Spike Lee is the great chronicler of our age. The director looked left when everyone else was looking right. He challenged the Hollywood status quo at a time when African-American filmmakers were marginalized; demanding diversity and giving airplay to alternative narratives.
Since his debut feature She’s Gotta Have It had its premiere at Cannes in 1986, Spike Lee has been pegged as a director who focuses on race. Critics didn’t know what other box to put the filmmaker in who featured middle class black Americans in the dating game, or going to a all-black college (School Daze) and making movies about mixed-race relationships (Jungle Fever).
While it’s true that he made the greatest American film about racism, Do The Right Thing, Spike Lee brought the Malcolm X story to screen in 1992, surveyed the history of racism toward African-Americans in Bamboozled, and was a leading figure in the #OscarsSoWhite debate, he has covered so many more topics than race and identity politics.
The crack epidemic (Jungle Fever), the cult of celebrity in sports (He Got Game), education (School Daze), artificial insemination (She Hate Me), serial killers and punk (Summer of Sam), gun laws (Chi-raq), Hurricane Katrina (When the Levees Broke), the Birmingham Church Bombing (4 Little Girls), the aftermath of 9/11 (25th Hour) as well as documentaries on Michael Jackson and Jim Brown.
His signature shot is the moving dolly shot. A protagonist so shocked that while he is standing, the floor literally seems to move from under him. It’s the effect that his entertaining narrative looks at America have on the viewer.
To achieve his dream of being a movie director, he had to break down barriers and live up to the ‘Spike’ moniker. Before him there had been the forgotten movie pioneer Oscar Micheaux and those associated with Blacksploitation films, but no African-American had attained the status of auteur.
Born Shelton Jackson Lee in Atlanta, Georgia, Spike Lee’s jazz musician father and English teacher mother, who was the first to nickname him Spike, moved the young family to Brooklyn, New York, where he fell in love with art, sports and the big city. At NYU Film School, his contemporaries included Jim Jarmusch, Ang Lee, Howard Brookner and Ernest Dickerson.
His 1983 student film Joe Beds-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads won a student Academy Award. Yet when it came to feature film making, Lee had to hustle. For She’s Gotta Have It, he went, cap in hand, to his friends to raise the $175,000 budget. For Malcolm X when the finances ran dry and Warner Bros. refused to release more money he called upon leading African American figures -Prince, Janet Jackson, Michael Jordan, Earvin (Magic) Johnson, Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, and Peggy Cooper Cafritz – to make up the multi-million dollar shortfall.
So when Kickstarter campaigns became fashionable, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Spike Lee turned to the platform to raise the $1.5 million budget for his thriller Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. After all, he is a risk-taker who banked on audiences wanting to hear stories told from an African-American perspective.
He is an auteur who challenged the status quo and won. He foresaw the racial divisions that would lead to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. He talks about subjects others prefers to sweep under the carpet. As he turns 60, filmmaking needs more pioneers like Spike Lee.
Kaleem Aftab is the writer of “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it: A biography of Spike Lee”.