When Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It came out in 1986, African-American life in movies and on television was largely limited to depictions of poverty, crime, and clownishness, with The Cosby Show to mitigate. But Lee at that time was living in a New York alive with graffiti art, hip-hop, poetry, and jazz; and with She’s Gotta Have It, Lee claimed a place for himself and his friends as vital to the city’s culture, on par with anyone in a Woody Allen film. She’s Gotta Have It is dicey at times, both in terms of its craft—which suffers from weak acting and an underdeveloped narrative—and in terms of Lee’s too-leering take on female sexuality. But it’s a vibrant movie, best exemplified by one magical moment when the heroine clicks her heels, Wizard Of Oz-style, and is transported from a black-and-white world to one of bright color, where contemporary dancers perform to a jaunty song written in her honor. It’s not a scene that can be reduced to a simple comment on the black experience; it’s mostly just an expression of romantic joy, in the context of the black experience.
Lee grew up around music as the son of Bill Lee, a jazz composer and session musician. In interviews, Lee has talked about watching his father perform with Odetta, Judy Collins, and Peter, Paul & Mary; and talking to Chris Nashawaty for Entertainment Weekly in 1998, Lee described his musical tastes as eclectic, saying, “I play Aaron Copland and Public Enemy and The Beatles and John Coltrane and Steely Dan and Busta Rhymes and Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald and Patsy Cline.” The music in his films has been just as diverse. Lee followed up She’s Gotta Have It with the Broadway-style musical School Daze, and in the decades since, Lee’s had movies scored by Prince and Stevie Wonder, he’s filmed Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s rock musical Passing Strange, and he’s used The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” behind an important sequence in Summer Of Sam. Lee once told Marlaine Glicksman of Film Comment that he sees filmmaking as like making music. “I just let my imagination go very free,” he said. “And I like to improvise.”
But there’s more to it than that. As a form of expression, music can tap directly into emotions and ideas in ways that mere words or images can’t. Political messages can be blunter. Declarations of love can be sappier. The insistence of the beat and the sweep of the melody can sell an audience on a notion that might sound too naive in any other form.
As attuned as Lee has been to how music works in his films, he hasn’t been at his best as a director of music videos—or at least, he’s shown nowhere near the genius of filmmakers like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, who first made a name for themselves in that business. A lot of Lee’s videos have been cross-promotion for his films: E.U.’s “Da Butt” (a song from School Daze); Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” (the powerhouse opening song from Do The Right Thing); Arrested Development’s “Revolution” (from the Malcolm X soundtrack); Crooklyn Dodgers’ “Crooklyn” (for Crooklyn). His other videos—and he hasn’t done many—have been for a mix of friends, megastars, and artists with whom he’s felt some kinship. He directed a video for Branford Marsalis’ jazz/hip-hop hybrid Buckshot LeFonque, and one for the L.A. punk-funk band Fishbone when it was trying (and failing) to make its big crossover move. He also shot videos for Anita Baker and Naughty By Nature when they were on the rise, and Prince and Michael Jackson at their commercial peaks. These have all just been gigs, by and large. They’ve lined Lee’s pockets, firmed up some personal relationships, and have helped him build his brand.
These videos aren’t without their Lee-specific motifs, though. The Crooklyn Dodgers (a one-shot hip-hop supergroup consisting of Special Ed, Masta Ace, and Buckshot, rapping over a Q-Tip track) get the benefit of one of Lee’s signature shots in the “Crooklyn” video, floating on a camera-dolly. And six years before Lee’s Bamboozled—his scorching satire of modern-day minstrelsy—he peppered his video for Buckshot LeFonque’s “Breakfast At Denny’s” with racist tchotchkes from the early 20th century. Many of Lee’s videos use archival footage of significant figures from black history, as in the extended version of Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” which starts with newsreel coverage of 1963’s March On Washington (and then has Chuck D. trashing a watershed moment in the Civil Rights movement as “nonsense”).
