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Visionary film director ‘spikes’ the movie industry

Marty Schroeder | Wednesday, March 29, 2006

It’s not enough to say that Spike Lee is one of the foremost African-American directors of our time – he’s easily one of the greatest living filmmakers. Known for films that concern themselves with race and ethnicity, Lee’s pictures frequently delves into societal ills such as poverty, crime and how the media influences and pertains to these subject matters. Despite the controversy they often create, Lee’s best films certainly deserve recognition as important cinema,

Born in pre-civil rights Atlanta to a jazz musician and schoolteacher, Lee moved to Brooklyn as a young child. After high school in New York, Lee went back to Atlanta and completed a B.A. at Morehouse College, the all-male college for African-Americans that counts Martin Luther King, Jr. among its alumni. He would then go on to complete an M.F.A. at the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at New York University (NYU). While at Tisch, fellow classmate Ang Lee – whose directorial credits include “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain” – helped Spike Lee with his student film “Joe’s Bed-Study Barbershop: We Cut Heads.”

After completing his education, Spike started his own production company, 40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks – so called because of the “40 acres and a mule” promised to freed black slaves after the Civil War, which was ultimately an empty promise. Lee’s first two features, “She’s Gotta Have It” and ‘School Daze,” would showcase his talent and potential greatness as a filmmaker. Lee’s third film, “Do The Right Thing,” in which he also starred, would garner an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay and prove to be one of the most controversial films Lee has made to date.

The film opens with a quotation from Martin Luther King, Jr. in which he condemns violence and states it is never justified. The film’s plot revolves around a violent situation in a New York neighborhood involving race issues. In closing, a quotation from Malcolm X is displayed, stating violence in response to oppression is justified. The apparent contradictions of these two quotations are left up to the audience to resolve. Despite the controversy – or perhaps because of it – Lee was pushed onto the movie scene as a filmmaker to watch.

In this same vein, he would make the 1992 biopic “Malcolm X” starring Denzel Washington and “Bamboozled,” a 2000 film concerning racial stereotypes, and other films that brought about issues of race and race relations in the urban United States.

“Bamboozled” is of particular interest because the circumstances of its creation are typical of Lee as a filmmaker – he carefully selects his projects, directing only the films he wants to make. Due to the low budget of this film, a vast majority of it was shot on digital video instead of film. Using cameras that one could purchase at a local electronics store allowed Lee to use 15 cameras at a time and saved money on the budget. Only one scene was shot on film, but costs were again cut by using cheaper 16mm film instead of the usual 35mm. These sacrifices were made because Lee had trouble finding finances for the film. However, he was able to juggle these choices and make the film work due to these sacrifices.

Not all of Lee’s films deal with race. “Summer of Sam,” released in 1999, follows residents of New York as they deal with the serial murderer “Son of Sam” during the summer of 1977. It is an insightful look not only at the situations surrounding the murders but 1970s New York and the culture that pertains thereto. “25th Hour,” starring Edward Norton, is a film that deals with relationships as it follows a man through his last day before a seven-year incarceration. His latest, “Inside Man,” is a heist film that reunites Lee with Washington.

While these films do not deal specifically with the issues of most of Lee’s other films, they do pertain to his New York City home and the specific culture in which he was raised.

Respected as a filmmaker and a man who does not pull punches when it comes to his choice of topics, Lee can always be counted on to make a film that most critics will like but not everyone will agree with. Regardless, he will continue to gather recognition as a premier American filmmaker.