Am I supposed to know?
JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) You're supposed to know.
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) I'm supposed to know?
JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) Yes.
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) Why?
JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) It was Malcolm's birthday.
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) The 19 of May?
JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) Yeah.
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) Yeah? That's cool. You was down by law. So this whole place is yours?
JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) Whole place.
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) I likes. I likes. What's the rent?
JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) It's cheap.
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) Yeah?
JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) Yeah.
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) You know, we could put a divider right here. You'll have a roommate - me - and never know I'm here.
JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) You're right, I'll never know. How come every time I let a guy up here, the first thing they want to do is move in?
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) Well, you work. You've got a nice career. And you're fine.
JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) What makes you think I want somebody to take care of?
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) I didn't say that. You know, I didn't say that. I pay my own way. I'm not looking for no meal ticket. So what do you do? What's your job?
JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) I'm a layout paste-up artist. I do mechanics for magazines.
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know what that [expletive] is.
JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) There's something about you.
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) About me? Good or bad?
JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) I haven't figured it out yet.
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) You let me know, all right?
JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) You'll be the first to know.
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) You'll let me know? You'll let me know?
JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) Yeah.
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) You'll let me know?
JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) Sure.
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) You'll let me know?
JOHNS: (As Nola Darling) Yeah.
LEE: (As Mars Blackmon) Good.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's Spike Lee as Mars Blackmon in "Do The Right Thing." So your character, as we heard in that scene, repeats certain lines over and over, most famously please, baby, please. How did you come up with that kind of repetition for your character?
LEE: I couldn't remember what the next line was (laughter).
GROSS: Oh, seriously?
LEE: True (laughter) I kid you not.
GROSS: Oh, so that's why you kept repeating it?
LEE: I couldn't remember what the next line was, so I was going to keep repeating the line I'm on (laughter).
GROSS: That's hilarious because it's such a kind of quirky, funny characteristic, so it really works.
LEE: Well, it was an accident (laughter).
GROSS: So Brooklyn is so important in your life and in your movies and on your hats.
LEE: Oh, can I just say something real quick?
GROSS: Yes, go ahead. Yeah.
LEE: It's the Republic of Brooklyn.
LEE: The Republic.
GROSS: You know, it's so funny...
LEE: The Republic.
GROSS: ...I grew up in Brooklyn, and it was so...
GROSS: Sheepshead Bay.
LEE: Why - did you go to high school in Brooklyn?
GROSS: Sheepshead Bay.
LEE: I went to John Dewey.
GROSS: Where was John Dewey?
LEE: Coney Island.
GROSS: Oh, I used to go to Coney Island a lot.
LEE: You had the Nathan's?
GROSS: Oh, absolutely.
LEE: You went on the Cyclone?
GROSS: Yeah but not a lot. It's a little much for me.
LEE: (Laughter) The Wonder Wheel?
GROSS: Yeah, the Wonder Wheel and then all the bumper cars.
LEE: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. So anyways, Brooklyn was not - no one was claiming that Brooklyn was kind of hip or cool or a republic that I was aware of when I was growing up (laughter). And so it's just interesting to see what Brooklyn has come to signify. Like, so that's quite a change. So when you were young, before you lived in Fort Greene, you lived in another neighborhood, right, Cobble Hill?
LEE: Yes, Cobble Hill. The Lees were the first black family to move into Cobble Hill. Cobble Hill, up till that point, had been historically a Italian-American working-class neighborhood.
GROSS: And why did your parents move there knowing they'd be the only African-Americans in the neighborhood?
LEE: Oh, it was my mother, you know, who was running things, said, you know, we need to get it. My mother always wanted a brownstone. So we didn't own, we rented two floors in a brownstone - Warren Street between Henry Street and Clinton Street in Cobble Hill. And then my mother said, you know, we got to buy a brownstone. So we bought our brownstone on Washington Park between Myrtle and Willoughby in 1968 for like $45,000. Back then, the realtors wouldn't even use the name Fort Greene, they would just say downtown vicinity.
