It’s twenty years since the release of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (it feels a lot longer, not sure why). The BFI is celebrating the occasion with a season on the Southbank in London and we are also going to get some screenings up here in Bradford. I’m also planning a course, so it seems a good idea to revisit the work of Spike Lee, one of the most controversial directors working today. I’ve seen most, but not all, of Lee’s features so I’ve got some catching up to do and some re-viewings. I’m not qualified to judge how well he represents African-American culture, though I feel like I’ve learned a lot from his films. Although race is a major topic for him, his films are also about gender, social class, the family and a host of other issues. Most of all though he is a stylist and I think that his films are distinctive because of their visual qualities, the use of music and great casting. Lee is a genuine auteur. There are few filmmakers whose work is instantly recognisable from their company’s name. But when you see the announcement that a film is from ‘40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks‘, you know that it is a Spike Lee Joint, sho’ nuff.
I’d have to say that I haven’t yet seen a bad Spike Lee film or perhaps more accurately, I haven’t yet seen a Spike Lee film that wasn’t interesting in terms of style, content and commitment. I know that there are commentators that I respect, such as Armond White, who are very down on Spike and accuse him of blocking out other more worthwhile filmmakers because of his vigorous self-promotion and propensity to ‘say it like it is’ as loudly as possible – but even when I don’t necessarily agree with him, I think it is better that he is out there saying things than keeping schtumm.
Spike Lee was born in 1957 in Atlanta but grew up in Brooklyn, New York City. He went back to college in Atlanta at the famous Black school, Morehouse, before developing his filmmaking skills back in New York at the Tisch School a couple of years behind Jim Jarmusch. Lee’s father is a noted jazz musician and composer and his mother was a teacher. His father has worked on the music for several of Lee’s films and his family life has clearly influenced his filmmaking.
In 1986, Lee’s first ‘commercial’ feature She’s Gotta Have It, a low budget independent film, was one of the earliest successes of what became known as American Independent Cinema. Since then, Lee has been continuously working on fiction features, documentaries, TV dramas, music videos and commercials, all produced by his own company. As of August 2009, Lee had released 20 features (fiction and documentary) and another 20 TV/video/commercials etc. This is a staggering achievement given the conservative nature of the mainstream American film business and the forthright arguments put forward by producer/writer/director/actor Spike Lee. This hasn’t prevented major features like the last Spike Lee Joint, the Miracle at Santa Anna (2008) from failing to get a proper release outside North America. Personally, I find it difficult to imagine what the winning documentaries must have been like that prevented Lee’s 4 Little Girls (1997) and When the Levées Broke (2006) from claiming Oscar success. But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised given the commercial failure of Bamboozled (2000), the biting satire on the racism in American television. In the same year, Lee had a big commercial success with a documentary/concert film featuring four African-American comedians, The Original Kings of Comedy. Lee is tough and sharp when it comes to surviving in the American film industry. It would be good to discuss what we think his films have contributed to global film culture over twenty years and more.
I would put Spike Lee into my Top 10 American filmmakers of the last twenty years without hesitation.