Spike Lee – ACE Golden Eddie Award Honoree

June 3, 2021

“A spine to my films that’s become more evident to me is that many are about the choices people make, and the reverberations of those choices. You go this way, or that way, and either way, there’s going to be consequences1 .”

Spike Lee revealed this to Esquire back in 2013. Choices helpdefine most of our lives. Regardless of whether they are good or bad, how we react and respond to the outcomes define who we are as a person. Even the choices that are made for us. Lee’s decision to go to the historic Morehouse College in Atlanta proved shrewd for his trajectory. Listening to the advice of his teacher Herbert L. Eichelberger to pursue filmmaking was even more fruitful for the burgeoning director.

“I didn’t know I wanted to be a filmmaker. Growing up I didn’t know who did what. I just loved movies. It wasn’t until college that I realized I wanted to make movies. My mother was a cinephile and she dragged me to movie theaters.

My father hated movies. My father particularly hated Hollywood movies,” laughs Lee. While Lee’s father may not have been an avid moviegoer, he did impart some very crucial passions to his son. “My love of sports came from my father. And music. My father is a great jazz musician. He ended up doing the scores for my films at NYU, plus She’s Gotta Have It, Mo’ Better Blues, School Daze and Do the Right Thing.”

Just as Lee embarked on his graduate film studies and directing his first shorts, he founded his own production company in 1979: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, headquartered in his beloved Brooklyn. The name refers to the doomed promise made to freed black slaves in the South. This post-Civil War order was a redistribution of wealth that would have given each freedman a parcel of land and an animal to start anew in some of the former slave states. Had President Andrew Johnson not chosen to overturn the order during the Reconstructionist period, the fate of the Black population over the course of the century may have been radically different. Lee’s work not only shines a light on what that betrayal meant for the generations after, but it also highlights the resiliency of Black Americans to forge ahead in spite of the many broken promises.

Going to NYU proved to be another fortuitous decision. The same environment that nurtured the creative visions of Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Jim Jarmusch and the Coen brothers would develop Lee’s storytelling skills. It was around this time that Lee met up with a friend from down south who would become one of his longest collaborators.

Barry Alexander Brown, ACE, had met Lee back in the summer of 1981 in Atlanta. Soon after, Brown moved to New York and established a distribution company called First Run Features where he hired Lee to work part time while he was wrapping up his time at NYU. Lee returned the favor a couple of years later when he needed someone to do sound for his first full-length independent feature.

She’s Gotta Have It heralded the careers of many individuals. The story of a confident, young black woman maneuvering her way through love, sex and New York told in a gritty black and white was fresh and provocative. For Lee, it announced the arrival of a vibrant, new voice in American filmmaking. He even co-stars as one of the lead character’s paramours named Mars Blackmon. The movie garnered international praise including a distinction from the Cannes Film Festival for “Award of the Youth” to Lee. It also marked the first major pairing between Lee and cinematographer, and fellow NYU alum, Ernest R. Dickerson who would go on to shoot Lee’s next four films. Lee edited the film himself but had Barry Alexander Brown double dip as sound designer and assist in editing a couple of scenes. Their dynamic was good and their aesthetic similar so Lee asked if he would cut his second film School Daze. They would go on to work on nearly a dozen features together.

It was his third film, however, that really cemented Spike Lee as an auteur in the making. Do the Right Thing is as prescient nowas it was then. In the  movie, racial tensions between the Black and Italian communities bubble over on one very hot summer day in Brooklyn. It’s as if the late ‘80s zeitgeist of Reagan-era fatigue, recession malaise, AIDS hysteria, and gang-plagued urban centers made the restlessness inevitably go violent. Sound familiar?

The film was not only a critical smash, but a box office hit. It earned Lee his first Oscar® nomination for Best Screenplay and propelled him to the front ranks of Hollywood hyphenates. He even directed the music video for Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” which serves as an anthem within the movie. Spike Lee became a household name due to its success, and also a recognizable face thanks to the slew of Nike commercials he starred in alongside Michael Jordan at the turn of the decade.

