Spike Lee has had many adjectives attached to him since the release of his first feature film in 1986: controversial, prolific, groundbreaking. However, with the 25th anniversary of his critically acclaimed 1989 film Do the Right Thing having been celebrated earlier this year, the pioneering filmmaker is showing no signs of slowing down. I was first introduced to Lee’s work passively, as a toddler watching his films with my trendy aunt on the sofa in the late-nineties. As I grew older, I began to appreciate the director not only because of his filmmaking, but also because of the ardent choice he made to support the community that shaped him. What makes Lee possibly one of the greatest filmmakers to come out of the United States is his undying passion to use his talent and privilege as a means of shedding light on various community issues that are otherwise brushed over by media outlets.
Spike Lee had his beginnings in the New York City neighbourhood of Brooklyn, to which he plays homage in many of his films. The sprawling metropolis that is New York City has inspired many of his most famous works, including Jungle Fever (1991) and Crooklyn (1994) – but to me, Lee’s third film Do the Right Thing left the deepest impact. I recently revisited the film during its stint on Netflix, and I was nothing short of sobered by its relevance to today’s societal problems. The film documents the life of Mookie (played by Lee himself) as he navigates his way through Bedford-Stuyvesant as a pizza boy for a local pizzeria owned by an Italian-American family. Mookie’s personal life and that of his friends is set to the backdrop of increasing racial tensions in the neighbourhood, which ultimately ends in the killing of a young Black man by a police officer and a riot which burns the whole block to the ground, including the pizzeria. The scenes of rioters filling the streets toting placards and chanting slogans of dissidence has become a common fixture on the news recently, especially in the weeks following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri earlier this month. What takes Spike Lee’s films beyond the realm of cinema and into that of social commentary is his knack for tapping into the very nuances of society that many find hard to pin down.
Racial tension leading to violence has always been a common occurrence in the cities of America, and Lee depicts the development of a simple stereotype such as “Blacks are lazy” (which is expressed by a Korean shopkeeper in the film) into targeted harassment excellently. There is a scene in the film where different ethnic groups residing in the neighbourhood vent their frustrations at the other nationalities, and it quickly turns into a deluge of stereotyping that leaves the viewer both exhausted and shocked. What I found most chilling however was not the nature of the stereotyping, but how little these stereotypes have changed in the 25 years since the release of the film. Lee has commented on the recent increase in the killing of Black American males due to unwarranted stereotyping as “tearing the country apart”, and called the rioting in Ferguson the result of a community reaching its “tipping point”.
When Spike Lee isn’t directing, writing or producing films, he is often commenting on the lack of social and racial cohesion in American society, and has made public comments on the killing of Trayvon Martin two years ago. He also runs a production company called 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks out of his hometown of Brooklyn. Although Lee contends with heated disagreements towards some of his comments, his unflinching attitude towards controversy and the truthfulness in his work is what I sorely miss in cinema.