March 20, 1957-
Occupation: Film Director, Film Producer, Screenwriter, Actor
Shelton Jackson Lee was born March 20, 1957, in Atlanta, Georgia, to William "Bill" Lee, a jazz composer and bassist, and Jacqueline Shelton Lee, an art teacher. His mother, who died in 1977 of cancer, nicknamed him "Spike" as a toddler, evidently alluding to his toughness. Spike grew up the oldest three brothers, David, Cinque, and Chris, and one sister, Joie. The family moved from Atlanta shortly after Lee's birth and lived briefly in Chicago. In 1959 they moved to Brooklyn's predominantly black Fort Greene section. Jacqueline Lee provided a rich cultural upbringing that included plays, galleries, museums, movies. Bill Lee saw that the family experienced music, occasionally taking them to his performances at the Blue Note and to other Manhattan jazz clubs.
After graduating from John Dewey High School in Brooklyn, Lee majored in mass communications at his father's and grandfather's alma mater, Morehouse College in Atlanta. At Morehouse Lee took an interest in filmmaking, and upon graduation in 1979, was awarded a summer internship with Columbia Pictures in Burbank, California. In the fall, he returned to New York to attend New York University's Institute of Film and Television, Tisch School of the Arts. One of the few blacks in the school, Lee's first year at NYU was not without controversy. For his first year project he submitted a ten-minute film, The Answer, which told of a young black screenwriter who remade D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. A pointed critique of the racism in Griffith's silent film, the faculty was displeased with his work, saying that he had not yet mastered "film grammar." Lee suspected, however, that they took offense to his digs at the legendary director's stereotypical portrayals of black characters. An assistantship in his second year provided full tuition in exchange for working in the school's equipment room.
Lee earned his master's in filmmaking from NYU in 1982, and as his final film project, he wrote, produced and directed Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. His father composed the original jazz score, the first of several he created for his son's films. The film was set at a barbershop in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood that serves as a front for a numbers running operation. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Lee the 1983 Student Academy Award for best director. The Lincoln Center's New Directors and New Films series selected the film as its first student production.
Upon graduation two major talent agencies signed Lee, but when nothing materialized, he was not surprised. In an interview in The New York Times, Lee said that it "cemented in my mind what I always thought all along: that I would have to go out and do it alone, not rely on anyone else." Even though the honors enhanced his credibility, they did not pay the bills. In order to survive, Lee worked at a movie distribution house cleaning and shipping film.
At the same time, he tried to raise funds to finance a film entitled Messenger, a drama about a young New York City bicycle messenger. However, in the summer of 1984, a dispute between Lee and the Screen Actors Guild forced a halt in the production of his first film. The Guild felt the film was too commercial to qualify for the waiver granted to low-budget independent films that permitted the use of nonunion actors. Lee felt that the refusal to grant him the waiver was a definite case of racism. Unable to recast the film with union actors, he terminated the project for lack of funds. Lee told Vanity Fair that he had learned his lesson: "I saw I made the classic mistakes of a young filmmaker, to be overly ambitious, do something beyond my means and capabilities. Going through the fire just made me more hungry, more determined that I couldn't fail again."
With the disappointment of Messenger behind him, Lee needed a film with commercial appeal that could be filmed on a small budget. His script for She's Gotta Have It (1986) seemed to fill the bill. The $175,000 film was shot in 12 days at one location and edited in Lee's apartment. The plot follows an attractive black Brooklyn woman, Nola Darling, and her romantic encounters with three men. Lee played one of the three suitors, Mars Blackmon. In the comedy Lee poked fun at the double standard faced by a woman is who involved with several men. After the film's successful opening at the San Francisco Film Festival, Island Pictures agreed to distribute She's Gotta Have It, beating out several other film companies. At the Cannes Film Festival it won the Prix de Jeuness for the best new film by a newcomer. A success in the United States, it eventually grossed over $7 million.
Lee based his next film, School Daze (1988), on his four years at Morehouse College. Set on a college campus during homecoming weekend, it explores the conflict between light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks. Those with light skin have money, expensive cars, and "good hair." The ones with darker skin are "less cool" and had "bad hair." Lee aimed to expose what he saw as a caste system existing within the black community. Lee began filming at Morehouse, but after three weeks the administration asked him to leave citing his negative portrayal of black colleges. Lee finished filming at Atlanta University. School Daze opened to mixed reviews but was a box office success, ultimately grossing $15 million. However, Lee's efforts to explore a complex social problem offended some, while others applauded.
Do the Right Thing (1989) opened with even more controversy. It portrays simmering racial tensions between Italians and African Americans in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant section that erupt when a white police officer kills a black man. Some critics said Lee was endorsing violence and would hold him partly responsible if audiences rioted upon seeing the film. Lee stated that he did not advocate violence, but intended to provoke discussion. The Cannes International Film Festival included a screening of the film and the Los Angeles Film Critics gave it an award for best picture. Do the Right Thing received Golden Globe nominations for best picture, best director, best screenplay, and best supporting actor but failed to win in any category. It was also nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay and for best supporting actor. It lacked a nomination for best picture despite its high acclaim. According to Lee, in Jet magazine, "the oversight reflects the discomfort of the motion picture industry with explosive think pieces." It cost $6.5 million to produce and grossed $28 million.