The most common motif in Lee’s videos is the gathering: dancers, musicians, and ordinary citizens coming together to sing and cavort. People moving in unison are music-video staples, but what sets Lee’s clips apart—dating all the way back to the video he made for Grandmaster Melle Mel’s “White Lines” while he was still a student at NYU—is the extremely casual choreography. Even in the video for “Da Butt,” which is an actual musical number from an actual musical, the dancers move with abandon, not precision. The effect is most powerful in the video Lee shot in Brazil for Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us,” where the pop icon hits his marks with his usual well-rehearsed sharpness while a mob of locals beat drums and do a loose approximation of his steps, feeling Jackson’s music in their own way.
The other big thread running through a lot of Lee’s videos—similar to his films—is Lee himself, serving as comic relief and hype-artist. He’s there at the microphone in the Apollo Theater at the beginning of Anita Baker’s “No One In The World,” doing his impression of a hacky stand-up, and in the video for Naughty By Nature’s “Hip Hop Hooray,” Lee pops up momentarily, hard to distinguish amid shot after shot of bouncing crowds and celebrity cameos.
Lee’s knack for self-promotion was a boon to his career in the early going, assuring himself a presence in the culture that few filmmakers of any race or nationality enjoy. It didn’t guarantee that he could make any movie he wanted, but it did mean he could get at least some backing for his kind of social dramas—the kind for which a no-name director couldn’t have even gotten a pitch meeting. The price for that fame—compounded by the relative rarity of a black auteur in cinema—was that Lee has had to answer questions that other directors generally don’t get, about what messages his films are sending, and how those messages jibe with his personal beliefs. For some, Lee’s become inextricable from his work, such that any comment about his films also becomes a comment about the guy who yells at basketball players and picks fights in the media with Clint Eastwood.
Speaking to Gary Crowdus and Dan Georgakas for Cineaste in 2001, Lee suggested there was a double-standard at work in the way people assess his movies based on what they think of him personally, saying, “Bruce Springsteen, for example, has made more money from ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ than I’ll ever make in my life, but he’s still considered a pillar of the working class. Now I’ve been going to Knicks games since I was a little kid, sitting in the blue nosebleed seats, but now I’m fortunate—thank you, God!—to have a little money so I can indulge myself by sitting courtside. But what does that have to do with cinema?”
That interview, along with the above-cited articles from Film Comment and Entertainment Weekly, are collected in the University Press Of Mississippi’s book Spike Lee Interviews, edited by Cynthia Fuchs (and part of the press’ “Conversations With Filmmakers” series). The earliest interview in the book is from 1986 and the latest is from 2001, and reading through them all is often an exercise in reading between the lines, as Lee refers to the various controversies that have dogged him throughout his career, often as a result of the questions he’s been asked in other interviews. Lee is frequently defensive, but rarely unduly. If anything, his habit of reflexively pushing back against his accusers has been essential for reframing the debate around him and his work.
Lee’s especially been fired up over the years by the concern from some columnists and critics that his movies Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X might incite riots. Speaking to Elvis Mitchell for Playboy in 1991, two years after the hubbub over how “responsible” Do The Right Thing was, Lee said, “David Denby callin’ it irresponsible? That’s irresponsible. And it’s lazy. When the riots didn’t happen, when Dinkins got elected… none of the people who said that shit said they were wrong in print or apologized.” Then when Malcolm X was released and Warner Bros. pre-screened it for some local police chiefs to allay their fears, Lee complained to Cineaste, “If they do that to us, they should do it to Terminator. How many cops got killed in those films?” This has been a common theme in Lee interviews: him asking why his movies keep getting singled out. When asked why he didn’t include drug dealers in Do The Right Thing, Lee asked why Oliver Stone didn’t include them in Wall Street. Reminded of the Central Park Five “wilding” case that had New York all worked up the summer that Do The Right Thing came out, Lee noted to Film Comment that a black woman had been raped and murdered in the park not long after the crime in question, and, “I didn’t see Donald Trump taking any fucking ads out behind that shit.”
Don’t think these dust-ups didn’t have an effect on Lee’s career. Reading through Spike Lee Interviews, it’s striking how confident he is over the first five years versus how beleaguered he seems over the next 10. He tells one interviewer early on that if he seems under-excited about his full plate of projects, it’s only because he and his partners planned all this back at NYU. Back then, he was just living out the storyboard of his life. But post-Malcolm X, Lee becomes increasingly exasperated by the lack of recognition his casts and crews have gotten during awards season, and he laments the movies that were mismarketed or misunderstood.
