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Film / TV

On Spike Lee’s bold legacy: Black women leads, pro-Blackness & more greatness

October 19, 2017
By Shaun La.*, AFROPUNK Contributor

Spike Lee has distinguished himself as a filmmaker who has had many avenues of success. Within his own work, the Black filmmaker finds a line of being defined as a storyteller, a director, commercially acceptable, brash and opinionated, as well as a conduit for Black actors, actresses, and cast and crew to find gainful employment through a very famous world.

There is a foundation of Black filmmakers that Spike has his ongoing legacy attached to.

These foundations include the direct racism that Oscar Micheaux had to endure, to Gordon Parks, Charles Burnett, the L.A. Rebellion, film works in the 1960’s & 1970’s, and the many Black actors & actresses who had to find the tolerance in Hollywood’s racist machine that depicted them through stereotypes & ignorance.

The present has Spike in a sort of middle-ground societal bowl. With new technology offering the movie-making option to anyone eager to write, find some friends to play some roles, record it, edit it, & upload it, the director can be just about anyone. This has marginalized the concepts of movies being made without the proper training required. It has also made movies overflow into a society in massive amounts, thus allowing the visions of some to overshadow the veterans who have professional reels on film explaining their visual past.

Black-&-White Film-making:

It is easy to overlook or discount Spike’s work in a modern setting. However, if you want to appraise his film work from a modern perspective (which is kind of atypical, because motion-pictures are not that old & it has always been a modern medium), just start from She’s Gotta Have It (1986).

One of the answers to seeing Spike’s work here relies on a very strong narrative. Spike placed a Black woman as the lead character.

It is a character that Hollywood has misunderstood since the silent film era, an era where B&W film stock was the film to work on. Spike used B&W film stock here. He wanted the seriousness in his visual voice to be visually unattached to the moods that travel in color film stock. Furthermore, there was the narrative structure and acting put forth a Nola, who was young, sexually free & controlling the men in her life to the her needs.

She’s Gotta Have It has an axis role in Spike’s career. Stylistically, it shows how he understood cinematography, editing, & production of a film. The camera has always been a tool which can construct & deconstruct. Historically speaking, film-making was not always taught to those who were oppressed in society. Just as reading & writing was not at the top of the educational list when slave owners controlled Blacks on plantations.

It goes without saying that the 20th century was not eager to teach Blacks how to load film cameras—learning this skill could grow into a career & a way to show & report what was going on in the Black communities.

Such a power would not rinse over well in an overt racist society of the 20th century. Oscar Micheaux and Spence Williams were a sign of rarity when it came to Black filmmakers constructing films during the early part of the 20th century’s “Race Films” age.

Therefore, what Spike evolved into was not only a man who learned the process of film-making, but had degrees to back up his historical trajectory on a racist industry, exploding through his early film-making with She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing (1989), Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Malcolm X (1992) & the list can go on & on.

Spike’s longevity hovers right over a prolific output, next to Steven Spielberg & Woody Allen.

If you handle the full grasp of Spike’s filmmaking & directorial footing, his television work, advert work for mainstream companies & documentary work could put him above the average prolific filmmaker who stays with feature length film-making as their storytelling method of seeing the world.

More So Accomplished Than Pop-Cultured:

Of course, the brick of Pop-Art success can be thrown through Spike’s big glass window of a career, because his films were not ever about eclipsing a box-office record. He has not ever focused in on the summer box-office smash. His films do show some financial recouping, or else, why would his career be so long as a professional filmmaker? But the historical significance of his work cannot be fully lifted into a scale of fair, deserving greatness, because the history of motion pictures does not even have 150 years under its age.

Right now, it would be full of gaping holes if we try to evaluate the many filmmakers & directors that Spike has inspired.

To muddle through the Hip-Hop music video era during the Golden Age of Hip-Hop, his visual encouragement to a Hype Williams, F. Gary Gray, Erik White, Chris Robinson, Nzingha Stewart, Paul Hunter, Little X., Billie Woodruff & Sanaa Hamri are just the rim on the cup of encouragement that he has provided a music genre to its visual water of encircling how Hip-Hop lyrics can swim through storytelling. Not to mention John Singleton, Antoine Fuqua, Michael A. Pinckney & Albert & Allen Hughes, who some viewed in the world of film-making as the next Black film-making voices to visually articulate the Black narrative into a visual feature film lens.

