In Focus: Spike Lee

“That motherf—er was given a chance to say we are about love, not hate. And that motherf—er did not denounce the motherf—ing Klan, the alt-right and those Nazi motherf—ers,” Spike Lee said of Trump’s reaction to the far-right rally in Charlottesville, last summer, which led to the death of counter-protestor Heather Heyer. Yes, everyone knew Lee was back in Cannes. His latest film BlacKkKlansman won the Grand Prix and received an 8-minute long standing ovation from the crowd at the film festival. BlacKkKlansman has made Spike Lee once again the most political Afro-American director.

Equal Rights

Ever since his debut film She’s Gotta Have It (1985), Lee has been an advocate of equal rights for Afro-Americans. She’s Gotta Have It tells about an Afro-American woman fighting for her sexual being. The film is indeed a metaphor on equal rights and independence. The film was made with only 175.000 dollars budget and made over 7 million on the Box Office, instantly making Lee a highly acclaimed director. Last year, 33 years after the release of the original film, Netflix released a TV-series adaptation, produced by Spike Lee. It is prove of how urgent and appealing the film’s themes still are.

Lee’s next project, the documentary 4 Little Girls, earned him an Academy Award Nomination. The film shows how the murder of 4 little black girls affected the Civil Rights Movement. And even the videoclip of Michael Jackson’s song They Don’t Care About Us is all about activism.

A Spike Lee Joint

Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee’s third feature length film, is a political dilemma. Lee shows the contradictions in political convictions through several stereotypes. The views of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are combined with graphic and violent scenes. The beautifully shot film with its many long takes and odd camera positions is a sharp satire. The film is about brotherhood, prejudices and racism. Actors are looking straight into the camera and the film is energized by its editing. Through the years all these elements became very recognizable for a Spike Lee Joint.

Malcolm X

Malcolm X is probably Spike Lee’s best well-known and his most complete film. It delivers a well balanced view on the inspiring but also controversial figure Malcolm X (Denzel Washington), who became the foundation for the Black Power Movement. Again, Lee uses bright colors, complex camera movements and striking music. And just like Do The Right Thing the main characters are driven by anger, rage and hatred. But unlike that film, Malcolm X offers hope. In the final scene of the film, Nelson Mandela, at that time just released from prison, urges everyone to look for compassion and mutual respect. By Any Means Necessary.

When the Levees Broke

After She Hate Me failed at the Box Office, Lee was forced to direct a typical Studio Film. Inside Man, with Lee’s regular Denzel Washington, co-starring Willem Dafoe and Jodie Foster, is a safe heist movie, with no political agenda. But the film also allowed Lee to create a 4 hour and fifteen minute long documentary When The Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. The film shows the impact of hurricane Katrina on the lives of those who survived. Lee portrays people heavily criticizing The Administration, who, they believe, could have done so much more if only the lives of all the victims had mattered more to them.

Cinematic reputation

Lee has a tendency to react first and to think later. Like in 2012 when he used Twitter to spread the address of George Zimmerman, the man who shot unarmed high-school student Trayvon Martin in a gated community in Florida. However, Lee had used the wrong address and was forced to compensate the entirely innocent occupants who had fled their home. It’s this kind of activism that has led to a debate on how much Lee’s public opinion has undermined his cinematic reputation. BlacKkKlansman proves Lee is still on top of his league and one should not be surprised when this film will lead to his first Academy Award Nomination for Best Director.

Coen Haver studied Film and Theater Sciences at the University of Utrecht. He is director and producer and regularly hosts film courses.