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Lee, Spike

LEE, Spike



Nationality: American. Born: Shelton Jackson Lee in Atlanta, Georgia, 20 March 1957; son of jazz musician Bill Lee. Education: Morehouse College, B.A., 1979; New York University, M.A. in Filmmaking; studying with Martin Scorsese. Family: Married lawyer Tonya Linette Lewis, 1993; one son, Satchel. Career: Set up production company 40 Acres and a Mule; directed first feature, She's Gotta Have It, 1986; also directs music videos and commercials for Nike/Air Jordan; Trustee of Morehouse College, 1992. Awards: Student Directors Academy Award, for Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, 1980; U.S. Independent Spirit Award for First Film, New Generation Award, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and Prix de Jeunesse, Cannes Film Festival, all for She's Gotta Have It, 1986; U.S. Independent Spirit Award, Best Picture, L.A. Film Critics, and Best Picture, Chicago Film Festival, all for Do the Right Thing, 1989; Essence Award, 1994. Address: 40 Acres and a Mule, 124 Dekalb Avenue, Suite 2, Brooklyn, NY 11217–1201, U.S.A.


Films as Director, Scriptwriter, and Editor:

1977

Last Hustle in Brooklyn (Super-8 short)

1980

The Answer (short)

1981

Sarah (short)

1982

Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (+ role, pr)

1986

She's Gotta Have It (+ role as Mars Blackmon, pr)

1988

School Daze (+ role as Half Pint, pr)

1989

Do the Right Thing (+ role as Mookie, pr)

1990

Mo' Better Blues (+ role as Giant)

1991

Jungle Fever (+ role as Cyrus, pr)

1992

Malcolm X (+ role as Shorty, pr)

1994

Crooklyn (+ role as Snuffy, pr)

1995

Clockers (+ role as Chucky)

1996

Girl 6 (+ role as Jimmy, pr); Get on the Bus (+ exec pr)

1997

4 Little Girls

1998

He Got Game (+ pr); Freak

1999

Summer of Sam (+ role as John Jeffries, pr)

2000

The Original Kings of Comedy; Bamboozled



Other Films:

1993

The Last Party (Youth for Truth) (doc) (appearance); Seven Songs for Malcolm X (doc) (appearance); Hoop Dreams (doc) (appearance)

1994

DROP Squad (exec pr, appearance)

1995

New Jersey Drive (exec pr); Tales from the Hood (exec pr)

1999

The Best Man (pr)

2000

Famous (Dunne) (role as himself); Michael Jordan to the Max (Kempf and Stern) (role as himself); Love & Basketball (Gina Prince) (pr)

2001

3 A.M. (Lee Davis) (pr)



Publications


By LEE: books—

Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It: Inside Guerilla Filmmaking, New York, 1987.

Uplift the Race: The Construction of School Daze, New York, 1988.

Do the Right Thing: A Spike Lee Joint, with Lisa Jones, New York, 1989.

Mo' Better Blues, with Lisa Jones, New York, 1990.

Five for Five: The Films of Spike Lee, New York, 1991.

By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Makingof Malcolm X, with Ralph Wiley, New York, 1993.

Best Seat in the House: A Basketball Memoir, with Ralph Wiley, New York, 1997.

By LEE: articles—

Interview in New York Times, 10 August 1986.

Interview in Village Voice (New York), 12 August 1986.

"Class Act," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), January/February 1988.

"Entretien avec Spike Lee," in Cahiers du Cinéma, June 1989.

"Bed-Stuy BBQ," an interview with M. Glicksman, in Film Comment, July/August 1989.

"I Am Not an Anti-Semite," in New York Times, 22 August 1990.

Interview with Mike Wilmington, in Empire (London), October 1990.

"Entretien avec Spike Lee," with A. de Baecque and N. Saada, in Cahiers du Cinéma, June 1991.

Interview with M. Cieutat and Michael Ciment in Positif, July/August 1991.

"The Rolling Stone Interview: Spike Lee," with David Breskin, in Rolling Stone, July 1991.

"Spike Speaks," an interview with Lisa Kennedy, in Village Voice, 11 June 1991.

"Playboy Interview: Spike Lee," with Elvis Mitchell, in Playboy, July 1991.

"He's Gotta Have It," an interview with Janice M. Richolson, in Cineaste, no. 4, 1991.

"Generation X," an interview with H. L. Gates, Jr., in Black FilmReview, no. 3, 1992.

"Just Whose Malcolm Is It, Anyway?" interview in New York Times, 31 May 1992.

"United Colors of Benetton," in Rolling Stone, 12 November 1992.

"Words with Spike Lee," an interview with J. C. Simpson, in Time, 23 November 1992.

Interview with David Breskin, in Inner Views: Filmmakers in Conversation, Boston, 1992.

"Entretien avec Spike Lee," with B. Bollag, in Positif, February 1993.

"Doing the Job," an interview with J. Verniere, in Sight and Sound, February 1993.

"Our Film Is Only a Starting Point," an interview with George Crowdus and Dan Georgakas, in Cineaste, no. 4, 1993.

"De qui parler?" an interview with V. Amiel and Jean-Pierre Coursodon, in Positif, February 1993.

"Is Malcolm X the Right Thing?" an interview with Lisa Kennedy, in Sight and Sound, February 1993.

"The Lees on Life," an interview with Lynn Darling, in Harper'sBazarr, May 1994.

"Spike Lee: The Do-the-Right-Thing Revolution," an interview with Henry Louis Gates, in Interview, October 1994.

"Spike on Sports," an interview with Daryl Howerton, in Sport, February 1995.

"Ghetto Master/Price Wars," an interview with Tom Charity and Brian Case, in Time Out (London), 31 January 1996.

Interview with N.O. Saeveras, in Film & Kino (Oslo), no. 1, 1996.

"The Sweet Hell of Success," an interview with P. Biskind, in Premiere (Boulder), October 1997.


On LEE: books—

Spike Lee and Commentaries on His Work, Bloomington, Indiana, 1992.

Patterson, Alex, Spike Lee, New York, 1992.

Bernotas, Bob, Spike Lee: Filmmaker, Hillside, New Jersey, 1993.

Lee, David, Malcolm X, Denzel Washington: A Spike Lee Joint, New York, 1992.

Chapman, Kathleen Ferguson, Spike Lee, Mankato, Minnesota, 1994.

Hardy, James Earl, Spike Lee, New York, 1996.

Jones, K. Maurice, Spike Lee and the African American Filmmakers:A Choice of Colors, Brookfield, Connecticut, 1996.

Haskins, Jim, Spike Lee: By Any Means Necessary, New York, 1997.

McDaniel, Melissa, Spike Lee: On His Own Terms, New York, 1998.


On LEE: articles—

Tate, G., "Spike Lee," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), September 1986.

Glicksman, M., "Lee Way," in Film Comment (New York), September/October 1986.

Taylor, C., "The Paradox of Black Independent Cinema," in BlackFilm Review, no. 4, 1988.

Crouch, Stanley, "Do the Right Thing," in Village Voice, 20 June 1989.

Davis, Thuliani, "We've Gotta Have It," in Village Voice, 20 June 1989.

Davis, T., "Local Hero," in American Film, July/August, 1989.

Sharkey, B., and T. Davis, "Knocking on Hollywood's Door," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), July/August 1989.

McDowell, J., "Profile: He's Got to Have It His Way," in Time, 17 July 1989.

Orenstein, Peggy, "Spike's Riot," in Mother Jones, September 1989.

Norment, L., "Spike Lee: The Man behind the Movies and the Controversy," in Ebony, October 1989.

Kirn, Walter, "Spike It Already," in Gentlemens Quarterly, August 1990.

George, N., "Forty Acres and an Empire," in Village Voice, 7 August 1990.

Hentoff, Nat, "The Bigotry of Spike Lee," in Village Voice, 4 September 1990.

O'Pray, Michael, "Do Better Blues—Spike Lee," in Monthly FilmBulletin (London), October 1990.

Perkins, E., "Renewing the African American Cinema: The Films of Spike Lee," in Cineaste, no. 4, 1990.

Baecque, A. de, "Spike Lee," in Cahiers du Cinéma, May 1991.

Boyd, T., "The Meaning of the Blues," in Wide Angle, no. 3/4, 1991.

Breskin, D., "Spike Lee" in Rolling Stone, 11–25 July 1991.

Bates, Karen Grigsby, "They've Gotta Have Us," in New York TimesMagazine, 14 July 1991.

Gilroy, Paul, "Spiking the Argument," in Sight and Sound, November 1991.

Grenier, Richard, "Spike Lee Fever," in Commentary, August 1991.

Hamill, Pete, "Spike Lee Takes No Prisoners," in Esquire, August 1991.

Backer, Houston A. Jr., "Spike Lee and the Commerce of Culture," in Black American Literature Forum, Summer 1991.

Whitaker, Charles, "Doing the Spike Thing," in Ebony, November 1991.

Johnson, A., "Moods Indigo: A Long View, Part 2," in FilmQuarterly, Spring 1991.

Klein, Joe, "Spiked Again," in New York, 1 June 1992.

Elise, Sharon, "Spike Lee Constructs the New Black Man: Mo' Better," in Western Journal of Black Studies, Summer 1992.

Weinraub, B., "Spike Lee's Request: Black Interviewers Only," in New York Times, 29 October 1992.

Harrison, Barbara G., "Spike Lee Hates Your Cracker Ass," in Esquire, October 1992.

Wiley, R., "Great 'X'pectations," in Premiere, November 1992.

Reden, L., "Spike's Gang," in New York Times, 7 February 1993.

Hooks, Bill, "Male Heroes and Female Sex Objects: Sexism in Spike Lee's Malcolm X," in Cineaste, no. 4, 1993.

Johnson, Victoria E., "Polyphone and Cultural Expression: Interpreting Musical Traditions in Do the Right Thing," in Film Quarterly, Winter 1993.

Horne, Gerald, "Myth and the Making of Malcolm X," in AmericanHistorical Review, April 1993.

Hirschberg, Lynn, "Living Large," in Vanity Fair, September 1993.

Pinsker, Sanford, "Spike Lee: Protest, Literary Tradition, and the Individual Filmmaker," in Midwest Quarterly, Autumn 1993.

Norment, Lynn, "A Revealing Look at Spike Lee's Changing Life," in Ebony, May 1994.

Rowland, Robert C., "Social Function, Polysemy, and Narrative-Dramatic Form: A Case Study of Do the Right Thing," in Communication Quarterly, Summer 1994.

Hooks, Bell, "Sorrowful Black Death Is Not a Hot Ticket," in Sightand Sound, August 1994.

Lee, Jonathan Scott, "Spike Lee's Malcolm X as Transformational Object," in American Imago, Summer 1995.

Croal, M., "Bouncing off the Rim," in Newsweek, 22 April 1996.

Lightning, Robert K., and others, "Do the Right Thing: Generic Bases," in CineAction (Toronto), May 1996.

Jones, K., "Spike Lee," in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1997.

Pearson, H., "Get on the (Back of the) Bus," in Village Voice (New York), 7 January 1997.

