The American cinematic landscape would be a lot more boring without Spike Lee, who’s made a career of stirring things up.
Over the last three decades, the 57-year-old African American filmmaker has never played it safe with his often controversial social-political dramas, comedies, musicals and historical documentaries that shine an unvarnished spotlight on race relations, relationships and class struggles.
Along the way he’s received two Oscar nominations and influenced and inspired a generation of young black filmmakers. Several of his films are part of the cultural lexicon, most notably “Do the Right Thing,” which came out 25 years ago. The vibrantly directed comedy-drama, set on a block in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood on the hottest day of the year, examines simmering racial tensions that eventually erupt into unrest.
Lee continues to be one of the most prolific filmmakers — rarely has a year passed without a release of the latest “Spike Lee Joint” film. Though critical and box-office reaction for his films have been mixed, he’s never stopped pushing the envelope.
“Spike’s always been a lightning rod,” said his brother, David C. Lee, who has worked as a unit photographer on his films. “I think he’s outspoken and has very strong opinions. If they don’t jive with everything that’s comfortable ... all the more reason why his words should be heard.”
Once considered an outsider, Lee is now part of the filmmaking establishment and a major celebrity in his own right. His work is the subject of a major new retrospective by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that kicks off Thursday and runs through the summer.
But if you think all of this has made Lee any less of a firebrand, think again. In a recent interview he was asked about the seeming proliferation of films by black filmmakers and about the black experience last year including “12 Years a Slave,” “Fruitvale Station” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” Did this represent a cultural shift?
Lee wasn’t buying it. He noted that there was a similar reaction after the 2002 Oscar ceremony when Denzel Washington won lead actor for “Training Day,” Halle Berry took home lead actress for “Monster’s Ball” and Sidney Poitier received an honorary Oscar.
“Every 10 years I get flooded by requests from the media to speak about this black renaissance in Hollywood,” he said. “I don’t do it because history has proved that this happens every 10 years and then there’s a nine-year drought.”
Last March, Lee attended the Oscars to show his support for “12 Years a Slave,” which became the first best picture winner directed by a black filmmaker. “I was very happy for Steve McQueen,” Lee said. “I wanted to be there because I knew it was going to be historic.”
The only way there’s going to be a shift in portrayal of minorities, Lee said, is to have people of color on the greenlight committees at major studios. “Until we are in those meetings, it’s going to be the same thing.”
‘He doesn’t sleep’
Besides his studio and independent movies, the Lee oeuvre includes commercials, music videos and even the opening to “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” He’s acted in several of his films, including as motor-mouth Mars Blackmon in “She’s Gotta Have It” and pizza delivery boy Mookie in “Do the Right Thing.”
How does he do it?
“He doesn’t sleep,” his brother said. “He’s a ridiculous workaholic. He juggles like, who knows, three or five balls up in the air. I don’t even know what he’s working on half the time.”
In 1983, Lee earned a Student Academy Award for his New York University thesis film, “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads.” Now the academy is celebrating the filmmaker with “By Any Means Necessary: A Spike Lee Joints Retrospective.”
“By Any Means Necessary,” which opens Thursday at the Linwood Dunn Theater with his 2002 drama “25th Hour,” is the first time the academy has presented a lengthy retrospective of an African American filmmaker. A sold-out cast and crew screening of “Do the Right Thing” is set for Friday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Bing Theater, with screenings of his films and documentaries scheduled for July 11-27 at the Bing and Linwood Dunn.
As a companion to the retrospective, the academy is presenting the exhibition “WAKE UP! David C. Lee Photographs the Films of Spike Lee” in the Linwood Dunn lobby.
Lee personally selected the films in the retrospective, which include his acclaimed 1986 indie debut, “She’s Gotta Have It,” 1992’s biopic “Malcolm X,” his 1997 Oscar-nominated documentary “4 Little Girls” and the 2006 thriller “Inside Man.”
“I’m elated that my brother David Lee, who has been shooting stills of my films since NYU Film School, is getting much deserved attention and the academy is getting a lot of us together who were instrumental in the success of ‘Do the Right Thing,’ ” Lee said at his agent’s office in Century City.
Lee is known to be contentious with reporters, but this afternoon he’s friendly, funny — and of course, unfiltered. For example, he said, he doesn’t believe that “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X” would be made by a studio today.
‘ “Do the Right Thing’ is a studio picture,” said Lee. “This is Universal Pictures. To this day, I will always give the love shout-out to my man Tom Pollock because Tom Pollock was the unsung hero of ‘Do the Right Thing.’ ”
The studio head was under tremendous pressure, said Lee, not to release the film, especially after several critics wrote that “Universal Pictures would be negligent if they released this film because this rabble-rouser Spike Lee is going to infuriate black people and make them riot across the country.”
Pollock stood his ground. “The only thing Tom Pollock said to me was, ‘Spike make the film you want, but it can’t be penny over budget.’ I just wish there were more executives [like that] who run studios today.”
Randy Haberkamp, the academy’s managing director for programming, education and preservation, said Lee is “singular in his tenacity. He is not somebody who repeats himself. ... It’s truly amazing the number of different types of films that he’s done and how they reflect a unique part of our culture.”
Lee has been outspoken critic of the academy over the years not only about diversity but best picture choices, making headlines a few years back when he said: “What film won Best Picture of 1989? ‘Driving Miss ... Daisy’! That’s why [Oscars] don’t matter. Because, 20 years later, who’s watching ‘Driving Miss Daisy’?”
The academy holds no grudges; in fact Haberkamp said it welcomes a discussion with Lee.
“There is need for change in the industry like there is need for change in society,” he said. “Film is a great catalyst for that, so the academy embraces the fact that we don’t know everything. Let’s watch your movie and talk about it.”
A big step toward more diversity in the academy, Lee said, came with the election last year of academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is African American. “I think she understands the academy, like the rest of the United States, has to advance with diversity,” he said.
Lee, who has taught directing at NYU for 15 years and is artistic director of the graduate film program, learned about crowd funding from his students who use Kickstarter, indiegogo and other sites to complete their student films. So he went the Kickstarter route, raising $1.4 million for a new film, “Da Blood of Jesus.”
Like Zach Braff, who used Kickstarter to fund his latest film, Lee ran into controversy because he was a well-established director. But for Lee, using Kickstarter was returning to his early days as a filmmaker when he personally raised the funds for “She’s Gotta Have It.”
Noted Lee: “We really don’t spend too much time worrying about what other people think.”
Which could be his mantra.
Spike Lee events
What: “By Any Means Necessary: A Spike Lee Joints Retrospective”
Where: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Bing Theater, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.; Linwood Dunn Theater, 1313 Vine St., Hollywood
When: “25th Hour,” 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Dunn; 25th anniversary screening and discussion of “Do the Right Thing,” 8:30 p.m. Friday at LACMA (stand-by only); retrospective continues July 11-July 27 at LACMA and the Dunn
Admission: $3 for student; $5 general admission
What: ‘WAKE UP! David C. Lee Photographs the Films of Spike Lee’
When: Thursday through Sept. 1 during public events at the Dunn