Spike Lee doesn't want to go there right now.
Asked if he thinks today's movies tend to avoid taking risks, the 55-year-old filmmaker responds: "I think I'm going to get out of the business of talking about what other people are doing."
Given his widely circulated opinions over the years, a reaction like that might hint a new Lee is emerging. But even if the voice at the other end of the phone polishes off the above sentence with a laugh, don't read too much into it: Spike Lee is hardly going soft on us.
Nor is he slowing down. It's been a busy summer for the filmmaker best-known for exposing volatile racial tensions in "Do the Right Thing" and delivering a classic epic about a complex, influential historical figure with "Malcolm X."
Right now he's doing press for "Red Hook Summer," a drama that's classic Lee, a perfect example of a how he likes to rattle and challenge while entertaining. The passionate tale focuses on a 13-year-old boy's life-changing summer visit with his granddad, a devout bishop living in Brooklyn's Red Hook projects. The boy Flik (newcomer Jules Brown) -- who lives with his mom in suburban Atlanta -- resists his grandfather's (Clarke Peters) numerous attempts to get him to welcome Christ into his life.
"Summer" marks the latest chapter in Lee's vivid Chronicles of Brooklyn series -- portraits from a city to which the Atlanta native moved when he was a child, and where he lives today. Other titles
On the same day "Red Hook Summer" is released in the Bay Area, "Bad 25" is poised for a world premiere Aug. 31 -- the date the Michael Jackson album turns 25 -- at the Venice Film Festival. (It will air on television Thanksgiving Day on ABC.)
Lee signed on to direct the documentary after being approached by Sony Pictures, Epic Records and the Jackson estate. While the project didn't offer him many new insights into Jackson, it did validate his existing preconceptions, including his idea that Jackson was a hard-working man.
"So often with the giants and the greats, we just see the results of the hard work. We don't see the hard work," Lee said. "Well, we're going to show you the hard work in this one."
Up next is the production of Lee's first remake -- the grim and revered 2003 South Korean thriller "Oldboy." It's another screenwriting collaboration with James McBride, a journalist best known for his memoir "The Color of Water," and his writing partner on "Red Hook Summer." (McBride is also the author of
"It's a great film," Lee said of the disturbing original directed by Chan-wook Park. Lee promises that their version of "Old Boy" -- with Josh Brolin and Samuel L. Jackson slated to star -- will be different.
But back to the film he wants to talk about today, "Red Hook Summer," a smaller-scale production Lee is releasing through independent distributor Variance Films.
As with most of his movies, "Summer" infuses comedy with gut-punching drama, mixing in pointed observations about today's culture and politics, while setting all of it to a an evocative soundtrack. Given the early reviews, it likely will divide critics and audiences. What most will want to discuss -- a surprising development near the film's final act -- shouldn't be divulged.
Lee agrees the film throws audiences for a loop, a change that stays true to his filmmaking goals: "Doing work that can be entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time."
Besides dealing with the many facets of faith and showcasing three stirring sermons, "Red Hook" also delves into what life is like in the projects, showing the sense of close-knit community that blooms there.
"James McBride and I know who these people are, and we know that they're not all saints and we know that they're not all sinners. Everybody's not on welfare. Everybody's not a drug addict. These are hard-working people, working two or three jobs, trying to make ends meet, trying to hold it together one day at a time."
What Bishop Enoch Rouse attempts to show his grandson -- who's still dealing with the loss of his father killed in Afghanistan -- is the beauty that exists there.
"Even though it's up in the projects," Lee said. "Even though it's up in the hood. You'll look for it, and you'll find it. You'll find beauty."
Five essential Spike Lee films. Go to www.mercurynews.com/