“As the artist you have to make a choice, what I’m going to do and what I’m not going to do.” – Spike Lee
Those are just a few wise words given to us by Lee himself during Spike Lee…Ya Dig! at the American Black Film Festival sponsored by HBO and Cadillac. The movie mogul gave us a behind the scenes look at his personal journey and career as a black man in show biz. Here are a few things I learned:
1. He is just getting warmed up
Contrary to popular belief, Spike Lee is just now reaching his peak in the film industry. Although most well known for his 80s and 90s classic films, Lee has made a film every year for the past 30 years. In addition to his extensive film repertoire, he also works with the creative agency for Cadillac.
2. Did you know the young director was held socially responsible for the fate of the first Black Mayor of New York City’s election?
Spike Lee received political backlash after the release of Do The Right Thing from Time Magazine political columnist Joe Klein and film critic for The New Yorker magazine, David Denby. The journalists wrote that the film, which was released on June 30, 1989 the same day as Batman, would not only cause riots in the Black community but also cost David Dinkins the primary election in September and ultimately ruin his chances of becoming the first black mayor of New York City. Lee to this day calls these harsh accusations racist, saying the journalists were insulting the Black community by saying we couldn’t differentiate film from reality. Thankfully, Dinkins was successful and he and Spike are old pals.
3. For the 50th anniversary of television and the 100th anniversary of cinema, Lee chose to, “tell the truth” with his 2000 film Bamboozled.
In the 2000 film Bamboozled Lee exposes the many racial and exploitive tendencies in television that still exist today. “What we did with that film was tell the truth, Spike Lee didn’t make up that clip with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in black face, [or] Bugs Bunny.” Lee says. “We went and got a great archivist, her name is Judy Bailey, and I told her, ‘find me everything in film and television that we can get…and show this is how we have been portrayed as a people…Bamboozled was about how people were made less than human, how the imagery makes people less than human.” It was the 50th anniversary of television and the 100th anniversary of cinema that urged the filmmaker to shed light to the issue.
4. He is a 4th Generation Graduate of Morehouse College
Spike, his great-grandfather, grandfather and father are all graduates of that small school on the red clay hills of Georgia often referenced in his films and his children will surely be continuing the SpelHouse legacy. Lee claims that education has always been an integral part of his family and they are actually descendants of the great Booker T. Washington. Talk about legacy!
5. His father, Bill Lee, wasn’t always the provider
In addition to being the father to a millionaire writer, director, and actor, Bill Lee’s first love was the bass guitar. As a child, Spike Lee said his father refused to do anything for work but play his guitar despite the fact that he had four children to feed. So his mother, a schoolteacher, was the primary breadwinner. You may have heard Bill Lee and his ax on the 1963 hippy classic Puff, the Magic Dragon.
6. He started his film career early and She’s Gotta Have It was not his first script
The 1986 box office hit She’s Gotta Have It was Lee’s first movie to make the big screen. The film was shot in 12 days with $175,000 and he ended up earning over 10x back in profit in the first year. Two years later in 1988, Lee used the money produce the first script he wrote in undergrad, School Daze.
7. Speaking of School Daze, did you know Lee created natural tension on the set and the last fight scene was actually real?
During the filming of School Daze to keep the cast from becoming “chummy”, Lee actually put the actresses featured as the “Wannabees” which included Tisha Campbell and Jasmine Guy in a luxury hotel while the, “Jiggaboos” were in a…well, less comfortable arrangement. The fight scene featuring the fictional fraternity Gamma Phi Gamma and Laurence Fishburne’s crew was actually real, he told the cameramen to keep on rolling!
8. Historical accuracy is apart of his integrity. Oh… And he really can’t stand John Wayne.
Growing up, Lee and his younger brother Chris, who recently passed away last December, always enjoyed watching war movies together as children. Bill Lee and Spike both detested the work of John Wayne for his inaccurate depictions of history, especially since Bill’s brothers both served in WW1 and WW2. Today, as a documentarian and an advocate of the Black voice he refuses to allow his work to be narrated. Lee insists that the people tell their own story. However, he found challenge with this during the making of Four Little Girls (1997) when he had to sit down with former Alabama governor and pro-segregationist George Wallace, calling it the most “surreal” interview he ever did.
9. His wife thinks he’s the most loyal man in show biz.
According to Tonya Lee herself, she has never met a man so passionate, committed and loyal to his work and the people he works with. Old friend and colleague Denzel Washington chimed in on the discussion via video in full agreement, stating no one has given black people more jobs in the field than Spike.