ANYONE who’s followed filmmaker Spike Lee’s career might have guessed that he’d next train his lens on Hurricane Katrina and its political aftermath in a documentary for HBO. For two decades his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule, whose name echoes America’s broken promise to its black citizens after slavery, has plumbed the country’s racial divide that Katrina once again exposed.
“Spike Lee: That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It,” as told to British writer Kaleem Aftab, chronicles the director’s career and the development of 40 Acres, which was created to put African Americans “in front of and behind the camera as filmmakers.” An appendix lists the hundreds of black actors, cinematographers, directors, casting agents and designers for whom Lee has opened doors, including Academy Award winners Halle Berry, whose film debut was as a convincingly crusty crack addict in his 1991 interracial love story “Jungle Fever,” and Denzel Washington, whose first romantic lead role was in “Mo’ Better Blues,” Lee’s 1990 paean to jazz.
Lee single-handedly changed the face of the movie industry with “She’s Gotta Have It.” When this sex comedy opened in 1986, there had been few African American moviemakers. Oscar Micheaux -- who wrote, produced and directed more than 40 films in the early 20th century, including “Body and Soul” (1925), without studio backing -- and ‘70s blaxploitation directors Gordon Parks (“Shaft”) and Melvin Van Peebles (“Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”) are mere film history footnotes. Lee’s directorial debut, financed on a $175,000 shoestring, grossed $8 million -- a remarkable feat for an independent film, then and now, Aftab writes. But what turned heads was that “Spike Lee was black, and he had made a film about black people, starring black people, that played for black audiences.”
The book covers Lee’s early work as a graduate student at New York University, where he displayed the hallmarks of his burgeoning directorial style: “a propensity to make use of friends and family, a fascination with New York as a backdrop and a desire to tell stories from a black perspective.” Woven throughout the text are comments from filmmakers in 40 Acres’ black-pack collective, such as Ernest R. Dickerson, Samuel L. Jackson, Roger Guenveur Smith and sister Joie Lee. The strength of this memoir is its behind-the-scenes account of the cultural, political and personal events that have shaped Lee’s 18 feature films, from “She’s Gotta Have It,” featuring his basketball-loving, bad-boy alter ego Mars Blackmon, the cinematic embodiment of an emergent hip-hop aesthetic, to New York City’s tense, post-9/11 mood captured in the documentary “25th Hour.”
Lee’s first major films -- “She’s Gotta Have It,” “School Daze,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Mo’ Better Blues,” “Jungle Fever” and “Malcolm X” -- emerged like stair-step children in an astounding seven years, establishing him as a prolific director of incisive if incendiary social commentary. Overexposure was followed by a backlash just as his black-pack collective began moving into the mainstream, leaving Lee to flounder for several dodgy years with critical and box office disappointments like “Crooklyn” and “Clockers.” But perhaps marriage and fatherhood have grounded the director. In the last decade, Lee has returned to innovative form with the civil rights movement documentary “4 Little Girls,” the underrated media satire “Bamboozled” and his production of such lucrative projects as “The Original Kings of Comedy.” The late Ossie Davis, who reprised his eulogy for Malcolm X in Lee’s controversial epic about the slain black nationalist, told Aftab that the maturing director “is one of the few people who could have sat at the same table as Cecil B. De Mille, Samuel Goldwyn and Jack Warner -- all those guys who invented Hollywood.”
Born Shelton Jackson Lee, the director has institution-building and creative daring in his blood. His great-grandfather William Edwards Williams founded the Snow Hill Institute in Alabama, an industrial school for black children in the vein of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee University. And despite a tense relationship with his father, jazz purist Bill Lee, who played for Miles Davis and John Lee Hooker but languished in obscurity rather than compromise his music, the director seems to have inherited his sense of artistic integrity and autonomy.
The memoir’s subtitle suggests the quarrelsome persona Lee has cultivated. An auteur at heart, he has long rejected the Hollywood formula of “setup and payoff, conflict and resolution.” His scattered style of multiple, competing plots has been as disorienting to audiences as his signature rolling-dolly shot, and none of his films have been blockbuster successes. He candidly admits that his fame and growing fortune derive from secondary markets: merchandising, soundtracks, companion books, videos and commercials, not to mention teaching positions at Harvard University and his alma mater NYU. Remember the 1987 Mars Blackmon-Michael Jordan “It’s gotta be the shoes” ads that made Nike Air Jordans the most popular sneaker on the planet? “That’s when it really blew up,” he concedes. “That’s what really got my face known -- not ‘She’s Gotta Have It.’ ”
These other ventures give Lee “some major cushion if Hollywood gets tired of his methods or his mouth,” according to cultural critic Nelson George, and allow him to walk the tightrope between creative integrity and commercial success. Despite clear admiration for Lee’s oeuvre, Aftab also includes many critical voices, especially those who dislike his depiction of women -- such as the rape scene in “She’s Gotta Have It,” the male sexual fantasy disguised as female empowerment in “Girl 6" and the rank homophobia of “She Hate Me” (about a corporate exec who impregnates lesbians for cash). Interviews with actress Rosie Perez, Joie Lee and even his wife, Tonya Lewis, about this blind spot in Lee’s artistic vision are particularly revealing.
Narrative tangents and ambiguous endings, characteristic of Lee’s films, hamper this otherwise captivating memoir as well. Aftab has done such extensive interviewing and research that he often doesn’t know where to put it all. Swaths of transcripts appear wholly unintegrated; background stories overtake thematic threads. And it concludes with Lee’s open letter to his children: “I can’t wait to see what your intelligent minds will say about the many different films and subject matters.”
Lee maintains that his endings are born out of faith in the audience’s ability to synthesize subtexts and interpret his work for themselves. And whatever you think about his provocative style, politics and persona, after reading about his career and those of the African American artists he has nurtured, you may decide that not all of his greatest achievements have been behind the camera. *