Lee, Spike (1957—)

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Lee, Spike (1957—)

A controversial artist and a wizard at self-promotion, Spike Lee became America's best known African-American filmmaker in the 1980s. By the end of the 1990s, Lee became widely recognized in critical circles as one of the top five most important filmmakers in America. With a string of provocative films dealing as never before with the complexity of contemporary African-American urban life, Lee helped energize the spirit of independent filmmaking in the United States. Over time, Spike Lee managed to become one of the most highly visible celebrities in America through his entrepreneurial ventures, his controversial statements in the media, and his daring artistic achievements in film.

The filmmaker was born Shelton Jackson Lee on March 20, 1957 in Atlanta. His parents relocated to Brooklyn, New York, in 1959. During his early childhood in the 1960s, Lee spent many of his summers visiting relatives in the South, where he encountered vicious displays of racial segregation. As he grew older, Lee borrowed from these experiences to create films that would come to explore the detrimental effects of bigotry on the cultural fabric of American life.

After studying communications at Morehouse College in the mid-1970s, Lee undertook graduate studies at New York University's film school. Upon graduation in 1982, Lee received the Student Academy Award for his third-year thesis project, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. Despite the critical acclaim generated for his student film, Lee found himself unable to raise significant money for a feature project. The budding filmmaker remained determined, however. Lee claims that the experience "cemented in my mind what I always thought all along: that I would have to go out and do it alone, not rely on anyone else."

The director's independent spirit served him well in the years following his graduation from school. By 1986, Lee had amassed the financial and emotional support of his friends in order to write, produce, direct, edit, and co-star in his first feature, She's Gotta Have It. Inspired by the unprecedented success of Prince's Purple Rain (1984), She's Gotta Have It marked a drastic change in the climate of filmmaking in the United States. Financed using creative ingenuity, She's Gotta Have It contrasted typical films of the era through its use of aggressive filmmaking techniques and its decision to portray the subtleties of African-American life. The film was a huge success for an independent feature, drawing lines around the block in its cinematic presentation in New York.

She's Gotta Have It earned Lee a major prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Yet the film received equal amounts of glowing praise and stinging criticism, as would most of Lee's work to follow. A number of white critics found the film to be unrealistic in comparison to previous films dealing with African-American subject matter. A handful of African-American female critics also took issue with Spike Lee's portrayal of the female lead character. Nonetheless, the film proved the commercial clout of African-American audiences who wanted to see realistic portrayals instead of rote stereotypes. It also put a number of African-Americans who had been previously excluded from film jobs to work behind-the-scenes as cinematographers, designers, and costumers. Eventually, the success of She's Gotta Have It helped launch a black new wave of filmmaking. Often referred to as "New Jack Cinema," this movement brought to visibility a series of young black male artists who wrote screenplays and directed films about their personal experiences around African-American identity.

Lee followed She's Gotta Have It with School Daze (1988), a contentious musical comedy dealing with the politics of skin color on a historically black college campus. His next film Do the Right Thing (1989) marked the beginning of Lee's association with Universal Pictures and proved to be a watershed moment in the director's career. An inflammatory tale of racism in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Do the Right Thing grossed over thirty million dollars and was heralded by many critics. Some, however, felt that the film's dubious message would provoke rather than amend racial violence. Do the Right Thing received the L.A. Film Critics Award for picture, director, and screenplay. Yet the acclaimed film was virtually ignored at the Academy Awards, earning Lee only a single nomination for Best Screenplay. Despite this mixed reception, it was clear that the director had gained new levels of visibility in American society. In fact, Lee became known in the media for his open criticism of black celebrities whom he felt had neglected their racial communities. Soon after the release of Do the Right Thing, the director began to earn a reputation for his flamboyant, off-the-cuff remarks in the media around issues of race.

In the years to follow, the sharp-tongued director continued to make movies about African-American life that intended to enlighten audiences. Mo' Better Blues (1990) was a tale of a black jazz musician (played by Denzel Washington) and his relationship with two women. The film fared moderately at the box office but drew sharp criticism for its portrayals of Jews. A cautionary tale of interracial desire,Jungle Fever (1991) made a box office impact. Yet the film was overshadowed by other films from the movement of "New Jack Cinema" that Spike Lee had helped to generate, including John Singleton's acclaimed Boyz 'n' the Hood (1991).

Lee finally won the rights in the early 1990s to undertake his most ambitious project: a film biography of the great Muslim civil rights leader Malcolm X, starring Denzel Washington. The project marked the first time an epic film of such scope had employed a black director and a black leading star. Yet even before its release, Malcolm X received negative critical attention from African-American critics who felt Lee was only interested in commercializing the civil rights legend for his own personal gain. When Lee eventually ran into financial trouble and could not finish the film, he received charitable donations from a number of prominent black celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey and Prince. Upon release in 1992, the lavish and accomplished film earned its money back. But despite much publicity, the film failed to amass major awards or other critical attention.

After Malcolm X, Lee returned to films smaller in scope and size but still rich in content and theme. Cowritten by his siblings, Crooklyn (1994) was Lee's semi-autobiographical tale of his childhood in 1970s Brooklyn. After fathering his first child with wife Tonya Lewis, Lee then filmed Clockers (1994) and Girl 6 (1995). Get on the Bus (1995), a low-budget feature about the historic Million Man March, marked Lee's return to independent forms of film production.

As the commercial viability of his films waned, Lee's skills at self-promotion and his entrepreneurial ambitions kept him in the public limelight. By the late 1980s, Lee had launched a self-merchandising store in Brooklyn, and he had begun to direct music videos for artists like Tracy Chapman and Public Enemy. He directed and co-starred in a popular series of Nike commercials with Michael Jordan and he established a music division from his production company, 40 Acres and Mule. In the late 1990s, Lee authored a book about his love for basketball and he formed a merger with DDB Needham, a major advertising firm. In 1998, Spike Lee released He Got Game for Disney's Touchstone Pictures. The film centered around the director's central pre-occupations, in and out of the spotlight: fatherhood, basketball, and celebrities. Re-teaming Denzel Washington with Spike Lee, He Got Game became the director's first film to open at number one on the box office charts and it also received extensive critical praise.

Although Lee has been criticized for his controversial films and statements in the media, he has helped changed the segregated nature of filmmaking by bringing African-American talent to the fore. While highly contentious, Lee's films have helped expand conversation in American society around the issue of racial prejudice, often allowing audiences new ways of seeing the plight of black people in the contemporary moment. Lee's films have been widely praised for providing positive images of black people that have managed to counteract the history of previous stereotypes in Hollywood. A visionary artist and a highly visible figure in American popular culture, Lee has left an indelible legacy.

—Jason King

Further Reading:

Breskin, David. "Spike Lee: The Rolling Stone Interview." Rolling Stone, July 11-25, 1991, 64.

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

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