Jones, Kent, "The Invisible Man: Spike Lee," in Film Comment (New York), January-February 1997.

MacDonald, Scott, "The City as the Country: The New York City Symphony from Rudy Burckhardt to Spike Lee," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), Winter 1997–1998.

McCarthy, Todd, "Summer of Sam," in Variety (New York), 24 May 1999.


* * *

Spike Lee is the most famous African American to have succeeded in breaking through industry obstacles to create a notable career for himself as a major director. What makes this all the more notable is that he is not a comedian—the one role in which Hollywood has usually allowed blacks to excel—but a prodigious, creative, multifaceted talent who writes, directs, edits, and acts, a filmmaker who invites comparisons with American titans like Woody Allen, John Cassavetes, and Orson Welles.

His films, which deal with different facets of the black experience, are innovative and controversial even within the black community. Spike Lee refuses to be content with presenting blacks in their "acceptable" stereotypes: noble Poitiers demonstrating simple moral righteousness are nowhere to be found. Lee's characters are three-dimensional and often vulnerable to moral criticism. His first feature film, She's Gotta Have It, dealt with black sexuality, unapologetically supporting the heroine's promiscuity. His second film, School Daze, drawing heavily upon Lee's own experiences at Morehouse College, examined the black university experience and dealt with discrimination within the black community based on relative skin colors. His third film, Do the Right Thing, dealt with urban racial tensions and violence. His fourth film, Mo' Better Blues, dealt with black jazz and its milieu. His fifth film, Jungle Fever, dealt with interracial sexual relationships and their political implications, by no means taking the traditional, white liberal position that love should be color blind. His sixth film, Malcolm X, attempted no less than a panoramic portrait of the entire racial struggle in the United States, as seen through the life story of the controversial activist. Not until his seventh film, Crooklyn, primarily an autobiographical family remembrance of growing up in Brooklyn, did Spike Lee take a breath to deal with a simpler subject and theme.

Lee's breakthrough feature was She's Gotta Have It, an independent film budgeted at $175,000 and a striking box-office success: a film made by blacks for blacks which also attracted white audiences. She's Gotta Have It reflects the sensibilities of an already sophisticated filmmaker and harkens back to the early French New Wave in its exuberant embracing of bravura technique—intertitles, black-and-white cinematography, a sense of improvisation, characters directly addressing the camera—all wedded nevertheless to serious philosophical/sociological examination. The considerable comedy in She's Gotta Have It caused many critics to call Spike Lee the "black Woody Allen," a label which would increasingly reveal itself as a rather simplistic, muddle-headed approbation, particularly as Lee's career developed. (Indeed, in his work's energy, style, eclecticism, and social commitment, he more resembles Martin Scorsese, a Lee mentor at the NYU film school.) Even to categorize Spike Lee as a black filmmaker is to denigrate his talent, since there are today virtually no American filmmakers (except Allen) with the ambitiousness and talent to write, direct, and perform in their own films. And Lee edits as well.

Do the Right Thing, Lee's third full-length feature, is one of the director's most daring and controversial achievements, presenting one sweltering day which culminates in a riot in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. From its first images—assailing jump cuts of a woman dancing frenetically to the rap "Fight the Power" while colored lights stylistically flash on a location ghetto block upon which Lee has constructed his set—we know we are about to witness something deeply disturbing. The film's sound design is incredibly dense and complex, and the volume alarmingly high, as the film continues to assail us with tight close-ups, extreme angles, moving camera, colored lights, distorting lenses, and individual scenes directed like high operatic arias.

Impressive, too, is the well-constructed screenplay, particularly the perceptively drawn Italian family at the center of the film who feel so besieged by the changing, predominantly black neighborhood around them. A variety of ethnic characters are drawn sympathetically, if unsentimentally; perhaps never in American cinema has a director so accurately presented the relationships among the American urban underclasses. Particularly shocking and honest is a scene in which catalogs of racial and ethnic epithets are shouted directly into the camera. The key scene in Do the Right Thing has the character of Mookie, played by Spike Lee, throwing a garbage can through a pizzeria window as a moral gesture which works to make the riot inevitable. The film ends with two quotations: one from Martin Luther King Jr., eschewing violence; the other from Malcolm X, rationalizing violence in certain circumstances.

Do the Right Thing was one of the most controversial films of the last twenty years. Politically conservative commentators denounced the film, fearful it would incite inner-city violence. Despite widespread acclaim the film was snubbed at the Cannes Film Festival, outraging certain Cannes judges; despite the accolades of many critics' groups, the film was also largely snubbed by the Motion Picture Academy, receiving a nomination only for Spike Lee's screenplay and Danny Aiello's performance as the pizzeria owner.

Both Mo' Better Blues and the much underrated Crooklyn owe a lot to Spike Lee's appreciation of music, particularly as handed down to him by his father, the musician Bill Lee. Crooklyn is by far the gentler film, presenting Lee and his siblings' memories of growing up with Bill Lee and his mother. Typical of Spike Lee, the vision in Crooklyn is by no means a sentimental one, and the father comes across as a proud, if weak, man; talented, if failing in his musical career; loving his children, if not always strong enough to do the right thing for them. The mother, played masterfully by Alfre Woodard, is the stronger of the two personalities; and the film—ending as it does with grief—seems Spike Lee's version of Fellini's Amarcord. For a white audience, Crooklyn came as a revelation: the sight of black children watching cartoons, eating Trix cereal, playing hopscotch, and singing along with the Partridge family, seemed strange—because the American cinema had so rarely (if ever?) shown a struggling black family so rooted in the popular-culture iconography to which all Americans could relate. Scene after scene is filled with humanity, such as the little girl stealing groceries rather than be embarrassed by using her mother's food stamps. Crooklyn's soundtrack, like so many other Spike Lee films, is unusually cacophonous, with everyone talking at once, and its improvisational style suggests Cassavetes or Scorsese. Lee's 1995 film, Clockers, which deals with drug dealing, disadvantage, and the young "gangsta," was actually produced in conjunction with Scorsese, whose own work, particularly the seminal Meanstreets, Lee's work often recalls.

Another underrated film from Lee is Jungle Fever (1991). Taken for granted is how well the film communicates the African-American experience; more surprising is how persuasively and perceptively the film communicates the Italian-American experience, particularly working-class attitudes. Indeed, one looks in vain in the Hollywood cinema for an American director with a European background who presents blacks with as many insights as Lee presents his Italians. And certainly unforgettable, filmed expressively with nightmarish imagery, is the film's set-piece in which we enter a crack house and come to understand profoundly and horrifically the tremendous damage being done to a component of the African-American community by this plague. Jungle Fever, like Do the Right Thing, basically culminates in images of Ruby Dee screaming in horror and pain, a metaphor for black martyrdom and suffering.

Nevertheless, the most important film in the Spike Lee oeuvre (if not his best) is probably Malcolm X—important because Lee himself campaigned for the film when it seemed it would be given to a white director, creating then an epic with the sweep and majesty of a David Lean and a clear political message of black empowerment. If the film on the whole seems less interesting than many of Lee's films (because there is less Lee there), the most typical Lee touches (such as the triumphant coda which enlists South African President Nelson Mandela to play himself and teach young blacks about racism and their future) seem among the film's most inspired and creative scenes. If more cautious and conservative, in some ways the film is also Lee's most ambitious: with dozens of characters, historical reconstructions, and the biggest budget in his entire career. Malcolm X proved definitively to fiscally conservative Hollywood studio executives that an African-American director could be trusted to direct a high-budget "A film." The success of Malcolm X, coupled with the publicity machine supporting Spike Lee, helped a variety of young black directors—like John Singleton, the Wayans brothers, and Mario Van Peebles—all break through into mainstream Hollywood features.

And indeed, Lee seems often to be virtually everywhere. On television interview shows he is called upon to comment on every issue relevant to black America: from the O. J. Simpson verdict to Louis Farrakhan and the Million Man March. In bookstores, his name can be found on a variety of published books on the making of his films, books created by his own public relations arm particularly so that others can read about the process, become empowered, find their own voices, and follow in Lee's filmic footsteps. On the basketball court, Lee can be found very publicly attending the New York Knicks' games. On MTV, he can be found in notable commercials for Nike basketball shoes. On college campuses, he can be found making highly publicized speeches on the issues of the day. And on the street, his influence can be seen even in fashion trends—such as the ubiquitous "X" on a variety of clothing the year of Malcolm X's release. There may be no other American filmmaker working today who is so willing to take on all comers, so politically committed to make films which are consistently and unapologetically in-your-face. Striking, too, is that instead of taking his inspiration from other movies, as do the gaggle of Spielberg imitators, Lee takes his inspiration from real life—whether the Howard Beach or Yusuf Hawkins incidents, in which white racists killed blacks, or his own autobiographical memories of growing up black in Brooklyn.

As Spike Lee has become a leading commentator on the cultural scene, there has been an explosion of Lee scholarship, not all of it laudatory: increasing voices attack Lee and his films for either homophobia, sexism, or anti-Semitism. Lee defends both his films and himself, pointing out that because characters espouse some of these values does not imply that he himself does, only that realistic portrayal of the world as it is has no place for political correctness. Still, some of the accusers point to examples which give pause: Lee's insistence on talking only to black journalists for stories about Malcolm X, but refusing to meet with a black journalist who was gay; the totally cartoonish portrait of the homosexual neighbor in Crooklyn, one of the few characters in that film who is given no positive traits to leaven the harsh criticism implied by Lee's treatment or to make him seem three-dimensional. Similar points have been made regarding Lee's attitudes toward Jews (particularly in Mo' Better Blues) and women. At one point, Lee even felt the need to defend himself in the New York Times in a letter to the editor titled, "Why I Am Not an Anti-Semite."

If Malcolm X brought Lee more attention than ever before, the films he has made since brought critical and/or financial disappointment. Clockers starts powerfully enough with a close-up of a bullet hole and a montage of horrifically graphic images of violence victims. Although Clockers realistically evokes the world of adolescent cocaine dealers within the limited world of a Brooklyn housing project, Clockers ultimately reveals Lee to be either not particularly skillful at or not particularly interested in telling a traditional story. Girl 6 and Get on the Bus reveal similar attitudes toward dramatic narrative. A visually pyrotechnical examination of a fetching contradiction, Girl 6 presents a young black woman circumspect in her private life who nevertheless works as a phone-sex operator. Although not written by Spike Lee, this experimental work's flaccid narrative is pumped up by its stunning cinematography. The weirdest scene undoubtedly is a postmodern parody of the television show The Jeffersons; in certain regards Lee's multiple diegeses in Girl 6 suggest an imitation of Oliver Stone's controversial Natural Born Killers. Although startlingly inventive in the manner of Jean-Luc Godard, Girl 6 was destined, despite its florid subject, to frustrate a popular audience searching for simple coherence.

