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COVER STORY : A Kinder, Gentler Spike? : Spike Lee has always seemed to thrive on controversy. But with 'Crooklyn' he's moved into a quieter zone. It's about the daily life of a Brooklyn family in the 1970s. But not just any family--sounds like a family Spike knows pretty well

April 24, 1994|JONATHAN MANDELL | Jonathan Mandell is a staff writer for New York Newsday

NEW YORK — Spike Lee's father, Bill, stands at the oven on the first floor of his brownstone in Fort Greene, cooking a noontime breakfast for his young son Arnold, shooing away some of their 19 cats, and talking about his family--about everyone except Spike Lee.

He talks about his great-great-great-grandfather Mike, the defiant son of an African king, and his great-great-great-grandmother Phoebe, who was taken from her mother in Africa when she was 9.

He talks about his grandfather William James Edwards, descendant of Mike and Phoebe, an educator who went to school with Booker T. Washington; " I went to school with Martin Luther King," he adds. Then he talks about his father and mother, his sisters and brothers, all--like himself--trained musicians.

Finally, Bill talks about the children of his first marriage, who each also started out playing music--David, piano; Joy, bass; Cinque, drums; Chris, trumpet, and Spike, cello.

"David got interested in photography," he begins, "Joy got interested in acting; she's also a dancer and a singer. Cinque got interested in writing; he's also an actor. Chris became interested in art; he's still an artist, but he hasn't pursued it."

He pointedly leaves out his oldest son, Spike. He says, when asked, that he has no idea what Spike's new movie is about, even though it is a movie he in a real sense spawned; even though he scored his son's first four films.

"I don't have anything to do with Spike now," he says of troubles between the two, which included the elder Lee's arrest for heroin possession in 1991 and subsequent request to his son for a loan--which was refused--in early 1992. "We haven't talked for two years."

"Crooklyn," Spike Lee's seventh film, which opens May 13, focuses on a family with a daughter and four sons growing up in a Brooklyn brownstone in the 1970s. The father is a jazz musician, the mother a schoolteacher, their car, a Citroen station wagon. The Lee family arrived in Brooklyn from the South when the eldest, Shelton Jackson--Spike--was a toddler. The Lees, who drove a Citroen station wagon, soon numbered one daughter and four sons, who did much of their growing up in the 1970s. Father Bill Lee plays jazz bass. Mother Jacquelyn Shelton taught art.

"Some things are based on our family," Cinque Lee, 27, the youngest of the four sons, concedes.

"Very, very, very loosely based," says Spike Lee, 37.

Faced with the same question, their brother David, 33, simply falls silent.

Their sister, who now calls herself Joie, 31, says as little as possible.

The four of them are spending the summer of '93 making their movie together in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section, outside an elegant brownstone on Arlington Place--a block chosen to be the set for the film because of its Brooklyn neighborly feel, a brownstone chosen because of its resemblance to the one, some three subway stops away, where the Lee children all grew up, where Bill Lee still lives.

"Crooklyn" is a family picture, in many ways.

"I gave birth to this project; Spike delivered it," says Joie. Joie, the only girl in the family, wrote the screenplay, which tells the story through the eyes of the only girl, Troy. Her co-writer (in addition to Spike, who joined the process later) was her brother Cinque, who is also her partner in a company they named Child Hoods.

"We wrote the script for ourselves," Cinque says. "Then we showed Spike and he said, 'Hey, I'll do it.' We were surprised; we didn't think he'd be interested."

But he was. "After 'Malcolm X,' he wanted a rest," Cinque says. "I'm sure he wanted to do something light, that didn't ruffle any feathers."

"My little brother doesn't know what he's talking about," Spike replies, clearly still willing to ruffle feathers, at least in his own nest.

"It would've killed me to do a film like 'Malcolm X' right afterward," Spike Lee was saying. "So the script of 'Crooklyn,' you know, really fit. Because of the scale."

Indeed, most everything about "Crooklyn" is on a scale less than half that of "Malcolm X." "X" cost about $35 million for an 80-day shoot; "Crooklyn" was budgeted for $15 million and was shot in 52 days last summer. "Malcolm X," which was filmed here, in Africa and in the Middle East, took about two years to make, swept through 40 years in the life of a historic figure, and employed 200 actors with speaking parts, more than 400 crew members and tens of thousands of extras. "Crooklyn," which stars Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo as the parents, covers about six months in the life of a family and their neighbors on one block in Brooklyn, with time out for a trip to Maryland (filmed in New Jersey).

Spike and his producers say that "Crooklyn" is not really a departure; it is a return to the scale of all the films he made before "Malcolm X."

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