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Spike Lee: The pioneering career of a filmmaking provocateur


A prolific filmmaker in the history of late 20th-century cinema and a pioneering voice for black creatives in a time when such were desperately thin, writer and director Spike Lee remains a pertinent voice in the industry even 43 years after he first stepped foot in the industry. Bringing poignant stories of the black experience to the big screen, Lee has forced Hollywood audiences to consider their place in the civil rights argument with films such as Do the Right Thing, Get on the Bus, Malcolm X and BlacKkKlansman

Born Shelton Jackson Lee in 1957 to the jazz composer Bill Lee, Spike was raised in a middle-class area of Brooklyn before he majored in communications at Atlanta’s Morehouse College in 1979, where he would direct his very first Super-8 films. His very first feature film didn’t follow too long after with She’s Gotta Have It coming out in 1986, a contemporary black love story that was praised at the Cannes Film Festival as being ‘Godardesque’. 

With an uncompromising approach to subject matter many would consider controversial, Lee quickly created a niche, with his second film School Daze released in 1988 being a satirical look into prejudice and snobbery in black academic industries. This quickly led Spike to create his third feature, driven to action by the horrific crimes of the Howard Beach incident that saw a black man in New York being chased and killed by a gang of white youths. 

Becoming the most iconic film of the director’s career, Do the Right Thing would popularise the ‘Spike Lee joint’ a name given to each and every one of his films that embodied a certain free-thinking ethos. “‘A Spike Lee Joint’ is ‘…really all the ingredients that I put into my film,” the director told Atlantic in an interview in 2015, adding: “Whatever film it is, whatever subject matter is. Whether it’s a documentary or a narrative film. The connective tissue is that it’s coming through me, but all the stories I feel are different”. 

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Impassioned with significance yet evenhanded, Spike Lee experiences the film industry from a removed position, carefully manipulating his stories to give a nuanced opinion of the black experience. Such became evident in the director’s following films throughout the 1990s, with the likes of Jungle Fever and Get on the Bus, two films that continued the discussion of civil rights through pertinent, deeply emotional stories. 

Standing as an iconic example of such pioneering efforts to popularise civil rights stories, it is 1992’s Malcolm X that remains Spike Lee’s most critically lauded feature film, at least in the eyes of the American Academy. Nominated for Best Costume Design as well as Best Actor in a Leading Role for Denzel Washington, the film brought light on the story of a civil rights pioneer whose voice had been repressed by American history for decades. 

Continually interested in stories that cast further attention to the pursuing efforts of the civil rights movement, Spike Lee has brought films such as Bamboozled, Miracle at St. Anna and Chi-Raq in the 21st century, though has also extended his skills to the likes of action flicks like Inside Man and the Western remake of Oldboy. Such creates a fascinating filmography and a stunning mosaic of varying creative styles and influences once one steps back from his extraordinary career, with Lee continuing to innovate and surprise heading into the twilight of his career. 

What’s next? That would be a musical about the creation of viagra, Pfizer’s erectile dysfunction drug. Long live the Spike Lee joint.

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