(1957 - present)
Three Key Films: Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992), When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)
Underrated: Mo Better Blues (1990). Coming on the heels of the explosive Do the Right Thing, Mo Better Blues, a Denzel Washington vehicle about the mercurial but troubled career of a jazz trumpeter, couldn’t help but come off as a tamer, safer Spike Lee film. Yet the film marks Lee’s venture into a more mature, measured style of filmmaking, and he coaches his actors into some of their all-time best performances, none more so than Washington, whose depiction of Bleek Gilliam is profound and multi-layered in his charismatic self-sabotage. The film is emotionally epic, as Gilliam negotiates a destructive love triangle, his all-consuming love of his music in the face of diminishing crowds, his aging father, a rival musician played by Wesley Snipes, and the gambling debts of his friend and manager, played by Lee himself. It’s a first-rate story of real heft and sweep, all of it bolstered by an ace soundtrack written and performed by Branford Marsalis. Lee came under heat from the Anti-Defamation League for the portrayal of Jewish nightclub owners (played by John and Nicholas Turturro), a reflection that the director had not lost his readiness to head straight into to race relations’ tricky waters.
Unforgettable: Mookie throws the trash can. After the death of Radio Raheem at the hands of New York City police, angry crowds close in on Sal and his sons, owners of Bed-Stuy’s pizzeria. Radio Raheem, along with his friend Buggin’ Out, had been protesting the lack of African-American photos on Sal’s “Wall of Fame” on the restaurant wall, a protest that spills into violence and eventually Radio Raheem’s murder. Sal’s young black employee, Mookie, played by the director, picks up a metal crash can and hurls it through the large front window of Sal’s, immediately prompting a full-scale riot and the burning of Sal’s to the ground. Spike would later say that “Why did Mookie throw the trash can?” was a question that only white people asked him.
The Legend: If Spike Lee combustible storytelling and visionary filmic style seemed to arrive fully-formed in the late ‘80s, such talent sprang from an upbringing in Atlanta and Brooklyn that infused Lee with a deep-rooted education in art, literature and jazz music at the hands of his parents Jacquelyn, a teacher, and Bill, a jazz musician. Spike, though, had a robust mental alacrity all his own, a personality that led his mother early on give him is nickname.
Spike’s interest in movies began to peak in the 1970s, although the maverick directors of the era failed to capture the American black experience, a void that Lee was himself driven to fill. Lee attended New York University’s Tisch School of Arts, where he earned his master’s degree and made the student film Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, which won him the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Student Academy Award in 198The film showcased Lee’s complex character building and marked his first collaboration with cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, who would help establish the visual dynamism of the Spike Lee style.
It would be Lee’s next three films that would solidify him as a major new voice in American cinema. She’s Gotta Have It, Lee’s first full-length “joint”, put a comedic spin on the entanglements of gender and race, introducing the Mars Blackmon character that Spike would make pitchman for Nike’s Air Jordan shoes. It was a film that also foresaw a revitalized Brooklyn. Next came School Daze, a quasi-musical about Spike’s college experiences in Atlanta. It was a film that pushed racial buttons harder than his previous films did, bringing his first national controversies for the film’s depiction of what some saw as racial stereotypes both among students and in the failings of black colleges. Still, reviewers admired the film’s spark, and film observers everywhere were talking about Spike Lee.
In 1989, Lee accumulated all of his cinematic skills and firebrand leanings into a single thrilling film. Do the Right Thing was the year’s most discussed film and earned Lee his first Oscar nomination. Through his use of vibrant color sybolism, a continuous soundtrack of jazz and hip-hop, a whirlwind ensemble cast, and an inexhaustible eye for dazzling camera technique, Lee set out to make a film in which every shot and every scene were a study in film composition. Set on the hottest day of a summer in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, Lee catalogued a series of conflicts: Men vs. women, whites vs. blacks, old vs. young, fathers vs. sons, Lakers vs. Celtics, police vs. citizens. The film even ends with conflicting quotes from MLK and Malcolm X, a fitting end to a remarkable film that offers provoking questions, the kinds that come with no easy answers.
Lee continued on a commercially successful streak in the ‘90s with urban dramatic films, such as Mo Better Blues, set within the contemporary jazz scene, and Jungle Fever, a powerful portrayal of interracial love and lust. But it would be 1992’s Malcolm X, the biopic starting Denzel Washington as the title civil-rights leader, that would find Lee reaching another creative peak. The film, beset by production and budget difficulties, along with the kinds of controversies that would follow Lee throughout his career, had long been Lee’s dream project, and the director pushed through to achieve one of the decade’s most critically acclaimed and enduring films.
If Lee hasn’t matched the heights of his astonishing first decade as a filmmaker, he has often come close and has continued as a prolific writer and director of broadening versatility, whether poleaxing media depictions of African-Americans in 2000’s satirical ringer Bamboozled or peeling back the moral complexities of sexual, racial, and class relations by way of the plot-twisty bank-robbery caper Inside Man in 2006. Throughout a career of highlights, Lee has refused to kiss a square inch of Hollywood ass, making news by speaking his mind, yes, but more important, letting his camera and his pen do the talking, sparking crucial conversations at every step. Steve Leftridge