Oscars 2019: Why we should celebrate Spike Lee, a director who never shies away from controversy
Over a career spanning three decades, the auteur changed the face of film, finds Louis Chilton. His Oscar win for co-writing 'BlackKklansman' is an act of long-overdue recognition
Spike Lee has never lost his taste for provocation. His most recent film BlacKkKlansman – the unlikely true story of black police officer Ron Stallworth who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s – received six Oscar nominations, winning the award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Featuring plenty of the humour and political outspokenness that have made Lee such a significant artist, the film is just the latest achievement in a singular filmmaking career spanning more than three decades.
The man born Shelton Jackson Lee in 1957 hasn’t always had the luxury of the multimillion-dollar budget afforded to BlacKkKlansman, of course. When shooting his first film, 1986’s seminal independent movie She’s Gotta Have It about a young black woman in Brooklyn navigating her own sexual liberation, he was unable to afford film for re-takes, so much of the end product was cut with the only material captured. Lee also reportedly instructed the cast and crew to put aside any used soda cans, as they needed the money from recycling.
Even though She’s Gotta Have It was his first feature-length effort, it established many of the themes, and creative collaborations, which would continue throughout the director’s career. Bill Lee, his father, composed the film’s soundtrack, and would go on to score Lee’s next three movies. His siblings Joie and Cinqué have worked with him across his career in various acting, writing, producing and camera-operating roles too, while his other brother David has been his go-to still photographer.
This loyalty to collaborators extends beyond the Lee bloodline, however. Many of the actors he casts get recast in subsequent films – some, such as John Turturro, as many as nine times. Other high-profile stars that have worked on several “Spike Lee joints” (as they are referred to in his opening credits) include Samuel L Jackson, Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes. And he shows the same faithfulness to the talent behind the camera, with many of his crew – such as costume designer Ruth Carter, cinematographer Ernest Dickenson, and editor Barry Alexander Brown, to name but a few – working with him time and time again.
Perhaps given this close-knit, familial feel to Lee’s sets, it’s no surprise that John David Washington – star of BlackKklansman and son of Denzel and Pauletta – addressed the director as “Uncle Spike” when he made his debut as a child in Malcolm X. Washington found his recent starring role an even more rewarding experience, calling it “the most freeing collaborative environment I’ve ever been able to work in.”
Spike Lee’s directing technique has led him to be described by some, including regular cast member Michael Imperioli, as an “actor’s director”. Thorough rehearsals – an unusual thing in the industry – allow the cast to better inhabit their characters, and Lee’s openness to improvisation has led to many of his oeuvre's most memorable moments. When filming the 1988 college feud musical School Daze, he put up the two competing sides of the cast in different hotels, not allowing them to interact during most of filming. When they were brought together to shoot a confrontation scene, the cast erupted into a spontaneous brawl, which Lee kept in the final cut.
In the 1998 film He Got Game, a climactic scene involves a high-stakes contest between a highly ranked basketball prospect, played by the pro baller Ray Allen, and his father, played by Denzel Washington. The script called for an 11-0 thrashing by Allen’s character, but Lee decided to let the two men shoot hoops for real. To the cheers of the onlooking crew, Washington scored the first four baskets, before Allen, likely suffering from hurt pride, was able to hit back and win the game.
Getting cast in a Lee film is trickier for some than others. According to a DVD commentary with Lee, Willem Dafoe was handed a part in his 2006 heist film Inside Man after standing at a urinal next to the director during the interval of a production of Julius Caesar, idly commenting that they should work together. On the other hand, Halle Berry auditioned five times for Jungle Fever, winning the role of Vivian – a sex worker and drug addict - only after showing up apparently unrecognisable, having not showered for a week.
In a speech introducing Lee at the 2015 Governors Awards, Samuel L Jackson described the unusual casting process for his earlier films. Lee would ring Jackson up, bark his name and the name of the project, then hang up (“‘Sam! Spike. Do the Right Thing! June!’ Click.”). When Jackson was cast in Lee’s 2013 adaptation of Oldboy, he was offered any part he wanted, aside from the lead. “I always wanted to be the crazy guy who runs the place where the main guy gets locked up,” he said. And so he was.
Despite having starred in four of Lee’s films during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Jackson went many years without working with the filmmaker after the pair wound up in a public feud, which began with a disagreement over the racial politics of Quentin Tarantino. The Pulp Fiction star said their wives – LaTanya Richardson and Tonya Lewis Lee, themselves seasoned industry professionals – remained friends however, and it was through this that their friendship gradually healed. In addition to Oldboy, Jackson would have a role in 2015’s Chi-raq, and went on to describe their working relationship as “a wonderful journey with a wonderful friend”.
Edward Norton is also effusive in his praise of the director. “I think Spike’s the most socially conscious filmmaker of his generation,” he said in an interview with Elvis Mitchell on his talk show Under the Influence. “Spike’s rolled around in race, sports, fame, money, drugs – he's looked at it all. Spike can be so iconoclastic as a person that I think sometimes people miss how compassionate his movies are. I think he has a lot of empathy for everybody.”
Lee established a reputation as a controversial voice early on in his career – Norton describes Do the Right Thing as being “like a hand grenade went off in the theatre”, a reaction shared by contemporary and modern viewers alike. And BlacKkKlansman proves the filmmaker has lost none of his edge. David Boulton, his long-time sound mixer who worked on BlacKkKlansman, observed that “Spike finds humour in stuff you wouldn’t expect him to, like racial slurs.”
It is hard to overstate Lee’s importance in diversifying the American cultural landscape. Denzel Washington has claimed that “Spike Lee has put more African Americans to work in this business than anyone else in the history of this business”. Through a willingness to cast new and unknown actors, including many actors of colour, Lee, and his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks (which takes its name from the promise of reparations to emancipated black slaves in 1865 that was later reneged upon) are responsible for building the careers of several eminent stars, in addition to fostering talent on the technical side of filmmaking.
For example, Barry Alexander Brown, the editor on hits such as Do the Right Thing, as well as BlacKkKlansman, honed his craft alongside Lee. He had never cut with 35mm film until he had to learn on the job for She’s Gotta Have It. Costume designer Ruth Carter writes on her blog about being hired for School Daze, her first movie, and going to a local sports shop with Lee to buy props. After collecting enough merchandise to fill a giant hockey bag, the director – a devoted fan of the New York Knicks – hurried off to attend a game, leaving Carter to haul all the props across town by herself. Still, she also reminisces fondly about working in an old renovated fire station, where 40 Acres and a Mule operated from 1985 until 2008.
Samuel L Jackson said that Lee “has told the story of our people in his way. His politics are the politics of an American anarchist.” While BlacKkKansman may not be his most anarchic piece of filmmaking – it is, after all, still a film about law enforcement – its awards season recognition offers a fine opportunity for the world to celebrate the artistry of a man who has had such a profound influence on the style and politics of modern cinema.