Now batting… for the New York Mets, second baseman… Spike Lee. Wait a minute… What?!? Can you imagine? An entire generation without the cultural influence of Spike Lee. Well if fate had not intervened and blessed Lee with less than optimal physical size and limitations that is exactly what he wanted to be! Thankfully, culture and society were changed for the better. Changed to reflect and forced to realize what was going on outside of their own bubbles. How society was envisioned but the reality of how it actually existed through the eyes of one of our time’s greatest filmmakers.
Brooklyn’s own adopted son, born in Atlanta, GA but raised in the famed New York borough where his mind, soul and heart have stayed and never left. Where he changed a generation of society and culture through his lens, his words and his vision.
He is Spike Lee.
Shelton Lee, later known as “Spike”, was born in Atlanta, Georgia. “Spike” was a name given to Lee by his mother, Jacquelyn Lee, a teacher of arts and black literature. From an early age, Spike was ingrained with a deep understanding of culture and his method of expression through the arts and later in cinema. As a child, moving to the New York City borough of Brooklyn, Spike found a home. A home that would not only enrich his look on society and culture through the eyes of a young black male in a corrupt and troubled society, but one of that whom could make a difference. Make an impact and bring change to not only his adopted home of Brooklyn, NY but also a nation and a world.
While Spike would later go on to make such an impact, in his early years that was the furthest thing from his imagination. He would attend matinees on Saturdays, watch all day, drink all the Coca Cola and eat all the popcorn he could. Throw things at the screen. Try not to get thrown out of the theater. He never imagined that he would or even could make films. He wanted to play sports, be a second baseman for the Mets.
His father was Bill Lee, a famed jazz musician and composer would take Spike and his siblings to local shows where Bill would perform in the Village. He and his siblings were raised in a “very creative environment.” He was forced to go see plays on Broadway such as “The King and I” and the like.
“Now I could see that that exposure was very important, even though I didn’t know that that was what I wanted to do, even though I didn’t want to see these plays, I did not want to see my father play jazz. Now I see that if my parents didn’t insist on it, even with me kicking and screaming, I’d have not become a film maker.”
Spike would go on to graduate from John Dewey High School in Brooklyn and it wasn’t until he made his way back to his hometown and Morehouse College that things would begin to come into focus.
Attending Morehouse College and NYU
After Lee graduated high school in Brooklyn, he would go on to attend Morehouse College in his home town of Atlanta. While Lee’s future dreams might have been playing baseball with the New York Mets, it was at Morehouse that Spike expanded his knowledge and to some degree raised his awareness of the struggle of a young black male in the society of the day. Morehouse, a historically black college, was a breeding ground for education and awareness. The south, historically segregated and in the 1970’s the mist of a civil rights movement started in the 1960’s with Dr Martin Luther King, was the perfect location for Lee to gain that perspective that would cultivate his future.
However, Lee’s journey at Morehouse was not one magic moment. He did not step on campus and have his entire future click in place.
“I’d no idea of what I wanted to do. And like most underclassmen there comes a point where you run out of the elective classes you can take (laughter) and you have to declare a major. I chose mass communications – and that major encompassed film, TV, print journalism, and radio.”
It was not until the summer between his Sophomore and Junior years at Morehouse that Spike found his calling. The Summer of Sam was in full effect. New York City was suffering mass blackouts. Yet, in the midst of the madness there was a new form of entertainment rising in the culture of New York called disco. It was then that the unemployed Lee would go purchase a Super 8 camera and begin to find a passion in shooting anything… everything around him.
Block parties featuring a new dance called the “hustle” would be the inspiration for Lee’s first film, a student film titled “Last Hustle in Brooklyn”, a film that Lee says was “really like a highlight film of Black people and Puerto Rican people looting and dancing.” When Lee returned to school and showed to his teachers and classmates, they responded well to the film and that spark, validation of when you do something and people respond to it, that response led Lee to further his interest in films and the art of creating them.
With a passion for film, Lee was ready to take his vision and creativeness to the next level but wanted to learn the craft. He wanted to learn the film grammar and become a real filmmaker. While first attempting to get into schools like USC and UCLA in Los Angeles, almost like fate, it was his home school of NYU that would accept Lee into their fold.
For the next 3 years, all Lee would do is make films. If not his own, he would be helping classmates on their own. It was at NYU where Lee became a filmmaker. Taking his passion and making it real.
“If you want to do something, if you want to be a writer, you got to write, if you want to be a filmmaker, you have to make films.”
His thesis film, “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop” would be awarded a Student Academy Award and get him noticed by an agent at William Morris.
She’s Gotta Have It (Watch it again)
“Look Spike, just leave everything up to me, I know how to handle the studios. Just sit back and wait by the phone.”
