Understanding Spike Lee
The last few months have been a busy stretch for Spike Lee.
In November, Spike received an Honorary Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the Academy’s annual Governor’s Ball, an event that is meant to highlight the career achievements of individuals who have provided extraordinary artistic contributions to the motion picture industry.
In December, Spike’s latest film, Chi-Raq, a modern day adaptation of the Greek comedy, Lysistrata, opened in theaters across the country. A bold satire tackling issues of violence, racism, and patriarchal corruption in America, the film was released to a slew of conflicting opinions about its effectiveness in unpacking the precarious issues that it seeks to address.
There were those who absolutely trashed it (Fuck You, Spike Lee), there were those who vigorously applauded it (Spike Lee's urgent, angry – and very sexy – midlife masterpiece), and there were those who seemed to be torn between honoring its intentions and bemoaning the complications of its execution (‘Chi-Raq’ Scratches At Black America’s Generation Gap In A Time Of Protest).
I saw Chi-Raq during its opening weekend run at the ArcLight Hollywood. There were two major takeaways that I left with. One, Teyonah Parris is one of the most beautiful women in the universe and she is destined for greatness as a performer. Two, the movie reminded me that men are usually good for one thing: fucking shit up for everybody. And any film that has the courage to make that statement should receive a gold star.
Teyonah Parris as Lysistrata
As divergent as the opinions about Chi-Raq might be, there seem to be a couple points of agreement about the picture. The first point is that the trailer for the project didn’t serve the film as well as they could have. Unfortunately, ineffective trailers happen, whether it’s a Spike Lee movie or not. There are bad movies that have great trailers. There are great movies that have weak trailers. It’s just a part of the process. The second point is that subtlety is not what Spike typically strives for in his work. If there’s anything that we all know about Spike Lee, it’s that he has no desire to dilute his voice for anyone. When it comes to the building blocks of his filmmaking, the plot, the themes, the visuals, the dialogue, and the music, Spike likes to make movies that dial it up. All the way up. If you like films where characters speak softly and move gently through a delicately constructed universe, most of Spike’s movies won’t be your cup of tea. His raw and grandiose style has never been more evident than it was in Chi-Raq, which is why the film has had such a controversial reception ever since it was announced.
Just like almost every other film that any of us have ever seen, Chi-Raq is a flawed work. But unlike most films, the imperfections of Chi-Raq have grabbed headlines because of the manner in which Spike has attempted to address some of the most pressing issues that America is facing today. Chi-Raq is a satire, and when it comes to artistic expression, satire often has the toughest road to travel before it is accepted by the general public. Any satire worth its salt is going to make sure that all of its core elements are exaggerated and blown out of proportion. That’s the point of satire. To make you laugh, to make you uncomfortable, to turn your world upside down. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the greatest pieces of American satire that has ever been produced, was originally published in 1885, and its relevance is still disputed to this day. Whenever an artist uses satire to dive into sensitive issues that are affecting people’s lives on a daily basis, there are going to be folks that just don’t appreciate the fireworks. The inevitable controversy should be expected. It comes with the genre.
Satire ain’t easy. Just ask Mark Twain.
Whether or not viewers agree with the creative decisions that were made with the film, Chi-Raq is Spike’s most confident and most impactful narrative feature film since Inside Man. The film’s most vocal detractors seem to be caught up in an emotional and visceral response to a project that has been unfairly pigeonholed ever since it was announced. Even if Chi-Raq does not fall within the preferences of a particular viewer’s creative tastes, the bickering surrounding the film has opened up an opportunity to take a deeper look into Spike’s journey as an artist. Believe it or not, Spike is turning 59 this year, and while many of his baby boomer brethren are plotting the safest path to retirement, he’s still searching for a bigger spoon to stir the pot with. And since there seems to be a swarm of critics that are all too eager to tear Spike down for his ambitions agitations, it conversely seems worthwhile to take the road less traveled and develop a more comprehensive understanding of what has driven him to make a film like Chi-Raq at this point in his career.
It’s been almost 30 years since the arrival of Spike’s debut feature film, She’s Gotta Have It (1986), and with several dozen credits to his filmography in the decades since, Spike is still working as hard as he ever has to produce work that is timely, relevant, and provocative.
Very few filmmakers in the history of cinema have built a legacy that is as audacious as the one that Spike has constructed. His turns behind the camera have allowed him to transcend his work as a storyteller and placed him firmly in the realm of those who we tend to identify as cultural icons.
Spike Lee is an icon.
That’s not an offhand statement.
That’s a fact.
The justification of Spike Lee’s importance as an artist begins with how Spike tends to be received by the public. I’m not talking about the journalists, pundits, and commentators that spin their opinions about Spike to the masses. I’m taking about the everyday people that interact with Spike in the real world.
Most film directors can walk down the street in a major city and go about their business just like any normal person.
People want autographs. People want selfies. People want fist bumps.
People wanna holler out, “Hey Spike! The Knicks suck!”
These types of things don’t happen to your typical director. Not even the prolific ones.
