For more than three decades writer-director Spike Lee's features, documentaries and music videos have been a catalyzing force within the American independent film movement, and a shot-across-the-bow of traditional Hollywood studios. The New York City-based filmmaker, acclaimed for such works as "Do the Right Thing" and "Malcolm X," received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Director for the 2018 real-life comic-drama, "BlacKkKlansman."
By CBSNews.com senior producer David Morgan
Growing up in Brooklyn, Spike Lee attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he was without direction and in need to declare a major, he told CBS News' Lesley Stahl.
While at home during summer break in 1977, Lee was gifted with a Super 8mm camera by a friend. Bored and with no job, he ended up filming that eventful summer, a time of blackouts, riots, block parties, and the tensions of the "Son of Sam" killer. Back at school, and with the support of a film teacher, Herb Eichelberger, Lee cut the footage into a documentary, "Last Hustle in Brooklyn." He'd found his calling.
A student at New York University's film school in the early 1980s, Lee's first film there was "The Answer," in which an aspiring filmmaker is offered the chance to direct a $50 million remake of D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation." He told Lesley Stahl that school policy at the time was to grade films at the end of the first year, and kick out half the class whose work wasn't up to snuff.
Lee, who was staffing the school's equipment room to make money, was also working as a teacher's assistant, and was already assigned to be a TA his second year. "But they made a mistake: They gave me that TA-ship before they viewed the films! Thank God almighty. Thank you, Jesus!" he laughed. "So, once it came time to grade the films, they're like, 'He gotta go.' They didn't like the film 'cause I was attacking the father of cinema. It's like, who is this guy? So they kicked me out. But somebody – I never found out who it was – said, 'Hold up, hold up, hold up. We can't kick him out. We gave him a TA-ship for next year!' I had been kicked out. But they slipped up. They gave me a TA-ship for a second year before evaluations."
"Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads"
Lee's masters thesis film at NYU was the 60-minute drama, "Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads" (1983), in which a barber tries to keep a numbers-runner out of his establishment.
The film was presented at the New Directors New Films Festival, and would go on to win the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Student Academy Award.
Student Academy Awards
Spike Lee is presented with his Student Oscar for "Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads" by director Ronald Neame at the 1983 Student Academy Awards ceremony.
Lee currently serves as the artistic director of NYU's graduate film program.
"She's Gotta Have It"
Lee's first theatrical feature was "She's Gotta Have It" (1986), a comedy centered around Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), a young woman with three very eager suitors. One of the first entries in the burgeoning '80s independent film movement, Lee's movie provided a fresh take on feminism and sexual politics, as well as a then-rare representation of African Americans on screen as mature adults who were not criminals or drug users.
"She's Gotta Have It"
Spike Lee himself co-starred as Mars Blackmon, one of Nola's three suitors, in "She's Gotta Have It," which costarred John Canada Terrell (left) and Tommy Redmond Hicks (right).
"Mars Blackmon" would later appear alongside Michael Jordan in a series of Nike commercials.
In the musical comedy "School Daze" (1988), students at a historically black college are divided over matters of skin tone and hair, as in the memorable dance-off between the dark-skinned "Jigaboos" and the light-skinned "Wannabes."
Lee (far right) portrayed Half-Pint, a pledge at a fraternity led by Julian (Giancarlo Esposito), the Dean Big Brother Almighty of Gamma Phi Gamma Fraternity, Incorporated.
"Wake up!!!!!" Laurence Fishburne as Dap in "School Daze" (1988).
"At the beginning I did not know how to speak to actors. I mean, me and Laurence Fishburne went at it a lot, came head to head on 'School Daze' because – and he was right – I did not have the vocabulary to tell actors what I want. And I thank Laurence Fishburne 'cause he's pullin' my coattail like, 'Yo, my man. What are you doin' here?'
"One of the last things they teach you [in film school] is how to work with actors. Technical stuff, you come out of film school knowing. But we're terrified of actors! Because actors are crafty and they know that we're on a shoestring budget. So, first two days on a shoot they gonna be cool. That third day they know that you can't replace them, so they start acting crazy. And nothing you can do! You don't have the money to go back and reshoot the scenes you shot with them. So, for me it was being comfortable around actors. And I think it shows because 'Do the Right Thing' was the first film I felt comfortable with actors."
"Do the Right Thing"
In Spike Lee's most critically-praised film, "Do the Right Thing" (1989), a Brooklyn neighborhood, broiling in the summer heat, becomes a cauldron of bigotry, racial violence and arson.
Lee plays Mookie, the lazy pizza delivery man who is turned by a case of police brutality into the catalyst of a riot.
"Do the Right Thing"
Giancarlo Esposito as Buggin' Out in "Do the Right Thing" (1989).
