Spike Lee Essay - Critical Essays

Lee, Spike


Spike Lee 1957–

(Full name Shelton Jackson Lee) American director, producer, screenwriter, nonfiction writer, and actor.

The following entry presents an overview of Lee's career through 1996.

Spike Lee has become a cultural icon in America. Known for his outspokenness as well as for his films, Lee has attracted both controversy and critical attention. Tackling such topics as racism, the life of slain African-American activist Malcolm X, interracial relationships, phone sex, and the world of drug dealing, Lee's work has met with mixed reviews. His greatest impact in the realm of film has been the presentation of a different picture of African Americans to the moviegoing public, and his success has created opportunities for other African-American directors.

Biographical Information

Lee was born on March 20, 1957, in Atlanta, Georgia, to William and Jacqueline Lee. His father was a musician and composer, and his mother was a teacher. While he was still a baby, Lee's mother nicknamed him Spike for his toughness. His family moved to Chicago and then to Brooklyn when he was very young, and many of his films are set in Brooklyn neighborhoods similar to the ones in which he spent his youth. His mother died in 1977, and his father later remarried a Jewish woman. From the beginning of his career, Lee has involved his family in his film productions. Lee's father scored several of his films, and his sister has acted in many of the movies as well. Lee attended his grandfather's and father's alma mater, Morehouse College, where he received his B.A. in 1979. He first became interested in filmmaking during college, and after graduation he attended New York University film school. His first film was a short parody of D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, which was not well-received by the faculty. In the film he criticized Griffith's condescending portrayal of African Americans. He went on to win the Student Director's Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Joe's Bed-Stuy Barber Shop: We Cut Heads (1982). To make ends meet after film school, Lee worked at a movie distribution house cleaning and shipping film. His first film after N.Y.U. was the low budget She's Gotta Have It (1986), which won the Prix de Jeunesse from the Cannes Film Festival and the New Generation Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics. After the success of his first film, Hollywood's interest in Lee enabled him to make bigger budget pictures, but he still operated with considerably less money than most Hollywood movies. Even with help from Hollywood, Lee remains an independent filmmaker who has had to provide his own financing for most of his films. He started his own production company, Forty Acres and a Mule, named for the unfulfilled promise of what would be given to every African American at the end of slavery. Lee also acts as his own manager and agent. He has managed to retain creative control over the final cuts of his movies because he does not rely solely on financial backing from studios.

Major Works

Lee's films focus on various aspects of contemporary African-American life. She's Gotta Have It centers on the life of Nola Darling, a young woman with strong sexual desires who does not believe in restricting herself to one man to fulfill them. Nola represents a modern, independent woman who makes her own choices about her sexuality, yet in the end she discovers she loves the man who rapes her. Lee's second major film was School Daze (1988), a musical which parodies the conflict between light-skinned and dark-skinned African Americans at an all-black college in the South. Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989) follows a day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn on the hottest day of the summer. Racial tensions rise, culminating in the murder of a young African-American man by the police and the burning of a local pizzeria. In Mo' Better Blues (1990), Lee explores the world of a jazz musician and the conflicts between his creative life and his love life. Lee's next project, Jungle Fever (1991), centers on an interracial affair between an African-American architect and his Italian-American secretary. The relationship is met with scorn and violence from the families and members of the neighborhood. "Jungle fever" describes the phenomenon of sexual attraction between the races based on sexual myths, and the film explores this aspect of interracial relationships as opposed to relationships based on love and culminating in marriage. Malcolm X (1992) was one of Lee's most ambitious projects and covers the life of African-American activist Malcolm X. Crooklyn (1994) is a semi-autobiographical movie that Lee wrote with his sister and brother. The story follows a few months in the life of a family in the 1970s. The Carmichael family lives in Brooklyn; the father is a musician, the mother a teacher. The film is told from the perspective of the 10-year-old daughter and follows her as she deals with the death of her mother and her journey to adulthood. In Clockers (1995) Lee tells the story of an African-American teenager who becomes a drug dealer. The character is able to rationalize his decision to deal crack until he sees the murder and black-on-black violence that drugs bring about. With Girl 6 (1996) Lee returned to a female protagonist. The heroine is an actress who becomes disenchanted when a director asks her to take her top off during a reading. She turns to the phone sex business to make a living and is quite successful. When a sadistic customer reveals that he knows where she lives, Girl 6 decides to leave the business, move to California, and resume her acting career. The film closes as it began, with a director asking her to take off her top, but this time she calmly finishes her monologue and leaves.

