Spike Lee is an American Producer, Writer, Actor and Director with a diverse professional career that spans nearly twenty-five years. His award-winning films have garnered critical praise as well as heated controversy while earning him several Oscar nominations, Emmy’s and acknowledgements for his films, documentaries, and made for television projects. In 1986 he founded 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks based in his childhood neighborhood, the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, in no short part due to the box office success and critical acclaim from producing, writing, acting, and directing his first feature film She’s Gotta Have It.
To narrow down the essence of Spike Lee is to first acknowledge the existence of an undeniable talent and unique cinematic style that is woven into the very fabric of his films. Like his peers, there is an obvious framework within his films, equal parts dedication to actors and a keen visual look and feel that accentuates as much as it nurtures the growing pains of his own childhood and personal experiences. The hallmark of Lee’s passion is not so much found as it is uncovered in a gritty, everyday uncomfortableness that guides the confrontation of race and class morality tales with unique characters both familiar to, and contrasts of mainstream America. His movies are often critical examinations of topical, recurring themes of injustice, the personal triumph of individuals facing insurmountable odds and one another, and the questioning of systemic violence and historical inaccuracies due in part to misperceptions, untruths and documented malevolence. Empowered to action, the characters in a ‘Spike Lee Joint‘ are imbued with gut level reactions to imminent threats or those perpetrated through prejudice, social and political bias, racism, and discrimination.
The characters in a Spike Lee film very often share a common sensitivity to aggressive behavior, fueled both internally and externally through perceived and endured life experiences. As evident in his 2002 film 25th Hour, Lee’s 17th film in 16 years, whereby a convicted drug dealer (Edward Norton) toils over the last day of his freedom, life and the consequences of his actions before beginning a seven-year prison sentence, Lee continues to expand the scope of what moves him and in turn becomes the source material for his projects. While 25th Hour is Lee’s first film where the protagonist is Caucasian and does not take place in a predominantly African-American neighborhood or setting, his attention is no less acutely aware of real world issues that very often transcend the social containers they are placed in. Lee’s repertoire of projects also include award-winning and compassionate, if not penetrating documentary films of the hurricane Katrina disaster and ensuing struggles in New Orleans. Sources say, among other film and documentaries, he is working on a project called L.A Riots. Whereas his films have steadily become more commercially approachable, and some say at times self grandiose, they have yet to stray far from the subjects and concerns that originated as small, independent productions about everyday people in extraordinary situations.
Spike Lee uses these threads of social and politically relevant themes as a way of connecting to the often disparate world view of opposing people, institutions and practices all over the world. Whether it’s one of the hottest days of the year on a street in Brooklyn and the ensuing embroiled relationships of a diverse and changing neighborhood (Do The Right Thing) or the volatile chemistry between Italians and African-Americans and mixed race relationships in Jungle Fever, Lee uses a familiar, often unspoken tension-like tight rope that elevates as much as it encapsulates his stories; though he is less concerned with whether or not you agree with the way in which he portrays them. In the case of his 2008 film, Miracle at St. Anna, about the consequences of four black American soldiers who get trapped in a Tuscan village during WWII, he received a lot of criticism for the alleged ‘creative license’ he took with the historical facts of the events. According to an article at blogdolcevita.com, the National Association of Italian Partisans were offended by the way Lee misinterpreted the factual accounts of the Italian resistances’ reaction to Nazi occupation that ultimately lead to a massacre from the Nazis as they fled Allied forces. Lee remains unapologetic.
There is no denying that Spike Lee is a confrontational filmmaker with specific interests, something to say and a stylized manner with which to say it. In the 25th Hour, he uses a traumatized post 9/11 New York as the backdrop for a story that is as much about the past informing the actions of the present as it is a treatise on the destructiveness of people everywhere. While his treatment comes across heavy-handed at times, and some say little more than insensitive in the wake of the tragedy, there is a certain boldness that Lee employs that like it or not, forms a material quality to the cinematic tapestry of his films. Whereas other filmmakers might have recoiled at the thought, and many actually removed footage of the towers prior to releasing their films of the time, Lee seizes the opportunity for the very same reason they chose not to – as a direct visual metaphor that might not amply be presented otherwise of the volatility of memory. He uses the event and obvious emotional, psychological and physical scar of the missing towers and resulting painfulness to form a pastiche of the wreckage inherent in the building and disassembling of relationships. Like a master painter applying another layer to a landscape already rich and fertile, Lee reminds us that life is really more about what is not said but often acted upon, than simply a no holds barred barrage of the obvious.
For many, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989) represents his most realized film, his talent as a director and actor no more evident than in the emotionally charged scenes his character Mookie shares with Salvatore ‘Sal’ Fragione (Danny Aiello) in the pizzeria. Very often, just beneath the veneer of place and story in Lee’s films lives an urban, Woody Allen-esque life lesson, a parable akin to the underlying lessons in Manhattan (1979) and Whatever Works (2009) for example. This sense of educating, of offering lives by which to mimic and those by which to avoid, is an essential part of Lee’s films. It is also the key ingredient in Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues (1990) featuring a disharmonious Denzel Washington, equal parts bebop musician and bop prosody’s ‘own worse enemy’ to which we feel and loathe all at once. Washington, under the keen tutelage of Lee, is off-handedly funny, introspective and confident, casual and comfortable at the same time. He is the everyman hero blinded by hubris with the kind of self-doubt that lives in everyone, an undercurrent of purposeful, decisive and hopelessly lost ambition living in each of us.
Further example of Lee’s sense of exploration and education, his growing development as a socially conscious and challenging filmmaker of merit can be found in his film Clockers (1995). On one hand he wants us to toil at the street level of life lessons where the essence of character and action form an unsteady foundation upon which tragic life resides. On the other hand, Lee firmly seats us in a school room, soap-boxing match at the ready, and delivers a pedantic and obvious ‘agendizing’ to get his points across. His characters very often say exactly what is on his mind. He has used a kind of documentary, in your face rant session or verbal montage sequence where characters break into hate speech for the sake of emotional release. These often lengthy scenes involve characters from the film, cops and hipsters, everyday people and drug addicts, looking directly into the camera and espousing racial epithets and vulgarities – the sort of preamble to and summation of all the things we think and feel throughout the course of our lives but rarely find the courage or propriety to say them. Of course it goes without saying that Clockers is meant as an allegory of wasted youth and the obstacles of ambition from the tangled perspectives of the lawful and the criminal – which in Lee’s hands is very often contained within the same person.
Spike Lee continues to explore, breaking ground across genre and spectacle, with clear goals and evidentiary examination of people, places, and the constructs both in favor of and against personal enlightenment. His films take hard looks at the obvious and not so obvious, pointing at what has been around too long and that which hasn’t bee around long enough to maintain change. When asked about his work, Lee says of his films, “They should make people look at what they’ve forgotten.”