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Who Is Spike Lee?
Spike grew up in a household that embraced the arts: his father, Bill Lee, was 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 enjoyed going to the movies. She often took her eldest son as her date.
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 served as artistic director and is now a tenured professor.
During his three decades in Hollywood, Spike has refused to be fenced in by any form. He has directed music videos for legendary artists such as Prince, Michael Jackson, and Stevie Wonder, and his documentaries, particularly in 4 Little Girls (1997) and When the Levees Broke (2006), tell unflinching truths about America.
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 (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.
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.
Think Like a Pro
Academy Award–winning filmmaker Spike Lee teaches his approach to directing, writing, and producing.View Class
Do the Right Thing (1989): This film recalls time in New York City when race relations were at a fever pitch, particularly between African Americans and Italian Americans. Spike knew versions of the 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 society to this day.
The opening sequence from Do The Right Thing is arguably Spike Lee’s most iconic. It 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 that the story will be about justice and revolution, perhaps of different eras. A silhouetted Rosie Perez appears throughout the Public Enemy song, 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.
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 of her acting chops, which won her the role.
Malcolm X (1992): Spike knew it would take more than two hours to tell the epic life story of Malcolm X, the assassinated Muslim leader and human rights activist. He also knew he wouldn’t 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.
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 as jazz composed by Spike’s father, Bill Lee, plays in the background. The images, awash in indigo, purple, and deep green hues, recall William Claxton’s iconic Blue Note album covers, and immediately give the film a moody, sexy feel.
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.
4 Little Girls (1997): Spike’s first documentary, this is 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 was a conversation in every black household in the nation.
He Got Game (1998): The culminating scene of He Got Game is a high-stakes one-on-one showdown 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. Jesus eventually wins the game 10-4, with Jake making him work for every point. Spike kept the cameras rolling, trusting Washington’s instincts despite the script. The drama was heightened by the close game, which made for a better film.
25th Hour (2002): Set in post-9/11 New York City, this is the story of a man’s last day before going to prison. The opening credits of 25th Hour are shots of the Twin Towers homage and art installation “Tribute In Light,” in which 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.
Inside Man (2006):During the filming of this bank heist film, Spike screened Dog Day Afternoon for 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: Select Filmography
See below for a complete list of Spike Lee’s films.
- Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983). Starring Monty Ross, Donna Bailey, and Stuart Smith.
- She’s Gotta Have It (1986). Starring Tracy Camilla Johns, Tommy Redmond Hicks, and John Canada Terrell.
- School Daze (1988). Starring Laurence Fishburne, Giancarlo Esposito, and Tisha Campbell-Martin.
- Do the Right Thing (1989). Starring Spike Lee, Rosie Perez, and Danny Aiello.
- Mo’ Better Blues (1990). Starring Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, Halle Berry, Samuel L. Jackson, and Spike Lee.
- Jungle Fever (1991). Directed by Spike Lee. Starring Wesley Snipes, Annabella Sciorra, Spike Lee.
- Malcolm X (1992). Starring Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, and Angela Bassett.
- Crooklyn (1994). Starring Zelda Harris, Alfre Woodard, and Delroy Lindo.
- Clockers (1995). Starring Mekhi Phifer, Delroy Lindo and Harvey Keitel.
- Girl 6 (1996). Starring Theresa Randle, Isaiah Washington, and Spike Lee.
- Get on the Bus (1996). Starring Richard Belzer, De’Aundre Bonds, and Andre Braugher.
- 4 Little Girls (1997). Starring Bill Cosby, Ossie Davis, and Walter Cronkite.
- He Got Game (1998). Starring Ray Allen, Denzel Washington, and Rosario Dawson.
- Summer of Sam (1999). Starring John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, and Mira Sorvino.
- The Original Kings of Comedy (2000). Starring Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Bernie Mac.
- Bamboozled (2000). Starring Damon Wayans, Tommy Davidson, and Jada Pinkett Smith.
- 25th Hour (2002). Starring Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Barry Pepper.
- She Hate Me (2004). Starring Anthony Mackie, Kerry Washington, and Ellen Barkin.
- Inside Man (2006). Starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, and Jodie Foster.
- Miracle at St. Anna (2008). Starring Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, and Las Alonso.
- Passing Strange (2009). Starring De’Adre Aziza, Daniel Breaker, and Eisa Davis.
- Red Hook Summer (2012). Starring Clarke Peters, Nate Parker, and Thomas Jefferson Byrd.
- Bad 25 (2012). Starring Michael Jackson and Spike Lee.
- Oldboy (2013). Starring Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, and Samuel L. Jackson.
- Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus (2014). Starring Stephen Tyrone Williams and Zaraah Abrahams.
- Chi-Raq (2015). Starring Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, and Wesley Snipes.
- Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall (2016). Starring Michael Jackson.
- Rodney King (2017). Starring Roger Guenveur Smith.
- Pass Over (2018). Starring Jon Michael Hill, Julian Parker, and Ryan Hallahan.
- BlacKkKlansmen (2018). Starring John David Washington, Adam Diver, and Alec Baldwin.
Want to Become a Better Filmmaker?
Whether you’re making your first short or working towards your first feature in the festival circuit, breaking into the world of independent filmmaking requires plenty of practice and a healthy dose of patience. No one knows this better than legendary director Spike Lee, whose films have shaped movie history. In Spike Lee’s MasterClass on independent filmmaking, the visionary behind Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, and 25th Hour breaks down the process of independent filmmaking, from writing, self-producing, working with actors, and making movies that break barriers.
Want to become a better filmmaker? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master filmmakers, including Spike Lee, Martin Scorcese, David Lynch, Jodie Foster, Werner Herzog, and Aaron Sorkin.