Critical Reception

Critics who review Lee's work often digress into discussions of Lee's persona in addition to or instead of his films. Some assert that Lee is a keen commentator on contemporary society and a cinematic innovator. Others describe him as an untalented commercial sellout. Lee is typically criticized for his lack of technical virtuosity. Reviewers point to his use of a moving screen behind two still characters to make them appear to be walking as a sign of his amateurish preoccupation with cinematic gadgetry. Feminists often complain about Lee's portrayal of women. bell hooks states that "Like many females in Lee's audience, I have found his representation of women in general, and black women in particular, to be consistently stereotypical and one-dimensional." The female protagonist of She's Gotta Have It came closest to a portrait of a modern, independent woman, but critics assert that the rape scene subverted the character Lee had created. Reviewers point to Nola's rape as a punishment for her sexual independence, and the scene has caused many reviewers to accuse Lee of sexism and misogyny. Lee is sometimes compared to Woody Allen because New York City plays such a pivotal role in both directors' films and both directors act in their own movies. Lee resists the comparison, however, citing the lack of African Americans in Allen's films as an unrealistic portrayal of the racial makeup of New York. Some reviewers complain that Lee's work is superficial and that his plots lack focus. Bert Cardullo, writing in The Hudson Review, asserts that Lee "prefers to do the easier thing: cram his film with incident rather than exploration, with texture rather than subtext." Most critics mention the ambiguity in Lee's films, including the question of what the right thing is in his Do the Right Thing. Reviewers are divided on the success of the ambiguity. Some praise Lee for refusing to give his audience simple Hollywood answers, while others complain that his films are unstructured with unfocused plots. Despite the controversy surrounding the filmmaker, most critics agree that Lee's portrayal of the everyday lives of African Americans is new and refreshing, and his success will make it possible for other African-American directors to make further contributions.

∗Principal Works

Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (film) 1983
She's Gotta Have It (film) 1986
Spike Lee's "Gotta Have It": Inside Guerilla Filmmaking (nonfiction) 1987
School Daze (film) 1988
Uplift the Race: The Construction of "School Daze" [with Lisa Jones] (nonfiction) 1988
Do the Right Thing (film) 1989
"Do the Right Thing": The New Spike Lee Joint [with Lisa Jones] (nonfiction) 1989
Mo' Better Blues (film) 1990
"Mo' Better Blues" [with Lisa Jones] (nonfiction) 1990
Jungle Fever (film) 1991
Malcolm X [with Arnold Perl and (uncredited) James Baldwin; based on the book The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written by Alex Haley] (film) 1992
By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of "Malcolm X" [with Ralph Wiley] (nonfiction) 1992
Crooklyn [with Joie Lee and Cinqué Lee] (film) 1994
Clockers [with Richard Price; based on Price's novel of the same title] (film) 1995
Girl 6 [written by Suzan-Lori Parks] (film) 1996
Get on the Bus [written by Reggie Rock Bythewood] (film) 1996
Best Seat in the House: A Basketball Memoir [with Ralph Wiley] (nonfiction) 1997
4 Little Girls (documentary film) 1997

∗In addition to directing the films listed here, Lee has also directed numerous television commercials and music videos. Bracketed information refers to screenwriting credit only.


Stuart Mieher (essay date 9 August 1987)

SOURCE: "Spike Lee's Gotta Have It," in The New York Times Magazine, August 9, 1987, pp. 26-9, 39, 41.

[In the following essay, Mieher discusses the making of Lee's School Daze and his emerging success as a filmmaker.]

The scene is an old fairgrounds building in Atlanta, now Madame Re-Re's Beauty Salon, a surreal creation of plywood, plaster and paint. The set has been packed with a score of dancers, a film crew and the director Spike Lee, all of them sweating under 140,000 watts of lighting to piece together a production number. Now the crew is taking a break. The dancers, overheated, head for cooler air outside.

Lee wanders out too, a short,...

(The entire section is 3640 words.)

David Handelman (essay date 13-27 July 1989)

SOURCE: "Insight to Riot," in Rolling Stone, No. 556/557, July 13-27, 1989, pp. 104-9, 174-5.

[In the following essay, Handelman discusses the making of Lee's Do the Right Thing and its reception at the Cannes Film Festival.]

"I don't need this shit!" says USA Today gossip columnist Jeannie Williams. It's the morning of May 19th, and Williams has just seen the breakfast press screening of Do the Right Thing at the Cannes film festival. Tonight, the film will have its black-tie, red-carpet gala première at the Palais des Festivals, on the Côte d'Azur beach, where it will be competing with films from around the world for the coveted Palm d'Or...

(The entire section is 4770 words.)