Saddest of all is the way Lee answers questions about his big Jackie Robinson biopic project, which he seemed so sure he was going to make not long after Malcolm X, but which eventually died, only to be revived by other people this past year as 42, to a fair amount of commercial success. 42 is a solid movie—perhaps even better-made than what Lee would’ve done with the same material—but is there anyone who thinks it’ll be as well-remembered as A Spike Lee Joint would’ve been? Lee himself put it best to Charlie Rose in 1994, talking about Malcolm X’s lack of Oscar success: “I think that history will bear us out and Scent Of A Woman and all that other stuff, it’s not going to hold up to Malcolm X 20, 30 years down the line.” (As it turns out, “20, 30” was gracious; it only took a couple of years for Scent Of A Woman to become a punchline, held up as an example of Best Actor-winning Al Pacino at his hammiest.)
What’s especially unfortunate about Lee’s stormy second career as a public figure is that his persona in interviews has little to do with what his films are—or his videos, for that matter. Yes, Lee’s work is provocative. But it’s provocative inasmuch as Lee gives a voice to people with unpopular points of view, not because of how much or how little he agrees with them. The “Fight The Power” video is a good example. Maybe Lee agrees with Chuck D. that The March On Washington was a joke, or maybe he doesn’t. By by including a fair amount of footage of the March before the song starts, Lee ennobles the people that Chuck D. is about to dismiss. And he ennobles Public Enemy, as well the mass of people who dance in the streets to “Fight The Power.” It’s not an either/or. Since She’s Gotta Have It, Lee has continued to try and put more of African-American life on-screen than what the mass media usually accepts, which means he’s shining a spotlight on people other than criminals or Martin Luther King Jr. As he said to actor Delroy Lindo in a 1999 interview, “I wanted to attempt to capture the richness of African-American culture that I can see, just standing on the corner, or looking out my window every day.”
Not part of that mission? Comforting white viewers by telling them what they want to hear—even though Lee knows how easy that would’ve been to do. After Do The Right Thing in particular, a lot of Lee’s critics became obsessed with whether he even liked white people. (“What white film director would get asked questions like that?” he sighed to Sight And Sound in 1993.) Yet anyone who watched Do The Right Thing or Mo’ Better Blues or Jungle Fever with open eyes could see that these movies were just as critical of the African-American community as they were of anyone with fairer skin. Because Lee’s depictions of white people were often unflattering too, some began to poke at them, looking for the real Lee in a few offhand lines of dialogue.
No wonder, then, that Lee has gravitated to musicians who also understand the difficulties of maintaining an individual black identity in areas of entertainment that are white-dominated. There’s a natural fit between Lee and Prince, who began to win over rock critics once he started incorporating rock and New Wave into his R&B; and between Lee and Michael Jackson, who frequently brought racial issues into his mega-selling pop records in ways that confounded a lot of his fans. And it’s no accident that Lee’s video for Fishbone’s roaring “Sunless Saturday” takes a band that rose through the ranks of the exceedingly white alt-rock scene and put them in a cage.
The strongest marriage, though, between music and image in Lee’s whole filmography is Passing Strange, which Lee offered to record for posterity after seeing the musical onstage and finding a loud ring of truth in Stew’s story. Passing Strange is about a young man who feels like a freak in the black community because he prefers punk rock and art films, but then gets treated like an exotic curiosity when he moves to Europe. Stew’s another representative of the black experience, with a struggle as personal as Malcolm X’s or Jackie Robinson’s or Spike Lee’s—if on a much smaller scale.
But the scale’s not the issue. Some critics shrugged off Passing Strange as a minor Lee project when it was released in 2009, calling it little more than a filmed play, not a piece of cinema. But the angles and shot selection are hardly incidental. Throughout the movie, Lee emphasizes perspective, often setting up shots where Stew and his fictionalized younger self coexist, so that the older man can look ruefully on who he used to be. And with Passing Strange, Lee does as he’s done with so many of his videos, pulling back so that the viewer can see a group of people dancing enthusiastically, if not slickly. As always, Lee tries to bring as many of them into the frame as possible.