Lee's father inspired the main character and wrote the score for Mo' Better Blues (1990). A jazz trumpeter — who might be based on Lee's father, Bill Lee — tries to balance his love of music with his love of two women. However, Lee said the film was about relationships in general and not just the relationship between a man and a woman. He wanted to portray black musicians that were not dependent on drugs or alcohol.
Jungle Fever (1991) had another provocative theme, that of interracial sex. It also explores color, class, drugs, romance and family. A black married architect and an Italian-American secretary are attracted to each other through the sexual mythology that surrounds interracial romance. At the end of their affair, they admit that they were just "curious," but not before both are at odds with their families. Color, class, drugs, romance and family are all dealt with in this movie. Lee noted that whether the movie endorses or rejects interracial romance is not the point.
Next Lee directed a film on the life of Malcolm X. He knew from the start that it would be controversial. Warner Brothers originally chose Norman Jewison to direct the film. When Lee announced publicly that he had a problem with a white man directing the film, Jewison agreed to step down. Lee problems began early on with a group called the United Front to Preserve the Memory of Malcolm X and the Cultural Revolution. Their objections were based on their analysis of Lee's "exploitative" films. Others doubted that Lee would present a true picture of Malcolm X. After reworking the script, Lee battled with Warner Brothers over the budget. He requested $40 million to produce a film of epic proportions. Warner offered only $20 million. By selling the foreign rights for $8.5 million and kicking in part of his $3 million salary, Lee made up the difference by getting backing from black celebrities such as Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jordan, much to Warner's embarrassment. Under Lee's direction, Malcolm X was released in 1992, grossing $48 million. It played a major role in elevating the black leader to mythic status, portraying him as a symbol for the extremes of black rage as well as for racial reconciliation.
Lee wrote Crooklyn (1994) with his sister, Joie, and brother, Cinque. Originally a short story by Joie, Cinque encouraged her to turn it into a screenplay. Joie and Cinque had planned for their own company to make the film, but after reading it, Spike was interested in producing it. The black family in Brooklyn during the 1970s sounds a lot like the Lees, but Joie Lee warned not to assume it is autobiographical. It is an unusual film, lacking a dysfunctional family, violence, gangs and drugs. Instead, it follows the struggles and strengths of a family despite odds and obstacles.
In direct contrast to Crooklyn is Clockers (1995), Lee's intimate but violent look at the inner-city drug trade. Adapted from Richard Price's novel, initially the film was to be directed by Martin Scorsese and focus on the story's police murder investigation. However, Scorsese had other commitments, and Lee took over. He shifted the emphasis to the relationship between two brothers. One is on the "up and up" and the other is a clocker (a street-level worker in the drug trade, always ready at any hour to provide crack.) Lee concentrated more on the bonds that connect black men rather than making another "gangsta" movie.
Lee released two films in 1996. The first, Girl 6 (1996) had a cast and crew made up mostly of women. It follows a struggling actress who takes a job for a phone-sex line. Her sense of reality deteriorates when the calls begin to matter to her, and she eventually hits rock bottom. Reviews were not favorable; one critic wrote that this was the worst film Lee had made. Lee's tenth film in as many years was an investigation of the Million Man March of 1995. Get on the Bus (1996) details the voyage of 12 men from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., to take part in the march. They represent the diversity of male African Americans, and Lee contrasted the men's speeches and debates so that the differences and tensions between them are intensified. Made in 18 days, Get on the Bus cost $2.4 million. Its entire budget came from black male investors who were inspired by the march's message.
Lee's earlier films courted controversy that helped maximize profits, but critics have said that since Malcolm X Lee has been less discerning, and his films have not done as well at the box office. However, his willingness to tackle sensitive issues of relevance to the black community has made his films profitable, awakening the industry to an untapped market. In 1997 Lee released 4 Little Girls, about a 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four young girls. He then moved into what Maclean's Brian D. Johnson called "nervy satire" with a 2000 release, called Bamboozled. In that film, Lee delves into the delicate emotions associated with blackface minstrel shows as entertainment. In 2001 Lee released a television miniseries about the controversial Black Panthers cofounder, Huey P. Newton. Lee seems to be misquoted often and finds it a nuisance to explain things he did not say. He would rather be out of the papers than see false claims. He told American Film, "All I want to do is tell a story. When writing a script I'm not saying, 'Uh-Oh,' I'd better leave that out because I might get into trouble. I don't operate like that." His goal is to prove that an all-black film directed by a black person can be of universal appeal.
In keeping with his interest in encouraging others who want to enter filmmaking, Lee established a minority scholarship at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in 1989, and he also supports the College Fund/UNCF.
