Spike Lee Takes On the New York Times In an Epic Open Letter About Gentrification

spike lee vs the new york times

Whose Brooklyn Is It, Anyway?” asked A.O. Scott in the New York Times this weekend. The film critic took a trip down Brooklyn’s memory lane—reminiscing about the borough’s on-screen persona in such TV shows as Welcome Back Kotter and movies like Do the Right Thing—in an effort to put Brooklyn’s rapidly changing demographics into some sort of historical perspective. The genesis of Scott’s nostalgia-trip was director Spike Lee’s recent rant against gentrification and its negative effects on many neighborhoods and communities, and Scott referenced Lee at the beginning of the article, writing, “as is often the case with Mr. Lee’s public utterances, this one was a mixture of hyperbole, provocation and plain truth… What’s the saying about people who live in glass brownstones? Nearly everyone who brings up gentrification is implicated in some way, and accusations of hypocrisy on Mr. Lee’s part were not long in coming.” Although Scott himself stops short of calling Lee a hypocrite, he does invoke Errol Louis’s op-ed in the New York Daily Newsin which Louis condemns Lee as being, “both an agent and a beneficiary of the gentrification he now decries.” 

Lee, as you can imagine, was not too pleased with Scott’s piece, and decided to use what is commonly becoming the most effective media-friendly way of righting public wrongs and wrote an open letter to Scott. But because Lee didn’t want the Times “editing, rearranging [his] words, thoughts or even ignoring a letter,” Lee posted it himself on his personal Instagram. In his letter to Scott, Lee immediately addresses the film critic’s claims that he is nothing more than another hypocritical gentrifier, writing, “Your criticism of me as a hypocrite is lame, weak and not really thought out. You stated in your Article that because I live in The Upper East Side and I’m talking about Gentrification that makes me Hypocrite. The fact is where I live has nothing to do with it… Mr. Scott, what you fail to understand is that I can live on The Moon and what I said is still TRUE. No matter where I choose to live that has nothing to do with it. I will always carry Brooklyn in my Blood, Heart and Soul.” Lee attacks the notion that he doesn’t have the right to critique Brooklyn’s gentrification simply because he no longer lives in Brooklyn, and points out that if he was not allowed to have critical thoughts or conflicted feelings about places where he no longer lives (or has never lived), then he never could have made films like his Hurricane Katrina documentaries (When the Levees Broke and If God Is Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise) or even Do the Right Thing (Lee “never, ever, ever lived in Bed-Stuy Do or Die”). Finally, Lee notes that there are innumerable artists and public figures (a partial list of those Lee mentions by name include Sandy Koufax, Big Daddy Kane, Stephon Marbury, Rhea Perlman, Mike Tyson, Harvey Keitel, Willie Randolph, Carmelo Anthony, Mel Brooks, Marisa Tomei, Darren Aronofsky, Pat Benatar, Larry David, Mos Def, Tony Danza, Elliott Gould, Talib Kweli, Nia Long, Alyssa Milano, Jimmy Smits, Joe Torre, Eli Wallach, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Woody Allen, and Barbara Streisand) who might not live in Brooklyn any longer but still carry the essence of the borough inside them, which, Lee points out is “spreadin’ love, it’s the Brooklyn way.”

While many people will undoubtedly read Lee’s response and dismiss it as manufactured outrage along the lines of the whole #CancelColbert movement, and claim that Lee just doesn’t get Scott’s point, it’s worth noting that Scott doesn’t really have much of a point other than to nostalgize the overwhelmingly white media portrayals of the borough. In fact, other than Lee’s films, Scott doesn’t mention a single other portrayal of Brooklyn that is either made by or represents minorities as anything other than peripheral characters. The Brooklyn that Scott has hope for—the Brooklyn “where a painter and a writer… could raise their children in relative comfort… it was also a place where such families lived in close, sometimes uncomfortable proximity to people in very different circumstances, where class and race could not be wished away”—is not representative of the totality of Brooklyn, nor is it representative of many of the parts of Brooklyn most affected by gentrification. Scott claims to think that the only ones who can make sure “that Brooklyn still exists and cannot entirely be bought out, built over or exiled to the kingdom of memory” are the “artists and writers who live there now,” thus dismissing all those (including Lee) who once lived in Brooklyn and lament the ways that it’s changed. This is a patently absurd disavowal of the people who used to call Brooklyn home and still care about it even if they no longer live here (and, let’s not forget, Lee’s father does live here, and his production company is still located in Fort Greene), and Lee is absolutely right to get pissed off at another well-meaning liberal white man attempting to explain to someone who actually grew up here just what it is that Brooklyn is supposed to be. Finally, an open letter from a celebrity that I can get behind. Finally.

