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Spike Lee

(b. 1957) American film director

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(b. 1957), film director, writer, and actor.

Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee grew up in Brooklyn and earned degrees at Morehouse College (1979) and New York University (1983) before embarking on a career as perhaps the most celebrated and accomplished African American filmmaker. Aside from his major films, Lee has also made music videos (for such artists as Miles Davis, Anita Baker, and Public Enemy), and television commercials; he produced, for example, campaign advertisements for Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential bid. An actor as well as a director, Lee has become a major, outspoken public and political figure. Much of his work is politically inflected, provocative, and often controversial, and treats issues of identity and community that resonate throughout African American literature.

Several of Lee's films deal with questions and dilemmas surrounding African American identity, gender, and class. His first full-length release, She's Gotta Have It (1986), about an African American woman and her three very different lovers, earned him the Prix de Jeunesse at the Cannes Film Festival. The film features innovative narrative techniques and begins Lee's exploration of the possibilities of African American male identity. His second film, School Daze (1988), a musical set in an all-black college, explores questions of color and class lines, as well as sexism, within the African American community. In Mo'Better Blues (1990), a jazz musician must choose between two women, and ultimately between his music and fatherhood. Jungle Fever (1991) addresses interracial romance and drug addiction and their effects on the black communities. Clockers (1995) challenges “gangsta” stereotypes, complicating received narratives of African American poverty and violence.

Lee may be best known for his more broadly political films, Do the Right Thing (1989) and Malcolm X (1992). The first, a dramatization of complex racial tensions and conflicts in Brooklyn, focuses on the efficacy (and risks) of violence as a response to racism or oppression. Lee situates the film's point of view between the proactive black nationalism of Malcolm X and the nonviolent philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., quoting from both at the film's end, choosing neither (or both). In his epic treatment of Malcolm X's life, based on Alex Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), Lee traces Malcolm's political trajectory, including his pilgrimage to Mecca and his split with the Nation of Islam, and presents Malcolm X's legacy as a living symbol of African American struggle. The film, however, raised controversy about what some, including Amiri Baraka, considered the commercialization of Malcolm's image.

Lee often appears in his own films and commercials (though sometimes as minor characters). The resultant blurring of Lee's public persona with his fictional characters makes him appear more personally implicated in his films than many directors and recalls the similarly ambiguous positioning of the author/ narrator in many African American novels, beginning with William Wells Brown's Clotel (1853). In fact, two of his films— School Daze and 1994's Crooklyn, an episodic, nostalgic portrayal of Lee's Brooklyn childhood—have autobiographical origins. Lee's work thus evokes both the importance of autobiography as well as the tension between the personal and the political in African American literature.


Subjects: Literature

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