I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

I Wanna Be Like Spike: 30 Years with Spike Lee

by Anthony Galli
Nov. 30, 2012

Whatever personal opinion one may have of Spike Lee, there are two salient facts about the man that even the most vehement naysayer will have to concede; (1) Spike Lee is among the greatest American filmmakers working today, and (2) Spike Lee has always been, and continues to remain, one busy cat.

For example, on January 30th of this year, Lee began hosting his own bi-weekly SiriusXM NBA radio broadcast, Spike Lee’s Best Seat in the House. While Best Seat will focus on Lee’s beloved New York Knicks, and other reverberations from the sports world that garner his attention, he will also be hosting a different bi-weekly information and entertainment interview show on the same network (name and date to be determined). Later this year, Lee is slated to direct Justin Timberlake as Casablanca Records co-founder Neil Bogart in Spinning Gold. And, if all of this activity were not enough, Lee created the opening New York credits for the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, which debuted February17, 2014 on NBC.

Currently, Spike is in post-production for his next film Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. Taking advantage of social media networking, he financed this film, as well as his last Spike Lee Joint, Red Hook Summer (2012), through Kickstarter, a crowd funding website that allows fans to donate money to artists’ projects. Kickstarter has recently become a popular source for alternative funding for artists, and although it is intended for independent artists who would probably be unable to find proper funding elsewhere, it has been utilized by such recognized filmmakers as Zac Braff, Paul Schrader, and animator John Kricfalusi.

Through instinct and innovation, Lee has managed to maneuver gracefully between his independent ventures and his studio-financed commercial productions throughout his 30+ year career, and, as he told Bloomberg News television host Trish Regan, he was doing Kickstarter long before it was even invented.

Lee has also taken the Kickstarter platform one step further for Da Sweet Blood of Jesus by soliciting original musical numbers from his fans for the film. Yes, even you can have your song in a Spike Lee Joint.

Although Spike’s 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It brought him to the attention of the moviegoing public, or, at least, the hip moviegoing public, it was his bespectacled alter ego Mars Blackmon that took the country by storm and catapulted Lee to mainstream success in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Lee’s prominent use of the Air Jordan sneaker in She’s Gotta Have It caught the eyes of Nike’s advertising agency, who offered Lee the opportunity to star in and direct commercial spots for the shoe. The marketing campaign, featuring Michael Jordan and Spike Lee as Mars Blackmon, is considered to be one of the most effective media strategies in advertising history.

The Air Jordan television spots worked on a number of levels and accomplished numerous things for all involved; they made the sneaker one of the most desired, and top selling, brands in the world, they helped elevate Michael Jordan, already an acknowledged basketball superstar, to the status of sports legend, and they made Spike Lee a household name. Lee has recounted how, at the time he was hired by Nike, he was still a relatively unknown filmmaker who could have been rejected by Michael Jordan had Jordan felt uncomfortable trusting a novice to represent his brand.

And think about it---how many film directors are allowed to carry large supporting roles in their own films, as well as infiltrate the mainstream, commercial marketplace on television? How many film directors have the type of face recognition with the general, non-moviegoing, public that Spike Lee has maintained throughout his career?

By the time Lee released his undisputed and iconic masterpiece Do the Right Thing in 1989, he had moved from being a revolutionary force in filmmaking to being a prescient social critic. With only a $6 million budget, the film grossed over $37 million at the box office worldwide, and paved the way for further Spike Lee classics, such as Malcom X, Jungle Fever, and Mo’ Better Blues, to name but a few.

The list of formidable acting talent that Lee has cast in his films is nothing short of remarkable, with Denzel Washington, John Turturro, Ossie Davis, Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe, Kerry Washington, Rosario Dawson, Paul Mooney, Harvey Keitel, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laurence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson, and hundreds more appearing, some on numerous occasions, in Spike Lee Joints through the years.

Lee has also turned his hand to documentary filmmaking on several occasions, with the epic examinations of Hurricane Katrina When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts and If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise for HBO, as well as the comprehensive Michael Jackson retrospective Bad 25, and the one-man Broadway production of Mike Tyson: The Undisputed Truth. The filmmaker has also documented the lives of football’s Jim Brown (Jim Brown: All American), basketball’s Kobe Bryant (Kobe Doin' Work), and Black Panther Founder Huey Newton (A Huey P. Newton Story).

Although many people recognize much of Lee’s work as largely based in social critique and/or comedy, he has produced films in a wide variety of genres, including Nazi fighting WWII murder mystery (Miracle at St. Anna), reinterpreted South Korean manga mystery (Oldboy), old fashioned bank heist crime thriller (Inside Man), and New York City drug dealer cop drama by the guy who wrote the novel The Wanderers and Michael Jackson’s Bad video (Clockers).

It seems, at times, that Spike Lee’s fiercest critics insist on painting him into a corner that the man himself has refused to acknowledge throughout the three decades of his career. He has the ability to piss people off with the most offhand statement, and he has never shied away from giving his honest, painful opinion when a point he is making needs to be absolutely clear.

Similarly, it is difficult to find a journalistic profile of Lee that doesn’t transform from an uninformed interrogation into an unrestrained personal attack. It seems that journalists have always expected to find a jovial Mars Blackmon, trapped in 1986, when they arrive to interview Spike Lee. Instead, they find an artist embroiled in many different simultaneous projects without patience for unqualified interviewers arriving with a predetermined personal agenda, making assumptions that have nothing to do with Lee’s exceptional career, but more with their own opinions and biases.

However, Spike Lee does dress funny, sometimes.

Ya-Dig? Sho-Nuff.

Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.