There is a lot that has yet to be fully inhaled from a Do the Right Thing or a Malcolm X film. With Do the Right Thing, the ensemble cast blends into a Brooklyn way that would make any Brooklynite feel at home. But, this film goes a bit deeper, as in the photographs hanging on the wall of Sal’s Pizzeria, were only of famous Italians in a Black neighborhood that ate American Italian pizza for lunch & dinner.

Do the Right Thing had a nutrition to its visual meal. The scene where each Race or ethnicity of people spoke stereotypes into the camera, was an indictment of a modern world that we live in today—where social-media has made racism a trending topic & a springboard for undercover racism to brew.

Malcolm X, for the production to find its labor in completion alone, should receive a standing applause from the film-making world. Brother Malcolm’s opinions & intelligence have always met a resistance or misunderstanding through the media, even after his assassination. Malcolm can be unfairly attributed to the stereotypical angry Black man. I am sure that if Spike had went with a film about Dr. King, his efforts would have been applauded by the mainstream world. For Dr. King was such a spiritually peaceful man & a mainstream understanding of North America’s war to achieve Civil Rights.

Yet, with Malcolm, the role that Denzel stepped into was beyond the mannerisms that his professional acting abilities were able to fall into, but that Harlem met the lens of a Black filmmaker explaining in a film narrative, a time, a leader’s life that could have been in ten films deserves a parade. Had Spike stopped his film-making career after Malcolm X was produced & released, nobody in their right mind would have been upset at him. Malcolm X had to be an exasperating film production to succeed through, but the fortitude delivered in Spike’s continuation as a filmmaker stands with his ambition that dates back to his Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983) film-making approach, just a bigger budget & the world as his audience.

Racial discussions of interracial dating can be peeled away from Jungle Fever (1991). Mo’ Better Blues let musicians show their skills & explores the jazz-man’s life, which counters the Rock Star appeal that mainstream white Americans praise as some form of musical genius of a lifestyle. It was also a visual listening marriage that penned a soundtrack to the scope of seeing the narrative through sound.

25th Hour (2002), let the viewers climb into a narrative that Spike did not write—this film opens a door into how Spike could visually explain a story as a director, directing. Also, 25th Hour can distribute the business & race side of film-making: this film was one of Spike’s most financially successful films. A terrific barometer of Spike’s work can be contrasted side by side, as Do the Right Thing & 25th Hour are two of his most successful box-office films. Do the Right Thing was Spike’s first super big punch to the face of society & the 25th Hour was some 12 or 13 years after Do the Right Thing.

The Clock:

Could the tolerance of Spike’s work between this span of time have met a mainstream society that put him into a choke-hold, as his films became more bolder & bolder when it came down to telling the temperature in societal racism? When his biggest successful box-office film, Inside Man (2006) came into the mainstream world, was Spike safe as a filmmaker, did he crossover into being just a director for mainstream films? Was his vision growing old, could he be contained? Did white America & white Europe accept a Spike Lee Joint as some rebellious Black man, who would eventually see that green money was the true color of equality?

Not really, because Spike continued to be his racially outspoken auteur theorist cinematic, storytelling, film-making self. From documentary work with When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006) to Miracle at St. Anna (2008), Kobe Doin Work (2009), Red Hook Summer (2012) & Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014), Spike was being himself with film-making in a narrative sense as well as in documentary film-making where doing a documentation of Kobe Bryant or Mike Tyson’s accomplishments (Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth, 2013) & infamous happenings, added to commercial & humane views of perception on the Black athlete. We all know that Spike is a huge sports fan. His sports fan mentality can be observed in his narrative film-making with He Got Game (1998), as well as his Mars Blackmon persona in Nike adverts & within its original base, She’s Gotta Have It.

Passionate Protests On & Off the Screen:

One of the facets that separates Spike from other filmmakers would be that he is quick to draw his opinion on racial matters going on in this world. It could be his input on not wanting white directors & filmmakers to tell a story that has a Black history or narrative to it. From his position of not wanting Steven Spielberg to direct The Color Purple to having a justified anger at seeing a white director make Ali.

