By the age of 20, Spike Lee was making amateur films and had received a Student Academy Award for his graduate thesis film. Lee’s first feature, She’s Gotta Have It, was one of the most profitable pictures created in 1986, and he continues to make films that address controversial issues such as racism, politics, and violence. He is also well-known for his commercials and documentaries. Lee received his first competitive Academy Award in 2019 for the adapted screenplay for BlacKkKlansman.
Spike Lee was born Shelton Jackson Lee on March 20, 1957, in Atlanta, Georgia, and moved to Brooklyn, New York, shortly after. Lee, who grew up in a middle-class African-American family, was creating amateur films by the age of 20. His first student film, Last Hustle in Brooklyn, was finished while he was a student at Morehouse College. In 1982, Lee graduated from the New York University Film School. Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, his thesis film, won a Student Academy Award.
Cinematic Successes: ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ and ‘Do the Right Thing’
Lee established himself as a promising director with his first feature picture, She’s Gotta Have It, released in 1986. The film was made in two weeks for $175,000 and grossed more than $7 million at the box office, making it one of the most profitable films made in 1986.
Lee is no stranger to controversy due to some inflammatory elements in both his films and public pronouncements, and he frequently examines race relations, political issues, and urban crime and violence. Do the Right Thing, his 1989 film, examined all of the above and was nominated for an Oscar Award for Best Original Screenplay.
‘Malcolm X,’ ‘Mo Better Blues’ and Commercials
Malcolm X, Mo’ Better Blues, Summer of Sam, and She Hate Me were among the subsequent films that explored social and political concerns. 4 Little Girls, a documentary about the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1998.
Lee directed and produced When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Parts, a four-hour television documentary on life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, in 2006. Inside Man, starring Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, and Denzel Washington, was also a box office success for him that year.
Lee has also had success directing television advertisements, most notably for Nike’s Air Jordan campaign, in which he starred alongside Michael Jordan. Converse, Taco Bell, and Ben & Jerry’s are among the commercial clients. His production company, 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks, is based in his childhood Brooklyn neighborhood of Fort Greene.
Later Projects: ‘Miracle at St. Anna’ to ‘Chi-Raq’
Lee’s 2008 feature Miracle at St. Anna, about four African American soldiers stranded in an Italian village during World War II, was acclaimed for bringing the oft-overlooked experience of Black infantrymen — known as Buffalo Soldiers — to the big screen. Lee went on to work on a number of projects, including documentaries about Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson, as well as a remake of the Korean revenge film Oldboy. In 2012, he returned to Red Hook Summer as Mookie from Do the Right Thing.
Lee’s 2015 film Chi-Raq, a modern-day adaption of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, was the first feature produced by Amazon Studios. The acclaimed filmmaker was also honored with an honorary Oscar at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ annual Governors Awards that year.
Lee returned to the subject of race relations in 2018 with BlacKkKlansman, the narrative of an African American detective’s success in infiltrating the KKK in the 1970s. The film, which was released one day before the one-year anniversary of the white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, concludes with footage from that event. “Connecting the past to the present was one of the things we wanted to do,” Lee explained. “We didn’t want this to be just another history lesson. Even though it was set in the 1970s, we wanted it to feel current.”
The picture went on to get six Academy Award nominations, including Adapted Screenplay, earning the veteran filmmaker his first competitive Oscar win.