He's created some of the greatest films of the past 35 years and is a current awards contender for his searing "Da 5 Bloods." We highlight and celebrate today's Black History Month icon, filmmaker Spike Lee.
How You Know Him
His Vietnam War epic about vets seeking out lost treasure and commemorating their fallen soldier and friend, "Da 5 Bloods," has been a critics awards favorite this season. In 2018, his "BlacKkKlansman" won Lee his first Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. He is the director of the seminal films "Do the Right Thing" and "Malcolm X," critically acclaimed fare like "25th Hour," "Chi-raq" and "Inside Man" and countless other motion pictures.
He also directed the important documentary "4 Little Girls" about the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Birmingham in 1963 that claimed the lives of four African American girls, and 2000's documentary "The Original Kings of Comedy" starring comedians Bernie Mac, D.L. Hughley, Steve Harvey and Cedric the Entertainer.
Their Life So Far
Lee was born in Atlanta, Georgia, but grew up in Brooklyn, New York. His mom Jacqueline was a teacher of Black literature, and his dad William James was a jazz musician and composer. All of his younger siblings – Joie, David and Cinque – have worked on Spike's films, and his cousin Malcolm D. Lee is also a director ("Undercover Brother," "Soul Men").
Lee attended Morehouse College and received his degree in mass communication. He later attended NYU and earned his master's degree in film and television. He taught a course in filmmaking at Harvard in 1991 and is currently a tenured professor at NYU.
Lee's first film was 1986's black and white "She's Gotta Have It," about a Black woman juggling three different relationships. It was well-received, as was his follow-up, 1988's "School Daze," a musical comedy drama about a fraternity and sorority clashing during homecoming weekend.
The director's breakthrough film, and perhaps still his best work, was 1989's "Do the Right Thing," a comedy drama that tells of the conflicts that escalate on the hottest day of the summer in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn. Racial tensions reach a boiling point and explode in a clash that still reverberates through to our current era and issues of racism and police brutality.
Spike followed up "Do the Right Thing" with "Mo' Better Blues" (1990), a musical comedy drama about a jazz trumpeter that was his first collaboration with Denzel Washington, and "Jungle Fever" (1991) with Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra, about interracial relationships.
In 1992, Lee collaborated with Denzel once more for the epic "Malcolm X," one of the best biopics in modern cinema, and a highpoint in both men's careers. The film covers many stages in the activist's life, from his early criminal days to his incarceration, his conversion to Islam, his later days as an activist, and some of the changes in his philosophy before he was assassinated. It is a powerful work, worth watching and rewatching.
Throughout the '90s, Lee added to the diversity of his work, directing straight up genre fare like the cops and criminals flick "Clockers" to the romance thriller black comedy "Girl 6" to the Million Man March drama "Get on the Bus." He and Denzel teamed up again for the sports drama "He Got Game," and Lee depicted the season of David Berkowitz's reign of terror in "Summer of Sam."
In the new millennium, Lee's continued to show off his chops with genre fare like the Denzel-Jodie Foster bank heist thriller "Inside Man" and the musical comedy drama "Chi-Raq" and has experienced a career resurgence with his latest projects "BlacKkKlansman" in 2018 (starring Denzel's son John David Washington) and 2020's "Da 5 Bloods."
The Movie to Watch
Movie fans should take a look back at "Do the Right Thing." It is one of the best and most important films of the past four decades. It is completely, eerily relevant to the events of the last year, and highlights how different groups of people come into conflict, especially as the temperature literally and figuratively rises. The characters in "Do the Right Thing" are funny, loving, passionate and real – they are us. Spike Lee keeps things moving fast in the movie, and the conclusion, if not inevitable, is unfortunately predictable, given the heat and the rhetoric. If it is true that we can only change if we remember our past, then watching this film is critical.
What's Up Next
No film has been announced yet for what's next for Spike Lee, but that's o.k. It's more time for movie fans to check out "Da 5 Bloods," which finds the filmmaker in top form with an amazing cast, especially excellent work from lead Delroy Lindo, and a graceful performance from the late, irreplaceable Chadwick Boseman.
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Chuck is an editor/writer who's worked for NCM, Fandango, Movies.com, MediaTrip, Hollywood.com and Newsweek. His favorite movie is "Jaws." He's definitely a dog guy.