GROSS: My guest is Spike Lee. His new Netflix series, "She's Gotta Have It," is adapted from his 1986 film. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE COUNT BASIE ORCHESTRA'S "WINTER WONDERLAND")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Spike Lee. When we left off, we were talking about growing up in Brooklyn - first in Cobble Hill, then in Fort Greene. So when - you were probably very young when your parents moved to Cobble Hill, and it was an Italian-American neighborhood. What was that like for you as a young African-American boy?
LEE: Well, we get called the N-word for like two weeks. And then when it finally dawned on them there were not going to be hundreds of black families following the Lees and the neighborhood was going to go black all overnight, then we were just like any other kid.
Two weeks after that, the N-word start - we just - a lot of my friends today are these guys I grew up, you know, in Cobble Hill at very young age, especially the Tucci's (ph). Louie (ph) and Joe Tucci - shout out.
GROSS: (Laughter) So what was the school like? Was the school mostly white?
LEE: I went public school, P.S. 29. After a couple of years, you know, some Puerto Ricans moved in the neighborhood. But it was a - I had great wonderful childhood. And I'm sorry, I'm glad I was a child - I mean, we - forget these video games. We played street games. We weren't doing just sit in front of television. We were playing stick balls, stoop balls, softball, two-hand touch, Johnny on the pony, Ringolevio, down the sewers. I mean, we just played...
GROSS: Down on the sewer, was that the last one?
LEE: Down - it was a top game. You know, spinning tops?
LEE: Well, the sewers had a hole in it. And the goal was to knock the other guys'...
LEE: ...Top down the sewer. I mean, we were imaginative.
GROSS: We never played that one.
LEE: We - it was creative. We made up games. We played on the streets. We were running around. There was physicality. I mean, running bases. I mean, we had fun. And the summertime was the best because it wasn't - it wouldn't get dark until like 9:30. So you didn't have to come home until it got dark. So you leave the morning - you leave the house in the morning, and you didn't have to show up till it got dark. Oh, it was joy.
GROSS: So when your family moved to Fort Greene, you were probably - what? - around 10.
GROSS: Eleven, OK. So what was it like for you to move to a predominantly African-American neighborhood after living in Cobble Hill?
LEE: It was great. Fort Greene - there was black and Puerto Rican. It was great because we lived - we weren't renting anymore. We had a big old house right across, straight from Fort Greene park.
GROSS: Did you ever take piano lessons since your father had a piano and played?
LEE: Eh (ph), for a minute. The one that was a really good pianist was my brother, David. That was my - his piano teacher was in Harlem. So it was - since I'm the oldest, I had to drag his ass on a subway every Saturday to take him the piano lessons. Boy, did I hate doing that (laughter).
Do I have to do it? Yes, you do. You're the oldest. Back in the day, when your parents told you to do something, you had to do it. There's no negotiating - none of that stuff. You had to do it.
GROSS: Have you been that way as a father?
LEE: Nope (laughter). I mean, nowadays, I'd be sent to jail.
GROSS: What do you mean?
LEE: If you hit a kid, you go to jail.
GROSS: Oh, oh, oh. Did your parents hit you?
LEE: Oh, yeah. I mean, it wasn't murder. But if you said something, my mother said, I'll slap the black off of you (laughter). And it was worse because, like many black families in the North, when summertime came, your parents shipped your black ass down South to get a break. So you would spend the summer down South with your grandparents.
And down South, they don't play. They'd get the switch. You know what a switch is? It was brutal because they'd make you choose the switch you'd get beat with. And if you choose a too little switch, they'll get - they'll pick - their own switch was three times the length of the small one you picked. Woo (ph), boy (laughter).
GROSS: What earned you getting hit with a switch?
LEE: Oh, it didn't matter. They didn't like something, you (unintelligible) - go get that switch, son (laughter). What did I do (laughter)?
GROSS: Was that an effective form of punishment for you? Or was it just like really make you angry and want to rebel more?
LEE: No, no. That switch hurt. And here's a funny thing. We're talking the day after the victorious moment in American history, not just Alabama history, but American history yesterday. And my father's from Alabama. My father's from Snow Hill, Ala., which is in in Wilcox County. So I've always had a very conflicted relationship with Alabama because of its history. But I'm glad that Alabama finally was on this - the righteous side of history. And good riddance to Judge Roy. Good riddance.
