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Perhaps one of the most controversial filmmakers to emerge during the explosion of independent directors in the 1980s, Spike Lee single-handedly changed the way African-Americans were perceived in Hollywood films. Starting with "She's Gotta Have It" (1986), a stylish, ultra-low budget comedy that became an unexpected commercial success and planted him firmly on the map. Right out of the gate, Lee directed a series of films that dealt with the uneasy topic of race in his often brash, unapologetic style. His most widely known production, "Do the Right Thing" (1989), proclaimed with no uncertainty that dealing with racism on film could be both challenging and entertaining. Not satisfied with staying behind the camera, Lee stood front and center in a series of Nike and Levis commercials in the 1980s and 1990s, which featured the bicycle messenger character he played in "She's Gotta Have It." But like any filmmaker, Lee had his share of mediocre films - namely "'Mo Better Blues" (1990), "Girl 6" (1996) and "She Hate Me" (2004) - though the triumphs of "Malcolm X" (1992), "He Got Game" (1998), "25th Hour" (2002) and the mainstream crime thriller "Inside Man" (2006) more than made up for his missteps....
Perhaps one of the most controversial filmmakers to emerge during the explosion of independent directors in the 1980s, Spike Lee single-handedly changed the way African-Americans were perceived in Hollywood films. Starting with "She's Gotta Have It" (1986), a stylish, ultra-low budget comedy that became an unexpected commercial success and planted him firmly on the map. Right out of the gate, Lee directed a series of films that dealt with the uneasy topic of race in his often brash, unapologetic style. His most widely known production, "Do the Right Thing" (1989), proclaimed with no uncertainty that dealing with racism on film could be both challenging and entertaining. Not satisfied with staying behind the camera, Lee stood front and center in a series of Nike and Levis commercials in the 1980s and 1990s, which featured the bicycle messenger character he played in "She's Gotta Have It." But like any filmmaker, Lee had his share of mediocre films - namely "'Mo Better Blues" (1990), "Girl 6" (1996) and "She Hate Me" (2004) - though the triumphs of "Malcolm X" (1992), "He Got Game" (1998), "25th Hour" (2002) and the mainstream crime thriller "Inside Man" (2006) more than made up for his missteps. Most surprisingly, the extremely outspoken and politically active Lee made his greatest contributions to cinema with two unflinching, but straightforward documentaries, "4 Little Girls" (1997) and "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" (2006), both of which earned him considerable acclaim and several awards, confirming that Lee was no ordinary filmmaker content simply playing by the rules. And, as he would famously speak his mind on more than several occasions, he was not content to sit by and say nothing if he witnessed racial injustice, both in his chosen field as well as in the world at large.
Born Mar. 20, 1957 in Atlanta, GA, Lee was raised by his father, Bill, a jazz composer and bassist, and his mother, Jacquelyn, a teacher of art and black literature. Because of his father's itinerant work, the family moved from Atlanta to Chicago, IL and eventually settled in New York City. Lee attended St. Anne's, a parochial school where his mother taught, followed by attending John Dewey High School. After graduating in 1975, Lee matriculated at Morehouse College, becoming the third generation of his family to attend the all-male, historically black school in Atlanta. While at Morehouse, Lee wrote for the school paper, The Maroon Tiger, and was a disc jockey for a local jazz station. Two seminal events occurred during his sophomore year - he bought a Super-8 film camera, and his beloved mother succumbed to cancer. Meanwhile, he took film courses at Clark-Atlanta University and made his first film, "The Last Hustle in Brooklyn" (1977), a loose documentation of Black and Puerto Rican life on the streets of New York which he shot with his new camera.
Encouraged by the adulation he received for his first film, Lee applied to the top film schools in the country and was accepted at New York University, where he spent the next three years learning the language of cinema by making numerous films. His most significant was "Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads" (1983), an hour-long drama set in a neighborhood barbershop, where the new manager tries to keep business legitimate after the old one was killed by gangsters for running numbers. Lee's thesis film won a Student Academy Award for Dramatic Merit and later became the first student film to be showcased at the Lincoln Center's New Directors New Films Festival. Lee spent the next two years waiting for Hollywood to coming knocking on his door. But they never did. Taking matters into his own hands, Lee began work on his first independent feature "Messenger," based on his own screenplay. He managed to secure the promise of financing from an alleged producer, who wound up failing to follow through with the money. Lee was forced to pull back after calling in favors, upsetting many people.