Get on the Bus, like many of Lee's films, takes a real historical event as its inspiration: the Million Man March organized by Louis Farrakhan. A beautifully evocative credit sequence of a black man in chains cuts to a cross on a church in South Central Los Angeles—certainly an ambiguous juxtaposition. In Get on the Bus, a variety of black men—each representative of a different strain of the black experience—must share a long, cross-country bus ride on their way to the Washington, D.C. march, a conception which recalls the classic American film à thèse of the fifties (for instance, the Sidney Lumet/Reginald Rose Twelve Angry Men), where each metaphorical character is respectively given the spotlight, often through a moving monologue or dramatic scene, thus allowing the narrative to accrue a variety of psychological/sociological insights. Notably for the Lee oeuvre, Get on the Bus includes black gay lovers who are treated three-dimensionally (tellingly, only the black Republican is treated with total derision, thrown off the bus in a scene of comic relief). Like much of Lee's work, this film has a continuous impulse for music. And there is one stunning montage of beautiful ebony faces. Nevertheless, the ending of the film seems anti-climactic, because the characters never quite make it to the Million Man March—a disappointing narrative choice perhaps dictated by Lee's low budget.

He Got Game, like many Lee films, seems meandering and a bit undisciplined, if with important themes: here, of father/son reconciliation, and the meaning of basketball within black culture. Indeed, never have basketball images been photographed so expressively; and apposite, parallel scenes of one-on-one father/son competition highlight the film. Like Accatone, where Pasolini used Bach on his soundtrack to ennoble his lower-class youth, Lee brilliantly uses the most American composer of all, the lyrical Aaron Copland. Summer of Sam likewise has some extraordinary elements, particularly Lee's perceptive anatomizing of the complicated sex lives of his Italian and African-American characters. Rarely, too, has a film so expressively evoked such a precise sense of place and time—that chaotic summer when New York City was obsessed and terrified by the Son of Sam serial killer. Unfortunately, audiences were largely indifferent to Lee's interest in character and texture, disappointed that Summer of Sam did not offer a more traditional narrative focused on the killer and his sadism, in the typical Hollywood style.

Curiously, one notes that Lee's documentary for HBO, 4 Little Girls, reveals some of the same problems as Lee's recent fiction career. A documentary on a powerfully compelling subject—the four little girls killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963—4 Little Girls, though politically fascinating, is curiously slack, with its narrative as its weakest link, Lee failing to clearly differentiate his characters and not building suspensefully to a clear climax. Stronger are the film's individual parts: such as the killer's attorney characterizing Birmingham as "a wonderful place to live and raise a family," while Lee shows us an image of a little child in full Klan regalia, hand-in-hand with a parent; or one parent's the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.'s memorable oration at the funeral—"Life is as hard as steel!"

As Lee's career progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that his interest in political insight and the veracity of historical details is what impedes his ability to tell a story in the way the popular audience expects. Whereas Lee once seemed the most likely minority filmmaker to transform the Hollywood establishment, he now seems the filmmaker (like, perhaps Woody Allen) most perpetually in danger of losing his core audience. Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X were successful precisely because Lee was able to fuse popular forms and audience-pleasing entertainment with significant cultural commentary. Lee seems now to be making films which—despite their ambitious subjects and sophisticated points-of-view—disappear almost entirely off the cultural radar screen.

Interesting, almost as an aside, is Lee's canny ability, particularly in his earlier films, to use certain catch phrases which helped both to attract and delight audiences. In She's Gotta Have It, there was the constant refrain uttered by Spike Lee as Mars Blackmon, "Please baby, please baby, please baby, baby, baby, please. . . "; in Do the Right Thing, the disc jockey's "And that's the truth, Ruth." Notable also is the director's assembly—in the style of Bergman and Chabrol and Woody Allen in their prime—of a consistent stable of very talented collaborators, including his father, Bill Lee, as musical composer, production designer Wynn Thomas, producer Monty Ross, and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, among others. Lee has also used many of the same actors from one film to another, including his sister Joie Lee, Wesley Snipes, Denzel Washington, John Turturro, Samuel L. Jackson, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee, helping to create a climate which propelled several to stardom and inspired a new wave of high-level attention to a variety of breakout African-American performers.

—Charles Derry

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"Lee, Spike." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. 2001. Encyclopedia.com. 23 Jul. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Lee, Spike 1957–

Spike Lee 1957

Filmmaker

At a Glance

Pursued Film Career

Scored a Surprise Hit with Shes Gotta Have It

School Daze: A Microcosm of Black Life

Explored Racial Tensions in Do the Right Thing

Striking a Balance: Mo Better Blues

Examined Interracial Love in Jungle Fever

Malcolm X

Selected writings

Sources

Fight the power, the theme song to his 1989 film Do the Right Thing, could easily be Spike Lees personal motto. From his earliest days as a student filmmaker to his $33-million epic Malcolm X, Lee has shown a willingness to tackle prickly issues of relevance to the black communityand has savored every ounce of controversy his films invariably produce. Spike loves to fight, the filmmakers friend and business associate Nelson George told Vanity Fair. Theres a gleeful look he gets, a certain kind of excitement in his eyes when shit is being stirred up. I guess you could call me an instigator, Lee admitted in an interview with Vogue.

Although the bane of Hollywood executives, Lees delight in playing the provocateur has not only made his own films bankable, but has also created an industry-wide awareness of an untapped market niche. Following the unforseen box office success of Lees earliest films, Hollywoods gates have opened to a new generation of young African American filmmakers. Spike put this trend in vogue, Warner Bros, executive vice president Mark Canton told Time. His talent opened the door for others. Lee relishes his role as path-paver. Every time there is a success, he explained to Ebony, it makes it easier for other blacks. The industry is more receptive than it has ever been for black films and black actors. We have so many stories to tell, but we cant do them all. We just need more black filmmakers.

Shelton Jackson Lee was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on the eve of the civil rights era. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York, an area that would figure largely in his work as a mature filmmaker. Lees awareness of his African American identity was established at an .early age. His mother, Jacquelyn, infected her children with a schoolteachers enthusiasm for black art and literature. I was forced to read Langston Hughes, that kind of stuff, Lee told Vanity Fair. And Im glad my mother made me do that. His father, Bill, an accomplished jazz musician, introduced him to African American jazz and folk legends like Miles Davis and Odetta.

By the time he was old enough to attend school, the already independent Lee had earned the nickname his mother had given him as an infant, Spikean allusion to his toughness. When he and his siblings were offered the option of attending the predominantly white private school where his mother taught, Lee opted instead to go the public route, where he would be assured of the companionship of black peers. Spike used to point out the differences in our friends,

At a Glance

Born Shelton Jackson Lee, March 20, 1957, in Atlanta, GA; son of William (a musician and composer) and Jacquelyn (a teacher; maiden name, Shelton) Lee. Education: Morehouse College, B.A., 1979; New York University, M.F.A., 1982.

Screenwriter, director, actor. Directed Joes Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, 1982; launched Hollywood career with low-budget, black-and-white film Shes Gotta Have It, 1986; also director of music videos and commercials for Nike, Levi-Strauss, and Diet Coke. Opened film production studio 40 Acres and a Mule, 1987, and first Spikes Joint promotional outlet, 1990.

Awards: 1983 Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Student Academy Award for Joes Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads; Cannes Film Festivals Prix de Jeunesse, 1986, for Shes Gotta Have It; two Academy Award nominations for Do the Right Thing.

Addresses: Office40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, 124 DeKalb Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11217.

recalled his sister Joie, who was a private school student. By the time I was a senior, she told Mother Jones, I was being channeled into white colleges. Lee chose to go to his fathers and grandfathers all-black alma mater, Morehouse College, where he majored in mass communication.

Pursued Film Career

It was at Morehouse that Lee found his calling. Following his mothers unexpected death in 1977, Lees friends tried to cheer him with frequent trips to the movies. He quickly became a fan of directors Bernardo Bertolucci, Martin Scorsese, and Akira Kurosawa. But it wasnt until he had seen Michael Ciminos Deer Hunter that Lee knew the die was cast. His friend John Wilson recalled their conversation on the ride home from the film in an interview with Vanity Fair. John I know what I want to do, Lee had said. I want to make films. But not just any films: Lee wanted to make films that would capture the black experience, and he was willing to do so by whatever means necessary. Spike didnt just want to get in the door of the house, Wilson explained. He wanted to get in, rearrange the furniturethen go back and publicize the password.

Lee pursued his passion at New York University, where he enrolled in the Tisch School of Arts graduate film program. One of only a handful of African American students, he wasted no time incurring the wrath of his instructors with his affinity for rearranging the furniture. As his first-year project, Lee produced a ten-minute short, The Answer, in which a black screenwriter is assigned to remake D.W. Griffiths classic film The Birth of a Nation. The Answer was panned. Although the film programs director, Eleanor Hamerow, told the New York Times, Its hard to redo Birth of a Nation in ten minutes, Lee suspected that his critics were offended by his digs at the legendary directors stereotypical portrayals of black characters. I was told I was whiskers away from being kicked out, he told Mother Jones. They really didnt like me saying anything bad about D.W. Griffith, for sure.

Hardly deterred, Lee went on to produce a 45-minute film that won him the 1983 Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Student Academy Award, Joes Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. Although the honor enhanced his credibility as a director, it didnt pay the bills. Faced with the reality of survival, Lee worked for a movie distribution house cleaning and shipping film while hustling funds for a semi-autobiographical film, The Messenger.

A coming-of-age story about a young bicycle messenger, The Messenger was aborted prematurely when sufficient funding failed to materialize. We were in pre-production the entire summer of 1984, waiting on this money to come, and it never did, Lee told Vanity Fair. Then, finally, I pulled the plug. I let a lot of people down, crew members and actors that turned down work. I wasnt the most popular person. We were devastated. But all was not lost; Lee had learned his lesson. I saw I made the classic mistakes of a young filmmaker, to be overly ambitious, do something beyond my means and capabilities, he said. Going through the fire just made me more hungry, more determined that I couldnt fail again.

Scored a Surprise Hit with Shes Gotta Have It

When he filmed Shes Gotta Have It a year later, Lees determination payed off. Made on a shoestring $175,000 budget in just twelve days, the black-and-white picture was shot on one location with a limited cast and edited on a rented machine in Lees apartment. By the time it was completed, Lee was so deeply in debt that his processing lab threatened to auction off the films negative.

After Island Pictures agreed to distribute it, Shes Gotta Have It finally opened in 1986. A light comedy centering on sex-loving artist Nola Darling and her relationships with three men, the film pokes fun at gender relations and offers an insightful spin on stereotypical macho male roles. It packed houses not only with the black audience Lee had anticipated, but also with a crossover, art-house crowd. Grossing over $7 million, the low-budget film was a surprise hit.

With the success of Shes Gotta Have It, Lee became known in cinematic circles not only as a director, but also as a comic actor. Mars Blackmonone of Nolas rival lovers, played by Leewon an instant following with his now-famous line, Please baby, please baby, please baby, baby, baby, please. After Shes Gotta Have It, Spike couldve gone a long way with Mars Blackmon, the films co-producer Monty Ross told Mother Jones. He couldve done Mars Blackmon the Sequel, Mars Blackmon Part 5. Not anxious to be typecast, though, Lee said to the studios Mars Blackmon is dead.

