Spike Lee

Best known for such films as She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992), The Original Kings of Comedy (2000), 25th Hour (2002), Inside Man (2006), and Chi-Raq (2015).

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Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 20, 1957, the son of Jacqueline Carroll (née Shelton), a teacher of arts and black literature, and William James Edward Lee III, a jazz musician and composer. Lee also had three younger siblings Joie, David, and Cinqué, who all worked in many different positions in Lee’s films. Director Malcolm D. Lee is his cousin. When he was a child, the family moved to Brooklyn, New York. During his childhood, his mother nicknamed him “Spike”. In Brooklyn, he attended John Dewey High School.

Lee enrolled in Morehouse College, a historically black college, where he made his first student film, Last Hustle in Brooklyn. He took film courses at Clark Atlanta University and graduated with a BA in Mass Communication from Morehouse. He did graduate work at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts in Film & Television.

In 1991, Lee taught a course at Harvard about filmmaking and in 1993 he began to teach at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in the Graduate Film Program. It was there that he received his Master of Fine Arts and was appointed Artistic Director in 2002.

Lee’s independent film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, was the first student film to be showcased in Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films Festival.

In 1985, Lee began work on his first feature film, She’s Gotta Have It. With a budget of $175,000, he shot the film in two weeks. When the film was released in 1986, it grossed over $7,000,000 at the U.S. box office.

Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1989. Many people, including Hollywood’s Kim Basinger believed that Do the Right Thing also deserved a Best Picture nomination. Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture that year. Lee said in an April 7, 2006 interview with New York magazine that the other film’s success, which he thought was based on safe stereotypes, hurt him more than if his film had not been nominated for an award.

After the 1990 release of Mo’ Better Blues, Lee was accused of antisemitism by the Anti-Defamation League and several film critics. They criticized the characters of the club owners Josh and Moe Flatbush, described as “Shylocks”. Lee denied the charge, explaining that he wrote those characters in order to depict how black artists struggled against exploitation. Lee said that Lew Wasserman, Sidney Sheinberg or Tom Pollock, the Jewish heads of MCA and Universal Studios, were unlikely to allow antisemitic content in a film they produced. He said he could not make an antisemitic film because Jews run Hollywood, and “that’s a fact.”

His 1997 documentary 4 Little Girls, about the children killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, was nominated for the Best Feature Documentary Academy Award.

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On May 2, 2007, the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival honored Spike Lee with the San Francisco Film Society’s Directing Award. He received the 2008 Wexner Prize. In 2013, he won The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, one of the richest prizes in the American arts worth $300,000. In 2015, Lee received an Academy Honorary Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his contributions to film.

Lee’s films are typically referred to as “Spike Lee Joints” and the closing credits always end with the phrases “By Any Means Necessary”, “Ya Dig” and “Sho Nuff”.

In mid-1990, Levi’s began producing a series of TV commercials directed by Lee for their 501 button fly jeans.

Marketing executives from Nike offered Lee a job directing commercials for the company. They wanted to pair Lee’s character, the Michael Jordan-loving Mars Blackmon, and Jordan in a marketing campaign for the Air Jordan line. Later, Lee was called on to comment on the controversy surrounding the inner-city rash of violence involving youths trying to steal Air Jordans from other kids. He said that, rather than blaming manufacturers of apparel that gained popularity, “deal with the conditions that make a kid put so much importance on a pair of sneakers, a jacket and gold”.

Through the marketing wing of 40 Acres and a Mule, Lee has directed commercials for Converse, Jaguar, Taco Bell and Ben & Jerry’s.

Lee and his wife, attorney Tonya Lewis, had their first child, daughter Satchel, in December 1994. They also have a son, Jackson, born in 1997. Spike Lee is a fan of the New York Yankees, the New York Knicks, and the English football team Arsenal. One of the documentaries in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks, focuses partly on Lee’s interaction with Miller at Knicks games in Madison Square Garden.

