Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee, born March 20, 1957, turns 60 years old today! Wow! The BIG 6-0! Time sure does fly, doesn’t it?
I had to pause for a minute to think about that fact; or maybe it’s just that it reminds me that I am aging as well – we all are – and I’d prefer to think that the years aren’t moving along as briskly.
But they are; So, as the saying goes, carpe diem, or seize the day!
Back to Spike… long time readers of this website will know just how much and how often the man’s name is mentioned by just about all of us, both critically, as well as in adulation. You’ll find a good mix of commentary. He has been, after all, the most prominent black filmmaker in this country since he burst onto the scene in the mid 1980s, and he’s still around, cranking out a film about once every 2 years or so, on average; you can’t really talk about the evolution of black cinema over the last 30 years and not mention one Mr Spike Lee. You just cannot!
And to celebrate his 60th birthday, let’s reminisce… specifically, what are your favorite Spike Lee moments? Notice I didn’t ask for your favorite Spike Lee films only, although you can use them as well; but feel free to include those moments in which Spike roused and stirred you, whether psychologically or physically; moments on film, and not on film, when he agitated, titillated, awakened, incensed, humored, sensitized you; moments in any of his films, or Spike himself in person, that made you laugh, cry, angry, sad, and more.
These moments could be from scenes in his films, or they could be entire films, films he’s produced, interviews he’s done, books he’s written, speeches/talks given, commercials he’s directed or starred in, and whatever else you can remember.
In my case, I’d like to share a few things…
First, in terms of his oeuvre, I think most would probably list “Do the Right Thing” as their favorite Spike Lee joint; but I’ll actually go against the tide here and choose “Bamboozled” instead. It was Spike’s most scathing critique, and an ambitious satire on race and the power of media, shot mostly on what was then a still burgeoning technology that certainly wasn’t as widely used and embraced as it is today – we call it digital video now.
That was 17 long years ago!
I’d say it wasn’t a coincidence that the film was released in the year 2000 – as a kind of call to action at the beginning of the new millennium. Yes, it’s a little longer than I think it should have been to be just as effective, and Spike doesn’t end it as efficiently as it begins (at least, in my not-so humble opinion). But I greatly appreciated the films overall potency. It worked for me, even though it was savaged by many film critics, including, surprisingly, the late great Roger Ebert. It was a bit of a shock to me at the time that the nation’s most popular film critic was so shortsighted as to miss the broader message behind Spike’s overtly satirical film. He practically dismissed it, which was unfortunate. I wonder if/how his opinion of the film changed over time; it’s something I would’ve asked him were he still alive today.
There’s a 5-minute video below (a featurette from the film’s DVD), which features various audience reactions to the film. It’s worth a watch.
Next, check out Nasser Metcalfe’s 1999 interview with Spike Lee, while Spike was promoting the then release of “Summer Of Sam,” which also happened to be around the time when Spike’s feud with Quentin Tarantino went public. Metcalfe asked Lee about his beef with Tarantino, and, in response, Spike revealed some things that may not be widely-known today, specifically, about Denzel Washington taking Tarantino to task on the set of “Crimson Tide,” as well as Samuel L Jackson having to choose sides on the matter.
It’s a brief time capsule worth sharing. The apparent feud between these 2 filmmakers (Lee and Tarantino) has been well-documented over the years. In summary, I think one of the things we’ve loved (and in some cases loathed) about Spike is that he has always been outspoken; he’s never been one to be silent, especially early in his career, which some would argue has been to his detriment. He’s been especially vocal with his criticism of some of Tarantino’s choices, notably the repetitive use of the so-called “N” word by characters (black or white) in his movies.
I’d say that their feud likely went public after “Jackie Brown,” when Lee expressed his concern for the excessive use of the “N” word in the movie (something like 38 times I believe was the count). Naturally Tarantino responded, stating: “As a writer, I demand the right to write any character in the world that I want to write. And to say that I can’t do that because I’m white… that is racist.”
There wasn’t much public beefing between the two after that, until “Django Unchained” was released 5 years ago. Lee vocalized his disapproval of Tarantino’s slave-revenge fantasy, and vowed he would never see the movie, calling it “disrespectful to my ancestors.”
“American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them,” Spike said in a tweet.
But it’s maybe been Spike’s most public feud with another filmmaker.
Below you’ll find a second video – the rare 1999 interview Spike gave to Nasser Metcalfe on the feud, Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson.
And finally, watch a portion from a much longer video titled “Cultural Criticism & Transformation,” from the Media Education Foundation, featuring the one and only bell hooks, waxing philosophic on Spike Lee’s career in general, with some emphasis on “Girl 6.”
It’s many years old, but still relevant. As an aside, it’s actually timely as a critique of Hollywood’s understanding that what blackness is, or what black film is – as something that can be negotiated by anyone and any filmmaker because black people aren’t *needed* to tell stories about black people, because white people can, as hooks argues in the video! It’s a brief but solid assessment of Spike’s career up until then. The entire “Cultural Criticism & Transformation” series is a must-watch.
Watch all 3 videos below, and then chime in with your own choice Spike Lee moments – on film, or otherwise.
First, the “Bamboozled” featurette:
The 1999 interview on Tarantino, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson…:
And here’s bell hooks on Spike Lee: