How the Media Separated Black People from the Greatest Filmmaker of Their Generation
The Making of Spike Lee Into An Angry Black Man
Spike Lee used to be the media’s darling.
Everyone wanted to be in business with him. Consider the fact that Spike was barely into his career when Jim Riswold begged Wieden Kennedy execs to give Lee the Michael Jordan commercial franchise. Consider the fact that Spike was once followed around and quoted on all things New York and all things Black. Consider the fact that while Spike made movies for and about Black people, critics celebrated his efforts.
Lee has had one of the most prolific careers of any filmmaker, having directed over thirty films, yet when his name is mentioned now, the discourse immediately gravitates to his personality or his love of the Knicks or his battles with other filmmakers — anything but his films. What that noise has done is drown out Lee’s voice from being heard by his core audience — Black people. How did that happen?
Before we go into the how, and most importantly the why, let’s take a look at why I make the claim that Lee is The Greatest.
Spike Had His Own 3-Peat:
If we journey back to the dark desolate mid-80s, the only time you saw Black people or Black culture on the big screen was either in an exploitation piece or as a sidekick. Yes, Charles Burnett released “Killer of Sheep” in 1978 and “My Brother’s Wedding” in 1983, but the distribution was miniscule and we never saw ‘em.
Cut to 1986.
Lee had hoped to secure financing for what was supposed to be his breakout film, The Messenger, a film about a bike courier who becomes head of the household when the matriarchal figure dies. All told, he lost $50,000 on the project and an untold amount of respect.
When a production falls through, that’s enough to end many a filmmaker’s dream, but Spike quickly dusted himself off and whizzed through the script for his experimental, black and white calling card, She’s Gotta Have it.
Watching it for the first time now is like watching one of those average Jordan games — you know, one of the ones where he didn’t drop 52 on someone or make some incredible move that had you jumping up and down in disbelief. I love the film. But mostly because outside of Eddie Murphy, I never saw Black people in movies. And it was cool and there was simulated sex….
Hey, I was 14.
Lee parlayed that success into the HBCU musical masterpiece School Daze— the movie that played a large role in my attending Clark Atlanta University. The slang (“Damn Skippy”), the message (divesting from Apartheid controlled South Africa), it was just Black. So that was another win.
The trifecta came with almost everyone’s favorite, Do The Right Thing. You can’t lose with “Fight The Power” as your opening song, even if you thought Rosie Perez was dancing too damn hard and making the worst faces. This film had the style (throwbacks, anyone?), it had the slang (“naw, you the man…”), it had the message (pick one), and a great accompanying soundtrack.
I still hear Take Six when it gets too hot outside, “don’t shoot.”
Very few people have a run like that. Jordan had been in the NBA for almost six years before he had his — but that’s apples and oranges.
Again, let it be said, when we’re talking about ‘great filmmakers,’ we’re talking about directors who use the medium of film, with its unique characteristics, as art as well as commerce. So, while we do mention box office, that is not our sole determiner in what makes one great.
She’s Gotta Have It (86)
The budget for SGHI was a pip squeak of a budget, a paltry $175,000. But Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson (Lee’s Pippen), a Howard undergrad, who met Spike at NYU, made the most of it.
The experimental feel was achieved by intriguing mis-en-scene with character confessions (who knew that that would become a staple of Reality TV?)…
The infamous dog scene, where Nola recounts the “weak” pick-up lines from men and she just doesn’t say the lines, we SEE the men deliver them…
And of course, they had the ONE color dance scene staged at the highest point of Fort Greene Park, Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument.
Like Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise” (84), SGHI didn’t look cheap. It looked stylized and these above elements, along with artistic photos from Spike’s brother, David Lee, played a large role in that.
School Daze (88)
With a budget increase, Dickerson was able to cop some cranes and score a steadicam or two to achieve Spike’s desire for a constantly moving camera. School Daze, Lee’s first real film, proved to the world that he was no one hit wonder, that he had the chops and wherewithal to handle a large cast, bigger budget, and any obstacles thrown his way. And he established that with the very first shot.
We knew we were in for a treat when Dickerson CRANED DOWN from the the clock of Harkness Hall to a MEDIUM CLOSE UP of protestor, Dap Dunlap in the opening shot…
And there are more subtle shots, like this exchange between Cedar Cloud and President McPherson — we can tell who has the advantage in the exchange by how they’re FRAMED — Cloud always above — President McPherson always below.
I balked at the idea of the Otis Sallid choreographed musical/dance scene, “Good & Bad Hair” then. Up until that moment, “School Daze” was a straight-forward narrative. But as a student of film, I learned to appreciate the artistry needed to make such a scene work.
