NEW YORK (AP) – When David Lee grew up in Brooklyn, his older brother undressed him …
NEW YORK (AP) – Growing up in Brooklyn, David Lee was dragged out of the house by his older brother whenever he felt the urge to make a movie.
“Spike said, ‘You have to come with me. I’m taking pictures, ”says David Lee. “His first impulse was to document. The ’77 blackout, he went out and filmed. He would pull on me and say, ‘Come on. Come on.'”
In a family of artists (Spike and David’s father, Bill Lee, is a respected jazz musician who composed several of Spike’s early films) David began still photography. David, four years younger than Spike, discovered photography when a tenant at his family’s brownstone was teaching him how to use 35mm black and white film.
Meanwhile, Spike was already working as a film director. And from the start, no one had such a front-row seat in the birth and development of the masterful American filmmaker like David. From Spike’s first feature film “She’s Gotta Have It” and since then David has been his brother’s photographer on set.
He was there to capture Spike in a Jackie Robinson jersey as Mookie in “Do The Right Thing” in the afternoon light of a Brooklyn street. He was there to photograph Denzel Washington in “Malcolm X” in the back seat of a convertible. He was on some of Chadwick Boseman’s final moments during the filming of Da 5 Bloods.
Spike, a new retrospective photo book due out November 17th, is filled with images David has captured over the years, including stills from Spikes over 35 films. It even comes complete with individual typography based on Radio Raheem’s “LOVE / HATE” brass knuckles from “Do the Right Thing”. It’s a powerful, shiny compendium of the still unfolding career of one of the most sonorous voices in cinema. It’s also an intimate family story, with siblings on either side of the camera: Spike through his brother’s point of view.
“It’s funny when your brother gets famous,” said David, 60, in a recent interview. “He’s always been my brother, but somehow he’s like a world property. The people at Fort Greene always talked to him as if they knew him. “
And Spike knew something about self-promotion from the start. Hardly any filmmaker since Alfred Hitchcock has made himself better known to a cinema audience. As the unit’s photographer, whose images will be used to market a film, David’s images helped create his brother’s iconography – including the Nike commercials starring Michael Jordan. He fondly remembers an early trailer for “She’s Gotta Have It,” in which Spike is selling the movie while perched in Fulton Street tube socks.
Lots of pictures – like that of Mookie – David can’t always remember whose idea it was.
“I don’t know if I did it or if Spike said, ‘Take a picture of this or that.’ Spike always had this other awareness of promoting himself, ”David said. “Spike went mainstream on his own terms.”
Through his production company 40 Acres and a Mule, this included far more diverse film sets than anywhere else in the industry. David recalls that Spike took lists of black crew members, including himself, to the various guilds to be accepted into the unions.
But the 40 acres crew – many of which have been around since the late 1980s and early 1990s – included Spike’s actual family as well. Her younger sister, Joie Lee, has appeared in at least nine of Spike’s films. Her younger brother, Cinqué Lee, had various assignments, including taking notes on “Crooklyn” from 1994. David jokes that there are no business school graduates among the Lees.
“I’ve kept everything in the family from the start, thank goodness for the talent in the Lee family,” Spike said in an email.
But why would Lee have a 360-page keystone for a film career while he’s still in the thick of it? Just during the pandemic, Lee released two feature films (the Vietnam War drama “Da 5 Bloods”, the documentary “David Byrne’s American Utopia”), was president of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival and began preparing a musical film about the origins of Viagra. He also documented, like during the 1977 blackout, New York under the first wave of the pandemic in a short film.
On the opening pages of the book, Spike explains, “This book takes everything I have invested in my work to build my work. Film is a visual art form and this sense of my storytelling has been somewhat overlooked. Why now, after all these years? DELICIOUS FORGET. “
For David, the book is a moment to reflect on how his brother’s work – once perceived by some as so seditious – has become increasingly forward-looking over time. When “Do the Right Thing” first debuted, some columnists famously predicted that it would cause unrest.
“It shouldn’t have seemed revolutionary or such a surprising conversation. It just made the difference for me, how whites and blacks see the different attitudes towards racial relations, ”says David. “White people seem eternally terrified by black outrage. It shouldn’t be a new story. ”
David doesn’t just make Spike’s films. He has more than 90 credits. During a recent interview, he was in Pittsburgh for a Netflix movie about civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. And sometimes their experiences vary greatly over the past 35 years.
“I don’t sit on the sidelines at the Knicks games,” says David with a laugh. “I don’t play around with the Obamas.”
But flipping through “Spike” captures a filmmaker’s journey that begins like a family photo album. In a photo of Spike’s graduation from film school, David is seen next to him, with a camera over his shoulder. David is still amazed that he’s been there ever since.
“There is so much talent ahead of you. It’s like a jazz trio. I’m in the band! ”Says David. “So much is laid out for me to try and capture.”
Follow AP film writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
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