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Film & TV

Get to Know Spike Lee: Movies List and Behind-the-Scenes Stories

Written by MasterClass

Jan 19, 2019 • 9 min read

Shelton Jackson Lee earned his nickname early: his mama called him “Spike” as a baby because she noticed he was tough. The eldest of three was born in Atlanta, Georgia, though his family would move to what he calls “the Republic of Brooklyn” when he was two years old. This relocation would radically inform the future director’s storytelling. Spike grew up in a household which embraced the arts: his father, Bill Lee, is a jazz musician who would go on to score many of his son’s films. Spike’s mother, the late Jacquelyn Carroll, was a high school teacher who taught Black Literature and liked to go to the movies. She often took her eldest son as her date.

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Spike’s interest in movies intensified when a friend lent him a Super 8 camera the summer before his junior year at Morehouse College. Bit by the film bug, Spike transferred to Clark Atlanta to study mass communications. Upon graduation, he went on to earn his Masters of Fine Arts at New York University, where he, for a time, served as artistic director and is now a tenured professor.

In his three decades in the entertainment business, Spike has refused to be fenced in by any form. His documentaries tell bold, unflinching truths about America—particularly in 4 Little Girls (1997) and When the Levees Broke (2006). He has directed music videos for legendary artists such as Prince, Michael Jackson, and Stevie Wonder. Spike’s work in advertising is equally groundbreaking: in 1997, he partnered with DDB Worldwide to start his own agency, Spike DDB, and has shot campaigns for corporations such as Levi’s, Cadillac, and HBO. Most notably, Spike’s two decades-long relationship with Michael Jordan and Nike was spurred by his own character in She’s Gotta Have It, Mars Blackmon.

Spike Lee continues to make movies—and make moves. In 2010, the Library of Congress selected Malcolm X for preservation in the National Film Registry. His most recent work, BlacKkKlansman, won the Grand Prix award at Cannes. She’s Gotta Have It has been adapted into a television series for Netflix. It’s now in its second season.

11 Behind-the-Scenes Stories From Spike’s Movie Sets

She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

Spike first captivated our cultural consciousness in 1986 with his debut film, She’s Gotta Have It, a story about a sexually empowered woman in Brooklyn and her three lovers, told in black and white (but for a whimsical dance scene). The idea for the film originated from conversations he and his friends had about women. She’s Gotta Have It has been adapted into a television series for Netflix. It’s now in its second season.

Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have it

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School Daze (1988)

Spike’s second film was reminiscent of his college days at Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta, both HBCUs (Historically Black College and University). The film deals with deals with classism and colorism in the Black community, so when he went into production, Spike wanted to avoid the camaraderie that often happens with young actors working on location films. To create the tension Spike felt he needed between the movie’s two opposing groups—the Jigaboos and the Wannabees—he housed the actors in different hotels. The fair-skinned, weave-wearing Wannabees were put up in a nice hotel; the darker-skinned, natural-haired Jigaboos’ lodgings were not as nice. This roll of the dice paid off in Spike’s favor, as he was able to create a divide that was palpable on screen and off.

Spike Lee's School Daze (1988)

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Do the Right Thing (1989)

In this film, Spike recalled a time in New York City when race relations were at a fever pitch, particular between African Americans and Italian Americans. He knew versions of those characters growing up in Brooklyn—how they spoke, their mannerisms—and recognized the growing cultural tension. The result was a powerful story that not only resonates, but is sadly reflected in real life to this day.

Spike’s most iconic opening title sequence is arguably from Do The Right Thing. The opening begins with a saxophone playing “Lift Every Voice And Sing” (also known as the Black National Anthem) followed by Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power.” This choice of music signals to the audience that this story will be about justice and revolution, perhaps of different eras. A silhouetted Rosie Perez appears throughout the Public Enemy song, first posing then full out dancing in front of a movie set of Brooklyn brownstones. Spike has said Do the Right Thing’s opening titles were inspired by the opening titles of the 1963 film Bye Bye Birdie, featuring Ann Margret.

Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989)

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Jungle Fever (1991)

Spike learned not to be afraid to cast people who might not look the part with Halle Berry in Jungle Fever. Spike initially believed Berry, a former pageant contestant, was too attractive to convincingly play the role of a crack addict. He and his casting director, Robin Reed, called the actress back to read five or six times. On one of these auditions, Berry dressed the part to convince them she had the acting chops, which won her the role.

Spike Lee's Jungle Fever (1991)

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Malcolm X (1992)

When making Malcolm X, Spike knew it would take more than two hours to tell the epic life story of the assassinated Muslim leader and human rights activist. He also knew he wasn’t going to have the money to finish the film. When the crew inevitably ran out of funds and the studio stopped production, Spike asked prominent, wealthy members of the Black community for donations to help him get the film made. Early screenings of the film, combined with the heavily publicized financial support, convinced Warner Brothers to restart production. Spike even put his fee for making the film back into the budget. Spike’s story is a reminder that no matter how established you are, or how big of a studio is funding your film, you may still have to pound the pavement to raise more money.

