Spike Lee and I sat in the back of a black Lincoln SUV in the middle of Rockefeller Center.
When he sent his publicist for a Godiva chocolate shake, the driver shut off the engine and rolled down the window to warm us up.
Sporting a white fedora, a “Defend Brooklyn” T-shirt, khakis and multicolored neon Nikes, Lee was oblivious to the people gawking at him.
Lee, 55, has been much in the public eye this summer. He made his Broadway directorial debut with the limited-run “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth,” while his film “Red Hook Summer” was released on Aug. 10th and opens nationally in the coming weeks.
Tarmy: Your new movie seems ambivalent about gentrification.
Lee: There’s no confusion in my mind about gentrification. I think there are good things about it and bad things about it.
I grew up in Fort Greene. My parents bought their brownstone for $40,000, at a time when there were no white people in Fort Greene. It was a time when real-estate agents wouldn’t even use the two words “Fort Greene.” They would say “downtown vicinity.”
Have you been to Fort Greene lately? I think people should live in peace. But a lot of times when people gentrify a neighborhood, they don’t come with respect to the neighborhood or the people. They just come in bogartin’, like they’ve been there forever.
Tarmy: Do you still like the Brooklyn neighborhoods where you were raised?
Lee: I love Fort Greene, but it’s not the Fort Greene I grew up with. But I don’t live in Fort Greene -- I live on the Upper East Side.
I’ll tell you this, though: If I lived in Fort Greene now, I’d have better garbage service. It’s true! There’s better garbage service and more police.
Tarmy: Would you ever live in another city?
Lee: Nope. Can’t do it. New York all the way, baby.
Tarmy: You’ve never heard the siren song of LA?
Lee: LA? That would be the last place -- I would never live in LA.
Tarmy: Where do you like to eat in New York?
Lee: For lunch, what’s the place in Barneys? I love Fred’s.
My favorite coffee shop in New York is Viand. They must have a grandfather clause, because there’s no bathroom in there. Love Viand.
I also like Nobu on 57th. It’s like a walk from my house.
Tarmy: In “Red Hook Summer,” one character makes a disparaging reference to Obama. Aren’t you a huge supporter?
Lee: I’m 100% supportive of Obama. My wife, Tonya, and I opened our house for a benefit dinner, where we raised over a million dollars.
Here’s the thing: I had to let the character in the film speak. She’s kind of through with him -- I don’t feel that way - - but there are people like that.
Black people support him 99 percent. But when you live in Red Hook projects, and you’re asking yourself, “Am I better off?” some people can say, “No.” And that’s what that scene was about.
Tarmy: How did you prepare Mike Tyson for his first role on Broadway?
Lee: He worked hard. We rehearsed for three weeks before we opened up -- trying to get him to project, to enunciate, to just do all of the things one needs to do on the stage.
Tarmy: What kind of theatrical role would you like to see him in next?
Lee: Whatever he wants to do -- whatever Mike wants. He’d like to act in films and not play Mike Tyson, you know?
But he’s got to do something about that tattoo! Put some makeup on the tattoo.
(James Tarmy writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
To contact the writer on the story: James Tarmy in New York: Jtarmy@gmail.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.