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December 2001
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"Not all my critics are white."

Spike Lee

Real Name: Shelton Jackson Lee
Born: 20 March 1957
Birthplace: Atlanta, Georgia
Spouse/Dating: Tonya Linette Lewis; married October 2, 1993
Family: Daughter: Satchel; born December 2, 1994; Son: Jackson Lewis; born May 23, 1997; Father: William Lee, composer, bassist, also graduated Morehouse College, Atlanta, married second wife, Susan Kaplan after Jacquelyn Lee's death; Mother: Jacquelyn Lee, former art and African-American literature teacher; died in 1977; Brother: Chris, born in 1958; in charge of merchandising movie memorabilia at Spike's Joint (Spike Lee's Brooklyn store); Brother: David; born in 1960; documentary photographer; served as still photographer on several of Spike's films; Sister: Joie (aka Joy), actress; born in 1963; appeared in several Spike Lee films; Brother: Cinque; born in 1968; actor; Half-brother: Arnold Lee, born in 1985
Education: John Dewey High School, Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York (1975); Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia (BA, Communications); Institute of Film and Television, New York University, New York, New York
Sign: Pieces

Awards Include:
1997: Golden Satellite: Best Documentary: Four Little Girls
1997: Broadcast Film Critics Association: Best Documentary, Four Little Girls
1995: HBO: Real Sports "John Thompson"
1990: Chicago Film Festival Critics: Best Director, Do the Right Thing
1990: Chicago Film Festival Critics: Best Picture, Do the Right Thing
1989: Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Director, Do the Right Thing
1989: Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Film, Do the Right Thing; award shared with coproducer Monty Ross
1986: Independent Spirit: Best First Feature, She's Gotta Have It
1986: Los Angeles Film Critics Association: New Generation Award, She's Gotta Have It
1986: Cannes Film Festival: Best New Director, She's Gotta Have It
1983: Student Academy Award: Joe's Bed Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads

Film/Acting Credits Include:
2002: Blues, The (TV) (Director)
2001: 3 A.M...Filmmaker (Producer)
2001: Huey P. Newton Story, A (TV) (Director)
2000: Bamboozled (Director/Producer/Writer)
2000: Original Kings of Comedy, The (Director/Producer)
2000: Love & Basketball (Producer)
2000: Famous ...Himself
2000: Michael Jordan to the Max ...Himself
1999: Best Man, The (Producer)
1999: Film-Fest DVD: Issue 2 - Cannes ...Himself
1999: Summer of Sam ...Reporter John Jeffries (Director/Producer/Writer)
1998: Freak (TV) (Director)
1998: He Got Game (Director/Producer/Writer)
1997: 4 Little Girls …voice Interviewer (Director/Producer)
1996: Get on the Bus (Director/Executive Producer)
1996: When We Were Kings ...Himself
1996: Girl 6 ...Jimmy (Director/Producer)
1995: Tales from the Hood (Executive Producer)
1995: New Jersey Drive (Executive Producer)
1995: Lumière et compagnie ...Himself (segment "Sarah Moon") (Director)
1995: Clockers ...Chucky (Producer/Writer)
1994: Century of Cinema, A ...Himself
1994: Crooklyn ...Snuffy (Director/Producer/Writer)
1994: Drop Squad ...Himself (Producer)
1994: Hoop Dreams ...Himself
1993: Last Party, The ...Himself
1993: Seven Songs for Malcolm X
1992: Our Hollywood Education ...Himself
1992: Malcolm X ...Shorty (Director/Producer/Writer)
1992: 64th Annual Academy Awards, The (TV) ...Presenter
1991: Jungle Fever ...Cyrus (Director/Producer/Writer)
1991: Lonely in America ...Himself
1990: Mo' Better Blues ...Giant the Band Manager (Director/Producer/Writer)
1989: Decade ...Interviewee
1989: Making 'Do the Right Thing' (TV) ...Himself
1989: Do the Right Thing ...Mookie (Director/Producer/Writer)
1988: School Daze ...Half-Pint (Director/Producer/Writer)
1986: She's Gotta Have It ...Mars Blackmon (Director/Producer/Writer)
1983: Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (Director/Producer/Writer)
1981: Sarah (Director)
1980: Answer, The (Director)
1977: Last Hustle in Brooklyn (Director)