Spike Lee's Malcolm X (1992)

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Mo’ Betta Blues (1992)

In the opening credits for Mo’ Betta Blues, a story about a jazz musician’s relationship to his art and the two women he loves, the main actors appear in moody silhouettes while jazz composed by Spike’s father, Bill Lee, plays in the background. The images, awash in indigo, purple, and deep green hues, purposely recall William Claxton’s iconic Blue Note album covers, and immediately give the film a moody, sexy feel.

Spike Lee's Mo’ Betta Blues (1992)

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Crooklyn (1994)

Spike says this a coming of age story about a young girl in Brooklyn whose family must deal with the death of their matriarch is his most autobiographical.

Spike Lee's Crooklyn (1994)

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4 Little Girls (1997)

Spike’s first documentary, a story about the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young Black girls. Spike’s interest in this story was somewhat personal. He was six years old when the bombing happened, and his family had roots in Alabama, where he spent many summers down South. The story of the murder of these four little girls and their unrepentant murderers who had ties to the Klan was a conversation in every Black household in the nation.

Spike Lee's 4 Little Girls (1997)

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He Got Game (1998)

In He Got Game, the culminating scene is a high-stakes game of one-on-one between father Jake (Denzel Washington) and son Jesus (Ray Allen). Per Spike’s screenplay, Jesus is supposed to beat Jake single-handedly, 10-0. Unbeknownst to Spike, Washington–a former athlete—decided his character should not and would not lose by so wide a margin. When the cameras started rolling, the Academy Award-winning actor immediately scored four points on Allen. The son eventually wins the game 10-4, but the father made him work for every point. Spike kept the camera rolling because although Denzel was going off-script, the actor’s instincts were right. The drama was heightened by the close game, which made for a better film.

Spike Lee's He Got Game (1998)

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25th Hour (2002)

The story of a man’s last day before going to prison, which takes place in post-9/11 New York City. the opening credits are shots of the Twin Towers homage and art installation “Tribute In Light,” wherein 88 searchlights placed within six blocks of the former World Trade Center site create twin beams shooting up to four miles in the sky. The effect is sobering, giving moviegoers an idea of the gravity to come.

Spike Lee's 25th Hour (2002)

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Inside Man (2006)

During the filming of Inside Man, a bank heist story, Spike screened Dog Day Afternoon to the cast and crew both to foster intimacy and inspire his team. Spike considers the 1975 classic, directed by Sidney Lumet, one of the greatest in the genre—so much so, he incorporated an element of the movie into Inside Man. (Clive Owens’ pizza box says “Sal’s Famous Pizzeria” from Do the Right Thing. The same actor who delivered the pizza in Dog Day Afternoon delivered it in Inside Man.)

Spike Lee's Inside Man (2006)

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Spike Lee’s Select Filmography

Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. Performed by Monty Ross, Donna Bailey, and Stuart Smith. 1983

She’s Gotta Have It. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Tracy Camilla Johns, Tommy Redmond Hicks, and John Canada Terrell. 1986

School Daze. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Laurence Fishburne,Giancarlo Esposito, and Tisha Campbell-Martin. 1988

Do the Right Thing. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Spike Lee, Rosie Perez, and Danny Aiello. 1989

Mo’ Better Blues. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, Halle Berry, Samuel L. Jackson, and Spike Lee. 1990

Jungle Fever. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Wesley Snipes, Annabella Sciorra, Spike Lee. 1991

Malcolm X. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, and Angela Bassett. 1992

Crooklyn. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Zelda Harris, Alfre Woodard, and Delroy Lindo. 1994

Clockers. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Mekhi Phifer, Delroy Lindo and Harvey Keitel. 1995

Girl 6. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Theresa Randle, Isaiah Washington, and Spike Lee. 1996
Get on the Bus. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Richard Belzer, De’Aundre Bonds, and Andre Braugher. 1996

4 Little Girls. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Bill Cosby, Ossie Davis, and Walter Cronkite. 1997

He Got Game. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Ray Allen, Denzel Washington, and Rosario Dawson. 1998

Summer of Sam. Directed By Spike Lee. Performed by John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, and Mira Sorvino. 1999

The Original Kings of Comedy. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Bernie Mac. 2000

Bamboozled. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Damon Wayans, Tommy Davidson, and Jada Pinkett Smith. 2000

25th Hour. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Barry Pepper. 2002

She Hate Me. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Anthony Mackie, Kerry Washington, and Ellen Barkin. 2004

Inside Man. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, and Jodie Foster. 2006

Miracle at St. Anna. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, and Las Alonso. 2008

Passing Strange. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by De’Adre Aziza, Daniel Breaker, and Eisa Davis. 2009

Red Hook Summer. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Clarke Peters, Nate Parker, and Thomas Jefferson Byrd. 2012

Bad 25. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Michael Jackson and Spike Lee. 2012

Oldboy. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, and Samuel L. Jackson. 2013

Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Stephen Tyrone Williams, and Zaraah Abrahams. 2014

Chi-Raq. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, and Wesley Snipes. 2015

Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Michael Jackson. 2016

Rodney King. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by Roger Guenveur Smith. 2017

Pass Over. Directed by Spike lee. Performed by Jon Michael Hill, Julian Parker, and Ryan Hallahan. 2018

BlacKkKlansmen. Directed by Spike Lee. Performed by John David Washington, Adam Diver, and Alec Baldwin. 2018