I know that the first time I ever saw a Spike Lee was in the Nike commercials he did with Michael Jordan as his alter-ego, Mars Blackmon. At the time, I had no idea who Spike Lee was, who Mars Blackmon was or that Spike had created the character for his first film, She’s Gotta Have It. But when those commercials were airing, Spike Lee was going through an almost unparalleled streak of filmmaking that lasted six years and six films and established him as one of the most important American film directors of this generation.
From Do The Right Thing to Clockers, Spike made two of his best films, one of his most personal, one of his more controversial and one of his most ambitious and least successful. It was during this time that I found Spike Lee. In high school, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X almost ten times through. When I was assigned a final project for my film class, I knew that I wanted to include Malcolm X in it, so I went about watching some other movies by Spike. Quickly, my project became about him and Do The Right Thing. My presentation was the longest in the class, lasting over thirty minutes with about ten minutes worth of clips to show. I got an A, but I also got head first into Spike Lee’s films.
Do The Right Thing is a remarkable film that was brilliant when it was released, controversial for it’s content and has become much more appreciated with time. Threats of bodily harm to Wim Wenders aside, the movie had a profound impact on me as a teenager. Recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 greatest American films, Lee’s look at race relations in New York becomes more and more relevant as each year passes and our present continues to look uneasily like our past. Any synopsis of the film would be insufficient, as would trying to explain the meaning of the movie. As Spike himself has said, “Only white people ask me if Mookie (his character in the movie) did the right thing. Black people never ask me.” I think about this movie all the time, more in the light of current events, but I still have such a fondness for the film, regardless of how sad it can get. And this might be my favorite scene.
After the sorta-musical Mo’ Better Blues (and first Denzel Washington collaboration), Lee made Jungle Fever. A phrase that has now become part of the modern vernacular, the film was important for a number of reasons. Tackling the issues of race relations again, this time from a romantic perspective, Lee addressed many of the same critics of Do The Right Thing who felt his films might inspire black audiences to riot. Again, most of the violence is perpetrated by white men against black men and white women, except for Gator’s death, which is intended as an allusion to the murder of Marvin Gaye. The character of Gator is an important one as well, as it’s widely regarded as Samuel L. Jackson’s breakout role, along with the actress who played his girlfriend, Halle Berry. ”I’m a c-c-c-c-crack, head!”
And of course, after Jungle Fever came Malcolm X. I could write an entire editorial about how much I love that movie, but what’s more impressive is how it was made. Going far over budget on the film and refusing to compromise his vision of Malcolm, his dream project since film school, he sought out several black celebrities to help further finance the movie. Bill Cosby, Oprah, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson were just some of the people who moved Lee with their generosity to help him realize his dream.
Like Spike, I feel a duty to speak my mind and voice my opinions when I am lucky enough to have the forum. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience go any further without mentioning that like his mentor, Scorsese, to understand Lee is to watch his documentaries. There is no film that will break your heart like When The Levees Broke and the follow-up If God Is Willing And The Creek Don’t Rise… and if they don’t, you simply don’t have one. Spike keeps himself mostly out of the spotlight as he’s tells the story of the history of hurricanes and flooding in New Orleans, the failures in place that led to the breakdown of the levee system, the slow reaction of the government and swift reaction of the media and the lack of follow through on the efforts of rebuilding. I am sorry if this comes across as grandiose, but after watching it and wiping away tears, I did what little anyone can do in this age and logged online to make a donation to charity. Sure, it was a small donation to the most visible charity, but Spike’s movies still have the ability to make me feel something and make me feel like I am a part of this world. I cannot say the same thing for most movies I watch.
I grew up a skinny, smart aleck Mexican kid who watched too many movies and wasn’t tall enough to play basketball competitively. Watching Spike Lee’s movies made me relate to the films, but also to him. I never felt like his movies excluded me or worse, talked down to me. I felt like we understood each other and that motivated me. From that final project in 1999, Spike has always served as a means of motivation and inspiration to me. He struggles daily to realize his artistic ambitions and refuses to compromise his vision. Is it stubborn and unproductive and do I wish he would just get on it with and make some movies? Sure, but they wouldn’t be Spike Lee joints and I wait on those like Batman movies.
Since high school, I’ve become excited for every Spike Lee film released. Amongst my favorites since the mid-Nineties are He Got Game, Summer of Sam, Bamboozled and 25th Hour. I could go on at length about any of them, like the overlooked satirical brilliance of Bamboozled or Edward Norton’s willingness to “play a walk-on part for Spike Lee”. But I would rather readers watch them and form their own opinions. Lee has an amazing filmography, especially when you realize that, despite his height, he is older than Chris Nolan, David Fincher and both Andersons. He’s more into musicals than action movies and he’s friends with Steven Spielberg. Under him, an Oldboy remake sounds like a movie I can’t wait to watch.
So, instead, I shall end this with what I usually do, tell a story that makes people jealous of me living near Los Angeles. I was working at LA Center Studios about seven years ago. Half of the stages were being used for Dreamgirls, so everyday I got to see Eddie Murphy walking to set, Jamie Foxx eating lunch or Beyonce leaving hair and makeup, and this was when she was way hot. But, the best day came when I was on the other side of the lot, smoking a cigarette and waiting for a shot to be finished. I saw Spike Lee walk out from a stage and look around as if he didn’t know where to go. He asked where stage 4 was and I told him that it was on the other side of the lot. He hesitated and I told him that it was ok for him to walk through the stages (they all had hallways). He nodded and I quickly jumped up and stuck out my hand. I said, “I am a really big fan of yours Mr. Lee and I’m really looking forward to Inside Man.” He shook my hand, said thank you and left. It’s not everyday you get to meet one of your heroes, is it?
I wrote this entire piece while listening to the soundtrack to Do The Right Thing.