Editor Barry Alexander Brown had completed his film “The War at Home” and had returned to Atlanta to research a project when he was first introduced to Spike Lee through a mutual friend. At the time, Lee was at New York University working on a cable TV project.
The year was 1981, and later, Brown and Lee were back in New York. It was Brown who offered the aspiring filmmaker a part-time job at First Run Features to check prints. “I was making deliveries going to the post office with 35mm cans,” Lee recalls.
It marked the beginning of their 40-year and counting collaborative friendship and working partnership.
Lee will be presented with the Golden Eddie filmmaker of the year award on April 17 during the 71st American Cinema Editors (ACE) Eddie Awards.
Brown is Lee’s go-to editor. Together, they have worked on a number of the director’s most memorable titles including “Do the Right Thing,” “School Daze” and “Summer of Sam.”
A shared passion for musicals bonded them.
“For me, growing up in places like Montgomery, Alabama, every once in a while, you’d have a Broadway musical on tour come through, and everything that came through, I saw,” says Brown.
Lee had grown up seeing musical adaptations of Broadway shows. “I saw ‘Carousel,’ ‘Sound of Music,’ ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘South Pacific.’ I was too young to see the original versions and saw the films,’ he says.
It was Brown who, while tinkering with the 1986 film “She’s Gotta Have It” birthed the signature Spike Lee double cut. “I was cutting it and noticed that Greer’s [character, played by John Terrell] did this thing when he gets into bed. To make Spike laugh, I did the double cut, so his character would get into bed twice.” Lee did laugh and asked Brown to keep the edit in. Since then, Lee and Brown have used it.
But it’s Lee’s signature double-dolly shot that has become a visual stamp in his films. The first time Lee and Brown used it was in “Mo Better Blues,” where Lee’s character Giant appears to float down the pavement. Lee credits cinematographer Ernest Dickerson for coming up with the idea. “We didn’t invent the shot,” Lee says. As much as he loved the idea of the shot, he wanted to make sure he didn’t overuse it, “only when it’s motivated.”
Music also plays an important role in Lee’s films. Brown’s skill at cutting music and action had given audiences memorable scenes like the opening sequence of “Do the Right Thing,” with Rosie Perez making a powerful statement with her furious dance to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” and Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come” in ‘Malcolm X.”
Brown remembers cutting that sequence without the music. “There wasn’t music there. One day Spike came in with the track and said, ‘I want to play it against that sequence.’” It was Lee who suggested the fade-in moment on the day of Malcolm’s assassination, and both sat back to see how it would play out. “We were both spooked by it because it played out as if I’d cut to it. I didn’t make any changes.”
Allowing a scene to breathe and let a scene play out is a trait Brown has mastered. He remembers a special scene in “25th Hour.” “Spike set up the wonderful shot of the characters coming to this park, the camera starts way up and comes down. It was designed to have an open space. It was gorgeous, and me as an editor, I’m staying out of the way.”
Brown has also worked on Lee’s performance film “Kings of Comedy,” which the editor says has its own rules. “You’re trying to trim a performance and not kill the comedy because all these guys have a rhythm.” In the stage show of “Kings,” comedian Bernie Mac performed second, but in the film, Brown placed him last “because his performance was so strong, he had to come out last.”
In retrospect, Brown says he and Lee evolved together. “We were young and inexperienced. We were learning the craft as we did it, but there’s nothing like working with Spike because there’s so much trust.”
“We’re still learning,” Lee chimes in. “But it’s a mutual trust.”
He lists his team of frequent collaborators — including costume designer Ruth E. Carter, production designer Wynn Thomas, composer Terence Blanchard and cinematographers Matthew Libatique, Ellen Kuras and Ernest Dickenson.
“We’ve all grown as a family. We’re just young pups trying to make it in a very hard industry,” says Lee.