Spike Lee

Active - 1983 - 2022  |   Born - Mar 20, 1957 in Atlanta, Georgia, United States  |   Genres - Drama, Comedy Drama, Comedy

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Biography by Jason Ankeny

While African-American filmmakers have been a staple of the cinematic landscape since the pioneering work of Oscar Micheaux during the '20s, none have had the same cultural or artistic impact as Spike Lee. As a writer, director, actor, producer, author, and entrepreneur, Lee has revolutionized the role of black talent in Hollywood, tearing away decades of stereotypes and marginalized portrayals to establish a new arena for African-American voices to be heard. His movies -- a series of outspoken and provocative socio-political critiques informed by an unwavering commitment toward challenging cultural assumptions not only about race but also class and gender identity -- both solidified his own standing as one of contemporary cinema's most influential figures and furthered the careers of actors including Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett, and Laurence Fishburne. Along the way, Lee even cleared a path for up-and-coming black filmmakers such as John Singleton, Matty Rich, Darnell Martin, Ernest Dickerson (Lee's one-time cinematographer), and Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes.

Born Shelton Jackson Lee in Atlanta, GA, on March 20, 1957, he was raised in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. The son of jazz musician Bill Lee, his first love was sports; an obsessive fan of the New York Knicks basketball club, his initial goal was to become a major-league baseball player. Only while attending Atlanta's prestigious Morehouse College did Lee's affection for film begin to surface, and while earning a degree in mass communications he returned to New York to make his first movie, 1977's Last Hustle in Brooklyn, a portrait of the area's Black and Puerto Rican communities shot with a Super-8 camera during the height of the disco craze. Upon graduating from Morehouse, he enrolled in New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, earning his Master of Fine Arts Degree in film production. His senior feature, 1982's Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, was the first student effort ever showcased in Lincoln Center's "New Directors, New Films" series, and also garnered the Student Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The success of Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop encouraged Lee to hire representation at the William Morris Agency, but when no studio contracts were forthcoming, he began exploring alternate means of independent financing. After a series of setbacks, he managed to secure 125,000 dollars to produce the stylish and sexy 1986 comedy She's Gotta Have It, which took the Prix de Jeunesse award at Cannes and earned close to 9 million dollars at the box office. Hollywood soon came calling, and in 1988, he released his major studio debut School Daze; however, it was his third film, 1989's Do the Right Thing, which launched Lee to the forefront of the American filmmaking community. A provocative, insightful meditation on simmering racial tension, it was among the year's most controversial and talked-about films and went on to net an Oscar nomination for "Best Screenplay" (although not a nod for "Best Picture," a slight in and of itself the subject of much outcry). The jazz world was the subject of '90s Mo' Better Blues, which opened to lukewarm press; however, with his next effort, the following year's Jungle Fever, Lee was again at the center of controversy over the picture's subject matter, interracial romance. Upon the movie's completion, he began work on his long-awaited dream project, 1992's Malcolm X. Shot at various points across the globe (including Mecca), the three-hour biopic of the slain civil-rights leader reached theaters in its intended form only after celebrities including Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, and Prince helped defray financing costs in the wake of Warner Bros.' mandate that Lee trim the film's running time by half an hour. After so many politically charged pictures, Lee next shot the change-of-pace Crooklyn, a relatively light serio-comedy based largely on his own experiences growing up in Brooklyn in the early '70s and written in tandem with his sisters Joie and Cinqué.

Next up was 1995's Clockers, a highly regarded urban crime drama based on the novel by Richard Price. In 1996, Lee released two very different features. The first, Girl 6, looked at the world of a young actress forced to accept work as a phone-sex operator, while the other, Get on the Bus, paid tribute to the historic Million Man March on its one-year anniversary, with financing courtesy of figures including Danny Glover, Wesley Snipes, and Johnnie Cochran. While a long-planned biography of baseball great Jackie Robinson continued to languish in limbo, in 1997, Lee did realize another dream with 4 Little Girls, a documentary about the racially motivated bombing of a Birmingham, AL, church that killed four pre-teens in 1963. Upon signing a three-year, first-look production contract with Columbia, he then began work on He Got Game, a study of the politics of high-school basketball starring his frequent leading man Denzel Washington. The film opened to mixed reviews, which did little to diminish the anticipation surrounding Lee's next film, Summer of Sam. Set in Brooklyn during the long, hot summer of 1977 when serial killer David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz terrorized the city, the film looks at the murders through the eyes of various borough inhabitants, played in part by Adrien Brody, Jennifer Esposito, Mira Sorvino, and John Leguizamo. The film generated mixed responses, eliciting the love-it or hate-it reactions so common among critics when reviewing Lee's work. The director's subsequent project, Bamboozled (2000), incurred a similar reaction: an excoriating satire on the images of blacks in (predominately white) popular culture. The film won over a number of critics even as it alienated others, yet it was another testament to Lee's status as one of the most complex and divisive filmmakers of both the late 20th century and the early 21st century.

In the following years Lee would tackle a quartet of more personal projects with A Huey P. Newton Story, Come Rain or Come Shine, Jim Brown: All-American, and a ten-minute segment of Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet before again turning to feature films with The 25th Hour. A rare film for Lee in that it basically eschewed his usual topic of racial issues for a rather straightforward adaptation of David Benioff's popular novel, The 25th Hour. The film found Lee branching off to surprising effect, even if it didn't score a direct hit at the box office. After stepping behind the camera to direct the Showtime gang drama Sucker Free City in 2004, Lee moved back into feature territory with the 2004 comedy drama She Hate Me.

In 2006 Lee enjoyed his biggest box office success in a few years with the crime thriller Inside Man, and earned critical raves for When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, a documentary about Hurricane Katrina that he followed up four years later with the sequel If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise. Lee returned to Brooklyn for Red Hook Summer (2012). He directed the English-language remake of Oldboy in 2013, but was reportedly unhappy with the studio edit of the film and removed his trademark "Spike Lee Joint" from the movie. Lee helmed Amazon Studio's first film, Chi-Raq, released both in theatres and online in 2015.

Movie Highlights

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  • His 10-minute student movie for grad school was called The Answer, about a black screenwriter hired to pen a remake of Birth of a Nation.
  • Has directed numerous TV commercials for companies such as Nike, AT&T and Levi's, and music videos for Public Enemy, Michael Jackson and Anita Baker.
  • Due to the mounting production cost of his 1992 biopic Malcolm X, solicited financial assistance from Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and others so that the film could be completed.
  • Numerous honors include Sports Emmys for programs that aired on HBO—one on Mike Tyson, the other on former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson.
  • First movie to reach No. 1 at the box office was He Got Game (1998).
  • Won the 2006 George Polk Award for documentary journalism for his HBO series When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts; a follow-up film, If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise, was released in 2010.
  • Has published several books on filming techniques.
  • Most of his movies are referred to in the credits as "A Spike Lee Joint.".