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Filmmakers Who Matter: Spike Lee

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A discussion about filmmakers who have made an impact would be deficient without the inclusion of Spike Lee. Always bold, controversial, and compelling, Lee’s films have run the gamut of the issues and have had momentous cultural impact. While African Americans have worked in Hollywood since the 1920s thanks to the pioneering work of Oscar Micheaux, few have mattered as much as Spike Lee.

Lee’s films were often frank critiques of social and political issues. His fans are numerous, but so are his detractors. Lee is often shamefully dubbed a racist by those who lack an understanding of his films and is often underestimated as a great director of great actors. His work with performers like Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne, and Angela Bassett helped further the careers of those actors. Lee’s work in film also cleared a path for other young African American filmmakers, like John Singleton and Matty Rich. His impact in the world of film is significant and his career is remarkable.


Spike Lee was born in Atlanta, but moved with his family to Brooklyn, New York, when he was a small child. His mother nicknamed him “Spike” as he was growing up. Lee attended Morehouse College, where he completed his first student film entitled Last Hustle in Brooklyn. Taking film courses in Clark Atlanta University and finishing up with a B.A. in Mass Communication out of Morehouse, Lee focused on a career in film early on. He originally wanted to be a major league baseball player, but the movie bug bit him soon enough.

By 1978, Spike Lee had graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Film and Television out of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Other notable grads out of the Tisch School of the Arts include Oliver Stone, Ang Lee, and Martin Scorsese. For his master’s thesis in 1983, Lee submitted the film Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. The project won a Student Academy Award and was the first student film to be showcased in Lincoln Center’s New Directors New Films Festival.

Nike’s Gotta Have It

In 1985, Lee began work on his first feature film. She’s Gotta Have It was made on a shoestring budget of around $175,000, marking an end to Blaxploitation and a new beginning in African American filmmaking. The movie did well and helped bring about the American indie film movement of the 1980s. She’s Gotta Have It depicted African Americans as intellectual and eloquent urbanites, marking a stern shift from previous efforts.

The movie was so successful that Nike came calling. After marketing execs from the shoe giant saw the film, they offered Spike a job at directing commercials. The idea was to use Lee’s character, the Michael Jordan-loving Mars Blackmon, and Air Jordan himself to help market the latest shoe line named after the basketball star.

Doing the Right Thing

After 1988’s School Daze, Spike Lee released what would become one of his most admired films to date. Do the Right Thing hit theatres in 1989. Starring Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee, Do the Right Thing told a story of intolerance and racial conflict in a colourful Brooklyn neighbourhood on the hottest day of the year.

In 1999, Lee’s film was considered “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress and was selected for entry into the National Film Registry. In 2007, AFI listed Do the Right Thing as the 96th greatest film in American history. Upon the film’s release, controversy erupted after a reviewer from a New York magazine suggested that black viewers would riot upon having seen the film. Lee responded by suggesting that the reviewer was off-base for assuming that black audiences were incapable of restraining themselves while watching a fictional movie.

Jazz, Jungle Fever, and X

Following the success of Do the Right Thing, Lee focused his attention on a film about a jazz trumpeter with Mo’ Better Blues. The film was rather tepid, but featured a good performance by Denzel Washington. Jungle Fever would hit theatres and controversy in 1991, as the subject of interracial romance still proved to be a bit too controversial for some audiences and critics.

In 1992, Lee tackled his long-awaited dream project, the biopic Malcolm X. The film is the first non-documentary and the first American-produced film to be given authorization to film in Mecca or within the Haram Sharif. Through the use of a second film crew (because non-Muslims are not allowed inside the city), Malcolm X broke boundaries. Warner Bros. wanted Lee to trim the film down by a half hour, but several celebrities came to Lee’s aid and helped finance the project.

