Listen: I am not black. In fact, I am one of the most lily-white people on the planet. Nor do I have any particular connection to Black culture besides what I’ve gleaned from media outlets, TV, and movies. What I’m trying to relate in this opening salvo is that the complex racial history of America passes me by because outside of history books and what the news proposes, the overall historical nuances of America has little to do with my own personal experience in this life either culturally or personally. After all, my folks’ families came here long after the end of slavery and experienced their own hardships.
This is a typical perspective for many white people in America whose lineage had nothing to do with the historic institutional racism that governed America, and this has built a difficult wall between blacks and whites in America as a result. One side can’t understand the perspective of the other, and neither histories mesh overall. But the ingrained preferential status of whites in America go easily unremarked by whites because it’s a given while black Americans carry not only their peoples’ history but unavoidably their race forever just by being alive and themselves. It’s an incredibly difficult barrier for either side to understand based on cognitive bias that’s itself unavoidable and largely instinctual.
But as Eugene V. Debs once stated, “While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” I agree with that sentiment, and I think Spike Lee also agrees to that sentiment. Lee’s black protagonists are truth-seekers and part of the misrepresented and misunderstood in American society, and his work strives to expose the cognitive biases all sides–black and white alike–have been subjected to in American culture.
Some critics have derided Lee for not making movies up to his caliber of ability, and when he does he’s widely mocked as being a racist. The line Lee treads is a no-man’s land of filmmaking that no director want to ever find themselves. But sure-minded and able to control difficult material that most directors wouldn’t go near with a 10-foot pole, Lee has become not only the voice of a generation but one of the finest filmmakers of all time.
Spike Lee movies–or more specifically, what his movies represent–make it compulsory for the white reviewer to offer these sorts of caveats. It’s…complicated, to say the least, for a white writer to write about what Spike Lee films are about overall, so excuse the prologue before this article goes any further. This is an appreciative article about how Spike Lee is a perfect director, after all, not a critical article about his faults or any perceived racial slights.
Spike Lee not only encapsulates the Black American experience but uses the opportunity to call out the hypocrisies and levels of collusion that occur in the halls of power that depend upon these predefined notions. He’s fierce, unapologetic, and touches raw nerves in his work about the bullshit he sees happening every day in America through the eyes of not just a black man but as an incisive director and documentarian. His movies examine race relations, the black community, how media functions in America, crime and poverty in the city, and politics in general in the US. His work is fast-moving, sharp, and hard-hitting. He’s a black Martin Scorsese–and it’s for these reasons and more that make Spike Lee a perfect director.
Spike Lee – A Perfect Director
The best place to begin with Spike Lee is at the beginning: after graduating from Morehouse College with a degree in mass communications, Lee shot his first film, She’s Gotta Have It, in 1986. Following the turbulent romantic life of a young African-American woman who resists a monogamous relationship, instead preferring to rotate between three suitors, it was a fresh take in its depiction of urban black people being sophisticates in a film focusing on a young woman’s own agency and independence in the 1980’s.
Shot for only $175,000 over the course of twelve days, it made over $7 million and launched Spike Lee’s career. In what would become part of Lee’s visual grammar, the neighborhood the characters live in was explored as a public space that informed the characters and the community they live in as a whole.
Following this, Lee directed School Daze, another film depicting the black experience in America, this time set in college–another (surprisingly) groundbreaking angle in 1988. Following the experiences of a number of male and female fraternity and sorority members as they have the college experience and clash on-campus and off with other students during homecoming weekend, Lee loosely based the film on his own experiences at Morehouse College.
Addressing issues of colorism among the students, along with issues of class and identity, School Daze was another groundbreaking film that articulated often topics overlooked in American culture. Quickly becoming symbolic of a new voice in the American discourse on race, Lee constructed his next project to explicitly comment upon race relations in America, the communities African-Americans live in, and the interplay between urban life and how it informs people’s roles in their community. The result was Do the Right Thing.