School Daze: A Microcosm of Black Life

With a major hit under his belt and the backing of Island Pictures, Lee had more latitude with his next film, a musical called School Daze. An exposé of color discrimination within the black community, School Daze draws on Lees years at Morehouse. The people with the money, he told the New York Times, most of them have light skin. They have the Porsches, the B.M.W.s, the quote good hair unquote. The others, the kids from the rural south, have bad, kinky hair. When I was in school, we saw all this going on. This black caste system, Lee explained to Newsweek, was not a limited phenomenon. I used the black college as a microcosm of black life.

School Daze created a brouhaha in the black community: while many applauded Lees efforts to explore a complex social problem, others were offended by his willingness to air dirty laundry. Everyone agreed that the film was controversial. When production costs reached $4 million, Island Pictures got hot feet and pulled out. Within two days, Lee had arranged a deal with Columbia Pictures that included an additional $2 million in production costs. But Columbia, then under the direction of David Puttnam, apparently misunderstood the films true nature. They saw music, they saw dancing, they saw comedy, Lee told Mother Jones. By the time School Daze was released in 1988, Puttnam had been ousted. Despite the fact that the studios new management failed to promote it, the film grossed $15 million.

Explored Racial Tensions in Do the Right Thing

School Daze established Lees reputation as a director ready to seize heady issues by the horns. Do the Right Thing, released in 1989, confirmed it. The story of simmering racial tension between Italian and African Americans in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, the film becomes a call to arms when violence erupts in response to the killing of a black man by white police officers. It ends on a note of seeming ambiguity with two irreconcilable quotes: Martin Luther Kings, The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. followed by Malcolm Xs, I am not against violence in self-defense. I dont even call it violence when its self-defense. I call it intelligence.

The meaning of the right thing, Lee told People, is not ambiguous. Black America is tired of having their brothers and sisters murdered by the police for no reason other than being black. Im not advocating violence, he continued. Im saying I can understand it. If the people are frustrated and feel oppressed and feel this is the only way they can act, I understand.

Critical response to the film was both enthusiastic and wary. Media critic Roger Ebert called it the most honest, complex and unblinking film I have ever seen about the subject of racism. Others voiced warnings of possible violence. New York magazine said, Lee appears to be endorsing the outcome, and if some audiences go wild hes partly responsible.

Striking a Balance: Mo Better Blues

Despite the fact that Do the Right Thing failed to inspire the predicted violence, Lee chose a lighter topic for his next filma romance. The saga of a self-centered jazz trumpeter, Bleek Gilliam, whose personal life plays second fiddle to his music, Mo Better Blues is about relationships, Lee explained to Ebony, Its not only about man-woman relationships, but about relationships in generalBleeks relationship to his father and his manager, and his relationship with two female friends. Bleeks true love is music, and he is trying to find the right balance.

Bleeks character was inspired by Lees jazz-musician father, Bill Lee, who wrote the films score. Bleek is my fathers nickname, Lee told People. The characters dilemmathe need to temper the obsessive nature of the creative acthowever, has universal relevance. That theme, Newsweek suggested, is one with which the director himself can readily identify.

Although recognized for its technical mastery and snappy scorepartially the result of a $10 million budget Mo Better Blues received tepid reviews. The movie is all notions and no shape, said the New Yorker, hard, fierce blowing rather than real music. And more than one critic took offense at Lees shallow treatment of female characters and ethnic stereotyping of Jewish jazz club owners Moe and Josh Flatbush.

Examined Interracial Love in Jungle Fever

In his next film, Jungle Fever, Lee explored the theme of romance furtherbut this time, from a more provocative slant. Inspired by the 1989 murder of black teenager Yusuf Hawkins by a mob of Italian-American youths, Jungle Fever examines the sexual mythology that surrounds interracial romance. Yusuf was killed because they thought he was the black boyfriend of one of the girls in the neighborhood, Lee told Newsweek. What it comes down to is that white males have problems with black mens sexuality. Its as plain and simple as that. They think weve got a hold on their women.

Jungle Fever looks at issues of race, class, and gender by focusing on community response to the office affair of a married, black architect and his Italian-American secretary. Lee concludes that interracial relationships are fueled by culturally based, stereotypical expectations. You were curious about black I was curious about white, the architect explains when the couple parts ways. But Lee insisted in an interview with Newsweek that the film does not advocate separatism. The characters arent meant to represent every interracial couple. This is just one couple that came together because of sexual mythology.

Although it received mixed reviews, Jungle Fever succeeded in whetting the appetite of Lee groupies for further controversy. Malcolm X, Lees pièce de resistance, satisfied even the most voracious.

Malcolm X

Sparking controversy from the moment of its inception, the making of Malcolm X became a personal mission for Lee, who had long been an admirer of the legendary black leader. Vowing to cut no corners, Lee planned a biographical film of epic proportions that required months of research, numerous interviews, and even an unprecedented trip to Saudi Arabia for authentic footage of Malcolms pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca; taken shortly before his assassination in 1965, this journey that is said to have brought on a significant transformation in Malcolms ideology.

The final product, a three-hour-and-21-minute production, traces Malcolm Xs development from his impoverished, rural roots to his final years as an ever-evolving activist. I knew this was going to be the toughest thing I ever did, Lee told Time. The film is huge in the canvas we had to cover and in the complexity of Malcolm X.

Lee fought tooth and nail to win the right to direct the film and to defend his vision of Malcolm X from the start. When he learned of plans by Warner Bros, to make Malcolm X, Norman Jewison had already been chosen as its director. After Lee told the New York Times that he had a big problem with a white man directing the film, Jewison agreed to bow out.

Lee, however, faced considerable resistance to his role as director of the film. Led by poet and activist Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones), an ad hoc group that called itself the United Front to Preserve the Memory of Malcolm X and the Cultural Revolution voiced its opposition to Lees direction in an open letter. Our distress about Spikes making a film on Malcolm is based on our analysis of the [exploitative] films he has already made, Ebony quoted the group as saying.

But Lees spat with Baraka was only a momentary setback. He still had to deal with reworking an unsatisfactory script, which had been started by African American novelist James Baldwin shortly before his death and completed by writer Arnold Perl. And when Lee first locked horns with Warner Bros, over Malcolm Xs budget, he was bracing for another prolonged battle.

Initially, the director had requested $40 million for the filman amount that was necessary, he claimed, in order to accurately portray all of the phases of his subjects life. The studio countered with a $20-million offer, prompting Lee to raise an additional $8.5 million by selling foreign rights to the film, kick in a portion of his own $3-million salary, and, to make up the difference, acquire the backing of a host of black celebrities, including Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Janet Jackson, and Prince much to the studios embarrassment. It didnt look good for Warner Bros, that Spike had to go to prominent African Americans to finish the movie, noted Entertainment Weekly. When the film was completed, Barry Reardon, the studios president of distribution, conceded, Spike did a fabulous job. He knows theaters, hes very smart. This is Oscars all the way.

Although Malcolm X received no Oscars, the film played a significant role in the elevation of the black leader to mythic status; it also spawned a cultural phenomenon often referred to as Malcolm-mania. By the time the movie was released, its logo, a bold X, was pasted on everything from a ubiquitous baseball cap to posters, postcards, and T-shirts. Whats more, a plethora of spin-off products was born, ranging from serious scholarly studies to a plastic Malcolm X doll, complete with podium and audio cassette. Promotional merchandise for the film was marketed by Lee himself through Spikes Joint, a chain of stores that comprise a portion of the directors growing business empire.

Lee is quick to defend himself against charges of commercialism. In fact, he says, Malcolm Xs philosophythat African Americans need to build their own economic baseis the motivation for his business investments. I think weve done more to hold ourselves back than anybody, Lee told Esquire. If anybodys seen all my films, I put most of the blame on our shoulders and say, Look, were gonna have to do for ourselves. . . I feel we really have to address our financial base as a people.

Lees innate ability to do for himself, his father suggested in an interview with Mother Jones, is the key to his success as a filmmaker. Spike was kind of chosen, he explained. I think there was something spiritual about it. He inherited it from his family. [The ability] to make a statement. Fellow filmmaker John Singleton, writing in Essence, said of Lee, No other Black contemporary entertainer can claim to enlighten so many young Black people. But, as he stated in the New York Times, Lee wants even more to prove that an all-black film directed by a black person can still be universal.

In mid-1993 Lee began shooting his seventh feature film, Crooklyn, a comic tribute to his childhood memories of life in Brooklyn in the 1970s.

Selected writings

Films: Screenwriter and director

Joes Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, 1982.

Shes Gotta Have It, released by Island, 1986.

School Daze, released by Columbia, 1988.

Do the Right Thing, released by Universal Pictures, 1989.

Mo Better Blues, released by Universal Pictures, 1990.

Jungle Fever, released by Universal Pictures, 1991.

(Coauthor) Malcolm X, released by Wamer Bros., 1992.

Other writings

Spike Lees Gotta Have It: Inside Guerilla Filmmaking, Simon & Schuster, 1987.

(With Lisa Jones) Uplift the Race: The Construction of School Daze, Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Do the Right Thing: The New Spike Lee Joint, Simon & Schuster, 1989.

Mo Better Blues, Simon & Schuster, 1990.

By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of Making Malcolm X, Hyperion, 1992.

Sources

America, August 19, 1989; September 15, 1990; August 10, 1991.

American Film, July/August 1989; September 1989.

Ann Arbor News, October 30, 1992; November 18, 1992.

Commonweal, November 8, 1991.

Detroit News, January 26, 1992.

Ebony, November 1991.

Emerge, November 1991, pp. 28-32.

Entertainment Weekly, November 27, 1992.

Esquire, August 1991.

Essence, November 1991, p. 64.

Film Comment, July/August 1989.

Jet, June 10, 1991.

Macleans, February 17, 1992, p. 60.

Mother Jones, September 1989.

Ms., September/October 1991.

Newsweek, February 15, 1988; August 6, 1990; June 10, 1991; February 3, 1992, p. 30; November 16, 1992, pp. 67-72.

New York, June 17, 1991.

New Yorker, August 13, 1990; June 17, 1991; October 12, 1992.

New York Times, August 9, 1987; November 15, 1992; November 29, 1992; December 6, 1992.

People, July 10, 1989; March 5, 1990; August 13, 1990; June 22, 1992.

Rolling Stone, November 26, 1992, pp. 36-40, 80-81.

Time, June 17, 1991; March 16, 1992.

Upscale, October/November 1992.

Vanity Fair, June 1991, pp. 70, 80-92.

Video, February 1990; February 1991.

Vogue, August 1990.

Nina Goldstein

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Goldstein, Nina. "Lee, Spike 1957–." Contemporary Black Biography. 1994. Encyclopedia.com. 23 Jul. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Spike Lee

Spike Lee

Controversial filmmaker Spike Lee (born ca. 1957) is known for powerful films such as She's Gotta Have It (1986), School Daze (1988), Do The Right Thing (1989), Mo' Better Blues (1990), Malcolm X (1992), and many others.