Lee is about five feet six inches tall and has a mustache and small beard. He wears glasses. Lee is a dedicated New York Knicks fan and has been known to plan film projects around the Knicks' basketball schedule. Associates describe him as possessing a fierce determination and unshakable self-confidence. Philip Dusenberry of New York advertising agency BBDO said of Lee in Business Week, "You get the impression that Spike is a devil-may-care kind of guy, but he's also a shrewd self-promoter." Other long-time associates told Ebony that Lee "is an obsessive workaholic who seems intent on cramming a lifetime of work into a few short years." Lee is unusual in the filmmaking business in that he not only writes, directs, and produces, but also acts in all his films — although most of his roles are marginal. He does not consider himself an actor but feels it creates box office appeal.
Lee makes no apology for his success and defends himself against charges of commercialism. His motivation for business investments comes from Malcolm X's philosophy that blacks need to build their own economic base. Lee was recognized as a marketing phenomenon and multimedia star only four years after his surprise hit, She's Gotta Have It. His first enterprise, Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks, moved from his apartment to a remodeled Brooklyn firehouse in 1987. With tongue in cheek, Lee says the name reflects the arduous struggle he went through to make She's Gotta Have It.
In addition to his films, he has written several books that recount his experiences as a director. He has also produced music videos for Anita Baker, Miles Davis, Michael Jackson, and Branford Marsalis, among others. In 1988 he produced and directed a television commercial for Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign.
Lee also has his own collection of promotional movie merchandise, such as baseball caps, t-shirts, and posters. Beginning with a rapidly expanding mail-order operation, Lee opened his retail store, Spike's Joint, in 1990.
Lee directed commercials for Levi's $20 million campaign for its 501 Jeans, as well as for Nike, The Gap, Barney's of New York, Philips Electronics, Quaker Oat's Snapple and Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Appearing in Nike commercials with Michael Jordan, Lee was criticized for making Nike's expensive Air Jordans such a status symbol that many young people reportedly were stealing from each other. According to Business Week, Lee dismissed the charges as "thinly veiled racism." He also appeared in television commercials for Taco Bell and Apple Computer, and in print ads, "Milk. Where's your mustache?" for the National Fluid Milk Processors. He recorded the voiceover for a television ad for Topps Stadium Club basketball cards; a special set of "Spike Says" insert cards featured Lee's commentary on ten of the National Basketball Association's biggest stars.
Lee served as executive producer for several films, marketed his own comic book line, and directed short films for Saturday Night Live and MTV. His Forty Acres and a Mule Musicworks, which joined MCA Records in 1994, has been responsible for his movie soundtracks. In 1994, the TNT cable network signed Lee to be executive producer of the documentary Hoop Dreams. In 1995 Columbia Pictures TV signed him as one of several filmmakers in a series of one hour documentaries, "American Portraits" for the Disney Channel.
In late 1996, Lee joined DDB Needham Advertising to form a new ad agency, Spike/DDB. Their agreement called for Lee to direct urban-oriented commercials for a variety of clients. He previously worked with DDB on an educational spot for the College Fund/United Negro College Fund.
Lee married attorney Tonya Linette Lewis, in October of 1993. They met in September of 1992 during the Congressional Black Caucus weekend in Washington D.C. Their daughter, Satchel Lewis Lee, was born in December of 1994. She was named after legendary black baseball star Satchel Paige. In May of 1997 their son, Jackson Lee, was born.
Known as one of the most original and innovative filmmakers in the world, Lee presents the different facets of black culture. He is quick to admit, however, that there are those in the black community among his detractors. Lee says that he is neither a spokesman for 35 million African Americans nor tries to present himself that way. He will probably continue to court controversy, but with his savvy and salesmanship skills, Spike Lee will remain a significant influence in the entertainment world.
July 7, 2003: Lee and Viacom reach a settlement over the rights to the name "Spike." The terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Viacom will begin using the name as soon as possible. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, July 8, 2003.
July 28, 2004: Lee's film She Hate Me was released by Sony Pictures Classics. Source: New York Times, www.nytimes.com, July 28, 2004.
October 2004: Lee joined the advisory board of the inaugural National Geographic All Roads Film Festival. Source: USA Today, www.usatoday.com/life/digest.htm, October 18, 2004.
April 2005: Lee signed to direct Inside Man, for Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment. Source: Hollywood Reporter, April 7, 2005.
March 24, 2006: Lee directed Inside Man, which was released by Universal Pictures. Source: New York Times, March 26, 2006.
September 9, 2006: Lee was awarded the Horizons documentary prize at the Venice Film Festival for When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. Source: USA Today, September 10, 2006.
October 18, 2006: Lee won the Black Movie Award for outstanding achievement in directing, for Inside Man. Source: TNT, October 23, 2006.
February 11, 2008: Lee was awarded the $50,000 Wexner Prize in recognition of his artistic innovation and integrity. Source: E!Online, February 14, 2008.
September 26, 2008: Lee directed Miracle at St. Anna, which was released by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. The movie is an adaptation of a novel by James McBride. Source: New York Times, September 27, 2008.