One of the best films of the 20th century, there is maybe no more alive film about the African-American urban experience in the late 20th century. Focusing on one hot day and one rage-filled night in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn as racial tensions simmer over to a boil, Do the Right Thing is an impressive film that surveys the intertwining relationships in a neighborhood as its citizens pass the day discussing race, life, and the shape (and color) of the community they live in. Meanwhile, the film is a microcosm of race relations between whites (represented by the Italian pizza shop owners and the police) and blacks (in the form of various characters in the neighborhood, including Radio Raheem, who blasts Public Enemy from his boombox, Buggin’ Out, who starts a protest of the pizzeria because there are no black people on its Wall of Fame, and Smiley, a mentally disabled man who sells hand-colored pictures of black figures) in the neighborhood specifically and in urban settings in general.
With the white pizzeria owners holding the black neighborhood in contempt since they witnessed the racial demographic shift there in their lifetime and the black denizens of this neighborhood angry at the workers of the pizzeria for their open racism and disregard for the community, things are brought to a head when a physical altercation occurs, leading to an incident of police brutality that ends with Radio Raheem dead.
Meanwhile, Mookie (Spike Lee), a delivery boy for the pizzeria and ostensibly the protagonist of the film, sees the situation growing increasingly out-of-hand once the sun sets and the black citizens begin gathering in front of the pizza shop. Angry at the pizzeria’s owner for treating him poorly but realizing the crowd may take out their frustrations on him for Raheem’s death, Mookie throws a garbage can through the window of the pizzeria, which sparks a riot that ends with the pizza shop being burned to the ground.
While the pizzeria owner sits on the steps of his burned-out pizza shop in the morning hours, Mookie demands his week’s pay, which the owner begrudgingly gives him and then curses him out before quickly apologizing. Another day begins in Bed-Stuy but nothing has been solved. As the film ends, two quotes–one calling for non-violent action by Martin Luther King, Jr. and one calling for violent resistance by Malcolm X–appear on-screen, along with a photo of both civil rights leaders shaking hands.
Do the Right Thing is an explosive, revolutionary film that doesn’t provide any easy answers to the difficulties of race relations in America. Wildly divisive upon release, with some reading the ending as a call to violence, it was also hailed for being a brilliant, urgent essay on issues of race, urban life, and the black experience in America in the 1990s (although it was released in 1989, its visual style, grammar, approach to controversial topics, and soundtrack were ahead of its time). Later listed as one of the best films of the decade, it was selected by the National Film Registry for preservation in 1999. More controversy followed when it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards that year; instead, the backwards–and opposite of Lee’s film’s message–Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture.
As a film, it’s a colorful, expertly edited, and a unique vision, highlighting Lee’s impressive use of montage to cut quickly between a broad spectrum of people, ethnicities, and spaces as a mode of narration that says far more than long, didactic chunks of dialogue ever could.
Lee Takes On The 1990’s
Of course, race relations and identity became a large part of the national discourse in America in the 1990s, particularly after the acquittal of the officers that were caught on video tape brutalizing Rodney King, which sparked the L.A. Riots of 1992. While the riots occurred in April of that year, in November Lee released another controversial film on race and America, the biopic Malcolm X.
Detailing the remarkable and often very controversial life of the civil rights leader, born Malcolm Little, from watching his preacher father be murdered by white supremacists and his mother institutionalized, to his life as a young criminal who is eventually sent to prison. There, he is exposed to the Nation of Islam and converts and upon release begins to preach a doctrine that calls for segregation of whites and blacks, and eventually calling for active, violent revolution against the white establishment. Changing his name to Malcolm X as symbolic of breaking away from his “slave name,” the film shows as he begins to soften his rhetoric and begin to preach peace between the races. But he’s assassinated in 1967, leaving only his books and speeches behind for future revolutionaries and leaders to study and learn from. The film ends with footage of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 and a montage of young black schoolchildren standing up and proclaiming “I am Malcolm X!”
