She’s Gotta Have It. School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Crooklyn, Clockers, Get on the Bus, 4 Little Girls, He Got Game, BlacKkKlansman and, now, Da 5 Bloods fill just one highlight reel of Spike Lee’s extraordinary oeuvre. A visionary. A commander. A warrior. There are not enough words to describe Spike Lee’s creative impact. In the war against cinematic apartheid, he has led the charge to bring Black humanity to the screen by telling diverse stories that cover a wide range of topics.
By boldly placing Black people at the center of his work, Lee literally flipped the Hollywood script, continuing the work initiated by Oscar Micheaux and the lesser known Spencer Williams decades before him. Throughout his long career, spanning over 30 years, Lee has successfully challenged the Hollywood practice of only exploring diverse storylines with white people at the center, winning over audiences and admirers far and wide. Most importantly, Lee has inspired other Black people to imagine themselves as filmmakers and creatives, giving them license to pour their whole selves into their work unapologetically sharing their stories from their perspective.
“I think Black people have to be in control of their own image because film is a powerful medium,” he has said. “We can’t just sit back and let other people define our existence.”
But the man born Shelton Jackson Lee on March 20, 1957 in Atlanta, Georgia and raised in Brooklyn, New York by Jacqueline Carroll Shelton Lee, a teacher, and Bill Lee, a jazz musician/composer, never set out to become a filmmaker. It was only towards the end of his college career that he set his sights on filmmaking. In hindsight, he credits his eye for cinema to his mother with whom he frequently accompanied to the movies growing up. His maternal grandmother, Zimmie Shelton, however, is who he honors for making his wildest dreams come true. Through saved social security checks, she put him through Morehouse, his father’s alma mater and brother school to Spelman, his mother’s and grandmother’s alma mater, for his B.A. and New York University (NYU) for his M.F.A. She also funded his first films.
To this day, his early education in Black arts and culture consistently grounds his films. That cultural confidence has helped him weather many storms, including the one created by his NYU student The Answer, challenging D.W. Griffith’s anti-Black blockbuster feature film, The Birth of a Nation, that almost resulted in him being dismissed from the school. When he failed to land Hollywood gigs despite winning a student Academy Award for his short film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, he used that slight as added fuel to make films his own way, with Black people at the center.
She’s Gotta Have It about a sexually-free artist Nola Darling and her three lovers set in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, released theatrically in 1986, was his breakthrough. Not only did the film’s success serve as a boon to Black filmmakers, but it also breathe new life into the independent film movement. Most importantly, Lee, with his 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks production company named for the 40 acres and a mule once promised to Black people but never delivered, lit a fire for Black creativity that spilled out over multiple arenas.
Trailblazer or not, filmmaking is not an easy grind. “You gotta make your own way. You gotta find a way. You gotta get it done. It’s hard. It’s tough,” he’s said. “Some people might call me a hardhead, but I’m not going to let other people dictate to me who I should be or the stories I should tell.” To this day, Lee is infamously known for being no holds barred and not sparing his tongue for anyone. Lee, who has noted that he predates “Kickstarter” in his hustle, has literally made films by any means necessary.
But he hasn’t just stood up for his own creative freedom. He’s long championed other Black creatives and empowered them. Decades before inclusion riders entered the Hollywood lexicon, Lee was a loud voice for inclusion in all aspects of filmmaking. His many collaborators include Morehouse classmate and producer Monty Ross, cinematographer/director Ernest R. Dickerson, Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter, casting agent Robi Reed, production designer Wynn Thomas, editor/producer Sam Pollard, production manager/producer Preston L. Holmes, graphic designer Art Sims and composer Terence Blanchard. Actors who have graced Lee’s films are too numerous to name but an incomplete list includes Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, Laurence Fishburne, Giancarlo Esposito, Delroy Lindo, Alfre Woodard, Samuel L. Jackson, Roger Guenveur Smith, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Mekhi Phifer, Bill Nunn and Clarke Peters.
Defying categorization or limitations, Lee has been extremely prolific, unleashing a fury of films tackling a myriad of diverse issues. Set at a Black college in Atlanta, School Daze explores the inner workings of pledging an African American fraternity as well as showcases elaborate musical numbers; Jungle Fever intertwines interracial romance with drug addiction; Mo’ Better Blues turns its lens on jazz musicians; Do the Right Thing examines terse race relations; Malcolm X details the life and times of the iconic Black activist; BlacKkKlansman zeroes in on the KKK and white supremacy; while Da 5 Bloods spotlights Black Vietnam vets.
As a documentary filmmaker, Lee has taken deep dives into controversial subjects. “I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to express the views of black people who otherwise don’t have access to power and the media,” he has said. That’s evident in the Oscar-nominated 4 Little Girls, which delves into the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham that killed four little Black girls, and the Emmy award-winning When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts about Hurricane Katrina. He’s also used the artform to explore “Black Excellence.” His sports documentaries, which include Jim Brown: All American and Kobe Doin’ Work, go beyond the field or the court. His Michael Jackson documentaries, Journey from Motown to Off the Wall and Bad, uncover the pop icon’s greatness.
To master his craft and extend his imprint, he’s done whatever it’s taken, helming commercials, music videos, putting his films on the big and small screen and engaging in today’s streaming universe. “I’m always open. I try not to have a closed mind. In fact, the only reason why I’m able to continue to make films since 1986 is I have been adaptable. If I weren’t flexible, I sure wouldn’t be making films this many years as I’ve been doing it. I’ve been making a film a year almost since 1986 and that’s hard,” he’s shared.
His concern has not only been for his career or that of his peers either. Serving as a professor of film and artistic director at NYU, where he received his M.F.A., Lee has helped nurture new filmmakers for nearly 30 years. Putting his weight behind emerging Black directors, Lee’s served as a producer for many films, including his cousin Malcolm Lee’s The Best Man, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love & Basketball, Dee Rees’s Pariah, Faraday Okoro’s Nigerian Prince and Stephon Bristol’s See You Yesterday. While John Singleton may have been one of the most famous directors who credited Spike Lee for inspiring his notable career, he is far from the only one.
Lee, who received an AAFCA Award and his first Oscar for BlacKkKlansman for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2019, is more than a living legend or a trailblazer. Instead he is an icon in his own right, the G.O.A.T. or the Greatest of All Time, as many can argue. Without him, Hollywood would not have made it this far. And, thanks to him, it is sure to go even farther. There is no amount of gratitude or appreciation that can sum up his contribution. Spike Lee changed cinema and there is no award, even ours, big enough to honor that.
– Gil Robertson, President of the African American Film Critics Association
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