1995: NY Times
1995: Nike: Pick-Up Game
1995: Taco Bell: Shaquille O'Neal & Hakeem Olajowon
1995: Nike: Mike & Spike
1995: American Express: Charge Against Hunger
1994: Smooth Ice Cream: Ben & Jerry's
1993: Mascot: ESPN 2
1993: Tucked -- ESPN
1993: 3 Point Line: ESPN 2
1993: DORM 1-800-OPERATOR: AT&T
1993: Girls Night Out: AT&T
1992: Urban Jungle Gym: Nike
1991: Is It Da' Shoes Air Jordan: Nike
1991: Levi's 501: Butterfly Jeans Series
1991: En Vogue: DIET COKE
1991: Genie/ Air Jordan: Nike
1991: Stay In School/ Air Jordan: Nike
1991: Flight School/ Air Jordan: Nike
1990: Levi's Button Fly Jeans Series: Levi's
1990: Opinions/ Air Jordan: Nike
1989: Rappin/Air Jordan: Nike
1989: Can...Can't /Air Jordan: Nike
1989: Nola Air Jordan: Nike
1988: Hang Time/ Air Jordan: Nike
1988: Cover/ Air Jordan: Nike
1988: Charles Barkely: Nike
1988: Jesse Jackson Drugs: New York State Primary

1993: By Any Means Necessary: The Trials And Tribulations Of Making Malcolm X
1992: 5 For 5
1991: Mo' Better Blues
1990: Do The Right Thing: A Spike Lee Joint
1989: Uplift the Race: The Construction Of School Daze
1988: Spike Lee's Gotta Have It: Inside Guerrilla Filmmaking

Spike Lee considers himself fortunate to be the offspring of creative parents, though he didn't know it and resisted their encouragement in his youth.

Born Shelton Jackson Lee, the family only spent a year in Lee's birth place of Atlanta before moving to Chicago for a year. At age two, the family finally settled in the Crown Heights neighborhood of New York City and then on Warren Street in the Cobble Hill neighborhood. When asked how he got his nickname "Spike," Lee is quick to admit his mother gave it to him at an early age because as he puts it "I was a tough baby."

"My father is Bill Lee the jazz bassist, and I grew up with him taking me to clubs in the Village. My mother taught literature and art at St. Ann's in Brooklyn Heights. We were raised, all my siblings, in a very creative environment. We were not discouraged from the arts, " he recalls, though he also recalls times when his mother had to drag Lee kicking and screaming to see broadway plays as early as age four or five. While his mother dragged him to the theater, his father,

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Spike Lee (cont.)

who was playing with Peter, Paul and Mary as well as Odetta, took him to the Newport Jazz Festival and other music venues on a regular basis. "Now I see that if my parents didn't insist on it, I'd have not become a film maker," he says.

Lee says that his parents encouraged all their children to excel in academics and that there was nothing effeminate or uncool about knowing how to read or be an intelligent human being. A fact he is proud of and says does not seem to be the case among today's young people. He says today if you are smart or get straight A's or speak correct English you're seen as a sell-out. Which he feels is unfortunate because it means ignorance is being championed over intelligence.

About his early artistic life, Lee explains, "I did not see a film when I was four years old and decide that was what I wanted to do. Instead, growing up in Brooklyn, we went to matinees regularly, sat through the film six times every Saturday, drank all the Coca Cola we could drink, ate all the popcorn we could eat, threw stuff at the screen, and just tried not to get thrown out. I never knew that people actually made movies. We just went there, the projector was turned on and stuff was on the screen."

Actually, while growing up, Lee wanted to be a professional athlete, with a dream of playing second base for the New York Mets. But genetics conspired against the diminutive Lee, and when he eventually arrived at Morehouse College (both his father and grandfather graduated from Morehouse) he still had no clear idea of what he wanted to do. He chose mass communications as a major because, he says "At the time I had exhausted all my electives and they told me I had to choose a major," he says with a grin.

While in college, Lee admits his mother often sent his letters home back to him. When asked why his mother would commit such a seemingly heartless act, he says with fondness, "Because my grammar was horrible." He admits he got his letters back corrected in red ink. Unfortunately, his mother died when he was a sophomore in college.

When talking about college, Lee thanks his grandmother Ziny who was an art teacher. He says she paid for his education both at Morehouse and NYU and even invested in his early films, money she saved just from her social security checks and invested in her belief in her grandson. He says his grandmother worked fifty years as an art teacher.

In the summer of 1977, which was also the summer of the blackout in New York City, Spike couldn't find a summer job so he bought a Super 8 camera and went around New York City that whole summer, "Just shooting stuff," as he describes it. "It was also the first summer of disco and dance the hustle," Lee says. "People were having these block parties all around the city. My first film was a Super 8 film called "Last Hustle in Brooklyn," which was really like a highlight film of Black people and Puerto Rican people looting and dancing amid the blackout. When school began I showed it to my class and I got a favorable response. That's a great feeling, the initial time a thing happens and people respond to it."

Upon graduation from Morehouse, Lee felt he still did not have the necessary tools to be a filmmaker. He wanted to learn more about film grammar; where you put the camera, how you tell a story, etc; so he applied to the top three film schools - USC, UCLA and NYU. "Unfortunately for me," Lee recalls, "USC and UCLA required an astronomical score on the GRE, (and I still feel a lot of those standardized tests are culturally biased). But, luckily for NYU, you didn't have to take a test. All you had to do was submit a creative portfolio, and I was accepted."