This powerful film depicts a history that’s usually not part of pop culture, but from Lee’s film became not only part of the national dialogue but inspired a whole new generation of minorities in the US to question the status quo and the “official” narrative of the American social arrangement. In the 90’s, black baseball caps emblazoned with the white “X” on front were everywhere and signified the wearer’s agreement with the radical message of both the film and the figure.
And this is perhaps what Spike Lee represents best in American culture: as a firebrand political filmmaker who’s unafraid to create films with content that confronts America’s majority filmgoing audience–white people–into looking down the barrel from the other side and confront issues of race that they would otherwise politely ignore. As a sort of meta-narrative, Denzel Washington was nominated for Best Actor for his incredible performance of the groundbreaking activist but lost to the workmanlike caricature performance of Al Pacino in Scent of A Woman. Notably, Lee was not nominated for either Best Picture or Best Director. In 2010 Malcolm X was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry.
“I think it is very important that films make people look at what they’ve forgotten.” – Spike Lee
After Malcolm X, Lee–feeling secure in his place among directors and now being regarded as one of the finest directors in America–embarked upon a varied and interesting career. Although he has done a number of great and important works over the past 20 years–his documentaries alone are worth an essay, including 4 Little Girls and Jim Brown: All American–this retrospective must necessarily limit itself to the highlight reel for brevity. However, it is urged by this author that the reader seek out Spike Lee’s films and documentaries more fully to appreciate the fine work he’s produced throughout his career.
One film that is most alluring to write about due to its wildly controversial status is 2000’s Bamboozled. Starring Damon Wayans as Harvard-educated black yuppie executive Pierre Delacroix (whose real name is Peerless Dothan) working for a broadcasting company run by black-associating but lily-white Thomas Dunwitty, Pierre is a walking contradiction: while constantly trying to promote positive black role models on television, he is frustrated in his efforts at every turn while also personally rejecting much of his own ethnicity.
Seeking to escape his contract by being fired, he pitches the most offensive thing he can think of: a modern-day minstrel show. Instead of being rejected, however, his boss loves the idea and before you know it, Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show is being rushed to air. Starring Savoin Glover as “Mantan” and Tommy Davidson as “Sleep ’n ’Eat”–two hungry actors just looking for a paying gig–who wear blackface and play outrageous black stereotypes, including extremely racist bits, for humor. the show becomes wildly successful with the American populace, to both Pierre’s horror and delight. However, the show is itself a wildly offensive, racist monstrosity that seems to set back centuries of struggle for positive portrayals of minorities.
But there’s more: the hardcore, black militant rap group Mau Maus takes great offense at the show and conspires to take it down through radical means. As the movie progresses, the actors find themselves increasingly conflicted at what they’re doing, with the eventual death of Mantan at the group’s hands, all while he dances his way into death as he’s shot.
Pierre feels horror and guilt at his involvement in the show. He sits in his office surrounded by racist memorabilia from America’s past and destroys much of it in a rage. His ex-girlfriend–who has tenuous ties with the radical group–comes into his office and kills him. Pierre holds the gun to make it look like a suicide and plays a tape, which is shown on-screen and concludes the film: a montage of depictions of blackface in American film history.
This film was specifically chosen for analysis in this article because it’s both an underseen and largely misunderstood film in Spike Lee’s oeuvre. Potentially his most direct statement on American society, it’s maybe been consciously avoided by both black and white audiences because of the high amount of discomfort it produces while watching it. It’s difficult to confront the image of blackface in American history on either side, and neither blacks nor whites in the US want to confront the awful connotations and discomforting ideas that such a practice ever existed, much less witnessing a modern version come to life.