The $6.5 million dollar budget served them well.
Do The Right Thing (89)
The budget for “Do The Right Thing” was around $6.5 million and with it Lee was able to let Wynn Thomas build sets for the first time, block off streets, get a partial union crew, cranes, and mo steadicam action. Any one of those alone could be a challenge for a novice filmmaker. Spike and Dickerson were not that, at this point.
And you can tell by this complex Louma crane shot. We move from an EXTREME CLOSE UP of Señor Love Daddy OUT to REVEAL the sweltering Bed-Stuy streets…
Not to mention, creating Iconic scenes like this (the “motherfuck gentrification” line alone is worth the exposed film):
And Spike added this bit of experimentation; a scene similar to ‘the dog’ scene but instead of throwing out their best pick-up lines, our characters are stringing together their top notch racial slurs.
Lastly, and unfortunately still relevant, is this controversial sequence where even in 2015, people are more concerned about Mookie throwing the trashcan than the police killing Radio Raheem. Spike was able to tap into the zeitgeist…
All three of these films made the studio money to the tune of $46 million. Spike could have pursued baseball after making those three films and kept a place in my heart as one of the greatest to ever scream ‘action!’ But he came back and not wearing the 4–5.
Spike’s 2nd 3-Peat:
Mo’ Better Blues (90)
This film had a nice glossy look. The colors popped off the screen. The title sequence alone looked like it could have been a Francis Wolff shot Blue Note album cover. And this is the intro of The Spike Shot — a dolly shot originally utilized by Martin Scorsese in an opening of Mean Streets.
What I appreciate about this era of Spike is, like most filmmakers, he stuck with the same team. Here we have Stuart Allen again on the Louma Crane doing an even more intense Crane shot sweeping down from the Brooklyn Pin Oak trees…
The first band performance of the film was covered from at least 14 angles, and cut together beautifully by Sam Pollard; notice the sumptuous colors…
And yes: The Spike Shot.
Jungle Fever (91)
One of Spike’s gifts is his ability to handle larger issues within the community in a mature, non-preachy manner…
This is perhaps the most harrowing depiction of the crack plague ever captured on film. Spike totally immerses you in it, all the while “Living Just Enough For the City” narrates the pains of the oppressed…
It’s astounding that Samuel Jackson didn’t get anything more than a New York Film Critics Circle Award for his turn as Gator. This performance has Oscar written all over it.
Malcolm X (92)
Malcolm X — properly titled “X” — was Spike’s Flu Game; everything he did up until this point led to here. And it was an unimaginable challenge. Lee watched as White filmmakers who were making silly comedies got bigger budgets than he had been given despite always making the studio money. And the insults didn’t stop there.
Because also in production at the time was another period piece, Oliver Stone’s JFK. The studios and the public were firmly behind Stone’s controversial film and Stone got all he needed to complete his biopic. Meanwhile, Spike had to damn near beg wealthy Blacks for completing funds.
Unfortunately, the Autobiography of Malcolm X played a pivotal role in my life so it was impossible to go in without expectations. That’s not to take away from the film. I can recognize it as a monumental moment in Black Cinema, perhaps one of the best Black movies, as far as period pieces go, ever made. But I’m no fan. Nonetheless, let’s look at the culmination of the many lessons learned from prior films and how they came together to make this masterpiece.
Spike’s propensity for a grand opening comes into play once again here. By this point, it’s safe to say that Spike, Dickerson, and Stuart Allen have mastered the Crane Shot.
You want to talk Iconic? They don’t get more iconic than this moment…
If there was ever a time for the “Spike Shot” this was it. This shot encapsulates what Malcolm X must have felt as he entered the Audobon Ball that fateful day…
THE CASE (THE END OF AN ERA):
If one had to locate a turning point, this October 1992 Barbara Grizzuti Harrison written Esquire piece would be a good start.
The title alone, meant to stir up emotion, is — surprise — racist. The tone of the article is confrontational and has more to do with Lee than the film.
When Lee phoned the editor, Terry McDonell, he told him, “You’ve damaged me.”
McDonell in a Los Angeles Times article balked, “He couldn’t believe we had done this.”
Adding that Lee failed to see the “irony” the magazine intended.
This was the beginning of the portrayal of Spike as The Angry Black Man and, boy, have they got a lot of mileage off of that one. But let’s look at it.
“I’m doing what every other person in Hollywood does: they dictate who they want to do interviews with,” he said. “Tom Cruise, Robert Redford, whoever. People throw their weight around. Well, I get many requests now for interviews, and I would like African-Americans to interview me. Spike Lee has never said he only wants Black journalists to interview him. What I’m doing is using whatever clout I have to get qualified African-Americans assignments. The real crime is White publications don’t have Black writers, that’s the crime.”
