Two-time Academy Award nominee Spike Lee has been a bit of a controversial filmmaker. He’s a writer, producer, and a director whose films have examined race relations, urban crime and poverty, the role of media in contemporary life, and other political issues. He attended school in Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA, and after graduation attended NYU’s Tisch School of Arts graduate film program in New York City. Lee’s output has been largely hit-and-miss (critically as well as financially). Through 2012, he’s made 21 features (including theatrically-released documentaries). For this appreciation, I will focus on the good films he has made. Those films include She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Get On the Bus, 4 Little Girls, He Got Game, 25th Hour, Inside Man, and Bad 25.
Spike Lee made an impressive feature debut when he wrote, produced, and directed 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It. Nola Darling is a young, sexually- independent Brooklynite who juggles three suitors: the polite Jamie Overstreet, the self-obsessed model Greer Childs, and the immature Mars Blackmon. Nola is attracted to each of them but refuses to commit to any of them, cherishing her personal freedom instead. Featuring a terrific cast that included Tracy Camilla Johns, Tommy Redmond Hicks, John Canada Terrell, and Lee himself, this critically acclaimed film was made on a budget of $175,000 and grossed $7 million. The film would win Lee an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature.
For his third film, Lee wrote, produced, and directed 1989’s Do the Right Thing. The film examines a day in the life of the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, NY, where hate and bigotry build and escalate over the course of the day until they explode with violence. Featuring a stellar cast that includes Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Robin Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Nunn, Rosie Perez, John Turturro, and Lee himself, this critically acclaimed film was made for $6 million and grossed $37 million. It also earned Lee three Golden Globe nominations (Best Screenplay, Best Director, & Best Picture- Drama) as well as his first Academy Award nomination (Best Original Screenplay).
Lee wrote, produced, and directed his fifth feature, 1991’s Jungle Fever. Interracial relationships are explored against the urban backdrop of the streets of New York City as a successful, married black architect has an affair with his Italian secretary. Featuring an incredible cast that includes Wesley Snipes, Annabella Sciorra, John Turturro, Anthony Quinn, Samuel L. Jackson, Halle Berry, Queen Latifah, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Tim Robbins, Brad Dourif, and Lee himself, this critically acclaimed film made $43 million on a $14 million budget and was considered Jackson’s breakout film.
Lee followed Jungle Fever by co-writing, producing, and directing 1992’s Malcolm X. Based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley, this biopic of the influential but controversial Black Nationalist leader covers key events in Malcolm X’s life: his criminal career, his incarceration, his conversion to Islam, his ministry as a member of the Nation of Islam and his later falling out with the organization, his marriage to Betty X, his pilgrimage to Mecca and reevaluation of his views concerning whites, and his assassination on February 21, 1965. Featuring an outstanding cast that includes Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr., Delroy Lindo, and Lee himself, this critically acclaimed film grossed $48 million and was nominated for two Academy Awards (including Best Actor for Washington).
Lee produced and directed his ninth feature, 1996’s Get On the Bus. A group of black men take a cross-country bus trip in order to participate in the 1995 Million Man March being held in Washington D.C. by Louis Farrakhan. Along the way, the men get to know each other and discuss various topics including their personal lives, political beliefs, and religious affiliations. Featuring a terrific cast that includes Charles S. Dutton, Ossie Davis, Isaiah Washington, Andre Braugher, Hill Harper, Bernie Mac, and Richard Belzer, this critically acclaimed film grossed $5.7 million on a $2.4 million budget and won an Honorable Mention at the Berlin Film Festival.
(To be concluded in: Spike Lee: An Appreciation Part Two)