This is also Spike Lee at his artistic best: producing images and concepts that would never be made by any other filmmaker with content and themes that no other director would be able to secure a budget to create. Bamboozled is one of the most extreme films ever made–but not because of sexual or violent content. Instead, Spike Lee creates incendiary images and recalls a past that most people–black or white–would like to forget about. It’s brilliant. Bamboozled was a huge box office bomb, which is unfortunate because it’s still one of the most radical films ever made and an important commentary on racial stereotypes, their enduring and corrosive legacy in American society, and the dangerous promulgation of such images–whether direct or inadvertent (or, most dangerously, unconscious)–in media depictions of such.
“Everything I do is always scrutinized. But that’s all I’ll say about that.” – Spike Lee
But to call Spike Lee simply a black filmmaker is reductive: he’s a talented director no matter his race. In fact, some of his best films have been centered on white protagonists: both Summer of Sam and (especially) 25th Hour are centered on white protagonists.
Summer of Sam follows a group of Italian-American Bronx-located members of the underclass as they disco dance and live their debaucherous lives during one of the hottest summers in memory, 1977. Meanwhile, a serial killer is on the loose, killing lovers while they sit in their cars with a handgun, first dubbed as the “.44 Caliber Killer” but would later be known as the Son of Sam.
By capturing the everyday lives of its protagonists (such as they are, since these are no heroes) as they drug and dance their daily lives and woes away, Summer of Sam has more in common with Saturday Night Fever than a gritty crime thriller, as it purports to be. By delving into the lives of honest depictions of the people that inhabited the disco clubs while an atmosphere of paranoia engulfed the city, Spike Lee depicts a naturalistic observation of a time and place long lost and forgotten, furthering his ability to recall the past in honest terms and with unvarnished honesty.
Of course, like many of his films, Summer of Sam received criticism for its depiction of an ethnic stereotype–in this case, Italian-Americans in NYC. But it also showed Lee moving into previously uncharted territory, covering an ethnicity and specific time period and situation that he hadn’t before–and the film is a gigantic success for this. Besides that, Summer of Sam is an incisive commentary on the specific time and place it covers, capturing the hedonism and wild abandon so many indulged in during that time. As usual, Spike Lee makes his audience confront what they’d rather forget in history.
“Fuck me? Fuck you! Fuck you and this whole city and everyone in it.
Fuck the panhandlers, grubbing for money, and smiling at me behind my back.
Fuck squeegee men dirtying up the clean windshield of my car. Get a fucking job!
Fuck the Sikhs and the Pakistanis bombing down the avenues in decrepit cabs, curry steaming out their pores and stinking up my day. Terrorists in fucking training. Slow the fuck down!
Fuck the Chelsea boys with their waxed chests and pumped up biceps. Going down on each other in my parks and on my piers, jingling their dicks on my Channel 35.
Fuck the Korean grocers with their pyramids of overpriced fruit and their tulips and roses wrapped in plastic. Ten years in the country, still no speaky English?
Fuck the Russians in Brighton Beach. Mobster thugs sitting in cafés, sipping tea in little glasses, sugar cubes between their teeth. Wheelin’ and dealin’ and schemin’. Go back where you fucking came from!
Fuck the black-hatted Chassidim, strolling up and down 47th street in their dirty gabardine with their dandruff. Selling South African apartheid diamonds!
Fuck the Wall Street brokers. Self-styled masters of the universe. Michael Douglas, Gordon Gecko wannabe mother fuckers, figuring out new ways to rob hard working people blind. Send those Enron assholes to jail for fucking life! You think Bush and Cheney didn’t know about that shit? Give me a fucking break! Tyco! Imclone! Adelphia! Worldcom!
Fuck the Puerto Ricans. 20 to a car, swelling up the welfare rolls, worst fuckin’ parade in the city. And don’t even get me started on the Dom-in-i-cans, because they make the Puerto Ricans look good.
Fuck the Bensonhurst Italians with their pomaded hair, their nylon warm-up suits, and their St. Anthony medallions. Swinging their, Jason Giambi, Louisville slugger, baseball bats, trying to audition for The Sopranos.