A Letter To New York Times Film Critic Mr. A.O. Scott responding to his article in the Sunday Arts & Leisure Section, “WHOSE BROOKLYN IS IT, ANYWAY?”

Dear Mr. A.O. Scott, I have chose the platform of my Social Media to respond to you. I do not want the New York Times editing, rearranging my words, thoughts or even ignoring a letter to you. I’m writing what I feel and there is no need for somebody else at The New York Times to interpret it.

The Truth is The Truth. The Truth is The Light, and as they say in Brasil “One Finger Can’t Block The Sun.” The Truth is Gentrification is Great for the New Arrivals in Harlem, South Bronx, Bushwick, Red Hook, Bed-Stuy Do or Die and Fort Greene, and in many other cities across the U.S. But not so great for The Brown and Black Residents who have been in these Neighborhoods for decades and are being forced out, to the Suburbs, Down South or back to their Native Islands.

Your criticism of me as a hypocrite is lame, weak and not really thought out. You stated in your Article that because I live in The Upper East Side and I’m talking about Gentrification that makes me Hypocrite. The fact is where I live has nothing to do with it. Your argument is OKEY DOKE. If you did your research you would see I’m a product of The New York Public School System, from Kindergarten to graduating from John Dewey High School in Coney Island. I was born in Atlanta, Georgia and my Family moved to Crown Heights, Brooklyn when I was Three. The Lees were the 1st Black Family to move into the predominantly Italian-American Brooklyn Neighborhood of Cobble Hill. My Parents bought their first home in 1968, a Brownstone in Fort Greene, where my Father still lives. Did you know his and a Next door Neighbor’s Brownstone were vandalized by Graffiti after my remarks on Gentrification at Pratt Institute? Curious you left that out of your article.

Mr. Scott, what you fail to understand is that I can live on The Moon and what I said is still TRUE. No matter where I choose to live that has nothing to do with it. I will always carry Brooklyn in my Blood, Heart and Soul. Did anyone call Jay-Z a Hypocrite when he helped with bringing The Nets from New Jersey to The Barclays Center in Brooklyn at the Corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenue? Hey Buddy, Jay-Z had been long, long gone from The Marcy Projects and Brooklyn a long, long, long time ago and more Power to my BK ALL DAY Brother. Should Jay-Z no longer mention Brooklyn in his Songs because he no longer resides there? You already know the answer to that one, Sir.

Let’s just say Mr. Scott, we follow your ill thought out, half developed argument that I’m a Hypocrite. Since you are a New York Times Film Critic this should be very easy for you. According to your logic I should not have Written and Directed JUNGLE FEVER because I have never lived in HARLEM and BENSONHURST. I should not have Directed CLOCKERS because I have never lived in Boerum Hill and the Gowanus Projects. I should have not Written and Directed HE GOT GAME because I have never lived in CONEY ISLAND. I should have never Directed my two Epic Documentaries on Hurricane Katrina – WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE and IF GOD IS WILLING AND DA CREEK DON’T RISE because I have never lived in NEW ORLEANS. Or maybe, perhaps I should have never WRITTEN and DIRECTED DO THE RIGHT THING because I have never, ever, ever lived in BED-STUY (DO OR DIE). Do you see where this is going?

In closing please understand it’s what you get growing up and learning on the Streets of Brooklyn that empowers you to go anywhere on this God’s Earth to “Do Ya Thang” to be successful in the path you have chosen. It doesn’t matter where you choose to live because Brooklyn goes where you go. It still lives inside Larry King, Sandy Koufax, Big Daddy Kane, Bernard and Albert King, Barry Manilow, Stephon Marbury, Rhea Perlman, Adam Sandler, Neil Sedaka, Jerry Seinfeld, Busta Rhymes, Mike Tyson, Harvey Keitel, Willie Randolph, Carmelo Anthony, Mel Brooks, Marisa Tomei, Marv Alvert, Darren Aronofsky, Pat Benatar, Larry David, Mos Def, Tony Danza, Alan Dershowitz, Neil Diamond, Richard Dreyfuss, Debbie Gibson, Rudy Giuliani, David Geffen, Lou Gossett, Jr., Elliott Gould, Mark Jackson, Jimmy Kimmel, Talib Kweli, Nia Long, Alyssa Milano, Stephanie Mills, Esai Morales, Chris Mullin, Chuck Schumer, Jimmy Smits, Joe Torre, Eli Wallach, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Woody Allen, Barbara Streisand and may I mention none of the above still reside in B.K., but they will always REPRESENT BROOKLYN. Mr. Scott, please learn “SPREADIN’ LOVE IS THE BROOKLYN WAY.”

WAKE UP

WE BEEN HERE

 

Spike Lee

Filmmaker

Fort Greene

Da Republic of Brooklyn, New York

YA-DIG? SHO-NUFF

And Dat’s Da Truth Ruth

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