It’s been over 20 years since his directorial debut marked a dramatic shift in American moviemaking—proving that cinema should no longer be defined by older white directors and that movies about the black experience could be just as successful as any other. And while he has stretched his cinematic eye with movies that go beyond the racial depictions he is known for, Spike Lee has never lost the two things that make him an innovative and successful moviemaker: His voice and style.
From the start, Lee’s movies were about breaking barriers and saying the things no one was brave enough to say. Through his production company, 40 Acres & A Mule, he’s examined racism and race from many different standpoints—tackling racial tensions in Jungle Fever and feelings of black pride in School Daze. Often pigeonholed into dealing with these topics, it is forgotten that Lee is more concerned with morality than skin color. All of his movies, from Summer of Sam and 25th Hour to his foray into documentaries with 4 Little Girls and When the Levees Broke, deal with issues of right and wrong, depicting the essence of what it means to be human, not just of a race.
Lee’s most recent effort, Miracle at St. Anna, is no exception. It is one of the most anticipated movies of the fall—an answer to the white man’s club that he shattered so long ago. Here, MM provides you with a quick refresher course on the moviemaker’s essential joints before you head out to see his latest.
She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Lee’s first feature made him a familiar name and gave African Americans a realistic face in film. Made in 12 days, on a budget of $175,000, the movie went on to gross over $7 million at the box office. The story of a strong and independent black woman named Nola who juggles three different men provided the backdrop for a revolution in moviemaking. Just as Nola was liberated sexually, playing against the stereotype of her femininity, She’s Gotta Have It marks Lee’s liberation from a monochromatic Hollywood. The Cannes Film Festival took note, awarding the writer-director with the 1986 Award of the Youth.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
“Wake up! Wake up! Up you wake!” Samuel L. Jackson’s cry to Brooklyn as disc jockey Mister Señor Love Daddy, evoked what Lee was asking people to do with the injustices of race. Centered around the residents of a Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, on the hottest day of summer, Do the Right Thing gave a small-scale account of the racial tensions that plague the U.S., exposing the nation’s stubbornness and questioning the choices Americans have in dealing with problems of race. With Golden Globe nods for its direction, screenplay and Best Motion Picture, as well as an ensemble cast that featured Rosie Perez, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Danny Aiello, John Turturro and Lee himself, it’s no wonder the American Film Institute has named the movie one of the greatest in American film history. The Library of Congress has also deemed it culturally significant for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Malcolm X (1992)
Lee fought hard to make this movie about the Black Nationalist leader. It’s even rumored he went so far as to ask Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night) to step down as director, arguing that the film had to be made by a black moviemaker. A biographical look into the life of Malcolm X, the Muslim activist whose life and teachings spoke directly to the black experience, the movie marked the second of many collaborations with Denzel Washington, who received his first Best Actor Academy Award nomination for the role.
He Got Game (1998)
He Got Game is the story of a jailed man whose chance at freedom depends on his son attending the governor’s alma mater. Courted with basketball scholarships by major universities, the young man (played by real NBA guard Ray Allen) must decide whether it’s better to free his estranged father from jail or attend the university of his choice. Lee created a drama that balanced father-son relationships and the battle between material gain and morality with uncanny ease. A shift from his more overtly controversial movies, Emanuel Levy of Variety called it “one of the most accessible films Lee has made.”
Inside Man (2006)
The first movie on this list not to be written by Lee himself, Inside Man proved the director could do big Hollywood pictures his own way. Making yet another reunion with Washington, the movie is a slick battle of wits between a bank robber (Clive Owen) and hostage negotiator (Washington). Also starring Academy Award winner Jodie Foster, Lee’s attempt at a cat-and-mouse studio feature still found the moviemaker confronting issues of class and race in ways only he knows how. A sequel is in the works with a reported 2010 release date.
Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
After a very public war of words with Clint Eastwood over the depiction, or lack thereof, of African Americans in war dramas—specifically Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers—Lee is releasing Miracle at St. Anna. The movie tells the story of a black infantry division in World War II who became caught behind enemy lines after deciding to rescue an innocent young boy. It marks another big step for the director who will be putting his stamp on the war movie genre for the first time.
To read more about Spike Lee’s contribution to cinema and the work of 24 other successful independent movie mavericks, pick up a copy of MM‘s Guide to Making Movies 2009, on newsstands now.