Spike Lee has used the art of film to entertain, tell stories, and—at his most compelling—provoke the viewer to think about society. To date, Lee’s body of work includes twenty films completed between 1986 and 2006. Although the genres of his films vary from comedy and satire to drama and documentary, consistent themes of race, class, ethnicity, gender, and the inequalities arising from these social categories have emerged to make him one of the leading provocateurs of U.S. cinema. This entry provides a brief biography of Lee and discusses the impact of his films and their role in reflecting U.S. race and ethnic relations.
Raised in Brooklyn, New York, Lee was exposed to ethnic diversity throughout his childhood given the multiculturalism of his neighborhoods and schools. He has characterized his childhood and growing up in these communities as enriching and as raising his awareness of race and ethnic relations. Occasionally, Lee and his family would experience the effects of racist attitudes. For example, on the first day of moving into the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn, his family was called “nigger.” However, most of his interactions and relationships cultivated with Jews, Italians, Puerto Ricans, and Blacks were not filled with conflict; rather, they were felt to be mutually rewarding.
Many early experiences shaped Lee’s interest in becoming a filmmaker. His father, a jazz musician, exposed him to ideas and to the process of creating one’s voice through art. His mother, a teacher, encouraged constant exposure to the arts through attending the theater and museums. Later, Spike graduated from Morehouse College with a bachelor of arts degree in mass communication and went on to graduate from the New York University (NYU) Film School with a master of fine arts degree.
In 1986, the year Lee debuted as a filmmaker, there was still a dearth of diverse images and representations of African Americans. His first three films, She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, and Do the Right Thing, signaled a departure from the blaxploitation genre that had dominated films portraying Blacks since the early 1970s. Blaxploitation films gave Black filmmakers and actors opportunities to work; however, the films were a hyperbole of urban ghetto life, with characters depicted as hypersexual and hyperviolent. Overwhelmingly, stereotypes of African Americans were reinforced, as were those of Whites.
Lee’s films deviated from the formula of blaxploitation and sought to depict African Americans in their everyday lives. Moreover, he used his films as a platform to wrestle with the ways in which race and racism shape people’s identities and interpersonal relationships. In a sense, Lee returned to the roots of cinema initiated by filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, who in 1919 became the first African American to make a film. Lee has credited Micheaux as one of his most significant influences and as a model of how to address race and challenge stereotypes in film.
In addition, all of Lee’s films have tapped into a social consciousness to reflect the relevant social and political issues of the times. His first student film, The Last Hustle in Brooklyn, captured images of people looting during the New York City power blackout of 1977. At NYU, his student film The Answer nearly got him dismissed from the program for challenging D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. In The Answer, Lee selected some of the most degrading images of how African Americans were depicted to demonstrate how stereotypes about African Americans were perpetuated. In challenging the status quo and the iconic work of Griffith, Lee provoked controversy by addressing issues of racism. His later films continued to push the status quo by addressing a range of taboo topics, from intragroup racism, interracial relationships, and ethnic relations to retelling U.S. history in the form of historical dramas and documentaries.
Lee’s body of work includes more than films; however, his films have garnered the most attention and raised the most controversy. At times, Lee has been criticized for exploiting the issue of race and even of reinforcing stereotypes, especially of ethnic groups such as Jews and Italians. Although a discussion of all of Lee’s films is beyond the scope of this entry, several of them warrant discussion here.
School Daze, Do the Right Thing, and Jungle Fever are films that most prominently feature aspects of race and ethnic relations. School Daze grapples with the complexity of identity and how belonging to a marginalized ethnic group shapes one’s identity. In so doing, Lee brought to light how African Americans have been affected by internalized racism and have struggled with the historical legacy of racism that privileges light skin color and straight hair. He called for African Americans to resist this form of racism and “wake up,” as the protagonist challenges the audience to do at the end of the film.
Do the Right Thing captures the tension that results when an outside ethnic group benefits economically from an African American community. The pizza restaurant owned by an Italian American serves as a catalyst to ignite the sense of powerlessness that results from racial inequality. The character Radio Raheem symbolizes the frustration and anger triggered by racism. As in Jungle Fever, where the viewer observes how a fictional Italian American family responds to an interracial dating relationship, Do the Right Thing purports to show how members of other ethnic groups construct beliefs about race.
|Film||Date of Release|
|She’s Gotta Have It||August 20, 1986|
|School Daze||February 12, 1988|
|Do the Right Thing||June 30, 1989|
|Mo’ Better Blues||August 3, 1990|
|Jungle Fever||June 7, 1990|
|Malcolm X||November 18, 1992|
|Crooklyn||May 13, 1994|
|Clockers||September 11, 1995|
|Girl 6||March 22, 1996|
|Get on the Bus||October 16, 1996|
|4 Little Girls||October 16, 1997|
|He Got Game||May 1, 1998|
|Summer of Sam||July 2, 1999|
|The Original Kings of Comedy||September 18, 2000|
|Bamboozled||November 11, 2000|
|Jim Brown: All American||March 22, 2002|
|25th Hour||December 16, 2002|
|She Hate Me||December 29, 2004|
|Inside Man||March 24, 2006|
|When the Levees Broke||August 29, 2006|
|Lovers & Haters||September 16, 2007|
Finally, each of the later films Malcolm X, Get on the Bus, and Bamboozled, as well as each of the documentaries 4 Little Girls and When the Levees Broke, reflects some historical event, wrestles with a political or societal issue of the day, and seeks to give voice to a story that was silenced or perhaps underrepresented. This body of work might be considered Lee’s most compelling in that these films focus on the multiple faces of oppression and the intersection of race, class, geography, and gender.
As Lee continues to make films, he also continues to challenge the viewer to reflect on issues of race and ethnic relations. As a filmmaker, he has garnered critical acclaim and received mainstream success; the film Inside Man opened successfully at the box office and was overwhelmingly supported by a major studio company. Continually faced with the struggle to secure financing for his films, Lee seems to persist and sustain his work by seeking and taking on alternative and independent projects.
African Americans; Black Cinema; Black Intellectuals; Internalized Racism; Malcolm X; Stereotypes
(3/20/1957–) Scripts, memoir, nonfiction—filmmaking After Lee graduated from his father and grandfather’s alma mater, Morehouse College in...
1957- US film director, screenwriter and actor. His first feature, the stylish comedy She's Gotta Have It (1986), was a box-office success. ...
His films, which deal with contemporary Black life in the USA, include She's Gotta Have It (1985), Mo' Better Blues ...