GROSS: Is Alabama where you'd spend summers with family?
LEE: Yes. Summers were spent between my mother's parents, who lived in Atlanta, and my father's - my grandfather had died - so my grandmother in Snow, Ala. So we had a lot more fun in Atlanta, Ga., than Snow, Ala. So the summers were split between Atlanta and Snow, Ala.
GROSS: Was Snow, Ala., rural?
LEE: Snow Hill.
GROSS: Snow Hill.
LEE: Rural? You can't get more rural than Snow, Ala. - woo, Lord. And it would be so hot. And there was no air conditioning. And those mosquitoes would eat you alive. Oh, my God (laughter). And then the area made fun of us because we talked different. And we couldn't understand what people were saying. I remember one summer we came down South with afros because afros took a while - everything takes a while to get down South.
LEE: And when we go out - when they saw us with afros, they looked at us like we were three-headed Martians.
GROSS: Were there things you were told you couldn't do in Alabama because of racism? Was the line different than it was in Brooklyn?
LEE: It - we never - see; there weren't any white people in Snow, Ala. So we didn't have - it was not like we were in Selma or Montgomery or Birmingham. We were in Snow. We were in the sticks. So we rarely ever saw white folks when we went down South. So people might call me Mr. Brooklyn, but my parents are from the South. I was born in Atlanta, Ga., spent many summers there and also went to college in Atlanta.
GROSS: In Morehouse.
LEE: Yeah. My father went to Morehouse. My grandfather went to Morehouse. And my mother and grandmother went to Spelman. These are two historically black schools. They're across the street from each other. In fact, my grandma lived to be a hundred years old. I know I said that before. I'm being redundant. But her grandmother was a slave. Yet she had a college degree. So I come from a long line of edumacated (ph) black folks (laughter).
GROSS: Were your parents always stressed - stressing the important (ph) of education when you were growing up?
LEE: Oh, yes. I mean, my - yes, educators, educators - that's why I...
GROSS: So what did they do to make sure that you got a good education?
LEE: Well, the best thing my parents did - not just for me, but my siblings - that was, they exposed us to so much stuff, and it paid off. My mother was dragging me to Broadway plays, off-Broadway plays, museums. Man, I don't want to go to stuff. I wanted to run up and down the streets. But every - my mother would take me and my siblings - I mean, she was dragging us while we're screaming. But every time we came home on the subway, we would say, you know what? That was good. The reason why...
GROSS: What's one of the shows that you saw that you really loved?
LEE: Oh, one thing was memorable. My mother took me to see "Bye Bye Birdie" at Radio City Music Hall Easter Show.
GROSS: So this was the movie.
LEE: The movie. And the reason why the opening credit sequence of "Do The Right Thing" with Rosie Perez's dancing - that came from Ann-Margret dancing in the beginning of "Bye Bye Birdie."
GROSS: Oh, that's great (laughter).
LEE: But here's the thing that my mother was - so my love of cinema came from my mother. My father hated movies. And so I - since I was the oldest, I was my mother's movie date. If my mother went, it'd just be Martin Scorsese. She took me to see "Mean Streets" when that film came out. I was like, Mom, are you a...
GROSS: What impact did that have on you?
LEE: (Laughter) I said, Mommy, this movie's crazy. What - if you - if somebody could Google what year "Mean Streets" came out - I was definitely underage to see that film. And I've told Martin Scorsese that story many times, and he laughs.
GROSS: OK, I should reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is writer, director, producer Spike Lee. And his first feature film, "She's Gotta Have It," has been expanded into a new 10-part Netflix series of the same name. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Spike Lee, and his original 1986 film "She's Gotta Have It" has been expanded and rewritten into a new 10-part Netflix series of the same name.
I want to bring up something that figures into your movies and probably into your life, which is gentrification. It's one of the subjects that's at the center of the new Netflix "She's Gotta Have It." How has that directly influenced your life?