Toning It Down

After the draining process of filming Malcolm X and his previous films, Lee settled down a bit and 1994’s Crooklyn was based on his own experiences growing up. The comic look at a young girl and her family didn’t resonate overly well with audiences and is rather forgettable, save for its great soundtrack. Crooklyn was followed by Clockers, Girl 6, and Get on the Bus. Each film was different, but none of them gathered much by way of accolades or acclaim.

Lee Splits the Critics

Spike Lee’s next series of films would split the critics and provide even more controversy to an already contentious career. With 4 Little Girls, Lee tackled a documentary about the racially motivated bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church that killed four pre-teens in 1963. He Got Game was next, which was a look inside the world of high school basketball.

1999’s Summer of Sam split the critics again, with many of them hating his look at the Son of Sam and others loving the style. Bamboozled did the same, as many critics found the satire a bit too raw and unfunny. 25th Hour and She Hate Me were similar in terms of response, as critics again divided over Lee’s work. His films in the 1990s and 2000s were often controversial and troublesome, but they were also always fascinating.

When the Levees Broke

After the excellent crime drama Inside Man, Spike Lee tackled another documentary. In When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, the gifted filmmaker surveys the damage of Hurricane Katrina and questions the government response. The film is powerful and is as good a documentary as I’ve seen. Clocking in at four hours, the movie ran in two parts on HBO.

Why Spike Lee Matters

Spike Lee is often equated with racism. Many might even call him a racist. But his movies deal with life and all of the elements in it. Sure, Lee is angry at times, but his antagonism and rage is justified in most cases and fuels his creativity in many profound ways. Without his feeling and emotion in some of his best projects, Lee is just another filmmaker. It’s because he is so controversial, angry, and so damn interesting that his films stand the test of time.

Like with Do the Right Thing, Lee’s movies can be seen as a sort of litmus test for audiences. Some might empathize with some of the characters and deride the others, while a different audience will feel a completely different way. Lee’s ability to conduct an orchestra of colour, feeling, and passion for his audience is part of what makes him special.

Whether he’s frustrating, comical, angry, or thoughtful, Spike Lee is always interesting. Even at a Knicks game, he might be the most mesmerizing person there. He once said that only white people could be racist because black people didn’t have the power to be racist. He never keeps his mouth shut, never holds his tongue, and never hides his opinion.

With Spike Lee, you either love him or you hate him. You either find beauty in his films or you don’t. There’s not much room for middle ground with him. As he grows older, his movies take on a more poignant feel and something unique appears to be on the horizon. Lee has made most of the movies he’s always wanted to make, or so he says, but he’ll likely never stop being appealing. With Miracle at St. Anna due in October 2008, perhaps a new chapter in his life will be set to film.

Suggested Filmography

  • She's Gotta Have It – 1986
  • Do the Right Thing – 1989
  • Jungle Fever – 1991
  • Malcolm X – 1992
  • 4 Little Girls – 1997
  • Summer of Sam – 1999
  • Bamboozled – 2000
  • 25th Hour – 2002
  • Inside Man – 2006
  • When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts – 2006
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About Jordan Richardson

  • ‘With Spike Lee, you either love him or you hate him. You either find beauty in his films or you don’t. There’s not much room for middle ground with him.’

    Lee is a one dimensional filmmaker w no understanding of narrative nor characterization. He would have been far better as a cinematographer, and let most of the scripting duties fall to competent screenwriters.

    And, his direction of actors is not good at all. He coaxes the most facile performances possible- be it actors like Wesley Snipes or John Turturro.

    In that sense, he’s akin to Steven Spielberg- another filmmaker w a great visual sense, but utterly bankrupt of storytelling powers. Whereas Spielberg goes saccharine, Lee goes moralistic. Either way, w either one, though, the experience after the film is always a disappointment.

    So, that’s middle ground, and why Spike Lee- save for his status as a black filmmaker, won’t be studied in film schools fifty years from now.

  • bliffle

    I agree with Dan. I just reprised “Clockers” last week and while I found it interesting to watch, and thought the Harvey Keitel characterization was interesting, I just couldn’t get involved with any of the characters or plots.