Fuck the Upper East Side wives with their Hermés scarves and their fifty-dollar Balducci artichokes. Overfed faces getting pulled and lifted and stretched, all taut and shiny. You’re not fooling anybody, sweetheart!
Fuck the uptown brothers. They never pass the ball, they don’t want to play defense, they take fives steps on every lay-up to the hoop. And then they want to turn around and blame everything on the white man. Slavery ended one hundred and thirty seven years ago. Move the fuck on!
Fuck the corrupt cops with their anus violating plungers and their 41 shots, standing behind a blue wall of silence. You betray our trust!
Fuck the priests who put their hands down some innocent child’s pants. Fuck the church that protects them, delivering us into evil. And while you’re at it, fuck JC! He got off easy! A day on the cross, a weekend in hell, and all the hallelujahs of the legioned angels for eternity! Try seven years in fuckin Otisville, Jay!
Fuck Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and backward-ass, cave-dwelling, fundamentalist assholes everywhere. On the names of innocent thousands murdered, I pray you spend the rest of eternity with your seventy-two whores roasting in a jet-fueled fire in hell. You towel headed camel jockeys can kiss my royal, Irish ass!
Fuck Jacob Elinski, whining malcontent.
Fuck Francis Xavier Slaughtery, my best friend, judging me while he stares at my girlfriend’s ass.
Fuck Naturel Rivera. I gave her my trust and she stabbed me in the back. Sold me up the river. Fucking bitch.
Fuck my father with his endless grief, standing behind that bar. Sipping on club soda, selling whiskey to firemen and cheering the Bronx Bombers.
Fuck this whole city and everyone in it. From the row houses of Astoria to the penthouses on Park Avenue. From the projects in the Bronx to the lofts in Soho. From the tenements in Alphabet City to the brownstones in Park slope to the split levels in Staten Island. Let an earthquake crumble it. Let the fires rage. Let it burn to fuckin ash then let the waters rise and submerge this whole, rat-infested place.
No. No, fuck you, Montgomery Brogan. You had it all and then you threw it away, you dumb fuck!”
25th Hour is one of the most emotionally hard-hitting films Spike Lee has ever made. Coming after the anger, vitriol, and overall dismay that 9/11 inspired in denizens of NYC and Northeast America in general, the monologue and montage that Spike Lee created to say “fuck you” to every single thing in the world that we all see every day is one of the most cathartic and enjoyable moments in 21st cinema history.
“Fuck you, everything” says Spike Lee. And he’s right: fuck you. Fuck me. Fuck everybody and everything that’s ever existed and continues to exist. You sanctimonious pricks. You selfish, evil assholes. Nobody lives in a vacuum. Nothing is sacred. No one is right. Fuck you, undefinable everybody, forever.
And wonderfully, Spike Lee has said fuck you to everybody in his work: fuck you, black community, for not walking the walk or talking the talk. Fuck you, white people: you are the assholes who got us into this mess in the first place. Fuck you, United States: you allowed all of this to happen and have done nothing productive to fix it. Fuck you, world at large: you brought us all into this mess and we’re all just trying to figure it out, mostly without success.
It’s important somebody like Spike Lee exists to put into words and images the frustrations that the great masses are unable to communicate or else transmit to a larger audience. Spike Lee is the truth of the American Dream: an artist that can speak truth to power without seeming a hypocrite. A director that will eagerly make the kind of films that most directors will squirm away from, with apologies to Jesse Jackson. He’s a figure that has picked up the unbelievably difficult torch of being the Voice of All Black People in America–even though he doesn’t necessarily speak for–or want to speak for–all of them.
But fuck you, racial labels: he’s a brilliant director who has a gift for creating indelible images and move a story forward with urgency and pace and visual finesse that’s rare to find, no matter the race. To qualify this argument: Spike Lee is a unique visionary, a voice in cinema so far unmatched, and a perfect director.