“By any means necessary” – the mantra that often opens Spike Lee’s films– would appear to reflect the director’s core beliefs: the absolute necessity of equality for African Americans, by any means necessary. For Spike Lee, this is achievable through the medium of film. No newcomer to the business, Lee’s 30-year career began on films that some white viewers saw as incendiary and that everyone else saw as wild, entertaining, yet powerful reflections of what it is to be black in America. The Brooklyn-raised director of course has a preoccupation with his home city of New York, as well as a very underappreciated work ethic. He’s released one film almost every year since 1988, many of which are entertaining, New York-based comedy dramas that explore what it is to be a black man or woman. Two of his earliest efforts laid the groundwork for much of Lee’s career: Do the Right Thing and his epic biopic Malcolm X both explored a variety of cutting themes, but not without a sense of humour. It’s films like these that have established Spike Lee as a figure just as central to African American culture on film as the areas he represents.
Lee is determined that the history of African Americans will not be forgotten, and what progress and equality means to this demographic. The most obvious choice of film to highlight this is the painstakingly detailed and thorough Malcolm X, a three-hour biopic that paints a moving, haunting portrait of the radical civil rights leader. Even his early high school musical comedy School Daze (keep in mind, this film is basically the black Dazed and Confused) opens with a montage of African American history, from the boats that kidnapped their ancestors, to the first African American college graduate, to the era of the Civil Rights movement.
This preoccupation with civil rights, slavery and oppression is prevalent in every one of Lee’s films, no matter how small or specific the subject. Lee often tackles issues of racism both towards and from black Americans, which appears in multiple forms. Also often discussed is the subject of colourism; the preoccupation with the darkness and lightness of skin – more often in relation to women than men. In Jungle Fever, Flipper (a troubled Wesley Snipes) is accused by his wife (after he is caught cheating) that he has an obsession with light skin, starting with her (a mixed race woman) and ending with his secretary (a white woman). School Daze is rather the opposite, with Lawrence Fishburne’s character being accused of having an obsession with dark skin by his girlfriend. In most instances, colourism leads to the objectification of women. In some instances, like in Lee’s underappreciated road movie Get On The Bus, it happens to men too.
The categorisation of different races (racialism) is routinely demonstrated by the characters of Spike Lee films – by members of every demographic. He’s highly critical of the notion that certain races carry certain characteristics – his characters often voice criticism of white people (which is often mistaken as hatred of white people by the more sensitive people on the internet), but never unfairly or without the person being subjected to this racialism defending themselves – the white bus driver from Get On The Bus being the most notable example of this, leaving the main group after refusing to sit down and take prejudice from the men he is driving towards Washington DC.
Music seeps into all of Lee’s films – from the extended sequence in School Daze, to Chi-Raq, to the repetition of ‘Fight the Power’ in Do the Right Thing and the strangely musical first act of Malcolm X, Lee is infatuated with the expression that music can bring, on its own or paired with film. His frequent collaborator, jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard, effortlessly matches Spike Lee’s erratic pacing, his music elevating moments of intense and poignant drama to even greater heights – one such moment being the “fuck you” speech from 25th Hour. In a spectacular, sad and almost poetic monologue, Edward Norton’s character unleashes a repressed inner tirade of petty hatred, full of stereotypes, xenophobia, racism and other kinds of prejudice, in frustration over his looming prison sentence, and it soon becomes clear that this stems from self hatred. Terence Blanchard’s music, Norton’s crescendo-ing performance and the montage interspersed with his monologue all come together to turn this scene into something truly profound.
Do the Right Thing was the first indicator to the mainstream that Lee wasn’t going to be a reserved director – the film depicted a blisteringly hot summer in Brooklyn, made all the more uncomfortable by the racial tension in the neighbourhood. Do the Right Thing, while an entertaining and not unpleasant film, was rather comically touted as having the potential to incite race riots because of the anger bubbling underneath the surface, that boils over in the film’s final act. While this didn’t ultimately happen in real life, the film did have an unquestionable effect on black auteurs – inspiring further classics of black cinema after it. John Singleton, the director of Boyz N The Hood, recently said at a BFI Q&A that while he had the idea for the film since his childhood, he eventually just wanted his own take on Do the Right Thing, only set in South Central L.A.
Lee’s latest film, Chi-Raq, is perhaps the closest in spirit to Do the Right Thing – not just a return to form but a colourful, fun, dramatic urban tale of racial violence and turmoil that confronts America’s ongoing struggle with gun laws – of course, via a modern-day adaptation of Lysistrata. Lee’s films are fast-paced, kinetic, almost always bursting with colour, and appear to be extremely personal to the director. They are passion projects, based on cities and people he loves, and almost always starring people he has cast before. He clearly has particular favourite tricks to play and jokes to tell – personal favourites being his famous ‘glide’, where he places actors on dollies that has them constantly gliding towards the camera, and Isiah Whitlock Jr. coming back time and again to reprise his “sheeeeeit” line from The Wire.
However, Lee’s frenetic style sometimes results in films that can seem scattershot, sometimes emerging as a collage of ideas rather than a focused narrative. But that’s in the worst cases. At best, his films are exciting and hard-hitting, with a strange sense of humour; despite the revolutionary overtones, Lee’s films can be surprisingly weird (SPOILER ALERT: Jungle Fever ends with Snipes’ character clutching a crackhead to his chest and screaming “NOOOO!” to the heavens). But it’s not just because of his exciting method of filmmaking that his works hold up – the politics and thoughts behind them are still extremely relevant to society today. It’s hard not to feel disappointed by modern America after watching a Spike Lee joint.
Top 5 Spike Lee Films:
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee’s best work, and the best film to start with. An energetic, spiritual and entertaining journey through a blisteringly hot summer in Brooklyn, the film follows Mookie (Spike Lee), a pizza delivery boy, as the streets heat up with racially motivated anger.
Malcolm X (1992)
A clear passion project for the director, the film dramatises the life of the civil rights leader in three stages, from his youth as a petty criminal in New York to his murder at the hands of a movement he empowered.
Get On The Bus (1996)
One of Lee’s more underrated works, Get On The Bus is a road movie that feels confined rather than free. The reason for this confinement is the increasing animosity between the black men on the bus, on their way to the Million Man March of 1995. A funny and sometimes tense confrontation of prejudice in all its forms.
Lee’s latest, and his greatest film in years. A musical, modern-day adaptation of the Greek play Lysistrata, Chi-Raq tackles gun violence in Chicago. After a child is killed in a crossfire between two rival gangs, the Spartans and the Trojans, Lysistrata starts a movement that refuses any gang members sex until the violence stops. Hilarious, and very timely.
25th Hour (2002)
The rare Spike Lee film that doesn’t have an African American actor in a starring role, and just as good as the rest. Depicting the last day before incarceration of a drug dealer played by Edward Norton, 25th Hour is a moving, low-key drama that shouldn’t be ignored.
After those, watch: She’s Gotta Have It, Crooklyn, Jungle Fever, School Daze, Inside Man, He Got Game, Clockers.