Filmmaker Spike Lee, born Shelton Jackson Lee, burst on the Hollywood scene in the late 1980s aggressively and unabashedly showcased Blackness. His first series of films highlighted Black life In Brooklyn, New York, but somehow still reflected the overall expense of being Black in America.
He released his debut feature film–“She’s Gotta Have It” in 1986, but his work, which also infused the hip-hop influence in Black life, has remained timeless despite the years. His personality seems to match his film creations–unexpectedly outspoken and, like his movies, people either hate or love him.
But his craft is undeniable, and he has won numerous accolades for his work, including an Academy Award, a Student Academy Award, two Primetime Emmy Awards, a BAFTA Award, and two Peabody Awards. He has also been honored with an Honorary BAFTA Award in 2002, an Honorary César in 2003, the Academy Honorary Award in 2019, and a Gala Tribute from the Film Society of Lincoln Center as well as the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.
His production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, has produced more than 35 films since 1983. One of the first filmmakers to get into the branding side, he often did guerrilla marketing of his own movies, and he opened a shop, Spike’s Joint, where people could buy his movie memorabilia. And, Lee most often pops up in his own films as one of the supporting actors.
Speaking of actors, he also gave many Black actors their first significant exposure, such as Laurence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson, Giancarlo Esposito, Rosie Perez, Delroy Lindo, and John David Washington.
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“Remarkably, his passion and bravura haven’t diminished an iota with age. Although a respected elder statesman with two Oscars — one honorary, one for co-writing the screenplay for BlacKkKlansman — he has refused to blunt his criticism of a society that imperils people of color. And, sadly, his voice is as necessary as ever: The recent murders of George Floyd and other black men and women at the hands of the police prove that Do the Right Thing’s racial injustice is still very much with us. How many 31-year-old films are still so ahead of their time?” asked Vulture.
Here are seven films that put Spike Lee on the cultural guts of Black America, permanently.
1. “Crooklyn” This 1994 film was semi-autobiographical. It was produced and directed by Lee and co-written with his sister Joie and brother Cinqué. It’s a coming-of-age movie seen through the eyes of Troy, the only girl of five children of a lower-class family in New York.
2. ”Malcolm X” This 1992 biographical drama followed the journey of civil rights icon Malcolm X. Denzel Washington was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Malcolm X. Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr., and Delroy Lindo. Lee appeared in the film.
3. “Mo’ Better Blues” is a 1990 musical comedy-drama film starring Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, and Spike Lee. A moody life, it follows the life of fictional jazz trumpeter Bleek Gilliam (played by Washington) as a series of bad decisions result in his jeopardizing both his relationships and his playing career.
4. “Do the Right Thing,” from 1989, has become an American classic. The comedy-drama stars Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, and Samuel L. Jackson, and is the feature film debut of Martin Lawrence and Rosie Perez. The movie explores a Brooklyn neighborhood during one hot summer and focuses on the underlying racial tension between its African-American residents and the Italian-American owners of a local pizzeria.
In 1999, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
5. “School Daze,” from 1988, is a musical comedy–drama film that takes viewers inside Black college life. It starred Laurence Fishburne, Giancarlo Esposito, and Tisha Campbell. It was based in part on Lee’s experiences as a Morehouse student during the 1970s, it touches upon issues of colorism, elitism, classism, Black pride, political activism, hazing, groupthink, female self–esteem, social mobility, and hair texture bias within the African-American community.
6. “She’s Gotta Have” was Lee’s debut and breakthrough film. A 1986 black–and–white comedy-drama, the film stars Tracy Camilla Johns, Tommy Redmond Hicks, John Canada Terrell and Lee himself in a supporting role. The plot follows a young woman (Johns) who is simultaneously having sexual relationships with three men. It deals with female sexual liberation, gender roles, and the issue of date rape.
In 2019, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
7. “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads” was actually Lee’s 1983 student film. He submitted the film as his master’s degree thesis at the Tisch School of the Arts. While considered a student film, most critics say it was ahead of its time. The film, set in a Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn barbershop, was the first student film to be showcased in Lincoln Center’s New Directors New Films Festival. Lee’s father, jazz musician Bill Lee, composed the score. The film won a Student Academy Award.
Spike Lee is interviewed upon arrival for the photocall of the ‘BFI Fellowship Award’ in London, Feb. 13, 2023. (Photo by Scott Garfitt/Invision/AP)