Yet, Spike praised David Simon for creating The Wire (2002-2008). This kind of conflicting views from Spike can make us all see how his agenda may have a biased side to it. David Simon is a white guy who was not even raised in Baltimore, Maryland. However his visual understanding of Baltimore’s battles & war on drugs in Black Baltimore are supposed to be more lucid than that of Steven’s for The Color Purple (1985) or Michael Mann’s directional power over Ali (2001)?

Spike has spoken up for the lack of Black creatives telling our own stories. His fandom for The Wire should not be engulfed by the entertaining characters or intriguing narratives.

After all, of all those who have put their films where they mouth were, Spike should powerfully know that ramifications of a mainstream media would not dare allow a Black creative to express the true ills of drug addiction, drug dealing, overcrowded schools with improper funding, & mass incarceration with massive funding, as a visual means to showcasing how this kind of oppression dictates our present & possible future as Blacks in the United States. I would have expected Spike to say, “If a Black man had made The Wire, it would have been cancelled after one season,” before he offered David a high-five.

As a Baltimore native who grew up in the 1990’s Baltimore, I find Spike’s position of visually hugging David’s television series, The Wire, as way off the base of truly understanding the Black plights of 1990’s Baltimore. A lot of my family members & friends who were killed or ended up in prison have a personal connection to me, just as Spike’s desire to base his films in New York hold a nostalgic cord of knowing Black New York with his eyes closed.

The Fabric in his Film-making:

Crooklyn (1994), Clockers (1995), Get on the Bus (1996), Girl 6 (1996), School Daze (1988), & all of Spike’s 1980’s & 1990’s work, mutually fit into an ambitious man knowing that the history of cinema was not counting on a visually intellectual approach to Blacks having a community that spoke out about our stories. Spike connected to what Charles Burnett was doing with Killer of Sleep (1978), what Haile Gerima visually explained with Sankofa (1993).

There is an energy in Spike’s film work of going against the mainstream & oppressive system, the Hollywood industry that produced stars by putting an emphasis on the courageous fighting skills within the Black man, which Jamaa Fanaka did with his Penitentiary films (1979, 1982, & 1987). Spike did not try to speak for Black woman, but he offered the Black woman a visual microphone in his films, just as Julie Dash built such a microphone in her 1970’s film-making.

As controversial as Spike can be with his off the screen opinions, as famous as he can be in any given room, we must not take a pill of forgetful memory when it comes down to how important this man is to the world of film-making. It is an importance that promotes a visual storytelling nerve that pulsates through shorts, features, documentaries, adverts & music videos.

He has produced, often knowing through personal experience that the lack of interest in the funding of Black stories on the screen predates a bigger green light over the doorway of a Netflix or YouTube. Even as the fractions of Blacks being the center of visual storytelling has devolved into sit-comedies & feature films that could remind us of the minstrel shows from the 20th century, or the pitfalls of reality television displaying the ghetto sides of famous Blacks in any given entertainment field, Spike’s footing has been progressively brave.

If you judge him by his body of work, the longevity in his career & professional aesthetics that marries into his writing, directing of actors, cinematography, editing & marketing, Spike could end up with a lot more cinematic & artistic land than his 40 acres. With 30 plus years of knowing how to make films, he has all of the running time in his legacy to continue with showing the world, specifically the Black world, that our stories are treasures, unique, strong, painful, violent, powerful, educational, cultural, civilized & humane, without Hollywood’s approval on how we should view or listen to our own kind of visual narratives, film or directed by our visual narrators.

*Shaun La is a photographer & writer. Starting off with the medium of photography at the age of 18 (20 years ago) with a Minolta Hi-Matic & 135 film, the desire to see the moment became a way to envision the possibilities in wanting to be a timer awaiting to see if he could photograph more moments. His photography extends into fashion, street, photojournalism, landscape, still-life & candid realities — still utilizing film cameras only, 135 & medium-format film. As a writer, he has penned numerous essays on various topics, which has been published by the Amsterdam News, the Baltimore Sun, Afro-Punk, Camera Obscura & other media outlets. Currently he is working on his book, \”The Perpetual Intellectual View Called Photography: Essays,\” & putting together the building blocks for an upcoming exhibition on his Photography. His work can be viewed at: http://www.shaunarts.com/writings

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