I work in the film business and I know that I would have quite a bit of difficulty in correctly identifying some of our greatest living auteurs. My favorite movie of 2015 was Mad Max: Fury Road, directed by the insane genius George Miller. Despite my obsessive admiration for his epic magnum opus, the honest truth is that if George Miller walked up to me in a parking lot and asked me if I had change for a twenty, I probably wouldn’t have it, and I probably wouldn’t have the awareness to thank him for crafting one of the best pieces of cinema that I have ever seen.
George Miller. Just in case you catch him in the streets.
Say what you want to about Spike, but there is no question that he has left an indelible imprint in America’s consciousness. That is an extraordinarily difficult accomplishment for any artist of any medium, even if their work is worthy of such attention.
The justification of Spike’s importance as an artist continues with his extensive and diversified body of work.
Any arguments for or against the “worthiness” of an artist always boil down to someone else’s hoity-toity opinion of their creative competency. For one reason or another, some opinions are deemed to have more credence than others. Some people love Spike’s films. Some folks aren’t huge fans. Such is the nature of art. This writer’s opinion might not be as highly touted as those that can be found elsewhere, but here are some of my favorite films that Spike has made during his lengthy career:
She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
School Daze (1988)
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Mo' Better Blues (1990)
Jungle Fever (1991)
Malcolm X (1992)
Get on the Bus (1996)
4 Little Girls (1997)
He Got Game (1998)
The Original Kings of Comedy (2000)
25th Hour (2002)
Inside Man (2006)
Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
Bad 25 (2012)
Again, some of these films might not be your flavor, but anyone who parses through that short list of projects should at least sense that the filmmaker behind them has a distinct, powerful, humorous, and human voice.
Which one is your favorite?
Rather than reinvent the wheel and attempt to put together a detailed retrospective of Spike’s work, I will highlight a piece that was written late last year that does an excellent job in discussing his influence in the spectrum of modern cinema. Whether you have seen Chi-Raq or not, How the Media Separated Black People From the Greatest Filmmaker of Their Generation, is worth the read. Maulud Sadiq threw it down like Rowdy Roddy Piper. There aren’t many articles these days that actually attempt to give Spike the respect that he deserves as an artist, filmmaker, and entrepreneur. Instead, most of the press we get about Spike usually stems from someone trying to give him shit about something he said, did, didn’t say, or didn’t do.
Whatever the criticisms of Spike’s work and politics might be, he is still one of the two most impactful black filmmakers in the history of cinema. I’m open to any arguments that might be made to the contrary, but as far as I can see its Spike Lee and Oscar Micheaux... chilln’... by a wide margin... eating popcorn and Junior Mints while the rest of us are sprinting to catch up.
Oscar and Spike. *Ayo, Spike. Pass the nachos.*
Even though he’s been working in the film industry since the 80’s, Spike doesn’t seem to have any intentions of slowing down. As a matter of fact, he is always working. If there are any candidates currently gunning for the position of “the hardest working man in showbiz,” Spike has got to be near the top of that ballot. I don’t say that as someone who has simply shuffled through his insanely dense IMDb profile, I say that as someone who has worked with Spike in a number of capacities. Now, when I say work “with,” I essentially mean that I’ve worked as an assistant and/or intern on several of his projects. Before you roll your eyes, please understand that film and TV production is an apprenticeship industry, an intensely competitive apprenticeship industry, so I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to fill those positions. Sometimes it’s really important to know how to do your job, stay out of the way, and not fuck anything up. Being an assistant is also the best way to get insight into anyone’s creative process. Even more importantly, you get insight into how that person interacts with others.
I’ve seen Spike’s worth ethic. I’ve witnessed how he navigates relationships. I’ve watched how hard he pushes to get his projects made. These are not the things that are mentioned when we read about Spike Lee. We live in an era of inflammation and spectacle. The spectacle reveals itself in almost every form of human endeavor. That means the spectacle reveals itself in journalism too. Write something juicy. Write it fast. Worry about professionalism later. Instead of getting insightful portraits of our artists and leaders, we get headline fodder and slanted half-truths. This is why there is always such a startling dichotomy between the public and private lives of our greatest influencers. There are all types of things that people should know about Spike Lee that they often don’t. Most of what we read and see about Spike is not written or presented by people who actually work with him or know him like they ought to know him. As a result, most of what we see is a bunch of noise from people operating with preconceived notions and vaguely rendered sketches of Spike Lee that have been spoon fed to them by the cult and culture of celebrity.
