Producer, director, writer and actor Spike Lee creates controversial films that explore race relations, political issues and urban crime and violence. His films include She's Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing.
Actor, director, producer and writer 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.
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.
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.
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. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Miracle at St. Anna “shows what happens when a film's execution does not measure up to its ideas.”
Lee followed with a variety of projects, including documentaries of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan 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, including for Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay.
March 20, 1957
- Lee named his production company “40 Acres and a Mule” after a promise made during the Civil War that freed slaves would be granted the aforementioned compensation. This promise sadly went unfulfilled, so Lee’s use of the term is presumably a cynical joke in the face of continuing racism.
- Lee’s mother, Jacqueline, worked as a teacher of black literature and black art, and was the person who gave him the nickname “Spike.” His father, William James Edward Lee III, was a jazz musician and composer who also worked on the music for some of his son’s films.
- While Lee was studying at New York University, he shared classes with both Oliver Stone and Ang Lee. Amazingly, one of his teachers was none other than Martin Scorsese! That’s a lot of greats in one room.
- Besides writing and directing, Lee has also acted in ten of his own films. His most notable performance is the lead role of Mookie the pizza deliveryman in Do the Right Thing. He would reprise the role of Mookie in Red Hook Summer. In fact, the first time that Lee didn’t act in a movie which he also directed was the 1996 film Get on the Bus.
- Lee’s first feature film was She’s Gotta Have It, a film about a woman who envies the sexual freedom of men to have multiple lovers and decides to do the same thing by having three lovers at the same time. The film was shot in two weeks on a budget of $175,000. The film ultimately made more than $7 million at the box office! I don’t know a lot about money, but that seems like a pretty good return on investment.
- Lee has ecast actor Ossie Davis in no fewer than six of his feature films: Do the Right Thing, Get on the Bus, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, School Daze, and She Hate Me (which was also Davis’ final appearance in a feature film before his death). Davis was also involved with Lee’s documentary 4 Little Girls.