"Fight the power," the theme song to his 1989 film Do the Right Thing, could easily be Spike Lee's personal motto. From his earliest days as a student filmmaker to his $33-million epic Malcolm X, Lee has shown a willingness to tackle prickly issues of relevance to the black community—and has savored every ounce of controversy his films invariably produce. "Spike loves to fight," the filmmaker's friend and business associate Nelson George told Vanity Fair. "There's a gleeful look he gets, a certain kind of excitement in his eyes when sh-t is being stirred up." "I guess you could call me an instigator," Lee admitted in an interview with Vogue.

Although the bane of Hollywood executives, Lee's delight in playing the provocateur has not only made his own films bankable, but has also created an industry-wide awareness of an untapped market niche. Following the unforeseen box office success of Lee's earliest films, Hollywood's gates have opened to a new generation of young African American filmmakers. "Spike put this trend in vogue," Warner Bros. executive vice president Mark Canton told Time. "His talent opened the door for others." Lee relishes his role as path-paver. "Every time there is a success," he explained to Ebony, "it makes it easier for other blacks. The industry is more receptive than it has ever been for black films and black actors. We have so many stories to tell, but we can't do them all. We just need more black filmmakers."

Shelton Jackson Lee was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on the eve of the civil rights era. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York, an area that would figure largely in his work as a mature filmmaker. Lee's awareness of his African American identity was established at an early age. His mother, Jacquelyn, infected her children with a schoolteacher's enthusiasm for black art and literature. "I was forced to read Langston Hughes, that kind of stuff," Lee told Vanity Fair. "And I'm glad my mother made me do that." His father, Bill, an accomplished jazz musician, introduced him to African American jazz and folk legends like Miles Davis and Odetta.

By the time he was old enough to attend school, the already independent Lee had earned the nickname his mother had given him as an infant, Spike—an allusion to his toughness. When he and his siblings were offered the option of attending the predominantly white private school where his mother taught, Lee opted instead to go the public route, where he would be assured of the companionship of black peers. "Spike used to point out the differences in our friends," recalled his sister Joie, who was a private school student. "By the time I was a senior," she told Mother Jones, "I was being channeled into white colleges." Lee chose to go to his father's and grandfather's all-black alma mater, Morehouse College, where he majored in mass communication.

Pursued Film Career

It was at Morehouse that Lee found his calling. Following his mother's unexpected death in 1977, Lee's friends tried to cheer him with frequent trips to the movies. He quickly became a fan of directors Bernardo Bertolucci, Martin Scorsese, and Akira Kurosawa. But it wasn't until he had seen Michael Cimino's Deer Hunter that Lee knew the die was cast. His friend John Wilson recalled their conversation on the ride home from the film in an interview with Vanity Fair. "John, I know what I want to do," Lee had said. "I want to make films." But not just any films: Lee wanted to make films that would capture the black experience, and he was willing to do so by whatever means necessary. "Spike didn't just want to get in the door of the house," Wilson explained. "He wanted to get in, rearrange the furniture— then go back and publicize the password."

Lee pursued his passion at New York University, where he enrolled in the Tisch School of Arts graduate film program. One of only a handful of African American students, he wasted no time incurring the wrath of his instructors with his affinity for "rearranging the furniture." As his first-year project, Lee produced a ten-minute short, The Answer, in which a black screenwriter is assigned to remake D.W. Griffith's classic film The Birth of a Nation. The Answer was panned. Although the film program's director, Eleanor Hamerow, told the New York Times, "it's hard to redo Birth of a Nation in ten minutes," Lee suspected that his critics were offended by his digs at the legendary director's stereotypical portrayals of black characters. "I was told I was whiskers away from being kicked out," he told Mother Jones. "They really didn't like me saying anything bad about D.W. Griffith, for sure."

Hardly deterred, Lee went on to produce a 45-minute film that won him the 1983 Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Student Academy Award, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. Although the honor enhanced his credibility as a director, it didn't pay the bills. Faced with the reality of survival, Lee worked for a movie distribution house cleaning and shipping film while hustling funds for a semi-auto-biographical film, The Messenger.

A coming-of-age story about a young bicycle messenger, The Messenger was aborted prematurely when sufficient funding failed to materialize. "We were in preproduction the entire summer of 1984, waiting on this money to come, and it never did," Lee told Vanity Fair. "Then, finally, I pulled the plug. I let a lot of people down, crew members and actors that turned down work. I wasn't the most popular person. We were devastated." But all was not lost; Lee had learned his lesson. "I saw I made the classic mistakes of a young filmmaker, to be overly ambitious, do something beyond my means and capabilities," he said. "Going through the fire just made me more hungry, more determined that I couldn't fail again."

Scored a Surprise Hit with She's Gotta Have It

When he filmed She's Gotta Have It a year later, Lee's determination payed off. Made on a shoestring $175,000 budget in just twelve days, the black-and-white picture was shot on one location with a limited cast and edited on a rented machine in Lee's apartment. By the time it was completed, Lee was so deeply in debt that his processing lab threatened to auction off the film's negative.

After Island Pictures agreed to distribute it, She's Gotta Have It finally opened in 1986. A light comedy centering on sex-loving artist Nola Darling and her relationships with three men, the film pokes fun at gender relations and offers an insightful spin on stereotypical macho male roles. It packed houses not only with the black audience Lee had anticipated, but also with a crossover, art-house crowd. Grossing over $7 million, the low-budget film was a surprise hit.

With the success of She's Gotta Have It, Lee became known in cinematic circles not only as a director, but also as a comic actor. Mars Blackmon—one of Nola's rival lovers, played by Lee—won an instant following with his now-famous line, "Please baby, please baby, please baby, baby, baby, please." "After She's Gotta Have It, Spike could have gone a long way with Mars Blackmon," the film's co-producer Monty Ross told Mother Jones. "He could've done Mars Blackmon the Sequel, Mars Blackmon Part 5. " Not anxious to be typecast, though, Lee "said to the studios 'Mars Blackmon is dead."'

School Daze: A Microcosm of Black Life

With a major hit under his belt and the backing of Island Pictures, Lee had more latitude with his next film, a musical called School Daze. An exposé of color discrimination within the black community, School Daze draws on Lee's years at Morehouse. "The people with the money," he told the New York Times, "most of them have light skin. They have the Porsches, the B.M.W.'s, the quote good hair unquote. The others, the kids from the rural south, have bad, kinky hair. When I was in school, we saw all this going on." This black caste system, Lee explained to Newsweek, was not a limited phenomenon. "I used the black college as a microcosm of black life."

School Daze created a brouhaha in the black community: while many applauded Lee's efforts to explore a complex social problem, others were offended by his willingness to "air dirty laundry." Everyone agreed that the film was controversial. When production costs reached $4 million, Island Pictures got hot feet and pulled out. Within two days, Lee had arranged a deal with Columbia Pictures that included an additional $2 million in production costs. But Columbia, then under the direction of David Puttnam, apparently misunderstood the film's true nature. "They saw music, they saw dancing, they saw comedy," Lee told Mother Jones. By the time School Daze was released in 1988, Puttnam had been ousted. Despite the fact that the studio's new management failed to promote it, the film grossed $15 million.

Explored Racial Tensions in Do the Right Thing

School Daze established Lee's reputation as a director ready to seize heady issues by the horns. Do the Right Thing, released in 1989, confirmed it. The story of simmering racial tension between Italian and African Americans in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, the film becomes a call to arms when violence erupts in response to the killing of a black man by white police officers. It ends on a note of seeming ambiguity with two irreconcilable quotes: Martin Luther King Jr.'s, "The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind." followed by Malcolm X's, "I am not against violence in self-defense. I don't even call it violence when it's self-defense. I call it intelligence."

The meaning of "the right thing," Lee told People, is not ambiguous. "Black America is tired of having their brothers and sisters murdered by the police for no reason other than being black." "I'm not advocating violence," he continued. "I'm saying I can understand it. If the people are frustrated and feel oppressed and feel this is the only way they can act, I understand."

Critical response to the film was both enthusiastic and wary. Media critic Roger Ebert called it "the most honest, complex and unblinking film I have ever seen about the subject of racism." Others voiced warnings of possible violence. New York magazine said, "Lee appears to be endorsing the outcome, and if some audiences go wild he's partly responsible."

Striking a Balance: Mo' Better Blues

Despite the fact that Do the Right Thing failed to inspire the predicted violence, Lee chose a lighter topic for his next film—a romance. The saga of a self-centered jazz trumpeter, Bleek Gilliam, whose personal life plays second fiddle to his music, "Mo' Better Blues is about relationships," Lee explained to Ebony. "It's not only about man-woman relationships, but about relationships in general—Bleek's relationship to his father and his manager, and his relationship with two female friends. Bleek's true love is music, and he is trying to find the right balance."

Bleek's character was inspired by Lee's jazz-musician father, Bill Lee, who wrote the film's score. "Bleek is my father's nickname," Lee told People. The character's dilemma—the need to temper the obsessive nature of the creative act—however, has universal relevance. That theme, Newsweek suggested, is one with which the director himself can readily identify.

Although recognized for its technical mastery and snappy score—partially the result of a $10 million budget— Mo' Better Blues received tepid reviews. "The movie is all notions and no shape," said the New Yorker, "hard, fierce blowing rather than real music." And more than one critic took offense at Lee's shallow treatment of female characters and ethnic stereotyping of Jewish jazz club owners Moe and Josh Flatbush.

Examined Interracial Love in Jungle Fever

In his next film, Jungle Fever, Lee explored the theme of romance further—but this time, from a more provocative slant. Inspired by the 1989 murder of black teenager Yusuf Hawkins by a mob of Italian-American youths, Jungle Fever examines the sexual mythology that surrounds interracial romance. "Yusuf was killed because they thought he was the black boyfriend of one of the girls in the neighborhood," Lee told Newsweek. "What it comes down to is that white males have problems with black men's sexuality. It's as plain and simple as that. They think we've got a hold on their women."

Jungle Fever looks at issues of race, class, and gender by focusing on community response to the office affair of a married, black architect and his Italian-American secretary. Lee concludes that interracial relationships are fueled by culturally based, stereotypical expectations. "You were curious about black … I was curious about white," the architect explains when the couple parts ways. But Lee insisted in an interview with Newsweek that the film does not advocate separatism. The characters aren't meant "to represent every interracial couple. This is just one couple that came together because of sexual mythology."

Although it received mixed reviews, Jungle Fever succeeded in whetting the appetite of Lee groupies for further controversy. Malcolm X, Lee's pièce de résistance, satisfied even the most voracious.

Malcolm X

Sparking controversy from the moment of its inception, the making of Malcolm X became a personal mission for Lee, who had long been an admirer of the legendary black leader. Vowing to cut no corners, Lee planned a biographical film of epic proportions that required months of research, numerous interviews, and even an unprecedented trip to Saudi Arabia for authentic footage of Malcolm's pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca; taken shortly before his assassination in 1965, this journey that is said to have brought on a significant transformation in Malcolm's ideology.