For the next three years, all Lee did was make films. "We spent very little time in the classroom," he says. And when he wasn't working on his own films he was busy helping on the films of classmates.

He admits he was lucky at NYU by hooking up with fellow student Earnest Dickerson. Both their parents had told them that to be successful they would have to be five or six times better than their fellow white students and the two young men hit it off early in their academic careers at NYU. Lee says Dickerson was the best cinematographer at NYU and everyone wanted him to shoot their films. Lee admits he was fortunate in that Dickerson agreed to shoot all his films at NYU.

"That's where I became a filmmaker -- by just actually doing stuff. I really believe that, if you want to do something, you have to do it. If you want to be a writer, you've got to write, if you want to be a filmmaker, you have to make films."

Lee's thesis film at NYU was a film called Joe's "Bed-Stuy Barbershop." It won a student Academy Award, and with that meager acclaim, he was able to secure an agent from William Morris.

"I was very new to the game. My agent said 'Look Spike, just leave everything up to me, I know how to handle the studios. Just sit back and wait by the phone.' So I waited by the phone, and waited by the phone." After a long wait, he finally got up the nerve to ask his agent what was up. The agent said "Look, just take a chill pill, I know what I'm doing. Just wait by the phone." So Lee continued waiting by the phone, then waited some more, and kept waiting until Ma Bell finally turned the phone off. Brooklyn Union Gas soon followed Ma Bell's lead and Lee was left with the realization that traditional methods to filmdom weren't opening any doors for him. If he ever hoped to become a film maker, he decided it would require alternative approach.

Lee decided to do his own independent film from a script he wrote titled "Messenger."

"I got involved with some bogus producer who said he was going to deliver on the financing of the film," he says. Unfortunately, after six weeks of shooting, with friends and former classmates who had joined the project waiting to be paid, the financing never came through and the project folded with no one getting paid.

"As you might imagine, my name was mud, and rightfully so." Lee winces at the memory.

But then came a critical moment in the future of Spike Lee the film maker. He was staying with his uncle Cliff and one dejected night in his uncle's bath tub Lee recalls, "I ran the water in the bath tub and then let all the water drain out and then I started to cry. I was sitting there wrinkled like a raisin and I was ready to quit. But then I said 'Well, I'm not going to quit. I'm going to give it one more shot.'"

And so Lee decided to try again. But before filming his next endeavor, he took time to completely re-evaluate where he went wrong on his first attempt. "In retrospect," he says, "I saw that I committed several key errors all first-time filmmakers do. I tried to be over-ambititious, tried to do stuff that was beyond my means – like a helicopter shot. All types of stuff. And I definitely didn't have the means to raise the kind of money the script required. So I said to myself, the next script I write I'm not going to make those same mistakes. I'm going to write a script that I can do."

His next script required little more than two or three people. He shot it on Super 16 black and white film and kept both production and scenery to a minimum. He also finished shooting in just 12 days. Despite his bankrupted first attempt, he managed to raise $175,000 to make his second film. "That was the hardest money I ever had to try and raise. It was a struggle," he says in retrospect. That film later became known to audiences as "She's Gotta Have It," and went on to eventually return $81/2 million on its initial investment. "And that's when agents really began to call," Lee remembers. But there would be no more agents for film maker Spike Lee until "Malcolm X" years later.

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Spike Lee (cont.)

When it comes to being in "She's Gotta Have It," and the creativeness of the film, Lee says it was all about money. "When you’re a young film maker and you don't have resources," he explains, "you have to turn negatives into positives. So, we had to figure out ways to get around the fact that we didn't have any money. And I work cheap, especially for myself."

Two young men at Wyden Kennedy named Jim Griswold and Bill Davenport saw "She's Gotta Have It" and came up with the idea of pairing Mars Blackmon, the b-ball character Lee played in the film, with Michael Jordan. When the two men called Lee with their idea, he immediately wanted to do it, but the project was really left up to MJ. And at that time the superstar was no movie goer, let alone ever having heard of a young director named Spike Lee.

"Michael Jordan is the reason I've done so many commercials, why I've been able to do commercials," Lee says in attributing the beginings of his TV commercial shoots. "Michael could easily have gotten his own hotshot guy on Madison Avenue, but Mike said 'let me give this young Black filmmaker a chance'. Mike was the one who really hooked me up with commercials. It was a complete accident that I got into commercials. I had no idea that the character of Mars Blackmon would lead to the campaign that Michael and I did for six or seven years for Nike."