Those were the magical words that we told to Lee after he signed with William Morris. Words that echoed in his mind for years to come. By the phone he sat… and sat… and sat… Until he finally built the nerve to call and be told to sit and wait some more. For Lee though, that was not something he could afford to do with his phone getting cut off, then his electricity and then his gas. He would go on to write a script entitled “Messenger” which would lead to another lesson learned. Don’t trust shady and bogus producers. That film was never made. Lee, embarrassed from the experience. Embarrassed from the let down of the crew he assembled and had to tell that he could no longer pay them or make the movie. Embarrassed from the failure.
From that failure, Spike did what every successful person in the history of the world has done to get where they are… He learned from his mistakes. Lee adjusted his strategy. Coming out of film school as he would say “In retrospect I saw that I committed several key errors all first-time filmmakers do. They try to be over-ambitious, try to do stuff that’s beyond their means — that helicopter shot, all types of stuff.” He simplified. Lee went on to write and star in a movie that was shot in 2 days. That movie was “She’s Gotta Have It.”
Lee would raise the $125,000 himself to shoot the film. A film that would go on to gross 8.5 Million dollars. The plot was simple, it was just Mars Blackmon (sound familiar?) and two other guys competing for the sole attention of Nora Darling in an attempt to be the only man for her. Told through her partners and friends. Shot in black and white and in just a couple of days.
It’s Gotta Be The Shoes
“Please baby, please baby, please baby, baby baby please!”
Famous words as Mars tried to keep Nora from dumping him in “She’s Gotta Have It.” In the movie, Mars Blackmon is obsessed with his favorite athlete… Michael Jordan. A relationship that would catch marketing executives in charge of the Jordan brand shoe’s campaign and Nike advertising team. He was perfect for the role in the new Jordan commercials.
It was Michael Jordan who gave Spike the opportunity. Jordan had never heard of Lee but in his words, he wanted to “let me give this young Black filmmaker a chance,” and with that, the duo would go on to change the world of shoe advertisement with one simple line from Spike Lee’s character Mars Blackmon.
“It’s gotta be the shoes!
Repeatedly, Mars would ask Mike was it the shoes. Is it the shorts, the haircut… it’s gotta be the shoes! That relationship would launch Spike in to a character as an actor and as well launch his commercial career. Lee was now exposed to an entire group of people that didn’t get the opportunity to see Lee in “She’s Gotta Have It.” Opening him up to a whole new audience and creating an opportunity and exposure that he would have never gotten if not for Jordan and the shoes.
Lee has since gone on to direct commercials for Levi, Converse, Jaguar and more thanks to Michael Jordan giving him that opportunity. But Michael… Are you sure it’s not the shoes?
Do The Right Thing (Watch it again on Blu-ray)
25 years ago, yes… it has been that long… Spike Lee delivered one of the greatest masterpieces of cinematic history. And no, that is not an understatement. Not only was “Do the Right Thing” a masterpiece, it was a game changer. Setting the tone for his entire career. Lee crossed unwritten lines and blurred subjects, not only showing the harsh reality of life as a young black man in New York but a movie and characters that could resonate among angry and held down African Americans across the country and more specifically in urban settings.
Lee’s character, Mookie would experience life as it was in a society which young black males lived every day. Featuring a cast tailormade to tell the story perfectly. Rosie Perez (Tina), John Turturro (Pino), Danny Aiello (Sal), Ossie Davis (Da Mayor), Ruby Dee (Mother Sister), Giancarlo Esposito (Buggin’ Out) and Bill Nunn (Radio Raheem) told the story so vividly that it would scar the consciousness of America for the better and set the tone for future feature films. For Lee, it was just based on a hot summer day in Brooklyn.
However, Hollywood which was starting to recognize the racial lines being erased failed to validate Lee’s work and only nominated “Do the Right Thing” for best screenplay and not best picture which went that year to “Driving Miss Daisy.”
Jungle Fever (Watch it again)
Spike wouldn’t rest on his resume after films like “Do the Right Thing” and other films such as “School Daze” and “Mo’ Better Blues”, both also filled with racial tension and insight into characters that were not just written but as Lee put it, “real.” No, Lee would go on to cross the most sacred of Hollywood’s unwritten rules, interracial relations.
The film featured Wesley Snipes as an African American married man who cheats on his wife with an Italian woman (Annabella Sciorra). Now, it was not unheard of to cross racial lines in film. It had happened in movies before. But… the major difference was almost always that it was a white male and a black female. It was ok in Hollywood for basically any relationship on screen featuring a white male. However, if a black male or any other minority were to have relations with a white female? That was the line that Spike was willing to cross and see if America was ready for in 1991.
