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.
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 on Spike Lee
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.