— Spike Lee, from a Vogue magazine interview
Spike Lee’s first feature film, “She’s Gotta Have It” got its first maiden voyage at a screening in New York City in October 1985. People watched the film and its frank but riotous challenge of transmitted narratives on sex, race and macho stereotypes. They were rapt, mesmerized … but not so caught up in the dazzling technique they were witnessing, the cinematic voice just announcing itself, that they couldn’t laugh out loud when they recognized their era, their city, their people, themselves.
Lotta water under the American bridge since then. Four presidents, who knows how many wars foreign and domestic, a terrorist attack, change upon change.
And over the 25 years since “She’s” was officially released on Aug. 8, 1986, Shelton Jackson Lee has chronicled that change through an African American lens. In feature films, television and documentaries, Spike Lee has done what our best directors have always done: push our buttons, rip the envelope open, advance the language of film. With a weave of the literal and the symbolic, the realistic and the whimsical, Lee has carved out a distinctive, refreshingly multifaceted vision of the black national life.
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We knew he was something special right from the jump. “She’s Gotta Have It” leaped into the public consciousness with a mix of singular visual signatures, a jazzy, dazzlingly urban musical score (courtesy Lee’s father) and a freshness of character perspective that broke with the then-prevailing cinematic pathology vis-à-vis black people. There wasn’t a pimp or drug dealer in sight.
Lee similarly explored deep intraracial tensions (“School Daze”) or the equally deep, painfully personal interracial kind (“Do the Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever”); the role of the media in shaping perceptions of blacks (“Bamboozled”); historical events as feature and documentary (“Malcolm X,” “Summer of Sam,” “4 Little Girls,” “When the Levees Broke”); the complexities of modern female sexuality (“Girl 6”) and the possibilities, within the framework of Hollywood filmmaking, of sharp, crackling entertainment (“Clockers” and “Inside Man”).
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But Spike Lee the provocateur, the “instigator,” has never been far away. In 2002, Lee went on “Good Morning America” and called Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott a "card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan." He was accused of anti-Semitism by the Anti-Defamation League in the wake of controversial characterizations in his 1990 film “Mo’ Better Blues” — assertions that Lee assertively denied.
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But even while speaking truth to power, Lee wasn’t above letting his passions for frankness take him a bridge too far. He’s been known to step in it.
In June 2008, Lee complained that Eastwood’s films “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” dismissed the role of black soldiers in the pivotal battle of Iwo Jima. “He did two films about Iwo Jima back to back and there was not one black soldier in both of those films,” Lee said at the Cannes Film Festival. “Many veterans, African-Americans, who survived that war are upset at Clint Eastwood. In his vision of Iwo Jima, Negro soldiers did not exist. Simple as that.”
Eastwood rejected Lee’s criticism; he admitted to the Guardian UK newspaper that a small force of black soldiers did serve on Iwo Jima as a part of a supply company, “but they didn't raise the flag. The story is ‘Flags of Our Fathers,’ the famous flag-raising picture, and they didn't do that. If I go ahead and put an African-American actor in there, people'd go, ‘This guy's lost his mind.’ I mean, it's not accurate.”
There were black actors in the film, contrary to Lee’s claim, and consistent with the real-life role of black Marines in a munitions supply unit in the Iwo Jima assault, and not as part of the battle on Mount Suribachi that yielded the iconic Joe Rosenthal image, and the subsequent mythology that no doubt appealed to Eastwood in the first place.
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So over the past quarter-century, Spike’s been no saint; he’s shot from the hip over the years and acquired enemies, some of them unnecessarily so. But we’ve come to know that this was Spike being Spike, a man willing to stir up a hornet’s nest just to see if he gets stung.
He went to war with Warner Bros. over the budget of “Malcolm X,” eventually holding the Hollywood equivalent of a rent party to come up with $8.5 million in additional budget money, passing the hat among folks like Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan and Prince, thumbing his nose at the emperor of the movies — and getting his movie made.
Denzel Washington was lit from within in his portrayal of Malcolm; it was a stirring inside-out exploration of the slain author and civil rights activist. The film was arguably Washington’s crowning moment as an actor; it was almost certainly Lee’s triumph, his gifts as a director never more evident.
And the film took hold of the wider popular imagination like a wildfire on dry brush. For weeks stretching to months after the film’s 1992 release, caps and T-shirts emblazoned with the letter X were de rigueur in the young urban American wardrobe; sales of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” soared, buoyed by readers black and white alike. Readers inspired by a feature film on Malcolm X, a film where there hadn’t been one in the culture before.
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It seems a stretch to think of Spike Lee in the context of a quarter century, tree-ring time in popular culture. There’s something about him — his attitude, his cocksure sense of mission, his broadsides more passionate than precise — that suggests a tyro, a newcomer with something to prove.
Long may that style, that view of the world, continue. We’ve had 25 provocative, productive years of what was. You can see it in photographs of the man, the director, the unapologetic Knicks fan, the father, the spokesman, the lightning rod: that smirk of still outrageous self-confidence we see on his face.
That's how we know the wheels are turning on the what’s next.
Image credits: Lee top: David Shankbone, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. She's Gotta Have It poster: © Island Pictures/40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. The Katrina Madonna: via NBC News. Malcolm X DVD cover: © Warner Bros. Martin Scorsese and Lee: © 1995 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, via IMDb.com. What’s next: Deadline.com reported last month that Spike will direct “Oldboy,” a remake of Park Chan-wook’s cult 2003 South Korean film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. Mandate Pictures will distrubute.