The final product, a three-hour-and-21-minute production, traces Malcolm X's development from his impoverished, rural roots to his final years as an ever-evolving activist. "I knew this was going to be the toughest thing I ever did," Lee told Time. "The film is huge in the canvas we had to cover and in the complexity of Malcolm X."

Lee fought tooth and nail to win the right to direct the film and to defend his vision of Malcolm X from the start. When he learned of plans by Warner Bros. to make Malcolm X, Norman Jewison had already been chosen as its director. After Lee told the New York Times that he had a "big problem" with a white man directing the film, Jewison agreed to bow out.

Lee, however, faced considerable resistance to his role as director of the film. Led by poet and activist Amiri Baraka (formerly Le Roi Jones), an ad hoc group that called itself the United Front to Preserve the Memory of Malcolm X and the Cultural Revolution voiced its opposition to Lee's direction in an open letter. "Our distress about Spike's making a film on Malcolm is based on our analysis of the [exploitative] films he has already made," Ebony quoted the group as saying.

But Lee's spat with Baraka was only a momentary setback. He still had to deal with reworking an unsatisfactory script, which had been started by African American novelist James Baldwin shortly before his death and completed by writer Arnold Perl. And when Lee first locked horns with Warner Bros. over Malcolm X's budget, he was bracing for another prolonged battle.

Initially, the director had requested $40 million for the film—an amount that was necessary, he claimed, in order to accurately portray all of the phases of his subject's life. The studio countered with a $20-million offer, prompting Lee to raise an additional $8.5 million by selling foreign rights to the film, kick in a portion of his own $3-million salary, and, to make up the difference, acquire the backing of a host of black celebrities, including Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Janet Jackson, and Prince—much to the studio's embarrassment. "It didn't look good for Warner Bros. that Spike had to go to prominent African Americans to finish the movie," noted Entertainment Weekly. When the film was completed, Barry Reardon, the studio's president of distribution, conceded, "Spike did a fabulous job. He knows theaters, he's very smart. This is Oscars all the way."

Although Malcolm X received no Oscars, the film played a significant role in the elevation of the black leader to mythic status; it also spawned a cultural phenomenon often referred to as "Malcolm-mania." By the time the movie was released, its logo, a bold "X," was pasted on everything from a ubiquitous baseball cap to posters, postcards, and T-shirts. What's more, a plethora of spin-off products was born, ranging from serious scholarly studies to a plastic Malcolm X doll, complete with podium and audio cassette. Promotional merchandise for the film was marketed by Lee himself through Spike's Joint, a chain of stores that comprise a portion of the director's growing business empire.

Lee is quick to defend himself against charges of commercialism. In fact, he says, Malcolm X's philosophy—that African Americans need to build their own economic base—is the motivation for his business investments. "I think we've done more to hold ourselves back than anybody," Lee told Esquire. "If anybody's seen all my films, I put most of the blame on our shoulders and say, 'Look, we're gonna have to do for ourselves.' … I feel we really have to address our financial base as a people."

Lee is Married

In mid-1993 Lee began shooting his seventh feature film, Crooklyn, a comic tribute to his childhood memories of life in Brooklyn in the 1970s. He managed to take a break from filming, however, in order to marry Linette Lewis. Lewis, a lawyer, had been romantically linked to Lee for a year prior to their wedding. Crooklyn was released in 1994 to mixed reviews and a tepid reception at the box office.

Lee fared far better in 1995 with his next film, Clockers, an adaptation of Richard Price's inner-city novel. Clockers tells the story of two brothers who fall under suspicion of murder. One, a drug-dealer, was ordered to kill the victim by his supplier. The other, an upstanding family man, confesses to the crime, saying that he was attacked in the parking lot. On one level the movie unravels as a whodunit, yet ultimately the "who matters less than the why." According to Richard Schickel of Time, "[Clockers] is more than a murder mystery … At its best, it is an intense and complex portrait of an urban landscape on which the movies' gaze has not often fallen. Yes, this housing project is home to a feckless delinquent population. But it is also home to middle-class black families struggling to preserve their values.…"The film won outstanding reviews, with some criticsciting it as Lee's best work. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly wrote, "Clockers is a work of staggering intelligence and emotional force—a mosaic of broken dreams." Despite the positive critical reception, the film drew neither large audiences nor any Oscar nominations.

In Girl 6, released in 1996, Lee returned to the theme of female sexuality. The movie features an aspiring actress, who becomes so fed up with movie executive asking her for sexual favors, that she resorts to becoming a phone-sex worker in order to make ends meet. The screenplay was written by Suzan-Lori Parks, a respected African-American playwright. Despite her esteemed reputation, critics were disappointed with film's lack of insight into the heroine's character. Critical reception was lukewarm. Stanley Kauffmann of the New Republic wrote, "Lee directs with as close to total lack of conviction as I have seen in a director whose convictions have carried him over some rough spots in the past."

His next film, Get on the Bus, focuses on an eclectic group of African American men riding a bus on their way to the Million Man March in Washington D.C. The men include homosexuals, a mixed race policeman, a Republican, and both young and old men. They learn to overcome their differences as they unite for the march. Get on the Bus, despite its low turnout in movie theaters and criticism by some African Americans, succeeds in capturing the spirit of the Million Man March. In 1997 Lee released 4 Little Girls, a documentary about the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church in 1963. A moving work about a hideous hate crime that claimed the lives of four young girls in their Sunday school, Lee interviewed family members as well as prominent spokespeople such as Coretta Scott King and Walter Cronkite in order to place the event in a broader context of American race relations.

Lee's innate ability to "do for himself," his father suggested in an interview with Mother Jones, is the key to his success as a filmmaker. "Spike was kind of chosen," he explained. "I think there was something spiritual about it. He inherited it from his family. [The ability] to make a statement." Fellow filmmaker John Singleton, writing in Essence, said of Lee, "No other Black contemporary entertainer can claim to enlighten so many young Black people." But, as he stated in the New York Times, Lee wants even more to prove "that an all-black film directed by a black person can still be universal."

Further Reading

America, August 19, 1989; September 15, 1990; August 10, 1991.

American Film, July/August 1989; September 1989.

Ann Arbor News, October 30, 1992; November 18, 1992.

Commonweal, November 8, 1991.

Detroit News, January 26, 1992.

Ebony, November 1991.

Emerge, November 1991, pp. 28-32.

Entertainment Weekly, November 27, 1992.

Esquire, August 1991.

Essence, November 1991, p. 64.

Film Comment, July/August 1989.

Jet, June 10, 1991; October 8, 1996.

Maclean's, February 17, 1992, p. 60.

Mother Jones, September 1989.

Ms., September/October 1991.

Newsweek, February 15, 1988; August 6, 1990; June 10, 1991; February 3, 1992, p. 30; November 16, 1992, pp. 67-72.

New York, June 17, 1991.

New Yorker, August 13, 1990; June 17, 1991; October 12, 1992.

New York Times, August 9, 1987; November 15, 1992; November 29, 1992; December 6, 1992.

People, July 10, 1989; March 5, 1990; August 13, 1990; June 22, 1992.

Rolling Stone, November 26, 1992, pp. 36-40, 80-81.

Time, June 17, 1991; March 16, 1992.

Upscale, October/November 1992.

Vanity Fair, June 1991, pp. 70, 80-92.

Video, February 1990; February 1991.

Vogue, August 1990. □

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"Spike Lee." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. 23 Jul. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Spike Lee." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. Retrieved July 23, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3404703797.html

Lee, Spike 1957–

Spike Lee 1957

Filmmaker

At a Glance

Pursued Film Career

Scored a Surprise Hit

A Microcosm of Black Life

Explored Racial Tensions

Struck a Balance

Examined Interracial Love

Created a Masterpiece

Selected filmography

Selected writings

Sources

Fight the power, the theme song to his 1989 film Do the Right Thing, could easily be Spike Lees personal motto. From his earliest days as a student filmmaker, Lee has shown a willingness to tackle prickly issues of relevance to the African American communityand has savored every ounce of controversy his films invariably produce. Spike loves to fight, the filmmakers friend and business associate Nelson George told Vanity Fair. Theres a gleeful look he gets, a certain kind of excitement in his eyes when shit is being stirred up, he continued. I guess you could call me an instigator, Lee admitted in an interview with Vogue.

Although the bane of Hollywood executives, Lees delight in playing the provocateur has not only made his own films profitable, but has also created an industrywide awareness of an untapped market niche. Following the unforeseen box office success of Lees earliest films, Hollywoods gates have opened to a new generation of young African American filmmakers. Spike put this trend in vogue, Warner Bros. executive vice president Mark Canton told Time. His talent opened the door for others. Lee relishes his role as path-paver. Every time there is a success, he explained to Ebony, it makes it easier for other blacks. The industry is more receptive than it has ever been for black films and black actors. We have so many stories to tell, but we cant do them all. We just need more black filmmakers, he added.

Shelton Jackson Lee was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 20, 1957. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York, an area that would become the setting of many of his films. Lees awareness of his African American heritage was established at an early age. His mother, Jacquelyn, instilled within her children an appreciation for African American art and literature. I was forced to read Langston Hughes, that kind of stuff, Lee told Vanity Fair. And Im glad my mother made me do that. His father, Bill, an accomplished jazz musician, introduced him to African American jazz and folk legends such as Miles Davis and Odetta.

By the time he was old enough to attend school, Lee had earned the nickname his mother had given him as an infant, Spikean allusion to his toughness. When he and his siblings were offered the option of attending the predominantly white private school where his mother

At a Glance

Born Shelton Jackson Lee, March 20, 1957, in Atlanta, GA; son of William (a musician and composer) and Jacquelyn (a teacher; maiden name, Shelton) Lee. Education: Morehouse College, B.A., 1979; New York University, M.F.A., 1982.

Career: Screenwriter, director, actor. Directed Joes Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, 1982; launched Hollywood career with low-budget, black-and-white film Shes Gotta Have It, 1986; also director of music videos and commercials for Nike, Levi-Strauss, and Diet Coke. Opened film production studio 40 Acres and a Mule, 1987, and first Spikes Joint promotional outlet, 1990.

Awards: 1983 Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Student Academy Award for Joes Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads; Cannes Film Festivals Prix de Jeunesse, 1986, for Shes Cotta Have It; two Academy Award nominations for Do the Right Thing.

Addresses: Office 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, 124 DeKalb Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11217.

taught, Lee decided to enroll in the public schools so that he could experience companionship with African Americans. Spike used to point out the differences in our friends, recalled his sister Joie, who was a private school student. By the time I was a senior, she told Mother Jones, I was being channeled into white colleges. Lee decided to major in mass communications at Morehouse College, which is an African American college and his father and grandfathers alma mater.

Pursued Film Career

While at Morehouse College, Lee discovered his true calling. Following his mothers untimely death in 1977, Lees friends tried to cheer him with frequent trips to the movies. He was greatly impressed with the work of directors such as Bernardo Bertolucci, Martin Scorsese, and Akira Kurosawa. However, it was not until he viewed Michael Ciminos The Deer Hunter that Lee realized that he wanted to become a filmmaker. His friend John Wilson recalled their conversation on the ride home from the film in an interview with Vanity Fair. John, I know what I want to do, Lee had said. I want to make films. Lee was determined to create films that captured the essence of the African American experience and was willing to produce them by any means necessary. Spike didnt just want to get in the door of the house, Wilson explained. He wanted to get in, rearrange the furniturethen go back and publicize the password.

