Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and Africana Studies at New York University Ed Guerrero discusses the rich legacy of Spike Lee's work in this essay which accompanied our Focus on Spike Lee season in 2008. Ed's popular books Do The Right Thing (British Film Institute, part of the BFI's Modern Classics series) and Framing Blackness (Temple University Press) explore black cinema's cultural, political and aesthetic history, as well as its critical discourse.
Concerning filmmaking, two or three things set Spike Lee apart from the middle running pack, making him one of the half a dozen most original and influential American filmmakers working at the present moment. What marks Spike Lee's career as so unique and stellar, starts with him being an African American filmmaker, who with fresh vision and political/business instincts for his cohort, the mid-'80s "new black film wave", broke out of the pack with a series of "by any means necessary" financed, low-to-mid budget, independent, commercial hits: She's Gotta Have It (1986), Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992), being the most recognisable. By prolific filmmaking; creating a celebrity/actor persona; applying a new business model; and perhaps most importantly, focusing on survivability and success as a "final cut" director in mainstream commercial cinema, Spike Lee made a huge contribution to jump starting a whole new outlook on black filmmaking. By persisting in his vision, as he says to "make one film after another" for the mainstream industry and theatres, Lee is one of a handful of directors to survive the "new black film wave" on his own commercial and creative terms. By industry standards, Lee has kept busy making at least one commercial feature film a year, and this interspaced with a steady flow of other media and commercial projects.
What's most interesting about Lee's vision, is its deep, multidimensional complexity. Lee has viewed and practiced filmmaking as an interwoven, capital intensive, collaborative "business". Furthermore, he has recommended that black filmmakers should concentrate their energies on breaking into the industry and maintaining a track record of productivity, rather than on trenchant or one dimensional calls for an independent, separate black production, distribution, exhibition system, that would in a post-election Obama world perhaps be rendered obsolete or unworkable. Contrarily, Lee has put his own ideas into practice with the establishment of his 40 Acres and a Mule production company, which has, among its many projects, turned out at least a dozen feature length films that Lee has, singularly, written, directed and produced. Additionally, Lee has exec. produced a number of independent, black feature films such as Tales from the Hood, New Jersey Drive, Drop Squad, and directed dozens of shows and commercials for television. Spike Lee's vision has also taken into account the future of black filmmaking, and in this regard, he has long coattails. Lee and his production company have taken a leading role in apprenticing a majority of the next wave of contributors to the business, black. white. and 'other,' including black filmmakers such as Rusty Cundieff, Darnel Martin, Kasi Lemmons, as well as numerous actors who got their first breaks in his films or productions, the likes of Halle Berry, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, Danny Aiello, Sam Jackson, John Turturro, Rosie Perez, Roger Guenveur Smith, Annabella Sciorra.
However, to say that Lee's vision reduces to a flat marketeering business model, misses his impressive and always evolving social vision. While not as strident or totalising in the '60s cultural nationalist sense, Lee's vision of the "black world" and the world it looks out on, and looks back at it, is explored, refined and advanced in his creatively restless experimentation with theme, image, directorial style, camera shots, social issues, etc., while not being committed to a particular genre, say like John Ford to the Western, or Alfred Hitchcock to the murder mystery. What's more, as Lee has complained, while they share parallels, he is not "the black Woody Allen". Here however, I would suggest he be more favourably compared to Warren Beatty, who always privileges creative story over the template of genre, thus making all of his films radical conceptual leaps in form, from Bonnie and Clyde (1967), to Shampoo (1975), to Reds (1981), to Bullworth (1998) and so on. Lee might have started with the statement that he wanted to be a "black nationalist with a movie camera", and certainly the trajectory of his films capture the nuanced and compelling stories of the "black world", its locales from Brooklyn to Bed-Sty and Manhattan, yet now his work, in many ways, suggests that his vision has grown far bigger, more sophisticated.
In the creativity-craft-and-process of filmmaking itself, Spike Lee has become a signature American filmmaker, with what has turned out to be (while largely black inspired and focused) a broad, heterogeneous, social vision. Much of Lee's filmmaking is grounded in the black, urban world and its tales, dramas and issues, including his breakthrough commercial hit, the sexual farce She's Gotta Have It (1986), or his exploration of black collegiate life and its color-caste system in the part musical School Daze (1988); or the much awarded Do The Right Thing (1989) Lee's exploration of racial tensions on a Bed-Sty block on the hottest day of the year; or his homage to Malcolm, in the style of the epic Hollywood biopic Malcolm X (1992); or his satirical, disturbingly reflexive minstrel show Bamboozled (2000). But in addition, however inspired by African American culture and politics Lee's films turn out to be, his productivity has resulted in a significant number of films visualising cultural politics of America as a whole. With Inside Man (2006), Lee proved himself to be a strong mainstream director who can deliver a crossover, action oriented, box office hit. With his rendition of Richard Price's novel Clockers (1995), Lee turned a black/white–suspect/cop theme into an impassioned and tense exploration of urban gun violence. With Summer of Sam (1999), Spike Lee explores New York City's psychotic and signature summer of '77, a serial killer on the loose, social panic, a citywide blackout, and world series win for the Yankees. With David Benioff's novel The 25th Hour (2002), Lee became the first New York City filmmaker to aesthetically explore the grim psychic landscape in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In all, perhaps one of the most salient and admirable things one can say about Spike Lee, is that his vision and production have gone a long way to resolving one of the paradoxical, "double binds" of black filmmaking: how to successfully be an African American filmmaker, while simultaneously being a primary, cutting edge, American filmmaker.