Featuring not only Snipes and Sciorra, the movie featured Samuel L. Jackson in what many consider his breakout role as well as a crack addict character played by a young Halle Berry. Other characters from Lee’s other films appear as well such as Dee, Davis and Turturro. Lee’s ability for picking a cast to tell his story was and is second to none.
X (Watch it again)
The argument could be made that there was not one other director that could have told the story of Malcolm X better than Spike Lee. Not John Singleton, the Hughes brothers or any other prominent African American director. Spike Lee’s challenge to society’s standards and cultural bias, his rebellion in the face of a world that did not want to hear the harsh truths. No one else could have told this story and as vividly.
Spike Lee was not only the only person that could have told this story, he was the only one with the commitment to the story that even in the face of losing funding that he was going to tell it his way. Warner Bros. would take funding away from a film that was over budget and not only over budget but longer than the studio wanted. Lee would insist “Malcolm’s life deserves the three hours plus time that we felt it needed.” Since Lee had final cut there was little to nothing that the studio could do except cut funding.
“That was one of the worst periods I had in my life. We shot the film, … and my editing staff each received a Federal Express letter telling them that they had been fired. There’s no finance for the film, and I don’t got the money.”
In doing his research for the film, Lee learned one persevering trait about Malcolm X, self-preservation. The African American community depending on each other and helping each other when in need. Lee would pick himself up and make the calls. First to Bill Cosby, later to Oprah Winfrey and even to Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. All of them contributed to help bring Malcolm X to theaters everywhere. Lee would joke (yet, being serious) that he “Then I called my main man, Michael Jordan, and knowing that Michael was very competitive I told him what Magic gave (laughter).”
The movie was not a new story, but it was a story that deserved to be told on a larger level. Before the film, misconceptions of Malcolm’s life were both under-appreciated and over-amplified. While Malcolm X was larger than life in an era where his views of civil rights were vigilant and opposite of those of the more peaceful King Jr, they were every bit as much of a reason for the beginning of change in this country’s views and laws to allow African American’s the same freedom and rights as white Americans.
Lee’s version of those events took you through the entire journey, not just the highlights and the controversy. Lee felt it was important that people understood what made the man who he was and how he got where he did, telling the entire journey through the acting of Denzel Washington in the title role. Denzel’s portrayal earned him a Best Actor nomination (which was won that year by Al Pacino).
He Got Game (Watch it again)
When you think of the plight of the black man in America, once you get past the civil rights you then look within to see what has held the community back. The stereotype that has been repeatedly made true statistically is that of abandonment from African American fathers. Young children raised by single mothers. In Spike Lee’s quest to better the African American community, to show their struggle and life, he also showed their flaws and possible restitution.
The film “He Got Game” starred Ray Allen as Jesus Shuttlesworth, a young black youth that is the most highly recruited basketball player in America. His father, Denzel Washington’s character Jake is serving a life sentence for the accidental death of his wife and Jesus’ mother. Left to care for his little sister and try to pursue college and a possible career in basketball, Jesus has had to struggle and survive on his own. Keep his sister safe and his own path on track through the temptation and challenges. Jake is let out of prison temporarily to try and persuade Jesus to attend the college that the state’s Governor is pushing him towards.
Jake’s presence and attempt at reconciliation with his son throws Jesus’ plan and world into chaos. Blaming his father for the death of his mother and trying to raise his sister, he must face the demons and eventually overcome.
The film not only attacks the lack of a father in the home but also the vicious side of sports as agents, recruiters and even a gold-digging girlfriend all attempt to get their claws into Jesus. Sharing a side of the sports world that is not only illegal but yet, still happens on a daily basis even today. Ray Allen’s portrayal of Jesus Shuttlesworth received rave reviews and Denzel’s part in telling the story only added that much more depth to the role.
From Brooklyn to Brooklyn…
“Growing up in this country, the rich culture I saw in my neighborhood, in my family – I didn’t see that on television or on the movie screen. It was always my ambition that if I was successful I would try to portray a truthful portrait of African Americans in this country, negative and positive. I’ve never really tried to get in that hole where everything has to be 100%, – because I think that it’s not necessarily true – and it’s definitely not dramatic having the subject, the characters in your film be 100% angelic, and god-like.”
Throughout the years, Spike Lee has stayed true to his adopted hometown of Brooklyn. Never abandoning his roots for Hollywood’s glitz and glamour. Portraying the life and characters in his films as “real.” Telling their lives to an audience that continue to live in the dark or in denial of a life that is different than their own. A story that Spike continues to share as an advocate for the community and a hero to a generation that has never fully appreciated his work.
Some will always remember Spike Lee as the goofy sidekick in the Jordan commercials, and for Lee that is ok. Many more will always appreciate the films, commercials and more that he has so vividly given us insight to over the years.