Bill Nunn Radio Raheem Do the Right Thing Universal 620
Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) in "Do the Right Thing," with a nod to "The Night of the Hunter."
The film received Best Picture and Best Director honors from the Los Angeles and Chicago Film Critics Associations, and received four Golden Globe and two Academy Award nominations. In 1999 (its first year of eligibility), "Do the Right Thing" was named to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry, to be preserved for future generations.
Director Spike Lee, an Oscar-nominee for Best Original Screenplay for "Do the Right Thing," and director George Lucas are pictured at the Governors Ball following the 62nd annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles, March 26, 1990. Lee's film was snubbed of nominations in the categories of Best Picture and Best Director.
He reflected on the pain of the Academy passing on '"Do the Right Thing" to Lesley Stahl in 2019: "It hurt," he said. "And the reason why it hurt is, like, had the Academy chose a great, great film for Best Picture, I'd have been cool with it. But their choice ["Driving Miss Daisy"] hurt like a mother*****r!"
"Mo Better Blues"
Denzel Washington plays a jazz trumpet player whose personal and professional relationships are torn by his disloyalty and infidelity in "Mo Better Blues" (1990).
Unlike many other jazz-oriented films, such as "'Round Midnight" and "Bird," "Mo' Better Blues" is designed and photographed in a much more sumptuous, colorful vein. In 1990 Lee told David Morgan he was against using a dark, brooding view in his own work: "That's just not very Afro-centric. I mean, we're not filming in f***ing Scandinavia. Black people are people of the sun, and we wear bright colors and we don't go moping around saying, 'Life is a bitch, then you die and there's no meaning to life' and that kind of s***. It's just a whole different outlook. And the outlook has to be reflected in the way you dress people and the way the film is lit, and in the whole tone of the movie. I didn't want it to be a melodramatic love story and I don't think we've made that, and I'm happy."
"Mo Better Blues"
Denzel Washington as musician Bleek Gilliam, and Spike Lee as Giant, the manager of Bleek's band, in "Mo' Better Blues."
Spike Lee tackled the hot-button topic of interracial relationships in "Jungle Fever" (1991), in which Wesley Snipes plays a married architect who begins an affair with his Italian-American secretary, played by Annabella Sciorra.
Samuel L. Jackson (pictured with Ruby Dee) received awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Cannes Film Festival jury for his performance as Flipper's brother, Gator, a crack addict, in "Jungle Fever."
Denzel Washington earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Malcolm Little, a criminal whose jailhouse conversation to Islam led to his rise to become the uncompromising black activist and Nation of Islam leader known as "Malcolm X" (1992).
"Crooklyn" (1994) is Spike Lee's fictionalized version of growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s. (Pictured: Zelda Harris and Delroy Lindo.)
Delroy Lindo, John Turturro and Harvey Keitel starred in Spike Lee's 1995 film adaptation of Richard Price's crime novel, "Clockers."
"Get on the Bus"
In "Get on the Bus" (1996), a group of African-American men takes a cross-country trip to join the Million Man March in Washington, D.C.
An unemployed aspiring actress (Theresa Randle) accepts work as a phone sex operator in"Girl 6" (1996). With a screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks, it was the first of Lee's films which he did not write himself.
"4 Little Girls"
After contributing to the film "Lumière and Company," Lee's first documentary as a director was "4 Little Girls" (1997). Coproduced by HBO, it told the story of the September 15, 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair.
Lee has originally approached McNair's father about doing a documentary while he was an NYU student, but was turned down. Chris McNair would later reconsider once he saw the extent of Lee's research.
The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary.
"He Got Game"
In "He Got Game" (1998), Denzel Washington's third film with Lee, the actor stars as a prison inmate who is given a temporary release in order to convince his son, a promising young basketball player, to sign with the warden's alma mater.
"He Got Game"
NBA player Ray Allen stars as Denzel Washington's son, a hot college basketball prospect, in "He Got Game" (1998).
"Summer of Sam"
New York City in the summer of 1977, when the "Son of Sam" serial killer was loose on the streets, is the backdrop of "Summer of Sam" (1999), in which underworld elements are solicited by the police to help find and apprehend the killer. John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino and Adrien Brody were among the cast.
Spike Lee wrote and directed the 2000 satire "Bamboozled," about a TV network executive who develops a minstrel show, featuring black actors in blackface, racist humor and stereotypes. Beyond everyone's expectations, the show is a huge hit - and inspires violent acts of retribution.
"25th hour" (2002), based on David Benioff's novel and starring Edward Norton, traces a drug dealer's last day of freedom before beginning his prison sentence.
