Spike Lee – The Man, The Activist

Spike Lee is an African American writer and director whose renegade spirit, talent, tenacity and need for honest storytelling has allowed him to enjoy a thirty year long career and become the most significant African American director in history.

Before Spike’s 1986 debut ‘She’s gotta have it’ black actors were largely instructed by white American men. Stories and visions of African Americans were largely crafted by someone not of their culture; ‘We know black people, stick your bum out more’ was a line commonly heard in casting rooms as described in the documentary mini-series ‘Black Hollywood: They gotta have us’(2018) which depicts the pioneers of black cinema and their seventy year long struggle to shift the stereotypes of black actors and move the thinking behind the phrase ‘Black genre’ to ‘Black cinema’. So when Lee portrayed Mars Blackman in ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ the words “What about Nola Darling, what do wanna know? I thought she was a freak, you know freaky deaky” from Mars were a paradigm shift. They allowed African Americans to be sexualised, a thing which was not done on screen before this film. As ‘They Gotta Have Us’ states: ‘They never saw black people kiss on screen’ – ‘Black men and were not sexualised’ – ‘Black women were not sexualised’. Black people finally saw the actuality of their current existence on screen and not a displacement of it. The similarity of the documentary’s title to Lee’s debut feature is a further testament to the film’s impact on Black Cinema in America. Lee’s first film was released while segregation was still happening, in the mist of a system reinforcing systematic operation he still shined on a budget of $175,000 – a gift from his grandmother and a worthy investment as the film made $7.1 million, thus proving his talent and tensity from the very outset of his career. 

If we fast forward for a moment to 2020 and look at the death of George Floyd we can see the weight of Lee’s (1989) film ‘Do the Right Thing’ and it’s vital message to which we all missed – racial tension is a day to day experience which will spike through miseducation and ignorance if not addressed. Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem mirrors the death of George Floyd – a large powerful black man chocked to death via excessive police force used to subdue and deescalate a situation. ‘Inspired by the racially-motivated killings of a black man named Michael Griffith and an elderly black woman named Eleanor Bumpurs shot by the Police Department’. [IndieWire-June] ‘Do the Right Thing’ came out in 1989 – thirty-nine years ago. Spike saw the importance of creating a story who’s archetypes can play out through time and truly be a reflection for black Americans and in doing so we are all pushed to – Do the right thing, but what is that? A question so polarising people have taken to the streets in the mist of a world wide pandemic to protest, because one of their own (a human being) is gone. ‘It’s quite possible that even if he never made another film after “Do the Right Thing,” its enduring relevance and power would’ve secured him a spot in cinema history.’ [IndieWire – June] 

While Samuel L. Jackson spoke at the 2015 Governors award, Denzel Washington interrupted and stated “Spike Lee has put more African Americans to work in this business they anyone else in the history of this business” [S.D.W- 2015]. In the same award ceremony Lee leads to his experience with working on the film Malcom X and a conversation with Tommy O’Donald on the subject of black teamsters and him not having any to which Lee stated “That’s a problem, and till we get black teamsters were gonna have the fruit of Islam drive trucks, and if you wanna come to the set and fuck with the fruit of Islam, come on…Next day five teamsters showed up. I knew i had to make change”. [Lee – 2015] The likes of Martin Lawerence, HalleBerry, Queen Latifah, Ernest Dickerson and Rosie Perez are but a few who were given their first opportunities by Lee and have all gone on to have long and successful careers, showing it has not only just been inclusion but talent at the forefront of his mind. 

Lee’s recent film ‘Da five bloods’ speaks on the harsh realities of black Vietnam vets and addresses a conversation that has never been had on screen. African American men were sent to fight for America along side white Americans and returned home to still face inequality and abandonment in numerous ways. At the age of 63 Lee’s personal nature of truth telling has not escaped him. But with conversations about systematic oppression i think about past reviews on Lee’s films the likes of ‘Girl 6’ 1996 to which was reviewed horribly at the time; some calling it ‘difficult to believe’ [RogerE – march] and ‘Spike Lee has done the impossible: He’s sucked the fun out of call-in sex and replaced it with sanctimonious prattle’. [RollingStone-March]. In contrast, a recent review “As the industry continues to wrestle with its limitations, the [Girl 6] movie’s insights suggest it was both ahead of its time and readymade for this one.”[IndieWire-Apr]. It puts the question to us all: Will he finally been given an honest review he deserves or will people be scared to speak out against a black film maker creating a film about the black experience because of George Floyd? This is a question that can not be truly answered, but given quarantine, given all the time we have to consider the black experience maybe for once critics are finally listening to Lee and looking where he wants us all to look, echoing his ‘Do the right thing’ format.

Concluding – Given the times and questions being asked and answered a black film maker brave enough to act an be honest in 1986 and 2020 is beyond significant – it’s gospel.


Stallone Tandhosen | BA Screenwriting



Bibliography / reference list

BBC iplayer Documentary – Black Hollywood: They’ve Gotta Have Us by Simon Frederick (2018)

Youtube – Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes honor Spike Lee at the 2015 Governors Awards (2015)

Youtube – Spike Lee receives an Honorary Award at the 2015 Governors Awards (2015)

IndieWire – Tampa Obenson Article Title: Stream of the day Spike Lee’s ‘Girl 6’ Deserves More Credit for Criticising Hollywood (Apr 2, 2020)

IndieWire – Tampa Obenson Article Title: ‘Do the Right Thing’: Why Spike Lee’s Masterpiece

Remains Essential Cinema 30 Years Later (Jun 29, 2019)

Roger Ebert Title: Girl6 – (March 22, 1996)

RollingStone – Title: Girl 6 by Peter Travers (March 22 1996)