Influential Black Leaders - Spike Lee
Who Is Spike Lee?
Spike Lee was making amateur films by age 20 and won a Student Academy Award for his graduate thesis film. Lee drew attention with his first feature, She's Gotta Have It — one of the most profitable films made in 1986 — and continues to create films that explore provocative topics like race, politics and violence. He is also known for his documentaries and commercials. Lee won his first competitive Oscar in 2019, for the adapted screenplay for BlacKkKlansman.
Spike Lee was born Shelton Jackson Lee on March 20, 1957, in Atlanta, Georgia, and soon moved to Brooklyn, New York. Growing up in a relatively well-off African-American family, Lee was making amateur films by age 20. His first student film, Last Hustle in Brooklyn, was completed when he was an undergraduate at Morehouse College. Lee went on to graduate from the New York University Film School in 1982. His thesis film, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, won a Student Academy Award.
Cinematic Successes: 'She's Gotta Have It' and 'Do the Right Thing'
Lee became a director of promise with his first feature film, She's Gotta Have It, in 1986. The film was shot in two weeks and cost $175,000 to make, but grossed more than $7 million at the box office, making it one of the most profitable films created in 1986.
No stranger to controversy for certain provocative elements in both his films and public statements, Lee often takes a critical look at race relations, political issues and urban crime and violence. His 1989 film, Do the Right Thing, examined all of the above and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
'Malcolm X,' 'Mo Better Blues' and Commercials
Subsequent films, including Malcolm X, Mo' Better Blues, Summer of Sam and She Hate Me, continued to explore social and political issues. 4 Little Girls, a documentary about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1998.
In 2006, Lee directed and produced a four-hour documentary for television, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, about life in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He also did well at the box office that year with the crime caper Inside Man, starring Clive Owen, Jodie Foster and Denzel Washington.
Lee has also had success in directing television commercials, most famously opposite Michael Jordan in Nike's Air Jordan campaign. Other commercial clients include Converse, Taco Bell and Ben & Jerry's. His production company, 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks, is located in his childhood neighborhood of Fort Greene in Brooklyn.
Later Projects: 'Miracle at St. Anna' to 'Chi-Raq'
Lee's 2008 feature Miracle at St. Anna, about four African American soldiers trapped in an Italian village during World War II, was praised for bringing the oft-overlooked experience of Black infantrymen — known as Buffalo Soldiers — to the big screen. Lee followed with a variety of projects, including documentaries of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson and a remake of the Korean revenge film Oldboy. In 2012, he reprised his Do the Right Thing character of Mookie in Red Hook Summer.
Lee's 2015 film Chi-Raq, an adaptation of Aristophanes's Lysistrata set in modern-day Chicago, was the first feature produced by Amazon Studios. That year, the acclaimed filmmaker also received an honorary Oscar at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' annual Governors Awards.
In 2018, Lee again dove into the topic of race relations with BlacKkKlansman, the story of an African American detective's success at infiltrating the KKK in the 1970s. Released one day before the one-year anniversary of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the film closes with footage from Charlottesville. "That was one of the things we wanted to do, connect the past to the present," Lee said. "We did not want this to just be a history lesson. Even though it took place in the '70s, we still wanted it to be contemporary."
The film went on to garner an impressive six Academy Award nominations, landing the longtime filmmaker his first competitive Oscar win for Adapted Screenplay.
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