Spike Lee and Reinaldo Marcus Green on the Importance of Showcasing Black Families on Screen
Just a few years ago, in 2015, Reinaldo Marcus Green was a grad student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, angling for extra time with his professor — Spike Lee. Flash-forward six years: Marcus Green has directed one of the best-reviewed dramas of 2021 — “King Richard,” starring Will Smith as Richard Williams, the father of tennis champs Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton). And Lee is more than happy to set aside some time to talk with his star pupil over Zoom.
“I want to have the kind of staying power that Spike has,” Green says to Lee, noting the “Do the Right Thing” director’s influence over his career. “You graduated in 1982. I was born in ’81. I got some years to catch up, Spike, but I’m working on it.” In a candid conversation demonstrating their ongoing mentor-mentee relationship, the two filmmakers discuss the importance of showcasing Black families (and saluting Black mothers) on-screen.
Spike Lee: I really enjoyed your latest joint. I’ve been telling everybody, “You’ve got to check this young filmmaker’s film out.” Again, congratulations. The performances are amazing. I’m glad you gave Aunjanue [Ellis] — very overlooked actress; she was phenomenal — a pivotal role. Because Venus, Serena and their sisters had a mother [Oracene Price], and we know Black moms get overlooked a lot. But the way that role is written, the way it was acted, the way it was directed. We know that moms hold down the fort. While King Richard was doing whatever he wanted to do, somebody was still holding down the fort. Reinaldo Marcus Green: He was certainly front-facing while she was holding it down, absolutely, and Aunjanue, she nails it. What an incredible actress.
Lee: How did this come about? I always love to hear the origins. Like how did all these things in the universe come together in this moment of time and space?
Green: Spike, it was one of those Hollywood moments for me. I was slipped the script by four different people on the same day, and they were not my agent. So four different people just saying, “Hey, check this script out.”
Lee: They slipped it on the low-low?
Green: They slipped it on the low. I read it, and I was like, “Whoa, this is a great story.” First thing I did was call my agent and say, “How come you’re not slipping it to me?” And he just said, “They didn’t have the rights. They wrote the film on spec.”
Lee: When you were slipped the script on the low-low, on the lowest of lows, Will was attached already?
Green: Will was attached, but I was like, “Really? Is he attached?” You hear this all the time: “He’s attached.” OK, well, is he really attached? How am I supposed to know? I can’t call Will Smith and ask.
Lee: Let me ask you another question. Could this film have been made if the family said, “Nah”?
Green: I wouldn’t have made it. I think it could have been made, and it probably would have been made, but it would have been a very different movie. That’s not a good look, and it definitely would not be a place that I would have wanted to go.
Lee: Tell us about your first meeting with Willie Will.
Green: That was pretty scary, because, of course, I’ve grown up watching Will, and it’s my first time working with a pretty big movie star. And so, I go into the meeting; it’s at CAA.
In the meeting, James Lassiter, his longtime producing partner, is in the room, and so is Caleeb Pinkett [Jada Pinkett Smith’s brother]. And they aren’t really saying much; they’re just sitting there. I’m like, “I don’t know who I’m supposed to talk to. I’m just going to sit here and talk to Will now.” And I didn’t come in — you know, Spike, they didn’t teach us at NYU to come in with any sort of presentation.
Lee: You’ve gotta go with the flow, baby.
Green: So I came in like this: I had on a hoodie, leather jacket. I just said, “I’m going to talk to Will.”
Anyway, we just chatted about being fathers. But look, it was poker face. Literally it was like, “All right, cool. Time’s up.” I left the meeting.
Lee: Were they seeing a lot of directors?
Green: Apparently they saw three directors that day.
Lee: They made the right choice. So you got Will’s approval. Where’d you meet with the Williams family?
Green: Isha Price [Venus and Serena’s half-sister] is a producer on the film, and I spoke with her before that meeting. She heard my notes on the script and what I wanted to do in terms of the family, because in the early iterations of the script, it was Venus and Serena. The other girls were not fleshed out. I told them, “Look, I think this is like the Jackson 5. We need to make this a whole family affair.” Once she heard that, she was like, “Exactly. We were picking up balls; we were hanging signs.” And I said, “Well, that’s the movie right there.”
Lee: Venus and Serena would want their sisters included too. Did you ever meet with Mr. Richard Williams?
Green: I didn’t. No, sadly. I read the book.
Lee: He didn’t want to do it?
Green: I don’t know if that was the case. It was just about timing, and then COVID. The timing just didn’t line up. But I met with everybody. I met with Serena; I met with Oracene; I met with Venus. Venus and Oracene were in South Florida, and they live right next door to each other, so I got to meet them together. That’s where a lot of the movie happened, in those conversations. Because Oracene was like, “Look, you can do anything, but just don’t make me a chump.” We hadn’t cast the role yet, and I was like, “Aunjanue Ellis ain’t no chump.” She talked about her faith, being a Jehovah’s Witness; she talked about coaching full-time while she was working as a nurse. She talked about all these other things, and so we said, “OK, she was a lot more involved than we know.” We had seen her in the matches — if you go online, you see her in the stands — but we don’t really know that she was out there coaching and fixing Serena’s toss. Those meetings were instrumental.
Lee: What I love so much about your film is the portrait of a Black family. I really felt that, and thank you for that, man. I felt that deep — I saw, felt, heard Black family love. Look, it was a struggle. They’re growing up in Compton. And to think about the father [saying], “I’m going to have two Michael Jordans.” It’s like, “Negro, please.” People can say what they want, but he had a vision that no one else saw and he made it happen. I don’t care what anybody says about him, he’s good with me.