After Nike, Lee also became well-known for commercials for Levi's Button-Fly 501, AT&T, ESPN, and a Ben & Jerry commercial which features commercials, among countless others.

When it comes to creative control of his film projects, Lee admits he's had the freedom to do much of what he wants in films, even though he does recognize that film making must still be a collaborative process.

"Because I started out as an independent filmmaker with "She's Gotta Have," I didn't have a studio behind me telling me what to do. Because I raised the money myself, I had final say. And, once that film became a hit I was able to set a precedent so that from then on I've been able to have creative control. Basically, I've never really had any struggles with studios telling me what to do, I've been very fortunate. The one time when I really had a scrape was on Malcolm X. We had a big row with Warner Brothers who did not want a three hour plus film (which is the time Lee felt the movie needed).

"Since I had final cut there was really nothing they could do legally - but since we were over budget, they let the bond company take over the movie and threatened to cut off all financing for the film. That was one of the worst periods I had in my life. We had finished shooting the film, when everyone on the post-production staff, including my editing staff, each received a Federal Express letter telling them they had all been fired. There was no more financing for the film, and I didn't have the money to finish it."

But in doing his research on Malcolm, one of the things Lee remembered Malcolm talking about was self-reliance -- African Americans not expecting others to bail them out. So taking a lesson from Malcolm, Lee made a list of prominent African Americans who had significant bank accounts.

"My first call," he recalls, "was to Bill Cosby. He said "Spike, How much do you need?" My next call was to Oprah Winfrey. I told her the predicament we were in, and she said 'How much do you need Spike?' and she wrote a check. Then I called Magic Johnson, and Magic came through. Then I called Michael Jordan, and told him what Magic gave, and he came through. Then I called Tracy Chapman, the-artist-formally-known-as-Prince, Janet Jackson and others -- all of these people came through and wrote checks. Checks they knew they could not use as a tax write-off, just so we could get the film into the theaters the way we wanted to. They all came through. On Malcom X's birthday we gave a press conference to tell the world where all this money had come from and miraculously, the next day, Warner Brothers said 'Okay, we'll start funding you again.'"

In addition to his achievements in feature films and commercials, Lee has also produced had directed numerous music videos for such diverse artists as Miles Davis, Tracy Chapman, Anita Baker, Public Enemy, Bruce Hornsby, Phyliss Hyman, Naughty by Nature, and Arrested Development. He has also directed several Art Spot Shorts for MTV and a short film featuring Branford Marsalis and Diahane Abbott for Saturday Night Live.

"I really don't make a separation between film and commercials and music videos," Lee explains about his diversity. "To me they all come under the heading of cinema because I try to have a narrative in all three. The only difference is that with commericals you've got thirty seconds, with music videos you have four minutes, and with movies you got three hours - if you're lucky. The real difference is that with movies I have total creative control, it's not like that on commercials, and sometimes not with music videos either - depending upon who the artist is."

On casting his films and the many breaks his films have given to new stars, Lee says, "I think that each film dictates who should be cast. But at the same time, I think about casting movies the same way the great General Managers think when they put together a ball club. You have to have the right mix of youth and experience, because the two feed off of each other and enhance each other. If you go too young, that could be too much like school where you have to learn too much on the job. If you use veterans all the time, they could be too stodgy or set in their ways."

On writing his films Lee says he writes for two hours in the mornings on three ring binder paper and he does a lot of rewriting. But he admits that most of his rewrites come during the filming of his movies. "You can write something that reads great on paper," he says, "but you really don't know if it's any good until you hear actors say the words."

Lee says as a creative person, one should always be learning. In the making of "Four Little Girls" Lee says one of the most amazing things he learned, not as a film maker, but as a human being, was that not one of the families of the four young victims held any hatred in their hearts over the incident. Anger, yes. But no hatred. He says it was a true learning experience.

Over the years, Lee has made it his mission to provide work and apprenticeship to young African-Americans trying to break into film. He calls it the "demystification of film." His efforts have helped many young people enter the film business. But this is a side to Lee many people never see, what with news media variously reporting him as angry, controversial, a maverick, and even racsist which Lee says are all unfortunate misconceptions people have about him. And when it comes to reviews of Spike Lee films, often times a movie review is more about Spike Lee than the film in question. A fact not lost on Lee when he says, "A lot of the time I'm just amazed when I read these reviews of my work, and the review isn't really about the work. Whether you feel I should be quiet at a Knicks game has nothing to do with the film that's up on the screen. I'm amazed at how often the work is never discussed."

But however the media and others want to label him, Spike Lee is still undeniably one of the most gifted and giving, most sought after and most prolific film makers in America today. In addition to his "40 Acres and a Mule" studio, Lee has also created two retail companies and has written a number of books. In light of his many and varied accomplishments, a more apt title that the media has overlooked may be "modern renaissance man."