Introductions to Great Film-makers: Week Six – Spike Lee

18 February 2010

Who is he?

An American writer and director who grew up in New York, his 1986 debut She’s Gotta Have It was made for around $150,000 – and returned a staggering $7 million at the box office. Three years, and two films later, Lee wrote and directed Do The Right Thing, arguably the greatest art house movie of all time. It’s a truly stunning piece of cinema and a ‘must see’ for everyone. However, its quirky, leftfield approach and unusual characterisation rules it out as a “Where to start” and it has perhaps ‘dated’ a little – that said, a bit of eighties retro chic never goes amiss.

Why should I watch his films?

Spike Lee seems to be something of a forgotten figure when considering the true great film makers.

Without doubt his best work seems to be behind him, but in his day he was one of cinema’s true creative visionaries, and imbued his films with with a strong social conscience. A fantastic skill for dialogue and unusual, inventive characterisation are the two strongest trademarks of any ‘Spike Lee Joint’.

A slightly geeky demeanour coupled with his eloquent, highly quotable, likeable persona and a penchant for casting himself in his films meant he personally received much of the same mainstream media attention that one Quentin Tarantino would also secure a few years later. There the similarities ended – indeed, Lee and Tarantino had an infamous run-in – when Lee criticised Tarantino for his gross over-use of the ‘N’ word in his early movies.

Where to start?

Assuming you like your cinema a little bit more mainstream – then Summer of Sam wraps up everything that is truly fantastic about Lee’s film-making into one slick, flawless parcel. Right at the time when the whole of Hollywood found itself obsessed with serial killers, Lee came up with one of his own, with a twist – set in 1977 New York and based around the exploits of real life serial killer David Berkowitz who dubbed himself ‘The Son Of Sam’.

Unlike virtually every other serial killer film out at the time, Lee chose not to centre the action on the killer, but took the opportunity to use the film to examine the paranoia and mass-hysteria that gripped the city of New York as Berkowitz killing’s terrorised the city.

Where not to start?

Unbelievably for some, we’d advise that you don’t start with Malcolm X. This biopic of the hugely influential and controversial Black Nationalist leader, although gaining another two Oscar nominations and many other awards, secured more of its acclaim for Denzel Washington’s stunning performance than for Lee’s directorial work. In retrospect, the burden of responsibility weighed far too heavily on Lee’s shoulders.

Next Steps..

Do The Right Thing, Clockers, She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, Jungle Fever, Inside Man.