Green: It’s not easy, Spike.
Lee: Right? And this is what I always tell you. You heard me say this in class. What is easy? Nothing.
Green: Spike, did you know that Wynn Thomas was the production designer on “King Richard”?
Lee: Oh, snap, I didn’t know that.
Green: Met him in your class, third-year NYU Tisch graduate film school, guest speaker. I remember him coming in and talking about the work that he had done on “Malcolm X” and was like, “Man, maybe one day I’ll get to work with Wynn Thomas.”
Lee: See how that works.
Green: That connection happened right there in Spike’s class.
Lee: I have been teaching over 20 years at NYU graduate film school, where I went, where Ang Lee and Ernest Dickerson were all classmates. And I get so much joy from teaching. It’s the students that got me going, because they energize me. They teach me shit that I don’t know. What I give, I get back in abundance from teaching. And then when people like yourself, Dee Rees, Shaka [King], Chloé [Zhao], your brother [Rashaad Ernesto Green], Stefon Bristol — and I know I’m leaving some people out, but forgive me — when you guys and gals hit, I’m like, “Yo! Another member of the NYU grad school mafia.”
Green: Look, I took advantage of those office hours. I started taking your office hours even before I could take your class. You watched every one of my short films, as I’m sure you did for all of your students.
Lee: If they sign up. And not everybody that comes out of grad film is able to achieve the success you and others have achieved, but I’m proud of them too. It’s a tough business.
Green: Everybody works at their own pace. I was one of those few students that came out with over $330,000 of loans. I think there was just a different thing on my shoulder, like I got to make it—no one is there to take care of this but me. But I mean, of course you believe in yourself, but there is that point where belief has to meet something. You have to have a little bit of luck on your way to working hard.
Lee: But miracles don’t happen if you don’t put the hard work in, and I spell work like Rihanna: W-E-R-K.
Green: It was real coming out [of film school]. But that first film with John David Washington and Anthony Ramos, “Monsters and Men,” that movie saved me. Because it opened up doors in order for me to work professionally.
Lee: You have to put yourself position where people see what you can do, otherwise, what are we talking about? And that film did it for you. What’s next? You’re the hot director – I know you’re getting calls and meetings and scripts flying in left and right?
Green: Yeah, I got something. … [Green teamed with David Simon and George Pelecanos for their new HBO series “We Own This City” and is next expected to direct Paramount’s Bob Marley biopic] I need some time with my boys though — I’ve got two boys, Spike, seven and three. Your kids are grown, but they weren’t grown when you were hitting your stride. And I’m definitely feeling like…
Lee: Hold up, hold up, hold up, hold up. I made a conscious decision, I was not going to get married or have any kids until I was established. My wife and I met during the release of “Malcolm X,” so I had films in before that.
Green: You probably did it the wise way. I’m doing it the hard way because you can’t time when love hits you. My son came right after film school. So, I’ve got two small children and I need to be home a certain amount.
Lee: That’s the reason why I had to wait, because I did not want to be a situation where I had to make a choice between me and my kids. I could starve, but I would not want my children starve. Because “She’s Gotta Have It” did not happen right after I graduated from NYU Graduate Film School. Me, Ernest Dickerson, Ang Lee and I, we finished class of ’82. “She’s Gotta Have It” didn’t come until ’86. So, I was hanging out with “The Chef.” You know who “The Chef” is?
Green: No, who’s “The Chef”?
Lee: Chef Boyardee! [cracks up laughing]. SpaghettiOs.
Green: I had a couple chefs, ramen noodles, Entenmann’s cakes. We were living on them Burger King dollar menus.
Lee: But all kidding aside, and we all need that partner to hold it down. Tonya and I, we’ve been married 28 years. And, as you know, as a filmmaker, not everything shoots where you live, I was away. And Tonya — God bless her, love her — she was holding it down with my daughter, Satchel, and my son, Jackson.
Green: [My wife and I] brought them on location for now. They’re with me and I can’t be that weekend dad. I’m dragging them with me everywhere I go, but I could start to feel a little bit they want to start settling in one place a little bit.
Lee: And that’s why I love that you had in your film, that there was another parent in the house besides Daddy. How many kids were in the house in the film?
Lee: That was not easy. And I don’t think Richard was cooking. I don’t think he was cleaning.
Green: Frozen peas. That’s about it.
Lee: Moms was in there. She might have been gotten the acclaim, but he could not have done that alone. And I want to thank you, again, for giving love to moms. Far too often, moms get lost in a soup.
Green: They’re only portrayed one way too — that all they do is cook and clean. It’s like, no, she was cooking, cleaning, working, coaching, faith, holding it…
Lee: Werking – E-R-K.
Green: She was working and dealing with that man who was out there… When you have that much personality and testosterone and history as he was bringing to the table, that’s a lot to deal with in one house. One tiny house.
Lee: I love your film because you showed that complexity of a Black family that we rarely ever see and I love the film, man.
Green: Thank you. I can’t wait to share it with your students.
Lee: Like I said before — this next wave, you keep me young.
Green: I’m going to keep you young. You’ve got another 30 left. Let’s go.
Lee: I’ll see you in class. NYU grad film mafia. What’s up?
Variety Directors on Directors presented by MGM Studios and United Artists Releasing