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Kaleem Aftab on Spike Lee

Posted in Film on Aug 20, 2018

Words: Kaleem Aftab

Spike Lee is the most distinguished African-American director in cinematic history. His debut film, She’s Gotta Have Ithad its premiere in Cannes in 1986 at a time when African-American filmmakers were even more marginalised than they are today. The film, about a woman dating three guys, inversed gender as well as racial archetypes, and showed a New York few outside of the middle class black district of Fort Greene, Brooklyn knew existed.

In making a black and white film whose alternative perspectives were heavily influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Spike Lee moved African-American cinema away from the pimps and jive of Blaxploitation pictures. In the next decade he made several iconic films, including Do The Right ThingJungle Fever and Malcolm X, blazing the trail for John Singleton, Ava DuVernay and Barry Jenkins.

Throughout the 32 years Lee has been in the public eye - right up to his latest film, BlacKkKlansmanwhich won the Grand Prix prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year - he has challenged the Hollywood status quo both on and off screen, demanding diversity in the workplace and giving airplay to alternative voices, whilst making iconic, entertaining films.

He also became an icon in his own right. He played the B-boy, sneaker wearing Mars Blackmon in She’s Gotta Have Ita character he reprised in a series of iconic adverts featuring future basketball legend Michael Jordan. The success of these adverts, more than his hit film, got Lee noticed throughout America, and he capitalised on the exposure to talk about the race struggle in America.

Lee has been pegged as a director who focuses on race. Critics didn’t know how else to deal with a filmmaker who defied conventions and challenged orthodoxy with his films about African Americans in the dating game (She’s Gotta Have It), life at an all-black college (School Daze) and mixed-race relationships (Jungle Fever). And whilst it’s acknowledged that Lee made the greatest film about racial divisions, Do The Right Thingand was a leading figure in the #OscarsSoWhite debate, he has covered many topics beyond race and identity.

He’s made films about the sports scholarship system in American colleges (He Got Game), artificial insemination (She Hate Me), serial killers and punk (Summer of Sam), gun laws (Chi-Raq), Hurricane Katrina (When the Levees Broke), the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing (Four Little Girls), the aftermath of 9/11 (25th Hour) as well as films about leading black figures Malcolm X, Michael Jackson and Jim Brown. Indeed, as one can witness with the powerful ending of his latest film BlacKkKlansmanLee is one of the greatest chroniclers of American life. Whether it is dodgy elections, President Trump, or the Rodney King beating, the prolific Lee will not miss a chance to turn his attention towards contemporary American life.

Through these films, it has become apparent that the great theme that unites them is the battle between those words that can be found on the knuckle rings of Radio Raheem in Do The Right Thing: love and hate. Lee is forever asking whether we are going to choose the side of love, or the side of hate.

Lee also makes us question the cinematic canon. Or at the very least, how we interpret it. At a time when Hollywood is going through a long overdue reappraisal of how it treats women, Lee has long since been complaining about the way American filmmakers have reinforced racist imagery.

In BlacKkKlansmanhe turns his gaze to two of the most famous movies of all time. Whilst Lee would not fault the filmmaking or narrative techniques that have led to the exaltation of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind (1939), he also points out that they contain troubling racial imagery, and that the social context of films should not be ignored when they are discussed. Indeed, failing to discuss these problems, the social context, and the impact these films had on real life only serves to reinforce dangerous myths. 


Throughout his work, Lee has never ignored the times in which his films were made, even kicking off his biopic on Malcolm X (who died in 1965) with footage of the Rodney King beating at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department in 1991. In his studio film Inside Manthere are jokes about the treatment of Sikhs in the aftermath of 9/11, when they were often demonised for being Muslim, despite the contrary religious symbol wrapped around their heads. When no one would finance Bamboozled, Lee’s film about the torrid history of black representation on American screens, he shot the film with a digital camera, a pioneer in using technology to overcome limitations placed on black filmmakers by the stranglehold that white producers and financiers had at studios over the types of films that were given the greenlight.

Lee is a great historian of cinema. He is a professor at New York University, teaching film. He has made the moving dolly shot, in which a character seems to move through space like a ghost wafting across a room, his signature shot. Not that he needs a signature shot, because a Lee film is a beast of its own making, and to watch a Spike Lee joint is to be transported into his unique world.

One of the great influences on Lee is the Brechtian alienation effect, whereby the audience is constantly reminded that they are watching a film by changes in pace, with characters breaking the fourth wall talking straight to the audience, and also, occasionally, by putting documentary footage inside fiction. The audience is asked to question not just what is happening on screen, but the interpretation itself, where upon occasion the message can be more important than the plot.

Spike Lee is a unique director, an amazing, necessary voice, and a director who has never been afraid to tell us to stick it to the man and fight the power.

Kaleem Aftab is a writer for The Independent, Programmer for East End Film Festival and author of Spike Lee: That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It.

Join Kaleem for an Illustrated Talk and screening of Spike Lee's Bamboozled on Monday 27 August at 18:30.

The New Luminaries: Spike Lee season takes place throughout August, September and October at Tyneside Cinema.

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