Same month as the Esquire article, four weeks before the opening of Malcolm X, Spike requested that publications send Black writers to interview him, arguing that they would be more responsive and sympathetic to the life, and therefore depiction, of Malcolm X. A request that even the author of the New York Times article, Bernard Weinraub, notes isn’t unusual, but his tone, like Harrison’s, was confrontational.
Using words like heatedly to describe how Lee explained his request, one gets the picture that Lee is neither making the request, nor responding to the interviewer, in a calm and rational way — but instead:
Biopics, period pieces, large, expansive stories are usually perfect Oscar fodder. Malcolm X had all of those characteristics and then some. Yet when the nominations for the 1992 Oscars rolled around, the film only received two nominations (Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Costume Design).
Soon, Ernest Dickerson would go on to direct his own films breaking up the two 3-peat team. Unlike the earlier films, up until 25th Hour, most of them lost money. Spike would have a harder time finding financing. Still, Lee would still be able to make fifteen plus films over the next twenty-three years. People started writing Lee off. Then came Inside Man.
Reuniting with frequent collaborator, Denzel Washington, Inside Man (06) was made for $45 million and brought in a roaring $184 million; Spike’s greatest box office haul to date. He followed that with the critically acclaimed and well-received Hurricane Katrina documentary, When The Levees Broke. One would think that Spike Lee would now be officially written up as back. But that didn’t happen.
Again, the focus was put on anything but his movies. First it was the supposed ‘08 war against Clint Eastwood where Lee addressed Eastwood’s lack of Black soldier representation in Eastwood’s double WWII films — then it was the ’12 battles with Tarantino over Django Unchained. In both cases, Lee’s points were missed. Spike merely wanted to address diversity and appropriation. Very valid issues. But the messenger had already been killed.
By this point, most Black people just wanted Spike to be quiet. Unless you have the personality of Ali, or the credibility of Minister Farrakhan, Black folk get tired of you talking. Then the media presented the veritable last straw — Tyler Perry.
The Tyler Perry debate, in all actuality, is a non-debate. Lee and Perry make totally different types of films. But because Hollywood marginalizes the Black audience and believes that we all are the same, they make it an either/or situation. When asked about Perry, it would have been in Lee’s best interest, not to address it at all. He should have smelled the stench of divisiveness. Yet, Spike took the bait and soon everyone and their grandmothers — literally — were attacking Spike.
From 1972 to roughly 1977, Stevie Wonder had what people call his Golden Era. Prince had one from 1982 to 1988. Both still have loyal fans who support their work. Surely no one is of the belief that current Scorsese films hold up next to Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. Nonetheless, people still turn up for whatever his latest release is.
But rack your brain and try to think of any Black filmmaker who has a filmography with 80% of his output focused on the Black American experience. Show me a Black filmmaker that, despite obstacle after obstacle being thrown at them, continues to find innovative ways of putting out product. Find me another Black filmmaker who has kept working for over thirty years.
Personally, I feel that Spike’s Golden Era was between 86 to 92. Some would extend it to ‘94 to include Crooklyn, yet I think he may still have some great films in him. I also believe that Spike should be wiser about the battles he picks. It’s okay to not state your opinion on each and every thing. Sometimes it harms more than it helps. And perhaps Lee thought he had more power than he actually did. These issues I attribute to him.
What I attribute to the media — Hollywood — White press — however you want to label the same machine — is the attempted castration of Spike Lee in the eyes of the public.
Even early on, Spike made note of the fact that:
“They don’t love you and the second you’re not making them money, you’re out of there. They can build you up and they can tear you down.”
We live in a world where White people behaving badly is celebrated, humanized, understood. Sean Penn’s legacy hasn’t been tarnished by his alleged brutality towards women. Nor do we discount Woody Allen’s movies for marrying his daughter. Those things are barely focused on.
I doubt that any review of An Irrational Man began with, “Woody Allen who married his daughter Soon Yi.”
If filmmaking is an art, Spike Lee is The Greatest of our era. He’s influenced many, not only Black filmmakers, but filmmakers in general to take up the camera and start documenting their life. He was once the voice of not just Black oppression — but Black art — and he continues to make Black movies for Black people.
Spike Lee pulled back the veil on Hollywood, exposed the double standards, making him a pariah in their eyes. So let’s continue to show our support for him. At least give him a chance even if we don’t understand how Nick Cannon or an older Wesley Snipes could be cast as gangsters.
Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq will be released as Amazon Studios first film on Dec 4, 2015.