Jim Merod (essay date Summer 1991)

SOURCE: "A World without Whole Notes: The Intellectual Subtext of Spike Lee's Blues," in Boundary 2, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 238-51.

[In the following essay, Merod analyzes Lee's portrayal of jazz in his Mo' Better Blues, and includes a discussion with other scholars about the importance of jazz in the film.]

The depiction of jazz musicians and of jazz-related subjects in the history of North American film has suffered from the chronic neglect and misunderstanding that still marks this culture's pathological abuse of creative energy. The inventory of that abuse is poised to expand with another dramatic adventure in applied techno-sadism as...

(The entire section is 5390 words.)

Spike Lee with Janice Mosier Richolson (interview date 1991)

SOURCE: "He's Gotta Have It: An Interview with Spike Lee," in Cineaste, Vol. 18, No. 4, 1991, pp. 12-15.

[In the following interview, Lee discusses his film Jungle Fever and his approach to filmmaking.]

Spike Lee is a filmmaker with a vision and an agenda. He makes no bones about it: his purpose is to hold his cinematic mirror up to reflect African-American reality as experienced by his generation. These are the young blacks who grew up after the civil rights movement and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. They have seen the dream of a Great Society and Affirmative Action crumble into crackhouses and quota-babble.


(The entire section is 3363 words.)

Benjamin Saltman (review date Winter 1991–92)

SOURCE: A review of Jungle Fever, in Film Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 2, Winter, 1991–92, pp. 37-41.

[In the following review, Saltman discusses Lee's Jungle Fever, asserting that 'Amid his pop sociology and artistic excesses, Lee demonstrates a thoroughly contemporary consciousness and the ability to put it on film."]

Spike Lee developed his skills in independent movie making and music videos, working his way up to become an American auteur—perhaps not quite ready to be an artistic successor to Woody Allen, but ready to enter the social and political space left by Costa-Gavras and Godard, and in racial issues to locate himself somewhere between...

(The entire section is 2123 words.)

Bert Cardullo (review date Winter 1992)

SOURCE: "Law of the Jungle," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLIV, No. 4, Winter, 1992, pp. 642-7.

[In the following excerpt, Cardullo discusses Lee's Jungle Fever and suggests that Lee watch African films to "discover something not only about artistic economy, about the virtue (and resonance) of a simple tale straightforwardly told, but also about the culture of his Mother Africa."]

… Spike Lee's Jungle Fever is about villagers of a different kind: those of New York City, which, with the possible exception of upper Manhattan, is America's most parochial city. (My mother, who spent the first forty years of her life in Brooklyn, rarely felt the need to...

(The entire section is 2341 words.)

Spike Lee with Gary Crowdus and Dan Georgakas (interview date December 1992)

SOURCE: "Our Film Is Only a Starting Point: An Interview with Spike Lee," in Cineaste, Vol. 19, No. 4, 1993, pp. 20-4.

[In the following interview, which took place in December, 1992, Lee discusses the making of the film Malcolm X, and explains his reasons for excluding certain material.]

In addition to our Critical Symposium on Malcolm X, Cineaste felt it was important to talk to Spike Lee and incorporate his comments in our overall perspective on the film. In the following interview, Lee explains his primary desire to introduce Malcolm X to young viewers and his awareness that the time limits of even a nearly three and a half hour movie prevented him...

(The entire section is 5268 words.)

bell hooks (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Male Heroes and Female Sex Objects: Sexism in Spike Lee's Malcolm X," in Cineaste, Vol. 19, No. 4, 1993, pp. 13-5.

[In the following essay, hooks discusses Lee's treatment of women in his films, and asserts that by leaving out the title character's half sister from Malcolm X, "Lee continues Hollywood's devaluation of black womanhood."]

In all Spike Lee's films, he is at his creative best in scenes highlighting black males. Portraying black masculinity through a spectrum of complex and diverse portraits, he does not allow audiences to hold a stereotypical image. For that reason alone, I imagined Malcolm X would be a major work, one of his...

(The entire section is 2116 words.)

Bill Nasson (essay date December 1993)

SOURCE: "A 'Whiteout': Malcolm X in South Africa," in The Journal of American History, Vol. 80, No. 3, December, 1993, pp. 1199-1201.

[In the following essay, Nasson discusses the reception of Lee's Malcolm X in South Africa.]

In Spike Lee's modest contribution to method writing, By Any Means Necessary, a high-octane account of the making of Malcolm X, we learn that on the Johannesburg shoot to capture Nelson Mandela as a Soweto teacher for the film's final clip, "there was a whiteout of our activities, like we were never there, according to the news organizations of South Africa." There is a nice whiff of radical audacity to this, but it is quite...