Any working professional takes pride in how their work and their character are received. In most instances, we are particularly sensitive to how those within our industry regard our performance. We’re Americans after all, so if we’re going to be judged, we’d at least like to be judged by a jury of our peers. That is why the most important justification of Spike Lee’s relevance as an artist comes in the way that he is regarded by his collaborators and contemporaries within the entertainment community. Whether it is the innumerable world-class actors that he has worked with, or transcendent athletes such as Michael Jordan, or musical luminaries such as the late Michael Jackson, they all know Spike and they all carry a deep respect for his talents as a storyteller. Most people in his position would take that clout, sit on it, and ride the wave ‘til the metaphorical wheels fall off. Not Spike. He doesn’t limit his collaborations to those who are already at the top of the food chain. He’s been teaching film students at NYU for over two decades. Not only does he hold classes, he counsels dozens and dozens of students on their works-in-progress through individual advisements
Some might say “So what? Spike teaches at NYU. That’s not a big deal.” Actually, it is a big deal. I know because I was once one of those students. I know because I was once his teaching assistant. I know because I have seen Spike help a number of my friends and cohorts get to the next level with their projects, whether or not the average filmgoer has ever seen them. It’s a big deal because I’ve watched these relationships go from the realm of collegiate advisement to professional mentorship. . Sometimes he even goes as far as to get involved with projects in an official capacity as an Executive Producer. Sometimes those projects end up being wonderful independent films such as Evolution of a Criminal (2014), directed by Darius Clark Monroe, Manos Sucias (2014), directed by Josef Wladyka, or Pariah (2011), directed by Dee Rees.
Some of the recent work from Spike’s NYU #squad
Spike has a long history of mentoring fellow artists. He’s also created an innumerable number of opportunities for people to work as film professionals. He continues to support a growing family of actors, artists, and technicians who have made all sorts of impressions in the business. And he has never apologized for having a particular penchant for hiring and collaborating with people of color. If you know any brown folks in the film industry, I’d say that there’s a 50/50 chance that they’ve worked with Spike, and about a 100% chance that they’ve worked with someone who’s worked with Spike.
In order to properly exemplify these observations, I’ve included a couple clips from the recent Governor’s Ball in which Spike received his Honorary Oscar.
In the first video, you will see Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, and Denzel Washington pour out some funny and heartfelt regards for Spike as they present him with the most important award that he has ever received as a filmmaker.
The second video follows Spike as he steps to the microphone and reflects on his career. As gracious and humbled as he is by the moment, he is still compelled to get vocal about the continuing disparities in the film business and in our communities. In typical Spike Lee fashion, he wants to make sure that you know that we’ve still got a lot of work to do.
No matter what movies he continues to make and no matter what ventures he chooses to pursue, Spike Lee is likely going to be regarded as a polemic figure in our society for the rest of his days. Whatever side of the fence that you fall on when it comes to his work and his persona, there is one thing that is abundantly clear about his motives as an artist and as a man: Spike Lee is deeply disturbed by the rampant injustice in our society. Our world is plagued with racism, sexism, discrimination, corruption, greed, and violence. But that has never been okay with Spike. And for the last three decades, he’s been determined to do something about it.
With all the explosive thoughts and ideas that people have about Spike Lee, there seems to be one aspect of his career and his identity that everyone seems to overlook. People see Spike as a filmmaker, as a businessman, as a sports fan, and many other things, but they constantly undervalue Spike’s worth as a social activist. He cares about people, he cares about our communities, and he’s tired of seeing us swallow ourselves up. That’s the message at the core of Chi-Raq and most other Spike Lee joints.
Spike leading a gun violence protest after the premiere of Chi-Raq
Consider the times in which Spike was raised. Born in the Civil Rights Era, coming of age during the Black Power movement, navigating manhood amidst the War on Drugs, and now facing a contemporary society in which the same afflictions from his youth are still choking our civilization. Spike has been bred into an order of exceptional artists of African descent that have struggled make sense of a world that seems to hate blackness. From Nina Simone, to James Baldwin, to Toni Morrison, to Dave Chappelle, that struggle for humanity has inspired and motivated much of their exemplary work. I have an intimate understanding of that journey because I grew up in a household with an artist that grappled with the same conundrum. My father, Ralph Wiley, was a powerful writer, but he was never able to find any semblance of serenity during his lifetime. Even with the strength of his craft and his unyielding will, he simply could not fathom how the tone of one’s skin could result in such rampant and catastrophic dehumanization of brown and black bodies.
The rich legacy of negritude in America
I will always applaud Spike Lee for having the courage to speak openly and candidly about the maladies of our society. I will applaud him for doing everything he can to use his art to address the issues that so many people choose to ignore. I will applaud him for continuing to be able to accumulate the resources and support necessary to execute projects that pierce and probe our culture, especially when one considers the legions of artists from underrepresented communities who will never be fully recognized for their contributions. I might not be in love with every project that Spike has made, but he’s certainly due a baseline level of respect and regard for championing the voices of the oppressed.
Is Chi-Raq my favorite film that Spike has made? Not at all. But Spike isn’t striving for perfection. He’s striving for change. That’s what activists do. They dedicate their life to a cause. That’s why Spike will never stop fighting for the artistic, economic, political, and social advancement of black people. And he has never done anything in his career to dispute that simple truth.
That’s why I will always look forward to the next Spike Lee joint.
Because no matter how the movie turns out, it always feel good to know that Uncle Spike has got our back.