Spike's world
Filmmaker, businessman, lighting rod to speak at Writers Institute

By DOUG BLACKBURN, Staff writer
First published: Friday, October 7, 2005

These days, it's all too easy to overlook what Shelton Jackson Lee, internationally known as Spike, has accomplished during the past two decades. But there's ample evidence to back up the notion that Lee is a pioneer, an artist whom noted Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. likens to "the Jackie Robinson of the film community."

Nineteen years after becoming a cause celebre with his debut feature film, "She's Gotta Have It," the prolific moviemaker is still waiting to hit one out of the park. Even his best-known films have polarized film critics; and despite two nominations, Lee has yet to hear his name called out on Oscar night.

Despite successes like "Do the Right Thing" and the epic "Malcolm X," he still hasn't directed a box-office blockbuster -- although his next project, "The Inside Man," features a stellar cast headed by A-listers Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster and Clive Owen.

Perhaps it's no surprise that the filmmaker who continues to make movies about the one subject many Americans are most uncomfortable talking about -- race relations -- is more revered overseas than he is at home. At age 48, Lee has already received lifetime achievement awards in both England and France.

A matter of time

"I don't think there's any question Spike Lee is more respected in Europe than he is in the U.S.," said Kaleem Aftab, author of the newly released as-told-to biography, "Spike Lee: That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It" (W.W. Norton, 320 pages, $25.95). "But I don't think it will always be that way. It's just a matter of time."

On Tuesday, Lee and Aftab will be at the New York State Writers Institute to kick off a monthlong national tour. (Lee, in the middle of doing post-production work on "The Inside Man," was unavailable for an interview.)

It is the first book for Aftab, a British journalist who was granted access to Lee and most of his inner circle, with one restriction: Lee requested that his father, jazz musician Bill Lee, not be interviewed. (The elder Lee contributed to the soundtracks of his son's first four features, a professional relationship that ended after 1990's jazz drama "Mo' Better Blues.")

It speaks volumes about Lee that he chose Aftab, the 30-year-old son of Pakistani parents, to tell his story. As well-known as Lee is, he remains in many ways an outsider himself, an independent filmmaker swimming against the current. Perhaps that's the plight of most trailblazers.

"He is the pioneer," Gates told Aftab in an interview for the book. "Spike went in and shook up an industry that pays lip service to black people -- he didn't wait for a handout."

Aftab said Lee was immediately receptive to his proposal for a quasi-autobiographical book, even though Aftab's resume consisted solely of newspaper and magazine stories. "I never asked him, 'Why me?' I had a lot of respect for Spike's work, and I think he sensed that.

"He didn't try and stop me from writing what I felt was important for the story," Aftab added. "With Spike Lee, he's such a controversial figure, one of the major criticisms people have is that he can be cantankerous and self-righteous. I think he's all about raising consciousness."

Early days

Born in Atlanta and raised in Brooklyn, Lee graduated from his father's alma mater, Morehouse College in Georgia, before attending New York University's film school. There, he met the cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, with whom he would collaborate on most of his early projects.
Their first was "She's Gotta Have It," the story of a young Brooklyn woman juggling suitors -- three male and one female. Lee begged and borrowed to raise the $175,000 budget for the film, which was shot in black-and-white except for one four-minute color sequence. But after its release in August 1986, it grossed more than $8 million. The next decade brought more financial success, fame and controversy than most people get in an entire lifetime.

Was it the shoes? The director's public profile certainly benefited from the Air Jordan commercials he directed for Nike, in which the diminutive Lee -- reprising the Mars Blackmon character from "She's Gotta Have It" -- appeared with Michael Jordan. Their popularity coincided with hip-hop's first real breakthrough into the national consciousness.

But Lee followed his romantic-comedy debut with the considerably harsher "School Daze" (1988), which earned the ire of black commentators for its portrait of class divisions within a black college, and "Do the Right Thing" (1989), a film that perfectly captured racial tensions in urban America at the end of the '80s.

Celebrity and business

Gates, who established Harvard's African and African-American studies departments, recruited Lee to be a visiting professor at the university in 1991. By 1993, when the filmmaker married attorney Tonya Linette Lewis -- who's now enjoying her own success as a novelist -- Lee was a full-fledged celebrity. Stevie Wonder sang "Ribbon in the Sky" at their wedding.

Lee's business acumen is often overlooked. While none of his movies -- including the 1992 epic "Malcolm X" -- have been huge moneymakers, Lee knows how to stay funded. In 1997, he joined forces with the advertising agency DDB Needham, creating Spike/DDB and becoming majority owner. Lee has noted with pride that his company is the first African-American owned agency to have a commercial airing during the Super Bowl.

Advertising "is a very lucrative business, thank God," Lee told the Newark Star-Ledger earlier this year. "I have not had to make a film I don't want to."

Just the same, Lee appears to have branched out during the past decade, directing a number of programs for HBO and Showtime ("A Huey P. Newton Story," "Sucker Free City") and smaller-scale films such as "25th Hour" and his most recent, "She Hate Me."

From the start, Lee has been all about his roots. His movie company, 40 Acres and a Mule, is headquartered in Fort Greene, the Brooklyn neighborhood where he grew up. His 1983 thesis project at NYU, which won the school's student academy award, was titled "Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads."

Timing and talent

Lee's status as a pioneer has as much to do with timing as with his talent. When he started making movies in the mid-1980s, there were few black directors whose work could be found at the local cineplex. Elder statesmen such as Sidney Poitier, Melvin Van Peoples and Gordon Parks had all moved on to other pursuits.
And while an entire generation of black filmmakers rose to fame after Lee -- including Carl Franklin ("One False Move") and John Singleton ("Boyz N the Hood") -- Lee is the one director who has kept racial issues at the core of almost all of his movies.

It is, then, almost inevitable that the adjective "African-American" almost always accompanies his name. In recent years, Lee has come to accept it.

"I'm way beyond the point of getting mad when they always stick 'African-American' or 'black' in front of it," he told the Star-Ledger. "Because the reality is we're not at a point in this country where people see past color. And I'm not going to fight that battle. It's just -- I want to see my kids grow up, you know? I got too many things to do to worry about that."

Lee does not pretend to have easy answers. In addition to countless interviews, Lee contributes a few short essays to Aftab's book. In the first one, he addresses the criticism that his films raise questions without providing solutions:

"I've never felt it was the filmmaker's job to have all the answers. I think, for the most part, if we choose to do so, we have more of a provocateur role, where we ask these questions and hopefully they will, by the way they are asked, stimulate and generate some discussions and dialogue.

"But to find answers for racism and prejudice in films? You can't do that."

That doesn't mean Lee expects, or even wants, to stop bringing issues revolving around race to our collective dinner table. He revels in his role.

Doug Blackburn can be reached at 454-5759 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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Spike Lee