While Lee continues to maintain an office in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, he and his wife live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Spike Lee’s directing credits include…

Year Movie
2016 Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall (Documentary)
2015 Kevon Carter: We Gotta Do Better (Video short)
2015 Chi-Raq
2014 Mo’ne Davis: I Throw Like a Girl (Documentary short)
2014 Jerrod Carmichael: Love at the Store (TV Special documentary)
2014 Katt Williams: Priceless: Afterlife (TV Special)
2014 Da Sweet Blood of Jesus
2014 Amex Unstaged Pharrell Williams Live at the Apollo (Video)
2013 Oldboy
2012 Bad 25 (Documentary)
2012 Red Hook Summer
2009 Passing Strange
2009 Kobe Doin’ Work (TV Movie documentary)
2008 Miracle at St. Anna
2007 Lovers & Haters (Short)
2007 M.O.N.Y. (TV Movie)
2006 Inside Man
2005 All the Invisible Children (segment “Jesus Children of America”)
2005 Jesus Children of America (Short)
2004 She Hate Me
2002 25th Hour
2002 Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet (segment “We Wuz Robbed”)
2002 Jim Brown: All American (TV Movie documentary)
2001 Come Rain or Come Shine (Documentary short)
2001 A Huey P. Newton Story (TV Movie documentary)
2000 Bamboozled
2000 The Original Kings of Comedy (Documentary)
2000 And Ya Don’t Stop: Hip Hop’s Greatest Videos, Vol. 1 (Video)
2000 Un matin partout dans le monde (TV Short)
1999 Pavarotti & Friends 99 for Guatemala and Kosovo (TV Movie documentary)
1999 Summer of Sam
1998 Freak (TV Special)
1998 He Got Game
1997 Michael Jackson: HIStory on Film — Volume II (Video documentary)
1997 4 Little Girls (Documentary)
1996 Get on the Bus
1996 Girl 6
1995 Lumière and Company (Documentary)
1995 Clockers
1994 Crooklyn
1992 Malcolm X
1991 Jungle Fever
1990 Mo’ Better Blues
1989 Do the Right Thing
1988 School Daze
1986 She’s Gotta Have It
1986 Horn of Plenty (TV Movie)
1983 Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads
1981 Sarah (Short)
1980 The Answer (Short)
1979 Last Hustle in Brooklyn (Short)

Memorable Quotes by Spike Lee

“I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to express the views of black people who otherwise don’t have access to power and the media. I have to take advantage of that while I’m still bankable.”

“What’s the difference between Hollywood characters and my characters? Mine are real.”

“Making films has got to be one of the hardest endeavors known to humankind. Straight up and down, film work is hard shit.”

“For me, a large part of Jungle Fever (1991) is about sexual mythology: the mythology of a white woman being on a pedestal, the universal standard of beauty, and the mythology about the black man as sexual stud with a ten-foot dick. Buying into the mythology is not a strong foundation for a relationship.”

“It has been my observation that parents kill more dreams than anybody.”

“I’ve been very fortunate. Some people might call me a hardhead, but I’m not going to let other people dictate to me who I should be or the stories I should tell. That doesn’t register with me.”

Things You May Not Know About Spike Lee

He’s a big New York Knicks fan: Has court side seats for all games. Partially responsible for the “off colored” baseball caps, as he started wearing a red Yankees cap during the 1996 World Series.

He has never learned how to drive a car.

When Norman Jewison was originally hired to direct Malcolm X (1992), Lee met with him and convinced him he needed to “sit this one out”. Feeling that only a black director was qualified and would bring the necessary perspective, Lee then stepped in as director with Jewison’s blessing.

One of his classmate at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts was director Ang Lee. The Taiwan-born Lee worked on the crew of Spike’s thesis film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983).

He is a big fan of musicals from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Lee’s favorite movie is The Deer Hunter (1978). It is the movie that inspired him to be a director.

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