Rosario Dawson (pictured) is featured as Naturelle Riviera, a woman who may have betrayed the dealer.
Edward Norton and Philip Seymour Hoffman with director Spike Lee on the set of "25th Hour" (2002).
"She Hate Me"
In "She Hate Me" (2004), a successful young executive (Anthony Mackie) facing a financial crisis finds a lucrative calling: becoming a sperm donor to lesbians. Price: $10,000.
"All the Invisible Children"
In "Jesus, Children of America," Spike Lee's contribution to the anthology film "All the Invisible Children" (2005), two drug addicts try to protect their daughter, who is bullied at school for being HIV-positive.
Denzel Washington (pictured with Willem Dafoe) plays an NYPD hostage negotiator who engages with the mastermind of a Wall Street bank heist (Clive Owen) in the thriller "Inside Man" (2006).
"When the Levees Broke"
The government's response to Hurricane Katrina and the disaster's effect on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is told in Spike Lee's HBO miniseries, "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" (2006). It received three Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming.
"Red Hook Summer"
A young boy is forced to spend his summer in Brooklyn with his grandfather, bishop for the local Lil' Peace of Heaven Baptist Church, in the coming-of-age story, "Red Hook Summer" (2012).
Mookie, Spike Lee's character in "Do the Right Thing," makes a cameo appearance. Twenty-three years later, he's still delivering pizzas.
Josh Brolin starred in "Oldboy" (2013), Spike Lee's remake of a South Korean cult film based on a manga about conspiracy and revenge.
"Da Sweet Blood of Jesus"
In "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus" (2014), an anthropologist stabbed by an ancient dagger is turned into a vampire. Zaraah Abrahams (pictured) plays the widow of a victim who herself becomes a bride of the undead. It was Lee's first film to be funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign.
Director Spike Lee prior to a screening of "25th Hour," presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as part of its Spike Lee retrospective on Thursday, June 26, 2014, at the Linwood Dunn Theater.
Director Spike Lee (left) and actress Rosie Perez prior to a screening of "Do The Right Thing," presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as part of BAMcinemaFest on Sunday, June 29, 2014, at the BAM Harvey Theater.
Actress Joie Lee (left), musician Bill Lee (center), and director Spike Lee prior to a screening of "Do The Right Thing," presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as part of BAMcinemaFest on Sunday, June 29, 2014, at the BAM Harvey Theater.
In "Chi-raq" (2015), inspired by the Greek play "Lysistrata," women in Chicago's South Side who are fed up with rampant gangland violence tearing their community apart decide to go on a sex strike until the killings stop.
A scene from Spike Lee's "Chi-raq."
Chicago officials criticized Lee over the title of the film, which combines the names of Chicago and war-torn Iraq, as casting further negative connotations about the city, and debated blocking state tax credits for the film's production company.
In response to the criticism, Lee said his film, which calls for putting a stop to the violence, will hold a mirror up to reality. "If you do not tell the truth, then you must have fear," he said.
In 2015 Lee was honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences with its Governors Award for lifetime achievement. Here he is pictured with fellow Honorary Oscar recipient Gena Rowlands at the Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif., on Saturday, November 14, 2015.
Lee filmed Roger Guenveur Smith's one-man stage play of "Rodney King" (2017).
Jon Michael Hall and Blake Delong starred in "Pass Over" (2018), a filmed presentation of Antoinette Nwandu's play about two homeless men in Chicago.
Adam Driver and John David Washington in "BlacKkKlansman" (2018).
Based on the incredible true story of an African American undercover police officer, Ron Stallworth, the project was brought to Lee by Jordan Peele ("Get Out"), "who gave me the greatest studio pitch ever, six words: 'Black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan.' That was it! The greatest ever!"
A cross burning by the Ku Klux Klan, in Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman."
Topher Grace as David Duke in "BlacKkKlansman." Footage of the real David Duke taken at the site of the Charlottesville riot in 2017 is featured at the end of the film.
Ron Stallworth told Lesley Stahl that after the trailer for "BlacKkKlansman" appeared, Duke called him, with concerns of how he might be portrayed in the film. Curiously, Stallworth recalled, "He said he loved the works of Spike Lee, 'Malcolm X' especially. He said he liked 'Malcolm X' because Malcolm, like him, believed that blacks should be separated from whites, that they deserved to have their own homeland, which is a core belief of white supremacists everywhere."
"Maybe he only saw the first two hours, because Malcolm would evolve past that!" Lee laughed.
Spike Lee on the set of "BlacKkKlansman," monitoring a dolly shot - a familiar component of his films.
Based on the hard-to-believe true story of a black undercover officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, "BlacKkKlansman" (2018) was Lee's first film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, and his first nomination for Best Director.
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