Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

Newsmaker: Spike Lee

Angry, provocative and, above all, a cinematic genius, Spike Lee, who's become something of an unofficial spokesperson for the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, is in the news again this week for more positive reasons – namely the release of his Michael ­Jackson documentary, Journey from Motown to Off the Wall.

The documentary’s world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah comes just a week after the renowned film director slapped the face of the Academy of ­Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – who honoured him in ­November with a special award as a champion of independent film – by announcing to his 212,000 Instagram followers that he wouldn’t be at this year’s event.

“#OscarsSoWhite ... Again,” he wrote. “We cannot support it … how is it possible for the 2nd consecutive year all 20 contenders under the actor category are white?”

Dozens of actors and commentators clamoured to echo his thoughts, and the Academy jumped like it had been struck with a cattle prod. The board quickly announced it was taking action to make its governing bodies and voting members “significantly more ­diverse”.

The Academy president, ­Cheryl Boone Isaacs, said she was “heart-broken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion. This is a difficult but important ­conversation.”

Lee greeted the news graciously. After all, he’s been in the business of provoking difficult but important conversations for years. But he still wouldn’t be going to the Oscars. “My wife and I … we’re not going to change our decision,” he told the film-­industry website IMDB. “We took a moral stance.”

Lee's Jackson documentary – he says he has more planned about the music legend – casts the director in a new light, as an unabashed fan of the troubled star. "It was just a dream that I got to work with him before he left us in a physical sense," he told Vanity Fair this week.

Lee has had a continuing fascination with Jackson, and previously directed the video for the 1997 hit They Don't Care About Us, while his 2012 documentary Bad 25 looked at the legacy of the singer's 1987 album.

“This film is all about love ­toward Michael Joseph Jackson,” Lee told the Sundance audience.

The film explores Jackson’s evolution as an artist, and the perfectionist nature that fuelled his work ethic, but it has caused a little controversy of its own – both LaToya and Janet Jackson didn’t participate.

Lee was born Shelton Jackson Lee on March 20, 1957, in Atlanta, Georgia, though he and his family moved to Brooklyn, New York, when he was young.

His parents – his father Bill, a musician, and mother Jacquelyn, a teacher who died during her son’s second year at college – were comfortably middle-class, but Lee has never let his own privilege temper his indignation at the plight of African-Americans.

That indignation would find expression in his earliest work – but first he had to find his medium. Or rather, as he told Mediabistro in 2012: “Film found me”.

Having completed his sophomore year at Morehouse College, Atlanta, he returned to New York for the summer of 1977, looking for a holiday job. A friend lent him a Super 8 cine camera, and “with nothing to do … I spent the whole summer running round New York City filming stuff”.

That autumn, he transferred to Clark College, Atlanta, to pursue a major in mass communication. Producing his first short, he told a college audience in 2011, was “an epiphany … I found something I loved”.

His first film was The Answer, made in 1980 while studying at NYU film school. It was about a young black screenwriter hired by a major studio to remake D W Griffiths' 1915 film The Birth of a Nation – one of the most overtly racist films in the history of the cinema. Setting the tone for his career, it caused a controversy with the faculty, members of which ­venerated Griffiths as the father of modern cinema, and he narrowly escaped expulsion.

Lee's first feature film, and first hit, followed in 1986. She's Gotta Have It, a comedy, cost US$175,000, and took $7 million.

Lee also pulled off the extraordinary feat of trading up his Nike-­loving character in the film into a lucrative advertising deal with the sportswear company and the basketball star Michael Jordan.

He followed up in 1988 with School Daze, another comedy with himself in a starring role.

In 1989 came Do the Right Thing, the film that cemented Lee's fast-growing reputation for funny but edgy cinema with a social conscience. Focused on racial tensions in his own ­Brooklyn neighbourhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, it famously became the film that Barack and Michelle Obama saw on their first date. It also earned Lee his only Oscar nomination to date for a feature film, for Best Original ­Screenplay.

If there is a motive to Lee's work, it's the exposure of injustice and intolerance. The results haven't always been glowing, however. In 2013, Oldboy, a remake of a cult Korean revenge thriller, starring Josh Brolin, bombed badly. The following year, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, a low-budget remake of a 1970s black vampire film that Lee funded via Kickstarter, and distributed on Vimeo, was described by ­The Atlantic magazine as "an untethered, unsettling, and singular piece of work from an artist whose curiosity in exploring unfamiliar terrain has yet to recede".

Lee was most prolific and commercially successful in the 1990s, beginning a long, fruitful partnership with ­Denzel ­Washington with Mo' Better Blues in 1990. ­Almost annual releases followed for the rest of the decade, including Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), Get on the Bus (1996), He Got Game (1998) and Summer of Sam (1999).

In 1993, he married Tonya Lewis, the daughter of a high-­ranking cigarette-company executive, who was, in the words of New York magazine, a member of an elite "Blackristocracy … an ignored but not imaginary world, that Lewis Lee was raised in and her husband is new to". Their daughter, Satchel, was born in 1994, and is following in her father's filmmaking footsteps. Their son, tellingly named ­Jackson, was born in 1997.

This year, Lee released his first documentary, about the murder of four young black girls in the racist firebombing of a church in Alabama in 1963. The New York Times said 4 Little Girls was an "immensely dignified and moving reassessment of a terrorist crime", for which Lee became the first African-American to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary.

That was followed in 2006 by When the Levees Broke, his epic examination of the complacency of the government response to the devastation wrought by ­Hurricane Katrina on the black communities of New Orleans.

Lee, said The Washington Post review, was "a filmmaker that many love to hate or debate ... with the kind of audacity, idiosyncrasy and racial sensibility that some find overwrought".

But those same qualities also made him “that rare director who could absorb the Katrina disaster in all its human, racial and political dimensions and make it his solemn mission to create the authoritative historical documentary”.

The passions that drive Lee can also serve to alienate people. He is, as the comedian Chris Rock pointed out when he had him on his show in 1999, in the habit of “going off on one”.

“You’re an icon, Spike,” said Rock. “You make more movies than everybody else, you got courtside seats to the Knicks, you got the beautiful wife, the kids: so why are you so mad?”

Perhaps it’s because Lee thinks that he’s still “street”. In 2014, while speaking at a Black ­History Month event in Brooklyn, he launched into a rant against the “gentrification” of the city’s once poor, black-ghetto areas, perhaps forgetting he had long since moved to the Upper East Side.

The outburst, like so many others before and since, alienated fans and foes alike. “I like Spike,” posted one of the former, but his “compulsive contrarianism cripples his ability to reach people and persuade”.

Predictably, controversy followed the release of Lee's latest film, Chi-Raq, a powerful and satirical attack on black gun culture in Chicago, hailed by Variety as his "most vital movie in years". The film's title derives from the fact that more Americans have been killed in Chicago in the past 15 years than in Iraq and ­Afghanistan combined.

In December, he accused ­Chicago's mayor of trying to bully him into changing the film's title because it gave the city a bad name. "We started shooting Chi-Raq June 1," Lee countered. "We finished July 9. During that time, 331 people got wounded, 65 murdered … So what's there to argue?"

For Lee, it seems, plenty yet. “I’m going to try to work for as long as Akira Kurosawa did,” he said recently. “My hero.”

In a 57-year career, the Japanese filmmaker directed 30 films, including the classic Seven ­Samurai. By that benchmark, Lee has 27 years to go.

“I got a lot more stories, a lot more films, a lot more documentaries,” he has assured fans. “A lot more work.”

And perhaps because of, rather than despite, his assault on the Academy, a lot more Oscar nominations will follow, too.


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