While African-American filmmakers have been a staple in cinema since the pioneering work of Oscar Micheaux during the 1920s, none have had the same cultural or artistic impact as Spike Lee. Spike Lee was born Shelton Jackson Lee on March 20, 1957, in Atlanta, Georgia. His mother, Jacqueline Carroll, was a teacher of arts and black literature and his father, William James Edward Lee III, is a jazz musician and composer. At a young age, Lee moved from pre-civil rights Georgia, to Brooklyn, New York.
Lee was raised in the Fort Greene area of Brooklyn, NY and attended John Dewey High School. During his adolescence, he became a huge sports fan, and had ambitions of becoming a professional baseball player. It was also during this time that he developed his adoration for the New York Knicks. However, it was not until he went back to Georgia to attend Morehouse College that he fell in love with film. By enrolling into Morehouse he became the third generation of his family to attend the all-male, Historically Black University. While at Morehouse, Lee wrote for the school newspaper, The Maroon Tiger, and worked as a DJ for a local jazz radio station, but during his sophomore year, two groundbreaking events occurred. He bought a Super-8 film camera, and his beloved mother succumbed to liver cancer.
After graduating from Morehouse College in 1979, he enrolled in New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, to study film production. For his senior project, Lee produced the 45-minute film “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads”, which won the Dramatic Merit Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It also became the first student film to be showcased at the Lincoln Center’s New Directors New Films Festival.
The success of the film encouraged Lee to hire representation at the William Morris Agency, but when no studio contracts from Hollywood came about, he began exploring alternate means of independent financing. In a sense, he was the original Kickstarter, in an interview he jokingly stated, “we actually licked stamps and put pen to paper.”
In 1986, after a series of setbacks, he managed to secure 125,000 dollars to produce the stylish and sexy 1986 comedy “She’s Gotta Have It”. It garnered the Prix de Jeunesse award at Cannes and earned 9 million dollars at the box office. Hollywood soon came calling, and Lee managed to get partial financing from Columbia Pictures for his second feature, “School Daze”. However, Lee was only given a third of the usual Hollywood budget. Fortunately, it remained true to his provocative vision and grossed twice its cost at the box office, despite poor promotion from the studio and unfavorable reviews from critics. With an all-black ensemble cast, the film satirically addressed the class and color divisions within the student body of a black college. It focused mostly on the conflict between the school and the fraternities. Lee was a strong critic of fraternities and sororities and portrayed them as materialistic, irresponsible, and uncaring.
Then in 1989, “Do the Right Thing”, launched Spike to the forefront of the American filmmaking community. The movie portrayed the racial tensions that emerged in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York on one sweltering hot day. It was the most controversial and talked-about film of the year and eventually went on to earn an Oscar nomination for “Best Screenplay”. The movie was made on a budget of $175,000, and earned more than $7 million at the box office. The film’s success allowed him to start his own production company, 40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks.
Lee later went on to produce the jazz film “Mo’ Better Blues” in 1990. It was the first of many Spike Lee films to feature Denzel Washington, including the biography of “Malcolm X”, in which Washington portrayed the civil rights leader. The movie was a huge success, and garnered an Oscar nomination for Washington. The pair would work together again on “He Got Game” and “Inside Man”.
In mid-1990, Lee began directing a series of commercials for Levi’s 501 button fly jeans. However, his most famous commercials were for Nike’s Air Jordan campaign featuring Michael Jordan. His other commercial clients include Converse, Taco Bell and Ben & Jerry’s.
In 1992, Lee met his wife Tonya Lewis Lee at a Congressional Black Caucus dinner. In an interview with Avenue Magazine, Tonya said, “We walked past each other. He circled back around and proceeded to give me the third degree. ‘Are you an actress? A model? A singer? Who are you here with? What do you do? Do you have a boyfriend?” Then in 1994, they had their daughter Satchel, and in 1997 they welcomed their son Jackson.
Spike Lee’s role as a documentarian has expanded over the years. First with his part in the 1995 film, “Lumière and Company”, then with the Oscar-nominated “4 Little Girls” in 1997. Followed by his Peabody Award-winning biographical adaptation of Black Panther leader in A Huey P. Newton Story, then his 2005 Emmy Award-winning examination of post-Katrina New Orleans in “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” (2006) and its follow-up five years later in “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise”(2010).
Through his production company 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks, Lee has created a very diverse body of work. He continues to create and direct independent films, music videos, clothing, and projects for major studios. He has also started an internship program for aspiring filmmakers as well as a community outreach and support program.
Spike Lee has revolutionized the role of black talent in Hollywood, and continues to tear away the stereotypes and marginalized portrayals of African Americans. His movies are a series of outspoken and provocative films that challenge cultural assumptions about race, class and gender identity. He has also worked with some of Hollywood’s most acclaimed actors such as Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, Rosie Perez, John Leguizamo, Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett, and Laurence Fishburne. He also paved the way for black filmmakers such as John Singleton, Matty Rich, Darnell Martin, Ernest Dickerson, and Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes.
His career continues to inspire me to stay grounded in faith, be fearless, and stand up for what you believe in. All of which are true characteristics of a man.
“You cannot classify one’s style with just an outfit.” – Akil McLeod