In the ‘90s and aughts, Lee was a prolific machine, churning out film after film after documentary after music video. Mo’ Better Blues was his follow-up to Do the Right Thing and it marked the first time he would work with Denzel Washington. Jungle Fever added new slang to the cultural lexicon and provoked conversations about interracial romance. Malcolm X was Spike Lee’s first out-and-out opus. The historical drama reteamed Lee with Washington, as well as editor Barry Alexander Brown and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson. This confluence of heavy hitters painted a portrait that was as complex, angry, hopeful, wounded, spiritual and celebrated as the man himself.

Through these films, a clearer picture of Lee’s aesthetic quirks and narrative devices manifests. Lee’s canon is a mix of biting dramas, sardonic comedies, poignant documentaries, seminal music videos and textured musicals. There are some through lines that weave these joints together as classic Spike Lee.

And it’s not just Brooklyn. Many of his films include one or more characters saying, “Wake up!” IMDB even has an episode of its Through the Lens series called “Spike Lee: Four Decades of ‘Wake Up!’” The last line in School Daze and the first line in Do the Right Thing are, “Wake up!” It’s as if Spike Lee is imploring the audience to wake up and take notice. Don’t be idle or close your eyes to what’s going on in your world. In our world. Spike Lee was woke before woke even knew what it was … and it was still napping.

The Take put together a video essay entitled “You Know It’s Spike Lee if…” about just what makes his cinema iconic. One thing you’ll notice about his films is that characters are often seen gliding with the camera. The essay read: “Thanks to Lee’s trademark dolly shot. This shot puts both the camera and the actor on a dolly, so it looks like characters are being propelled forward by a force of nature or having an out of body experience.”

It’s at once self-reflexive and immersive reminding the viewer that he or she is watching a movie, but also putting the viewer in the state of mind of the character. The piece also points out his use of cinematic allusions where Lee references classic films within his own dialogue, his use of archival footage to give a documentary feel that grounds his work in reality, and how he often breaks the fourth wall by having a narrator look directly into camera or simply having a character stare into the camera for an extended period of time. These filmic elements are on top of the dense subject matters that infuse his scripts.

Combined they have made for some powerful moviegoing experiences. One major through line not explicitly evident on screen is how all of these narrative elements are put together. Lee has developed his signature over time, and he didn’t do it alone. There are recurring players in his troupe that have evolved with him. These frequent collaborations are no accident. “These relationships have been formed over years. In my four decades of filmmaking, once you work with a fellow artist long enough, you develop a shorthand,” shares Lee.

Specifically, he has only had a handful  of editors work alongside him. “An argument can be made, that the relationship between a director and editor is more intimate than the director and the DP. The DP is on the set every day but there are a whole lot of people around. In the editing room, the assistants are in the other room, so it’s just you, the editor and the footage. That’s it. It’s such an intimate relationship that if you’re not vibin’, no give and take, then it all just falls apart. I can’t do it. Maybe some other people can but not me. That vibe is what trust is built upon. I have always felt that as a director if you can’t leave your editor alone, if you have to stand over your editor’s back, that might not be the person.”

In addition to Barry Alexander Brown, he has had successful pairings with Sam Pollard (Clockers, Girl 6), Hye Mee Na (ChiRaq, Red Hook Summer), and most recently Adam Gough, ACE, who edited Lee’s latest film Da 5 Bloods for Netflix. Lee recalls, “I met Adam on the Oscar tour. The parade. These events that we have to go to. So, you see people all the time. Every event is the same people once you get nominated. Adam co-edited Roma. I was checking him out. I never told him this but after a while, every time we had a conversation – I did this shit real slick – I was interviewing him for Da 5 Bloods. He didn’t even know it,” he laughs. “‘So, what films do you like? How did you do this?’ He just thought we were having a conversation.

The more we talked, the more we became friendly. It’s a feeling. I don’t want to get into some mystical, magical shit. There’s a thing called vibrations. There’s a thing called frequency. And in yourself, if you are open, you can receive this from other human beings. If your shit is closed up on a motherfuckin’ off switch, you ain’t getting a motherfuckin’ thing. And I felt that with Adam. I wasn’t wrong.”

