Spike Lee’s public persona — as an activist, as a provocateur, as a mouthpiece against injustice, and as New York’s No. 1 Knicks fan — sometimes threatens to overshadow his tremendous accomplishments as a filmmaker. The Brooklyn writer-director’s seminal 1989 drama Do the Right Thing changed the face of independent film, but his two previous efforts, She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze, were groundbreaking in their own right. And while he’s considered “Hollywood’s foremost black director,” some of his best films, like 25th Hour and Inside Man, are multiracial stories.
Remarkably, Lee — who was awarded an honorary Oscar in November for his considerable career achievements — has never been nominated for a Best Director Academy Award, nor has ever had a Best Picture contender (he was nominated for Best Screenplay for Do the Right Thing, and for Best Documentary for 4 Little Girls). He’ll shrug off that indignity with an “Are you really surprised?” (see: #OscarsSoWhite), but don’t get him started on the “mockery” he calls Denzel Washington’s Best Actor loss for Malcolm X.
Lee has garnered his best reviews in years for his film, Chi-Raq (on Blu-ray and DVD Jan. 26), a drama that remixes Aristophanes’s Lysistrata with modern-day gang warfare in Chicago. And this weekend he’ll premiere Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall, his second of three planned documentaries about the King of Pop, at the Sundance Film Festival.
In our latest episode of Director’s Reel, Lee takes us on his own journey from Brooklyn to Chi-Raq (watch above). Some highlights:
She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
Lee said he based the structure of his debut film, shot in black-and-white for $175,000, on Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 classic Rashomon. But what gives him the most satisfaction is that the film introduced his alter ego Mars Blackmon, who has been hawking Nikes alongside Michael Jordan ever since.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Lee looks back at the prescience of his breakout film with solemnity. First and foremost there is the death of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), itself inspired by the NYPD’s killing of a graffiti artist in the 1980s, an incident that bares eerie similarities to the 2014 death of Eric Garner. He describes how the film also forecasted global warming and gentrification in his home borough.
Malcolm X (1992)
Oscar pundits generally regard Al Pacino’s Best Actor Oscar for Scent of a Woman a “legacy” win in a category that really belonged to Denzel Washington. “The fact that he didn’t win an Oscar for his portrayal of Malcolm X is a mockery,” Lee said. “A travesty. A snafu. A boondoggle.”
He Got Game (1998)
The director had to coach hoops star-turned-leading man Ray Allen how to act. But he didn’t have to teach Denzel Washington how to ball. The director recalls how what was scripted as a whitewash turned into a game when Denzel started hitting shots against Allen.
Summer of Sam (1999)
Lee says it was during the fateful summer depicted in the film, which depicts the horror brought on by serial killer Son of Sam during a 1977 New York heatwave, that he decided he wanted to make movies for a living.
Inside Man (2006)
Lee recounts with glee some Easter Eggs hidden in this heist thriller starring Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster: as an homage to Dog Day Afternoon…, Lee included two cameos from bit players from the Pacino classic; and eagle-eyed viewers might also spy a pizza box from Do the Right Thing.
One of Lee’s rare projects shot outside New York, Chi-Raq was filmed in the streets of Chicago as the ongoing gang epidemic continued to plague the city. Lee said there were 65 murders during the time of the movie’s production alone.