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.
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.
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.
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.