Of course, Lee was on the Oscar tour for his three nominations for BlacKkKlansman: Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. This time, Lee did not leave empty handed as he garnered the award for his screenplay. The movie mixed his patented brand of humor and camaraderie against a true story of two undercover cops infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado.

The story was bold, funny, horrifying and prescient. It was classic  Lee. If the factual story of thwarted domestic terrorism wasn’t disturbing enough, the real-life after-credit footage of a white supremacist mowing down non-violent protesters in his vehicle at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, will definitely keep you up. BlacKkKlansman reminded audiences and critics that Lee was a force never to be underestimated. It also sparked nostalgia for his earlier work and prompted new fans to explore them online. This  is something Lee tries to impart to his students.

Despite his busy schedule, Lee has been the Artistic Director of the Graduate Film Program at NYU since 2002. He teaches directing strategies to the third-year students and he always shows a film in every class. “I want to expand their knowledge of cinema,” explains Lee. “Cinema did not begin the year you were born.

There was some great shit before you joined us. Some of it may be subtitled, some of it may be in black and white. There is a lot of stuff made outside of Hollywood. Exposure to many different types of cinema is key. Open up your mind. You gotta learn. I had never heard of Akira Kurosawa until I got to NYU. You can’t say you are not gonna like something if you haven’t even seen it yet.” One of his former pupils is Nomadland auteur Chloé Zhao. Zhao’s cinema echoes the sentiments of Lee’s desire for these new, young voices to open their eyes and feel the soul of the unfamiliar. Her films are wholeheartedly American and are paeans to the interior of the country – something quite unexpected from a woman born and raised in China.

“Over all these years I’ve seen how well-organized Spike is as a director. And how much he puts in to understanding what he wants so that when he shows up on the set it isn’t guesswork,” confides Brown. “Yet, he also allows his actors to have some room to work. He casts great actors. You have to have great people around and let them work and be creative. But as a creative, you have to be so sure of what it is you’re trying to get that day.

I saw just what a professional director he is at showing up and not wasting anybody’s time. Spike knows a lot about editing. He knows what he needs to get. And he knows how to think on his feet when things get thrown at you.” Spike Lee has no intention of slowing down. His latest feature, Da 5 Bloods, takes the viewer out of Brooklyn and into Vietnam twice. Bookended by real footage and audio of Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. denouncing
the war, Bloods is the story of four black Vietnam veterans who return to Saigon to take care of some unfinished business and honor their fallen friend.

The movie achieves some extra poignancy as that fallen soldier was Chadwick Boseman’s last performance. Lee has even made several successful forays on to the small screen. Last year he worked with music legend David Byrne on a concert documentary David Byrne’s American Utopia (for which Gough won an Eddie) that released on HBO Max.

He even resurrected She’s Gotta Have It for the 21st century as a Netflix series. The same themes are there from the original, but with the added tension from gentrification and vibrant queer culture that now flourish in Brooklyn. Lee is as relevant now as he was then, but when asked what makes him such a good storyteller, Brown shares, “It’s a whole combination of things that Spike has in abundance. He’s a very good writer. He has a great ear for dialogue.

One of the things that drew Spike and I together was our love of entertainment. Just entertainment. It wasn’t something that was admired greatly by independent filmmakers in the early ‘80s. Especially, in New York. Yet, both of us could recognize in great films of the past, these moments that were just so priceless.

Spike respects entertainment. He wants his films to have that level of entertainment. He’s not out to bore people or be didactic, even though he may be accused of being didactic sometimes. And he loves cinema. Movements of the camera. He respects actors so he always wants a great cast. He’s never lost that sense of, ‘I’m going to rest on my work and sit back and coast.’ He doesn’t sit back. Each film, he comes to it fresh with the energy of a young filmmaker. I think a lot of people get tired in this business, and man he has a lot of energy.”

For Lee, this fifth decade will start off with an adaptation of the graphic novel Prince of Cats, which is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet in 1980s New York centered on Tybalt and the expanded Capulet-Montague rivalry. Lee is also working on a musical about Viagra and its somewhat facetious origins. This won’t be a School Daze-style musical either. This will be a Rodgers & Hammerstein style musical fit for the stage. Bring it on!

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