Interviews


Spike Lee


Occupation: Actor, Director, Writer
Date of Birth: March 20, 1957
Place of Birth: Atlanta, Ga., USA
Sign: Sun in Pisces, Moon in Sagittarius
Relations: Wife: Tonya Linette Lewis; kids: Satchel, Jackson Lewis
Education: Morehouse College, New York University

 

BORN in Atlanta, Spike Lee grew up in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, the son of an accomplished jazz bassist (his father, Bill Lee, scores many of his films) and an art teacher. There has been much romantic mythologizing surrounding Lee's rise from poverty to fulfill a life-long dream of becoming a controversy-courting, consciousness-tweaking filmmaker, a legend that is not exactly a completely accurate depiction of the facts. For one thing, Lee's race awareness is more a reflection of the many opportunities his class and stable nuclear family afforded him than of the lack of them. For another, Lee wasn't always driven to be a filmmaker  in fact, he wanted to be a professional athlete, and more to the point, a second baseman for the New York Mets. When it came time to get down to business and declare his major at Atlanta, Georgia's prestigious Morehouse College (Lee is a third-generation alumnus of the institution), he settled on mass communications for lack of any better idea. Unable to get a job in New York in the summer of 1977  the summer of the major blackout and the most feverish height of the disco craze  Lee bought a Super 8 camera and spent his months out of school shooting whatever caught his eye. In his words, the neophyte's resulting film, Last Hustle in Brooklyn, "was really like a highlight film of Black people and Puerto Rican people looting and dancing." But the effort was well enough received by his peers when he returned to Atlanta that fall to encourage Lee's burgeoning desire to make films. Following his graduation from Morehouse, he went on to earn his Master of Fine Arts Degree in film production from N.Y.U.'s distinguished Tisch School of the Arts; his student film, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, was showcased at Lincoln Center and scored the Student Award of the Academy of Motion Pictures.

The attendant flurry of acclaim surrounding his award-winning film prompted Lee to secure the services of the William Morris Agency in an effort to crack into the big time. When the labors of his agent yielded no results, no big-time studio deals, Lee realized that if he was ever going to be a filmmaker, let alone succeed at it, that he would have to do it independently. After some disappointing rounds trying to secure production funding for a first professional effort that never made it off the ground, Lee succeeded in scraping together $125,000 for his second feature-length screenplay. Filmed for the most part in black-and-white on the shoestring budget, the stylish and sexually provocative She's Gotta Have It won the Prix de Jeunesse Award at Cannes and raked in $8.5 million at the box office. Lee's performance as a streetwise hustler named Mars Blackmon was one of the most charming and humorous elements of the film. The surprising success of She's Gotta Have It also resulted in bigger backing for his second feature film, School Daze, a youthful satire which also proved highly profitable.

But it was with Lee's third guerrilla filmmaking effort that he joined the ranks of top moviemakers; 1989's Do the Right Thing, which explored festering urban racial tensions, won him a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination and a broad audience for his technically original, politically-inspired, and characteristically controversial work. He continued his quest to realize unflinching and compassionate portraits of African Americans in this country with the jazz-themed Denzel Washington starrer Mo' Better Blues, and with Jungle Fever, the story of an interracial relationship between a Black architect (Wesley Snipes) and an Italian-American secretary (Annabella Sciorra) that sets off dramatic social and domestic conflagrations in their neighborhoods.

Critical of Hollywood's treatment of black artists, Lee's prickly temperament may have cost him a Best Director Oscar nomination for his epic Malcolm X, a three-hour-plus biopic that reached theaters in its entirety thanks only to last-minute funding from Lee's powerful friends in the entertainment world, Bill CosbyOprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, the Artist Formerly Known As PrinceJanet Jackson, and Tracy Chapman (Warner Bros. had insisted that Lee cut the running time by half an hour). Deeply personal and not-so-loosely autobiographical, Crooklyn, Lee's seventh film, depicted the struggles of a Black family living in Brooklyn circa the 1970s. His next effort, an adaptation of Richard Price's acclaimed novel Clockers, earned him almost unanimous critical praise, but again, he was overlooked by Oscar voters. Girl 6 (1996), the over-stylized chronicle of a phone-sex operator, fell a bit short of fans' expectations, but Lee achieved a theretofore unmatched eloquence with his road-movie paean to Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March, Get on the Bus (also 1996).

In the decade since he scrimped and saved to make She's Gotta Have It, Lee has established himself as one of the most influential filmmakers in contemporary cinema. His importance is such that he has almost single-handedly ushered in a climate of newfound respect for African-American filmmakers and actors in a business that has historically marginalized their contributions to film. Lee's movies have nurtured and advanced the careers of such actors as Wesley Snipes, Samuel L. JacksonAngela Bassett, Denzel Washington, and Laurence Fishburne; and his influence has paved a smoother road for such filmmakers as John Singleton, Matty Rich, Darnell Martin, Melissa Maxwell, and Millicent Shelton to access  or in many cases, circumnavigate  Hollywood's white-dominated financing, production, and distribution channels. His life and body of work have constantly been steeped in controversy, as the outspoken writer-director never fails to throw up uncompromising, often disconcerting, challenges to our assumptions about race, class, and sex, both in his diverse and complex filmic explorations of identity and in his day-to-day existence.

By all accounts  even his own  Lee is an entrepreneur. He has successfully exploited every marketing strategy in the book in support of his activist filmmaking: whether by dotting the pop-culture landscape with "X" apparel to coincide with the release of Malcolm X; by establishing the 40 Acres and a Mule Film Institute at Brooklyn's Long Island University to instruct people about the business of filmmaking; or by establishing his chain of Spike's Joints apparel boutiques, Lee has succeeded in ingenious ways to retain creative and financial control over his projects. He has also moved outside the realm of film to direct television commercials and music-videos. He first fell into commercial work in 1988, when he was approached to resurrect his popular Michael Jordan-worshipping Mars Blackmon character from She's Gotta Have It for Nike's Air Jordan campaign. He has since contributed his talents to spots for Levi's Button-Fly 501 jeans, AT&T, ESPN, Taco Bell, American Express, Diet Coke, and Ben & Jerry's ice cream, among many others. Lee has directed music videos for such diverse artists as Prince, Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis, Michael Jackson, Tracy Chapman, Anita Baker, Public Enemy, Naughty by Nature, Arrested Development, and Bruce Hornsby. Lee's vociferous courtside kibitzing as the "unofficial New York Knick" has almost become a second career. His recently published book about basketball, Best Seat in the House: A Basketball Memoir, includes the reminiscences of his fellow veteran Knicks fans; he previously authored six books about his filmmaking.

Though the diminutive writer-director has been thwarted over the last couple of years in his attempts to secure funding for a long-cherished film about Jackie Robinson, his even longer-cherished dream of filming a documentary about the racially motivated 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four young Sunday school attendees reached fruition. The controversial film, 4 Little Girls, was nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar. In 1998, Lee released the feature He Got Game, a drama about a high school basketball player that starred his Malcolm X leading man, Denzel Washington. Summer 1999 witnessed the release of the controversial Summer of Sam, a stylistic film that focuses on a working-class Italian American community in the Bronx during the infamous summer of 1977.

On the home front, Lee married corporate attorney Tonya Lewis, whom he met at a gathering of the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C., in 1993, and the couple has two children, a daughter named Satchel and a son named Jackson.

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