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Spike Lee: The First Black Auteur

6 min read

In 2015, Denzel Washington presented Spike Lee with an honorary Oscar. When describing Spike Lee, Washington, who has collaborated with Lee on several occasions, said he is a partner, a pioneer, a prophet and a pain. He may well be all of those things, but Spike Lee is also an auteur. Before Lee was directing there was no voice for black people in cinema, before Lee there was blaxploitation cinema. Blaxploitation simply put, was a genre of movies popular in the U.S, full of awful stereotypes, questionable motives for black characters, often showing black people as criminals. Therefore, when Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986) was released, a new cinematic experience for black audiences was born, and so began a long, prosperous directorial career for Spike Lee.

In support of the Black Lives Matter campaign, we are releasing articles highlighting some of our favourite, and the most integral black actors and directors. Once you have read the article there is a message at the end on how you can help the cause. There is a link to a brilliant site with plenty of information for our readers to access, support and educate. One person who has been extremely vocal on his social media accounts about the campaign, is of course, Spike Lee himself.

Who Is Spike Lee?

Spike Lee is a director, producer, writer and actor from Atlanta, Georgia in the U.S.A. He has directed in excess of 25 films, some of his most popular being, Do The Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992) and BlacKkKlansman (2018). His films frequently explore race relations, racism towards the black community, crime, poverty and numerous other political issues. After being awarded an honorary Oscar in 2015, Lee went on to win the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman. The film also won the Grand Prix, the second highest honour at the Cannes Film Festival. Spike Lee’s newest film, Da 5 Bloods (2020) is set to be released on June 12th worldwide via Netflix. With all this said, what is it exactly that makes him an ‘auteur’?

What Makes Spike Lee An Auteur?

An auteur is a filmmaker whose vision and style is present in every aspect of the creation process. They make their stamp on all elements of production which in turn gives them complete control over the film-making. The work should therefore mirror their personality. Spike Lee has his own production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks which marks each of his films as ‘A Spike Lee Joint’. He greatly influences each of his stories as most are based on his own experiences. As well as this, he is involved in the visuals, lighting and all creative aspects of his scenes, some of which, particularly his earlier movies, have him star as a protagonist. With this approach came a change in Hollywood. His style meant that problems which black Americans have had and the troubles they were, and still are going through, are present on the silver screen. From the lighting to the characterisation, the dialogue to the soundtracks, a Spike Lee film has a very particular stylisation.

The Importance Of Do The Right Thing

Do The Right Thing is getting an extraordinary amount of attention at the moment, due to what has recently been occurring in America. Many scenes from the film, particularly the riot scene in the final act, are showing up on my social media feed regularly. However, this film has been relevant since before it was released, during and certainly as I have already stated, after. The film depicts a hot summers day in Brooklyn, where the seemingly mundane, everyday life of a predominantly black neighbourhood slowly morphs into chaos as things become heated. The feelings of many characters reach boiling point and by the climax, cause racial tensions to bubble over.

In my opinion, Do The Right Thing is still Spike Lee’s best work and is quite simply a masterpiece. However, upon release, regardless of it’s critical reception, many protested it’s content. Some believed that, similarly to Joker (2019), it would incite violence and lead to riots. In 2014 Lee said:

“That still bugs the sh*t out of me, those remarks were outrageous, egregious and, I think, racist. I don’t remember people saying people were going to come out of theaters killing people after they watched Arnold Schwarzenegger films.”

A topic of debate which is still being discussed many years after the film’s release, did Mookie ‘do the right thing’ by throwing the garbage can through the window and starting the riot. Many have called his actions ‘an irresponsible encouragement to enact violence’. However, Lee remarked that only white viewers ask him about the riot scene and whether Mookie did the right thing or not. Black viewers never ask him about it. In addition to that, white people never mention the fact that the police did the wrong thing by murdering Radio Raheem. He commented:

“Viewers who question the riot are explicitly failing to see the difference between damage to property and the death of a black man.”

Do The Right Thing ends with two quotes, one after another. The first a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) and the second by Malcolm X. These two quotes show two different trains of thought on the use of violence in protest. On the whole, MLK is against, while Malcolm X is for, in self defense. These two idea, which are still so relevant today, show why the film is a classic, and is ultimately timeless.

Where To Start On Watching Spike Lee’s Work?

Do The Right Thing, as mentioned earlier, is the best movie Lee has directed for my money. It epitomises everything Lee stands for, the perfect portrayal of Spike Lee’s thoughts right there on the screen. After you have watched that, you can either go right back to the beginning with She’s Gotta Have It, or jump right to present day and watch his most recent release, BlacKkKlansman. Then I would suggest Malcolm X, Mo’ Better Blues (1990) and Inside Man (2006) as great films to flesh out your Spike Lee filmography watch-list. She’s Gotta Have It also had a TV-Series adaptation which ran from 2017-2019, so if you enjoy shows as well, why not give that a watch. With Da 5 Bloods arriving on Netflix soon, a story about four African American war veterans returning to Vietnam in search of their hidden gold, you will want to be as up to date as possible before sitting down to watch the 150 minute epic.

Which of Spike Lee’s movies is your favourite? Will you be watching Da 5 Bloods when it drops on Netflix? Let us know in the comment section of our website and don’t forget to download the Kernel App to track any new releases, like Da 5 Bloods, that you may be excited for. You can follow us on our Twitter and Instagram to keep up with all movie news!

Readers may be aware of recent events which have brought to the forefront the issue of race inequality, not just in America, but all over the world. If you would like more information on the cause, I would urge you to access where you can donate, sign petitions, and help in many other ways to support the Black Lives Matter campaign. As stated on the website, racism doesn’t go away once the topic stops trending.

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