Despite wanting to quit, Lee picked himself off the mat and tried again. But this time, he learned to make a film that was within his means, and made the decision to write a feature with few characters and limited locations while shooting in black and white. After raising $175,000, Lee directed his first independent film, "She's Gotta Have It" (1986), a smart comedy about an independent woman (Tracy Camila Johns) juggling three boyfriends (Tommy Redmond Hicks, Canada Terrell and Lee) who all want her for themselves, despite her unflinching desire to cherish her freedom. Lee's film made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival, where it helped usher in the American independent filmmaking movement of the 1980s. Although the sharp, witty direction impressed critics, Lee's portrayal of the streetwise bicycle messenger Mars Blackmon - and his trademark litany, "please, baby, please, baby, please, baby, please, baby" - proved to be the most memorable element. "She's Gotta Have It" went on to earn over $7 million at the box office - an almost unheard of sum at the time for an independent film. With one fell swoop, Lee had emerged as a young filmmaker worthy of note.
Building off his newly minted Mars Blackmon persona, Lee directed and appeared in the music video for Anita Baker's "No One in the World," and a few nationally televised Nike commercials for Air Jordan sneakers, starring alongside the basketball star and famously asking, "Is it the shoes?" In fact, television proved to be a fruitful avenue for his creative energy, thanks to resistance within Hollywood's white-dominated financing, production and distribution system to Lee's desire to make uncompromising, but commercial films about the black experience in America. Following the success of "She's Gotta Have It," a number of black musical artists, including Miles Davis, Branford Marsalis, Steel Pulse and Grandmaster Flash, sought Lee to direct music videos. With a film production team that included editor Barry Brown and the gifted cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, Lee completed a number of videos, five one-minute spots for MTV, another series of Nike commercials, and advertisements for Jesse Jackson's campaign in the 1988 New York Presidential primary. All of these projects helped fuel Lee's driving ambition and business for his newly formed production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, which became synonymous with Lee himself.
After the self-described "guerrilla filmmaking" techniques employed to make his first two films, Lee managed to get partial financing from Columbia Pictures for his second feature, "School Daze" (1988). Though Lee was only given a third of the usual Hollywood budget, "School Daze" remained true to his provocative vision and grossed twice its cost at the box office, despite poor promotion efforts from the studio and unenthusiastic reviews from critics. With an all-black ensemble cast, the film used the musical-comedy genre to satirically address class and color divisions within the student body of a black college: affluent, light-skinned "gammas" clash with underclass, dark-skinned "jigaboos." In the face of production problems - Lee's alma mater, Morehouse College, refused cooperation just before shooting began - "School Daze" was a notable achievement on two counts: Lee was perhaps the first black director given complete control by Hollywood over his film, and "School Daze," as one critic wrote, established a vehicle which "puts real African-American people on the screen" - redeeming a history of stereotyped screen images by speaking and acting from authentic experience.
Lee's next film, "Do the Right Thing" (1989), enlarged upon his successes on several levels - commercially, artistically and thematically. Based on several real-life racially motivated acts of violence in New York City, Lee's politically charged and polemical drama stirred controversy even before its release, with some critics believing the film would spark violence. The finished film, however, was widely praised for its exciting and flamboyant visual craftsmanship, particularly several characters directly addressing the camera in a memorable string of racial epithets. "Do the Right Thing" presented a slice-of-life look at a predominantly black environment in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Lee's portrait was both celebratory and critical: the "mise-en-scene," music and dialogue were rich in allusions to African-American cultural history - a deejay's litany of black musical stars mixed with the score written by Lee's father - and unflinchingly presented the divisions within the multi-ethnic community. More importantly, "Do the Right Thing" focused its tense drama on the interracial violence that occurs between Bed-Stuy's black underclass and the Italian family (headed by Danny Aiello) that runs a local pizzeria. Climaxing with the killing of a black youth at the hands of white policemen and a fiery street riot, the film - which earned Lee an Oscar nod for Best Screenplay - offered no easy answers for the racial violence that had plagued the city.