Following graduation from Morehouse College, Lee enrolled in New York Universitys Tisch School of Arts graduate film program. Before long, Lee clashed with his instructors. As his first-year film project, Lee produced a ten-minute short, The Answer, in which an African American screenwriter is assigned to remake legendary director D.W. Griffiths classic film The Birth of a Nation. The Answer was widely criticized by his instructors. Although the film programs director, Eleanor Hamerow, told the New York Times, its hard to redo Birth of a Nation in ten minutes, Lee suspected that his critics were offended by his digs at Griffiths stereotypical portrayals of black characters. I was told I was whiskers away from being kicked out, he told Mother Jones. They really didnt like me saying anything bad about D.W. Griffith, for sure.

Lee was unfazed by the criticism The Answer received and produced a 45-minute film entitled Joes Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. The film went on to earn Lee the 1983 Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Student Academy Award. Although the honor enhanced Lees credibility as a director, it didnt pay the bills. Faced with the need to survive, Lee worked for a movie distribution house cleaning and shipping film while raising funds for a semi-autobiographical film, The Messenger.

A coming-of-age story about a young bicycle messenger, The Messenger was aborted prematurely when sufficient funding failed to materialize. We were in pre-production the entire summer of 1984, waiting on this money to come, and it never did, Lee told Vanity Fair. Then, finally, I pulled the plug. I let a lot of people down, crew members and actors that turned down work. I wasnt the most popular person. We were devastated. But all was not lost; Lee had learned his lesson. I saw I made the classic mistakes of a young filmmaker, to be overly ambitious, do something beyond my means and capabilities, he said. Going through the fire just made me more hungry, more determined that I couldnt fail again.

Scored a Surprise Hit

Lees determination paid off when he filmed Shes Gotta Have It in 1985. Completed in only 12 days and on a shoestring budget of $175,000, the black-and-white film was shot on one location with a limited cast and edited on a rented machine in Lees apartment. By the time Shes Gotta Have It was completed, Lee was so deeply in debt that his processing lab threatened to auction off the films negative.

After Island Pictures agreed to distribute it, Shes Gotta Have It finally opened in theaters in 1986. A light comedy centering on sex-loving artist Nola Darling and her relationships with three men, the film pokes fun at gender relations and offers an insightful spin on stereotypical male roles. It was a hit not only with African American audiences, but also with crossover, art-house patrons. Grossing over $7 million dollars, the film was a surprise hit.

A Microcosm of Black Life

With a major hit under his belt and the backing of Island Pictures, Lee released his next film, School Daze, in 1988. An exposé of color discrimination within the African American community, School Daze draws on Lees years at Morehouse. The people with the money, he told the New York Times, most of them have light skin. They have the Porsches, the B.M.W.s, the quote good hair unquote. The others, the kids from the rural south, have bad, kinky hair. When I was in school, we saw all this going on. This black caste system, Lee explained to Newsweek, was not a limited phenomenon. I used the black college as a microcosm of black life.

School Daze created controversy within the African American community. Although Lee was applauded for exploring a complex social problem, many people were offended by his willingness to air dirty laundry. When production costs ballooned to $4 million, Island Pictures pulled out of the project. Within two days, Lee had arranged a deal with Columbia Pictures that included an allowance for an additional $2 million in production costs. Although Columbia didnt actively promote School Daze, it still grossed $15 million.

Explored Racial Tensions

School Daze established Lees reputation as a director who was willing to tackle controversial issues. He continued this trend with the release of Do the Right Thing in 1989. The story of simmering racial tensions between Italian and African Americans in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, Do the Right Thing becomes a call to arms when violence erupts in response to the killing of an African American man by white police officers. The meaning of the right thing, Lee told People, is not ambiguous. Black America is tired of having their brothers and sisters murdered by the police for no reason other than being black. Im not advocating violence, he continued. Im saying I can understand it. If the people are frustrated and feel oppressed and feel this is the only way they can act, I understand.

Struck a Balance

In 1990, Lee chose a romantic theme for his next film, Mo Better Blues. The film tells the story of a self-centered jazz trumpeter, Bleek Gilliam, whose personal life plays second fiddle to his music. Mo Better Blues is about relationships, Lee explained to Ebony. Its not only about man-woman relationships, but about relationships in generalBleeks relationship to his father and his manager, and his relationship with two female friends. Bleeks true love is music, and he is trying to find the right balance.

Although recognized for its technical mastery and snappy score, Mo Better Blues received only tepid reviews. The movie is all notions and no shape, said the New Yorker, hard, fierce blowing rather than real music. More than one critic took offense at Lees shallow treatment of female characters and the ethnic stereotyping of Jewish jazz club owners Moe and Josh Flatbush.

Examined Interracial Love

In his 1991 film, Jungle Fever, Lee explored the theme of romance from a more provocative slant. Inspired by the 1989 murder of black teenager Yusuf Hawkins by a mob of Italian American youths, Jungle Fever revolves around the office affair of a married, African American architect and his Italian American secretary. The film examines the sexual mythology that surrounds interracial romance. Yusuf was killed because they thought he was the black boyfriend of one of the girls in the neighborhood, Lee told Newsweek. What it comes down to is that white males have problems with black mens sexuality. Its as plain and simple as that. They think weve got a hold on their women. Although it received only mixed reviews, Jungle Fever set the stage for Lees next controversial film, Malcolm X.

Created a Masterpiece

The filming of Malcolm X became a personal mission for Lee, who had long been an admirer of the legendary African American leader. He planned a biographical film of epic proportions that required months of research, numerous interviews, and even an unprecedented trip to Saudi Arabia for authentic footage of Malcolms 1964 pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. The film, a three-hour-and-21-minute epic, traces Malcolm Xs development from his impoverished, rural roots to his final years as an ever-evolving activist. I knew this was going to be the toughest thing I ever did, Lee told Time. The film is huge in the canvas we had to cover and in the complexity of Malcolm X.

Although Malcolm X received no Oscars, the film was a box office hit and played a significant role in the elevation of Malcolm X to mythic status. It also spawned a cultural phenomenon often referred to as Malcolm-mania. By the time the movie was released in 1992, its logo, a bold X, was pasted on everything from a ubiquitous baseball cap to posters, postcards, and T-shirts. In addition, a wide variety of spin-off products was born, ranging from serious scholarly studies to a plastic Malcolm X doll, complete with podium and audio cassette. Lee was quick to defend himself against charges of commercialism. He remarked that his merchandising of the film was in line with Malcolm Xs own philosophythat African Americans need to build their own economic baseI think weve done more to hold ourselves back than anybody, Lee told Esquire. If anybodys seen all my films, I put most of the blame on our shoulders and say, Look, were gonna have to do for ourselves. I feel we really have to address our financial base as a people.

Following the success of Malcolm X, Lee fell into a moviemaking slump as his next three projects failed at the box office. His 1994 semi-autobiographical film Crooklyn grossed only $13.6 million, a poor showing when compared with Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever, which made $28 million and $33 million, respectively. Crooklyn chronicled the everyday struggles of the Carmichaels, a middle-class African American family living in Brooklyn during the 1970s. Critics criticized the films structure, which was based more on random incidents in the life of the family than on an actual plot.

Lees 1995 film, Clockers, focused on a murder investigation in a New York City housing project. The plot revolved around a pair of African American brothersthe older one is struggling to get out of poverty through honest means, while the younger works as one of a cadre of drug pushers known as clockers, because they work around the clock. The brothers become the focus of a murder investigation when the older brother confesses to a killing that the younger brother had been ordered to commit by a local drug lord. The movie did not fare well at the box office.

In 1996, Lee released Girl 6. This comedy starred Theresa Randle as an aspiring actress who becomes a phone-sex operator. Relishing the control she exerts over the men who call her, a control which is absent in her own life, Girl 6 becomes obsessed with her work. Critics widely panned the film and criticized its shallow depictions of women. Girl 6 also fizzled at the box office. That same year, Lee produced the film Get on the Bus. The plot revolved around a busload of African American men who are traveling to the historic Million Man March in Washington, D.C. Along the way, the men discuss issues such as manhood, religion, politics, and race. By the time they arrive in Washington, D.C. the men, once strangers, have become brothers and friends. Released one year after the Million Man March, the movie was a critical success although it did not receive widespread distribution.

In 1997, Lee released a documentary film 4 Little Girls. The chronicles the events leading up to the September 15, 1963 bombing of an African American church in Birmingham, Alabama by white racists. The bombing claimed the lives of four girls who were in the church at the time. The film, which included archival film footage, photographs, and interviews with people active in the civil rights movement, resurrected a painful chapter in American history and received favorable critical reviews.

Lee married his two great lovesfilmmaking and basketballfor the 1998 movie He Got Game. The movie depicts the corruption and temptation which are the hallmarks of professional sports recruiting, as experienced by a high school basketball star, Jesus Shuttles-worth. Complicating the decisions surrounding Jesus career is his convict-father, Jake, who has been temporarily released from jail on orders from the governor to convince Jesus to attend the governors alma mater. Starring the popular actor Denzel Washington as Jake, and Milwaukee Bucks guard Ray Allen as Jesus, the film received favorable reviews.

In addition to filmmaking, Lee is an astute businessman. He has established Spikes Joint, a chain of apparel boutiques, in several cities and created his own record label, 40 Acres & A Mule Musicworks. He also owns a production company, 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks. Lee also formed his own advertising agency, Spike/DDB, after partnering with the noted advertising agency, DDB Needham, in early 1997. He also authored Best Seat in the House: A Basketball Memoir, which was published in 1997.

In October of 1993, Lee married Tonya Linette Lewis after a brief courtship. Their daughter, Satchel, was born in 1994. In 1997, Tonya gave birth to their son, Jackson Lewis. The Lee family resides in New York City where Lee, a rabid basketball fan, is a regular spectator at New York Knicks basketball games.

Selected filmography

Shes Gotta Have It, Island, 1986.

School Daze, Columbia, 1988.

Do the Right Thing, Universal Pictures, 1989.

Mo Better Blues, Universal Pictures, 1990.

Jungle Fever, Universal Pictures, 1991.

Malcolm X, Warner Bros., 1992.

Crooklyn, Universal Pictures, 1994.

Clockers, Universal Pictures, 1995.

Girl 6, 20th Century Fox, 1996.

Get on the Bus, Sony Pictures, 1996.

4 Little Girls, 40 Acres and a Mule, 1997.

He Got Game, Buena Vista Pictures, 1998.

Selected writings

By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of Making Malcolm X, Hyperion, 1992.

Best Seat in the House: A Basketball Memoir, Random House, 1997.

Sources

America, August 19, 1989; September 15, 1990; August 10, 1991.

American Film, July/August 1989; September 1989.

Ann Arbor News, October 30, 1992; November 18, 1992.