(The entire section is 1375 words.)

bell hooks (essay date August 1994)

SOURCE: "Sorrowful Black Death Is Not a Hot Ticket," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 4, No. 8, August, 1994, pp. 10-14.

[In the following essay, hooks asserts that Lee's Crooklyn presents an "anti-woman, anti-feminist vision of black family life."]

Hollywood is not into plain old sorrowful death. The death that captures the public imagination in movies, the death that sells, is passionate, sexualised, glamorised and violent. Films like One False Move, True Romance, Reservoir Dogs, Menace II Society, A Perfect World bring us the sensational heat of relentless dying. It's fierce—intense—and there is no time to mourn. Dying that makes audiences contemplative,...

(The entire section is 4722 words.)

Manohla Dargis (review date December 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Crooklyn, in Sight and Sound, December, 1994, pp. 44-5.

[In the following review, Dargis praises Lee's Crooklyn citing the camera work, the music, and the fact that the film is presented through the eyes of a nine-year-old African-American girl.]

For a number of years now, Spike Lee has made more of a name for himself as an ideologue and entrepreneur than as a film-maker. Although he's one of the busiest of directors—six features, in addition to TV commercials, music videos, a production company, a record business, retail stores—his off-screen words and deeds have often commanded as much if not more attention than his work in film....

(The entire section is 835 words.)

Amy Taubin (review date October 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Clockers, in Sight and Sound, October, 1995, p. 45.

[In the following review, Taubin asserts that "In terms of form and content [Clockers is] easily Lee's riskiest and most accomplished film to date," but argues that the film does have flaws.]

In a drug-ridden Brooklyn housing project, Strike is a 16-year-old-clocker (lowest level drug dealer). Troubled by ulcers so severe they cause him to spit blood, he is nevertheless the favourite of Rodney Little, the local crack kingpin. Rodney asks Strike to prove his loyalty by killing Darryl, a young pusher that Rodney claims has been cheating him.

Strike heads for Ahab's, a...

(The entire section is 1127 words.)

Leslie Felperin (review date June 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Girl 6, in Sight and Sound, June, 1996, pp. 43-4.

[In the following review, Felperin analyzes Lee's Girl 6 as a response to criticism of Lee's treatment of female characters and in terms of its relationship to his earlier film She's Gotta Have It.]

New York City. The present. A young actress goes for an audition with a famous director, but when he insists she take her top off, she walks out, upset and humiliated. Her agent is furious with her, but her upstairs neighbour, Jimmy, offers sympathy. Fed up with low-paying jobs, she speaks to a woman who runs a 'phone-sex' business, but because she hasn't got her own line she has to look...

(The entire section is 1422 words.)

Colette Lindroth (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Spike Lee and the American Tradition," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 1, 1996, pp. 26-31.

[In the following review, Lindroth discusses Lee's Do the Right Thing as an American narrative in the tradition of Huckleberry Finn.]

From the moment it opened, Spike Lee's movie Do the Right Thing has raised questions and aroused controversy among critics and ordinary moviegoers alike. From its initial success at the Cannes Film Festival to its almost complete exclusion from the Academy Award nominations, the film has provoked heated response from both defenders and attackers, and publications as disparate as Vogue, The New Yorker, American...

(The entire section is 3432 words.)

Kent Jones (essay date January/February 1997)

SOURCE: "The Invisible Man: Spike Lee," in Film Comment, Vol. 33, No. 1, January/February, 1997, pp. 42-7.

[In the following essay, Jones discusses Lee's body of work.]

The proof of Spike Lee's insight is the clamor of opposing rash positions around his films—how difficult is it to imagine a scene from a Lee movie in which a gaggle of film critics scream their opinions about the relative worth of a young African-American filmmaker's oeuvre in each other's faces, shot in contrasting off-angles and perfectly sculpted light? His less sophisticated admirers, in other words those who are unwilling to apply the same sort of hardworking analysis to his work that he applies...

(The entire section is 3729 words.)

Further Reading


Baker, Houston A., Jr. "Spike Lee and the Commerce of Culture." Black American Cinema, edited by Manthia Diawara, New York: Routledge, 1993, 154-76.

Discusses the cinematic critique Lee has developed throughout his career, and laments the absence of a Black feminist critique in the director's work.

Burgess, Dana L. "Vergilian Modes in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing." Classical and Modern Literature: A Quarterly 11, No. 4 (Summer 1991): 313-16.

Asserts that Lee employs Vergilian modes in his Do the Right Thing and discusses the ambiguity of the film's...

(The entire section is 496 words.)