Lee's next two films failed to live up to the dramatic promise of "Do the Right Thing," though both boasted strong performances, increasingly showy camerawork and stylized imagery. "Mo' Better Blues" (1990) was Lee's first collaboration with charismatic leading man, Denzel Washington, who portrayed a self-absorbed jazz trumpeter forced to open his eyes and heart to the needs of those around him. The film, however, intensified the ongoing criticism of Lee for his shallow characterization of female characters, while he also fielded charges of anti-Semitism for his scathing depiction of a pair of Jewish night club owners. In interviews, Lee decried the inaccuracy of jazz films by white filmmakers - Clint Eastwood's "Bird" (1988) being a favorite target - claiming that as the son of a genuine jazz musician and a black man, he was better qualified to depict that milieu. Eastwood responded by saying, "Then why didn't you?" "Jungle Fever" (1991) again courted controversy for its depiction of a lusty affair between a black married professional man (Wesley Snipes) and his Italian-American working-class secretary (Annabella Sciorra). Despite some powerful scenes and performances, the film was sadly underwritten - the central relationship was neither adequately explained, nor realistically depicted, with the film emitting much heat but little illumination on race relations or black self-hatred or the allure of bi-racial romance.
Returning to the small screen, Lee made a series of commercials in 1991 for Levis Button-Fly 501 jeans, which usually ended with the tagline, "My fly is buttoned." His next film proved to be both his most ambitious and most controversial - indeed, the intensity of the controversy that surrounded "Malcolm X" (1992) even before shooting began made the completed film something of an anti-climax. The press gleefully related tales of Lee intimidating non-black director Norman Jewison into relinquishing the project to him. Lee persuasively argued that only a black filmmaker could tell this story, while some black intellectuals - notably poet/activist Amiri Baraka - publicly doubted that he was right for the job - believing Alex Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X was a revered historical document of a hero more important to black culture than any "Spike Lee Joint." Undeterred, Lee pressed ahead, even when the film's backers balked at escalating production costs. Instead, he turned to such black entertainment luminaries as Bill Cosby, Janet Jackson, Tracey Chapman, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan, who gave him the opportunity to complete the film as he envisioned.
The final product was a three-and-a-half hour, surprisingly traditional biopic that swiftly covered a great deal of the life of Malcolm X (Denzel Washington) - starting with his troubled early life as the son of a murdered preacher, leading to a life of petty crime and a prison conversion to the Nation of Islam - before culminating in an emotionally devastating climax. Though a huge production, the film remained a quintessential "Spike Lee Joint," encompassing everything from gangster action, flashy costumes and a big dance number, to location shooting in Mecca, with many jaunty directorial flourishes along the way. Most impressive, however, was Washington's towering performance as the influential black Muslim leader, which earned him an Academy Award nomination. Almost inevitable for a mainstream project about such a complex and controversial figure, "Malcolm X" had its flaws and omissions. Malcolm's early delinquent phase, in particular, was cleaned up for mass consumption. Nor was the extent of his later radicalism - and the controversy it provoked among both whites and blacks - adequately addressed. Though the Hollywood blockbuster was never a convenient medium for overtly political filmmaking, "Malcolm X" was viewed as a triumph of Lee's will.
His next feature, "Crooklyn" (1994), was a loosely structured story of a jazz musician, his wife and their children in Brooklyn of the 1970s. Packed with the sounds of the seventies, and with little narrative, "Crooklyn" was viewed as a return to the kind of depictions of neighborhood, family and characters he delivered with such adeptness in "Do The Right Thing" and "She's Gotta Have It." Co-scripted by sister Joie Lee, "Crooklyn" emphasized a female protagonist, a rarity in his past films. Alternately sloppy and shrewd, wise and idiosyncratic, the film met with an extremely mixed critical reception and poor box office. Meanwhile, Lee was reportedly reluctant to direct "Clockers" (1995), a much anticipated adaptation of Richard Price's acclaimed 1991 novel about the world of low-level street crack dealers in Jersey City, NJ. Working with neophyte feature cinematographer Malik Sayeed, Lee painted a gritty canvas of urban life far more dark and "realistic" - though still highly stylized - than in his previous films. He placed another newcomer, first-time actor Mekhi Phifer, center stage as the tormented young drug dealer, Strike. Some reviewers quibbled over Lee's deviations from Price's admired original, but many more hailed it as the best work of his career to that point.
