Spike Lee Filmography
Spike Lee's contribution to black cinema has allowed viewers to see New York City through a Black cinematic lens. There are many recurring themes and symbols within Lee's works that make films identifiable as a Spike Lee Joint, so to speak; these symbols are reflective of Lee's external influences, upbringing, and personal background. Additionally, many of the works that he has directed are politically charged and provide commentary on Lee's political and social stances.
While these viewpoints may be uniquely Lee's, there is criticism against Lee that contends that his socio-political viewpoints may be problematic. For instance, Wahneema Lubiano contends, "The Spike Lee discourse and his production offer a site for examining possibilities of oppositional, resistant, or subversive cultural production as well as the problems of productions that are considered oppositional, resistant, or subversive without accompanying analysis sustaining such evaluation" (Lubiano 254). That is to say, that Lee presents social issues in his films, highlighting the tensions that may arise because of race and social status, however he does not resolve, nor does he attempt to resolve, the tensions and issues that arise.
Despite these criticisms, Lee is able to infuse his work with a sense of familiarity through identifiable tropes such as music, athletic iconography, and racism. In Lee's films, athletic iconography points "in part to the close relation-ship between Lee's visual style and contemporary urban fashion. Air Jordans and Laker jerseys, after all, are not unique to Spike Lee joints; they were common sights on New York streets in the late 1980s" (Houston 637). In his films, the use of athletic iconography is used as a tool that a character uses to further identify himself with a specific community. "But much as Lee blended hip-hop tunes with Negro spirituals and jazz melodies in creating the complex soundtracks that echoed the very diverse voices of his characters, his references to athletic gear and jargon are not simply received stylistic statements" (Houston 637). For instance, in addition to being a member of a black community, a character may further categorize himself within that specific community by pledging allegiance to one sports team over another. Unlike racial discrimination, athletic iconography establishes social divides based on team allegiances or preferences.
It has been argued that "Lee's characters thrive on stereotypes, but they assume masks in order to place themselves within the marketplace, to have access to redefining the stereotypes they're playing with" (Diawara & Kolbowski 67). "The idea of all the bigotry in the city exploding in front of the camera seems to delight Lee... he most famous is what's referred to in the screenplay for Do the Right Thing as "The Racial Slur Montage," during which Lee's character calls Italians "dago, wop, garlic breath," an Italian calls blacks "gold-chain- wearing, fried- chicken-and-biscuit-eating monkeys," and a Latino guy calls Koreans "slanty-eyed, me-no-speak- American, own every fruit and vegetable stand in New York" (Levy). Furthermore, Lee's attempts to make his films more accessible can be seen through his approach to racism through stereotyping. Dan Flory contends,
A crucial aim in his ongoing cinematic oeuvre has been to make the experience of racism understandable to white audience members who "cross-over" and view his films. Because seeing matters of race from a nonwhite perspective is typically a standpoint unfamiliar to white viewers, Lee has sought to make more accessible such an outlook through the construction and use of specific character types. One way he achieves this goal is by offering depictions of characters who function as what I will call "sympathetic racists": characters with whom mainstream audiences readily ally themselves but who embrace racist beliefs and commit racist acts. (67)
In short, Lee's films have the underlying message to rebel against oppressive forces, whether they are race-related, gender-oriented, political, or socially oriented.
Through the course of his cinematic career Lee has maintained his viewpoint of attempting to show the world how he perceives New York and the Black experience, often intertwining the two. Additionally, Lee has been able to establish trademark techniques and shots that frequently appear in his films. Lee is well-known for focusing on the individual, often through close-up shots; additionally, Lee often has characters speak directly into the camera, breaking the so-called fourth wall -- this can be interpreted as Lee attempting to communicate directly to the audience instead of relying on the narrative to perpetuate his message. "If you watch all twenty of Lee's films, you'll notice several trademarks. First, there is his signature shot, an actor traveling on a dolly with the camera, which makes the world seem to recede behind the subject... Then, of course, there's Lee's fascination with stereotypes and categories" (Levy).
In his first film, She's Gotta Have it, Nola Darling, a black woman tries to assert her identity through the various sexual relationships that she has. In the film, Nola Darling attempts to overcome gender conventions in an attempt to become more masculine -- which she believes is necessary to establish the identity of a strong, independent individual. "Nola Darling's relationships with her three male lovers, one lesbian friend, and a former roommate could have served as the basis for a fast- paced, action packed story of love and lust in Brooklyn. But they do not. Lee uses them rather as points of access to that segment of the (fictional) world that is Nola" (Bollag 12). Moreover, Lee introduces characters that are well integrated into society; "Nola is a commercial artist, her father and ex-roommate are musicians. Among her suitors, Greer Childs (John Terrell) is a successful male model; the profession of Jamie Overstreet (Redmond Hicks) is never specified, but he does not seem to be unemployed. Only Mars Blackman (played by Spike Lee himself), who wears fifty-dollar sneakers although he hasn't had a job in two years, seems to have problems in this department" (Bollag 12). In the film, Nola attempts to subvert gender conventions and objectifies Jamie, Greer, and Mars using them to satisfy her sexually, emotionally, and intellectually. While Jamie attempts to establish a dominant position in the relationship, temporarily doing so after dominating/raping Nola, in the end, Nola severs all ties with these three men before she begins her emasculating endeavor again. This is the first film in which Lee creates or identifies a social problem, yet does not do anything to rectify or present a solution for it. In this case, Nola attempts to establish her identity and independence through repetitive cycles that do not change and will keep bringing her to the same conclusion.
In three short years, Lee had completely changed his approach in narrative to focus not on the conflicts that arise within an individual, as was seen in She's Gotta Have it, but rather shifts the focus on conflict between a group of individuals that identify with each other through ethnicity, social status, and community and those that they perceive to be outsiders. Do the Right Thing focuses on how the black community perceives other races within their neighborhood -- such as Koreans, Latinos, and Italians -- it does not only highlight their struggle to claim a community as their own, but also underscores the hypocrisy under which these racial groups are operating. For instance, Blacks are looking to establish a community where they can live peacefully, they are themselves instigators of racism and oppression. Additionally, through their aggressive behaviors, they instigate conflict, which in turn escalates to full-blown violence. At the time that Do the Right Thing was released, Lee was criticized for "injecting the militant rhetoric of the 1960s into films of the 1980s and 1990s" (Hanson 49). Lee introduces militant rhetoric in order to "to engage the particular history of urban racial violence in order to make a point about the dynamics of ghetto racial incidents and the ways racial ghettoization creates identity for oppressed people" (49).
Summer of Sam is unlike his earlier works as it does not focus on the experience of the black individual or the black community, but rather focuses on the tensions that arise within an Italian-American neighborhood, and among Italian-Americans, during a time in which New York City was on high alert because a serial killer was on the prowl. Additionally, Summer of Sam can be considered to be Lee's first foray into more commercial subject matter. While, the film is devoid of much of the subject matter that Lee usually comments on, there are still several aspects of his previous films that appear in the film such as athletic iconography, which both unites and divides the community. It appears as though Lee's sole intent was to depict life in New York during the 1970s, specifically the panic surrounding the Son of Sam, David Berkowitz, as he terrorized neighborhoods, mercilessly killing innocent couples; in addition, Lee highlights social issues that dominated the 1970s such as homosexuality and drug use. The roles of other minorities are not examined in detail; there is a brief moment in the film during which Blacks are depicted robbing and looting…