Chicago Sun-Times, September 13, 1995.

Commonweal, November 8, 1991.

Detroit News, January 26, 1992.

Ebony, November 1991.

Emerge, November 1991, pp. 28-32.

Entertainment Weekly, November 27, 1992.

Esquire, August 1991.

Essence, November 1991, p. 64.

Film Comment, July/August 1989.

Jet, June 10, 1991.

Macleans, February 17, 1992, p. 60.

Mother Jones, September 1989.

Ms., September/October 1991.

The Nation, June 1, 1998, pp. 35-36.

Newsweek, February 15, 1988; August 6, 1990; June 10, 1991; February 3, 1992, p. 30; November 16, 1992, pp. 67-72; April 22, 1996, p. 75.

New York, June 17, 1991.

New Yorker, August 13, 1990; June 17, 1991; October 12, 1992.

New York Times, August 9, 1987; November 15, 1992; November 29, 1992; December 6, 1992.

People, July 10, 1989; March 5, 1990; August 13, 1990; June 22, 1992.

Rolling Stone, November 26, 1992, pp. 36-40, 80-81.

Time, June 17, 1991; March 16, 1992; September 18, 1995.

Upscale, October/November 1992.

Vanity Fair, June 1991, pp. 70, 80-92.

Video, February 1990; February 1991.

Vogue, August 1990.

Washington Post, March 22, 1996; October 18, 1996.

Other

Additional information for this profile was obtained from the IAC Insite World-Wide Web site, http://web4.iacinsite.com/insite, and the CelebSite, last updated January 12, 1998, http://www.celebsite.com/ (accessed September 2, 1998).

Nina Goldstein and Rebecca Parks

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Goldstein, Nina; Parks, Rebecca. "Lee, Spike 1957–." Contemporary Black Biography. 1999. Encyclopedia.com. 23 Jul. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

Goldstein, Nina; Parks, Rebecca. "Lee, Spike 1957–." Contemporary Black Biography. 1999. Encyclopedia.com. (July 23, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2872100050.html

Goldstein, Nina; Parks, Rebecca. "Lee, Spike 1957–." Contemporary Black Biography. 1999. Retrieved July 23, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2872100050.html

Lee, Spike

Spike Lee

Born: March 20, 1957
Atlanta, Georgia

African American filmmaker, actor, and author/poet

Controversial (arousing opposing viewpoints) filmmaker Spike Lee is known for powerful films such as She's Gotta Have It (1986), School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), Mo' Better Blues (1990), Malcolm X (1992), and many others.

Lee's youth

Shelton Jackson Lee was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 20, 1957. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Lee's awareness of his African American identity was established at an early age. His mother, Jacquelyn, encouraged her children's enthusiasm for African American art and literature. She took her children to galleries, plays, and museums. Her position as a teacher at a private school was often the only income the family had. His father, Bill, was an accomplished jazz musician. Spike would sometimes go with his father to the clubs where he played.

By the time Lee was old enough to attend school, the already independent child had earned the nickname his mother had given him as an infant, Spikean indirect reference to his toughness. When he, his two younger brothers, and one younger sister were offered the option of attending the chiefly white private school where his mother taught, Lee chose instead to go to public school, where he would be assured the companionship of black peers. He graduated from John Dewey High School in Brooklyn. For college, Lee chose to go to the all-black college his father and grandfather had attended, Morehouse College, where he majored in mass communication.

Pursued film career

It was at Morehouse that Lee found his calling. Following his mother's unexpected death in 1977, Lee's friends tried to cheer him with frequent trips to the movies. He quickly became a fan of directors and movies of that time and discovered that he wanted to make films that would capture the black experience, and he was willing to do so by whatever means necessary.

Lee pursued his passion at New York University (NYU), where he enrolled in the Tisch School of Arts graduate film program. He was one of only a handful of African American students. Lee went on to produce a forty-five-minute film that won him the 1983 Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Student Academy Award, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. Although the honor improved his credibility as a director, it did not pay the bills. Lee worked for a movie distribution house cleaning and shipping film.

Scored a surprise hit with She's Gotta Have It

When Lee filmed She's Gotta Have It a year later, his determination to be a director paid off. After Island Pictures agreed to distribute the movie, it finally opened in 1986. A light comedy, She's Gotta Have It pokes fun at gender relations and offers an insightful spin on stereotypical macho male roles. It packed houses with African American audiences and with a crossover, art-house crowd. With the success of She's Gotta Have It, Lee became known in cinematic circles not only as a director, but also as a comic actor. He played a supporting role in the film and was tremendously popular as this character.

School Daze: a microcosm of black life

Lee next made a musical called School Daze. A film about color discrimination (treating people differently based on race, gender, or nationality) within the African American community, School Daze draws on Lee's years at Morehouse. He saw the lighter skinned African Americans as having the material possessions and polish that the southern, rural students did not have. This black caste (division of society) system, Lee explained to Newsweek, was not limited to just this collegiate set. Lee used it as a small sample of black life in general. School Daze created a commotion in the black community: while many applauded Lee's efforts to explore a complex social problem, others were offended by his willingness to "air dirty laundry." Everyone agreed that the film was controversial.

Explored racial tensions in Do the Right Thing

Do the Right Thing, released in 1989, confirmed Lee's reputation as someone willing to seize controversial issues by the horns. A story of simmering racial tension between Italian Americans and African Americans in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, the film becomes a call to arms when violence erupts in response to the killing of an African American man by white police officers. Critical response to the film was both enthusiastic and wary.

Striking a balance: Mo' Better Blues

Lee chose a lighter topic for his next filma romance. The saga is about a self-centered jazz trumpeter, Bleek Gilliam, whose personal life plays second fiddle to his music. The movie explores the different relationships this man has with friends, family, and women. Bleek's character was inspired by Lee's jazz-musician father, Bill Lee, who wrote the film's score. Although recognized for its technical mastery and snappy score, Mo' Better Blues received unenthusiastic reviews.

In Jungle Fever, Lee's next film, he looks at issues of race, class, and gender by focusing on community response to the office affair of a married, black architect and his Italian American secretary. Lee concludes that interracial relationships are often fueled by culturally based, stereotypical expectations.

Malcolm X

Sparking controversy from the beginning, the making of Malcolm X (19251965) became a personal mission for Lee, who had long been an admirer of the legendary African American leader. The film traces Malcolm X's development from his poor, rural roots to his final years as an activist. Lee worked hard to overcome many obstacles that threatened the creation of his masterpiece. His creative problem solving and dedication to the film were the forces behind its completion.

Although Malcolm X received no Oscars, the film played a significant role in the elevation of the black leader to legendary status; it also spawned a cultural phenomenon often referred to as "Malcolm-mania." Promotional merchandise for the film was marketed by Lee himself through Spike's Joint, a chain of stores that comprise a portion of the director's growing business empire.

Lee is married

In mid-1993 Lee began shooting his seventh feature film, Crooklyn, a comic tribute to his childhood memories of life in Brooklyn in the 1970s. He managed to take a break from filming, however, to marry Linette Lewis. Lewis, a lawyer, had been romantically linked to Lee for a year prior to their wedding. Crooklyn was released in 1994 to mixed reviews and a mild reception at the box office.

Lee fared far better in 1995 with his next film, Clockers. It tells the story of two brothers who fall under suspicion of murder. One, a drug dealer, had been ordered by his supplier to kill the victim. The other, an upstanding family man, confesses to the crime, saying that he was attacked in the parking lot. The film won outstanding reviews, with some critics citing it as Lee's best work.

In 1996 Lee released Get on the Bus, which focuses on a diverse group of African American men riding a bus on their way to the Million Man March (a rally organized in 1995 to celebrate the strength of the African American community) in Washington, D.C. They learn to overcome their differences as they unite for the march. Lee followed that film with 4 Little Girls, a documentary about the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama, church in 1963, where four African American girls lost their lives.

Lee as a teacher

Lee works as an educator as well. He has taught at New York University and also at Harvard. In March of 2002 Lee became the artistic director of NYU's Kanbar Institute of Film and Television. He works with students on their thesis projects and helps them to make contacts in the entertainment field. Lee enjoys working with the students and challenges them to work hard.

"Fight the power," the theme song to his 1989 film Do the Right Thing, could easily be Spike Lee's personal motto. From his earliest days as a student filmmaker to his $33-million epic Malcolm X, Lee has shown a willingness to tackle prickly issues of significance to the African American communityand has enjoyed the controversy his films produce.

For More Information

Bernotas, Bob. Spike Lee: Filmmaker. Hillside, NJ: Enslow, 1993.

Hardy, James Earl. Spike Lee. New York: Chelsea House, 1996.

Haskins, James. Spike Lee: By Any Means Necessary. New York: Walker, 1997.

McDaniel, Melissa. Spike Lee: On His Own Terms. New York: Franklin Watts, 1998.

Patterson, Alex. Spike Lee. New York: Avon Books, 1992.

Shields, Charles J. Spike Lee. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2002.

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Lee, Spike

Spike Lee (Shelton Jackson Lee), 1957–, American filmmaker, b. Atlanta, Ga. He gained recognition as a student at New York Univ. with his graduation film, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1982). His films usually celebrate the richness of African-American culture and address such societal problems as racism, sexism, and narcotics addiction. She's Gotta Have It (1986), mainly about sexual relations and attitudes, established Lee as a commercially viable director. His Do the Right Thing (1989) presented the complexities and tensions behind interracial relations.

Many of his subsequent films have been controversial—Jungle Fever (1991), an exploration of interracial relations and attitudes; Malcolm X (1992), based on the life of the African-American leader; Clockers (1995), a violent portrait of life at the lowest reaches of the drug underworld; Girl 6 (1996), a high-spirited portrayal of a young woman in the phone sex business; and The Original Kings of Comedy (2000), a series of racially charged stand-up routines by four contemporary African-American comedians. He broke with his traditional style and subject matter to make Inside Man (2006), a polished heist movie.

Lee first turned to documentary with 4 Little Girls (1996), a study of the fatal 1963 bombing of a black church in Alabama. When the Levees Broke (2006) documented Hurricane Katrina and its harrowing aftermath in New Orleans; If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise (2010) was its sequel. His Oldboy (2013), a revenge story about a man kidnapped for 20 years then freed, is a remake of a 2003 South Korean film. Lee changed cinematic course again with Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2015), a vampire tale set in Brooklyn and Martha's Vineyard and based on a 1973 Bill Gunn film. The musical film Chi-Raq (2015), based on Aristophanes' Lysistrata, is set amid the murderous gang violence of Chicago's South Side.

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Lee, Spike

Lee, Spike ( Shelton Jackson) (1957– ) US film director, screenwriter and actor. His first feature, the stylish comedy She's Gotta Have It (1986), was a box-office success. Do the Right Thing (1989) was a bleak meditation on urban racism in the USA. After the jazz film Mo' Better Blues (1990), Lee made the controversial Jungle Fever (1991), another piece on racial integration. Other films include Malcolm X (1992), Clockers (1996), Summer of Sam (1999), and Bamboozled (2000).

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