Despite continually making quality films hailed by critics, Lee suffered from multiple weak showings at the box office. Lee was hit with a double whammy - a critical and financial drubbing - for his next film, "Girl 6" (1996), a mediocre-at-best dramedy about an aspiring actress (Theresa Randle) who falls into working as a phone sex operator after a string of disappointments. While trying to fend off her shoplifting ex-boyfriend (Isaiah Washington), she suddenly finds herself falling for one of her regular callers (Peter Berg). Also that year, he helmed "Get On the Bus" (1996), a fictional account of a busload of men traveling to Washington, D.C. for Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March. Despite the myriad differences between the group, they spend three days and thousands of miles struggling to understand each other, eventually emerging as brothers. "Get On the Bus" was largely overlooked by audiences, some of whom may have been afraid Lee had embraced the ideas of Farrakhan, which was not the case and beside the point. Regardless, the film was appreciated by critics and the small audience that managed to catch a screening in its limited release.
By the time of "Get On the Bus," Lee's filmmaking career seemed secondary to the headlines he made for creating controversy; most notably when he taunted Indiana Pacer's Reggie Miller during Game 5 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals. Lee's sideline heckling was credited by many angry New York fans for being the catalyst of Miller's 25-point 4th quarter explosion, resulting in a loss for the Knicks. In fact, Lee practically made a second career out his public outrages, creating more headline for things he said than films he made. In 1999, he made comments regarding National Rifle Association President Charlton Heston, being quoted by The New York Post that the NRA should be disbanded and said of Heston, "Shoot him with a .44 Bulldog." Lee meant the comment to be ironic, but caused former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, to respond, saying that Lee's "embrace of violence" had nothing to offer to the debate. Even when talking about his films, Lee has said on several occasions - most notably with "'Mo Better Blues" and "Malcolm X" - that only a black man was qualified to direct movies about the black experience - a comment many white directors found offensive, including Eastwood and Steven Spielberg, who had both helmed African-American-themed stories, including "Bird" and "The Color Purple" (1985).
He sparked further controversy when he called NBA star Larry Bird "overrated" because - as a white man - he was embraced by the white media over black players. Meanwhile, he tussle with Clint Eastwood - which started with his criticism of a white man directing a film about black jazz musician Charlie Parker - continued in 2008, when Lee decried the lack of black soldiers in "Flags of Our Fathers" (2006) and "Letters from Iwo Jima" (2006), saying that "Eastwood made two films about Iwo Jima that ran for more than four hours total, and there was not one Negro actor on the screen." In typically outspoken fashion, Eastwood responded, saying "[t]he story is 'Flags of Our Fathers,' the famous flag-raising picture, and they didn't do that." He then added, "A guy like him should shut his face." Of course, Lee would not let such insults slide and responded in kind, saying that "the man is not my father and we're not on a plantation either."
Meanwhile, Lee made his first foray into documentary filmmaking with "4 Little Girls" (1997), a forceful, but compassionate look at the lives of four young girls - Addie Mae Collins, Carole Denise McNiar, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Rosamond Robertson - who were killed in a terrorist bombing at the 16 Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL on Sept. 15, 1963, sparking national outrage during African-American's struggle for civil rights. For once, Lee was subdued with his approach, allowing the events and the interview subjects speak for themselves, instead of relying upon his typical stylistic flourishes. The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature. Lee followed this triumph with one of his more underappreciated feature efforts, "He Got Game" (1998), a heartwarming, but gritty look at a promising high school basketball player (NBA star Ray Allen) whose father (Denzel Washington), a convicted felon, will receive a commuted sentence only if his son will sign with the governor's alma mater. But he must heal the wounds carried by his son, who blames his father for his mother's death. Despite exquisite performances from both Washington and Allen, as well as critical acclaim, "He Got Game" suffered the usual lack of robust box office performance for A Spike Lee Joint. For "Summer of Sam" (1999), Lee again returned to the 1970s of his youth, this time to focus on a married couple (John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino) contending with their unhappy lives while a NYC cowers in fear during serial killer David Berkowitz's murderous rampage in 1977.
He tackled racism head-on again with "Bamboozled" (2000), a scathing satire about a Harvard-educated television writer who, out of sheer frustration, creates a black-face variety show for a fledgling network, starring Mantan (Savion Glover) and his sidekick Sleep 'N Eat (Tommy Davidson). Much to his surprise - and certain dismay - the minstrel show becomes a huge hit. Another of Lee's underappreciated efforts, "Bamboozled" marked the first time he shot a film with digital video. After directing "A Huey P. Newton Story" (2001) for television, which interspersed Roger Guenveur Smith's acclaimed one-man show with archival footage of the Black Panther leader, Lee directed perhaps his finest film to date, "25th Hour" (2002). A bleak look at the last 24 hours of a man (Edward Norton) before he is sent off to a long prison term, "25th Hour" marked a poignant turn for Lee, who managed to direct a mainstream film that openly dealt with the aftermath of September 11th, while also delving into the personal struggles of a man about to lose everything in life. After directing "Jim Brown: All American" (2002), a documentary about the complicated, charismatic man who was one of the 20th Century's greatest athletes, Lee directed perhaps his weakest movie, "She Hate Me" (2004), a comedy about a fired biotech executive (Anthony Mackie) who gets into impregnating lesbian couples for $10,000 a pop.