LEE: You know, I - it's a conflicted thing with me with gentrification because I knew what Fort Greene was. I knew what Harlem was. I knew would Bed-Stuy do or die was. I knew what - when I was growing up, you know, when I was in college, you know, I had a lot of friends who lived in D.C. Back then, D.C. was called chocolate city. Now I call it vanilla swirl.
LEE: And here's the thing about gentrification. And as I said, many of your listeners might have heard this before. I just think that there're too many gentrifiers who move in who don't come with humbleness. And so when people - lot of these gentrifiers, when they move in, they don't respect the culture of the people who were there already. So that's where I got beef. Now, you come in with love, every - you know, it's cool. But with this other stuff, I got beef with that.
I mean, here - and here's the thing, though. I am a product of New York City public school from kindergarten all the way to John Dewey High School. And there's public schools in Fort Greene - P.S. 20. P.S. 11 - and the junior high school I went to was 294. I just find it amazing. When I went there, the schools were subpar. I find it amazing, then, when I go to Fort Greene that garbage was never picked up. I find it amazing that there was never any police present.
But now that the complexion of the neighborhood of Fort Greene has changed - and many other gentrified neighborhoods - now the public schools are very good. Now the garbage is picked up. Now there's a police presence. When you see young white mothers pushing their kids down 125th Street, 2 in the morning, then you know what's up (laughter) - 2 in the morning with your stroller. And then they come - another thing they do - they start trying to change the names. Harlem's not going to do it anymore. We're going to call it NoHa and SoHa. We can't call it - it's not the boogie-down Bronx - the Piano District. Get the F out of here. No, no, no, no. Respect the culture.
GROSS: So you have - correct me if I'm wrong. Your office is still in Fort Greene, but you live...
GROSS: ...On the Upper East Side of Manhattan now.
GROSS: Since you're such a kind of Brooklyn person, why did you want to move to Manhattan?
LEE: My wife said we had to go because everybody in Brooklyn knew where we lived.
LEE: Knew where we lived, ringing the bell - 3, 4 in the morning.
LEE: My wife said, Spike, you got to make a choice - me, your daughter or Brooklyn. I made the right choice. I did the right thing.
GROSS: Who were the people who would come ring your bells at 3 in the morning?
LEE: People who think that because their fifth cousin was in second grade with me...
LEE: ...That they could come ring the bell. I'm not exaggerating.
GROSS: Oh, so people feel like, oh, it's Spike? Like, you're not even Spike Lee, like, you're Spike? Everybody feel like they know you, I think.
LEE: Yes. And look; I'm not complaining about that because I - people supported me. But it - and it is also is dangerous, too.
LEE: And so my wife was fed up. Tonya was fed up, rightfully so. She said, look. Make a choice. You could do what you want to do, but your wife and your daughter are moving to Manhattan. And that's the way it happened. And I don't have any regret about it also.
GROSS: So, listen. I've been wondering about this for a long time. The expression woke, which is, you know, it's really just like...
LEE: Come on. We've been saying wake up in our films...
GROSS: That's what I was going to ask you.
LEE: ...Since 19 - I think I said it in "School Daze" - definitely it's in "School Daze."
GROSS: It's definitely in "School Daze." It's said over and over in "School Daze." So I was wondering, like, does woke come from "School Daze?" I mean...
LEE: I'm not - look. I don't know where it came from, I just know wake up was first.
GROSS: Do you still love making movies?
LEE: Yes. I'll love making movies even after I'm dead because I'll be loving them...
GROSS: Good luck with that.
LEE: No. Now let me break it down to you.
LEE: 'Cause I'll still be - I'm still going to have a spiritual life, and I will still be loving movies because my art is going to be here. I will be here saying, wake up.
GROSS: (Laughter) Spike Lee, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
LEE: Well, thank you so much. And again, I'm a fan.
GROSS: Thank you.
LEE: And it's been a minute, so let's do it every time I have a project, all right?
GROSS: Let's do it again, absolutely.
Spike Lee's new Netflix series "She's Gotta Have It" is adapted from his 1986 film of the same name.
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GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with Scott Frank, who wrote and directed the Netflix western series "Godless" or Esther Perel, a psychotherapist working with couples dealing with infidelity, or our interview with three members of the band Ranky Tanky who performed in our studio, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.