But Lee was in top form with his next two projects, starting with "Inside Man" (2006), a tense heist thriller about a New York City detective (Denzel Washington) trying to solve a hostage situation after a master thief (Clive Owen) tries to commit the crime of the century. "Inside Man" was hailed by many critics for being Lee's best work to date and became a rare financial hit for the director. Meanwhile, he made one of his best documentaries, "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" (HBO, 2006), a searing and impassioned look at the travesty surrounding those left behind by the U.S. government following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Divided into four parts, the film covered the horrific events immediately after the category 5 storm hit New Orleans, while dissecting the inept failure of the government's response, leading to thousands of poor, mostly black residents being without food or water for days. The documentary was hailed as a triumph for Lee, who earned several awards, including Creative Emmys for Best Director and Exceptional Merit in Nonfiction Filmmaking. Returning to features, Lee directed "Miracle at St. Anna" (2008), a look at four black American soldiers serving in the all-black 92nd "Buffalo Soldier" Division during World War II who get trapped behind enemy lines after one tries to save an Italian boy during the Sant'Anna di Stazzema massacre.
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Lee delivered the keynote address at the 1998 Independent Spirit Awards.
"I have the best of both worlds, because I'm an independent filmmaker but I don't have to scrape around for money. I go directly to Hollywood for my financing. It doesn't really mess with my creativity, because I have the final cut and the control over the film that I would have had if I'd raised the money all by myself. Even if I had, I'd still have to go to Hollywood for distribution anyway--there's just no way I'm going to reach the people I want to reach carrying a film can under my arm and going from theater to theater across the country--so why waste two or three years scraping for money? The studios want to make as much money off you as possible, basically just pimp you. Yet it is possible to keep your agenda and make films too." --Spike Lee to Premiere, August 1989.
"I'm a filmmaker. I feel that's what I was put on earth to do. But there are certain issues I have opinions about. Film's the most powerful medium in the world. I think I should have been shot if I didn't use this advantage to talk about things that affect us, being a black American today." --Spike Lee quoted in Newsweek, October 2, 1989.
"His style is inseparable from his content: he's subverting the conventional ways Hollywood has programmed us to read movies. He doesn't give you good guys and bad guys; he doesn't provide role models and tidy resolutions; his movies don't fall into neat generic categories. In Lee's films, realism and cartoon brush wings, and the narrative flow will suddenly break for a dance, a comic riff, a rant directed straight at the camera. Propelled by music, his rough-edged, seam-showing movies have the urgency of rap, the rhythms of the inner city and the revelations that only an insider can convey." --David Ansen in Newsweek, October 2, 1989.
Lee has produced and directed music videos for Public Enemy, Miles Davis, Anita Baker, E.U., Tracy Chapman, Branford Marsalis, Steel Pulse and Phyllis Hyman.
Named honorary co-chairman with NY Gov Mario Cuomo of a plan to preserve the "Negro Burial Ground", a site utilized between 1710 and 1790 (16th Century) at downtown New York City.
Lee was interviewed by Anna Deavere Smith as part of "The Filmmaker Series" in Premiere (October, 1995).
SMITH: Do you think it's important that a black man seem fierce? What if your whole persona was completely different, like "Oh, sweet Spike"--would you still get power?
LEE: Well, I mean, there's two ways to get power. You can ha-ha and chee-chee and roll your eyes and do the bug dance. Or you can say, "Look, I'm not doing that shit." White America, they just want black men to always be smiling. So if you don't do that all the time, then they label you the Angry Black Man. As if we had nothing to be angry about, anyway! I mean, a lot of people's attitude is "Look, you're successful, you have money--what do you have to be angry about?"
SMITH: And your answer is?
LEE: "I was one of the lucky ones."
Lee received an honorary degree from Emerson College in 1997.
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