1619 to 2019: Four hundred years of Black history in America. Centuries marked by slavery, genocide, violence and hatred beyond imagination, yet accompanied by endurance, strength, resilience, beauty, creativity, and power unmatched. There is an inherent duality African Americans carry in their psyche from birth and legacy, a sense that extraordinary triumphs can and will be won despite the odds, but in this nation there is still so far to go.
No one exemplifies this “two-ness,” as he calls it, better than iconic filmmaker Spike Lee. The man’s inner vibrations are palpable from the moment he enters a room. A combination of opposing energies that fuse into an all-consuming force, he runs on the belief in mystical chemistry.
“Vibe is a real live thing,” Lee said at a recent Lincoln Center talkback. “How many times have you gone in a room and you want to just turn right the fuck around? …You can feel energy, and people with bad energy are a cancer. They could fuck everything up. They’ve gotta go.”
In the past, Lee has called himself “an instigator,” but more accurately, he’s a visual master who provokes conversations while keeping his own words brief and effective (especially when sly profanity is called for). Youthful, yet worldly wise, outwardly Zen but those carefully-chosen statements reveal an unceasing fire for justice and truth. Down to the second, his time is never wasted, nothing about his life or work spent in excess, but he’s extraordinarily open to those who want to learn.
He might just be magic, and for the Black community at large, he is. From Do the Right Thing (celebrating its 30th anniversary this spring) to Mo’ Better Blues, Malcolm X, Jungle Fever, Bamboozled, Miracle at St. Anna and countless other works, Lee has become the defining filmmaker of a generation and a pioneer in racially-charged discourse. Now Spike’s latest, BlacKKKlansman, stands as a masterpiece that’s finally won the master himself his first Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Based on the true story of the first African American detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department, the movie follows Ron Stallworth’s (John David Washington) efforts to infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s with the help of a Jewish undercover partner (Adam Driver). Through comedy-tinged action that turns more horrifying at every step, BlacKkKlansman forces us to confront our worst selves in past, present, and future tense. The film’s coda, real footage of the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right rally and ensuing violent protest, serves as a chilling reminder that the struggle between good and evil never fades.
During the recent Oscars ceremony, audiences observed the extremes of Lee’s raw energy – explosions of joy as he accepted his award, literally jumping into Samuel L. Jackson’s embrace, and later attempting to leave the theatre visibly outraged after Green Book was announced as Best Picture. These reactions encapsulate not only the effects of this particular Academy Awards, but the overall identity schism that persists in our race relations. Where do we stand? And when does it ever become “fair” or “enough”?
It’s a good question in an Oscars that was perhaps the most celebratory and barrier-breaking for African Americans ever recorded. The night saw testaments to the vision of optimal progress that is Black Panther – nominated for seven and winning three awards, including Hannah Beachler for Production Design and Ruth Carter for Costume Design. Their combined Afrocentric universe in the film enabled massive real-life achievements, as both are the first-ever Black women to win their respective categories. (Carter’s entry into the industry, by the way, came through working on Spike Lee’s School Daze in 1987.) That same evening, Regina King became the eighth African American woman in history to win Best Supporting Actress for her role in If Beale Street Could Talk, based on the James Baldwin novel. Even Green Book, a controversial victor for its seemingly whitewashed retelling of the Civil Rights movement, pushed inclusivity some steps forward: Mahershala Ali’s award for Best Supporting Actor made him the only African American man with multiple acting Oscars outside of Denzel Washington, while the Best Picture title gave Octavia Spencer the honor of being the first African American woman to win as a producer.
But as Spike Lee noted in his acceptance speech, “The world today is irony.” These mammoth successes are hampered somewhat by the realization that it has taken so long to recognize them. If Lee had also won for Best Director, he would have been the first African American filmmaker with that distinction in 91 years of Oscars.
Rashaad Ernesto Green, director of the Sundance favorite Gun Hill Road, grew up on Lee’s work and eventually studied under him in New York University’s MFA program at Tisch School of the Arts. Though Rashaad feels the accolades for BlacKkKlansman are wonderful, he says, “I don’t think that Spike needs validation from the Academy in order to mean what he has meant for this country, for African Americans, for African American filmmakers. He’s Spike Lee, regardless of who says that he’s the best in any particular year. I’m happy that others feel he should be recognized, because he should be, but he has always been the preeminent filmmaker in my heart and mind since I was a child.”
Born and raised in New York primarily by their single father, Rashaad and his younger brother Reinaldo Marcus Green felt Spike Lee’s presence from an early age. At home their dad, a hardworking attorney, often fell asleep with the television on and consistently chose Do the Right Thing to play on repeat. “Spike was one of the first filmmakers we ever encountered,” Reinaldo recalls. “That was part of our upbringing, just watching [Do the Right Thing] in our household and it brought [Dad] a lot of joy and culture, and I felt that he really identified with that film… Our dad was a huge Spike Lee fan.”
He wasn’t the only one. Nearing adolescence, Rashaad paid close attention to Lee’s themes and found a kindred artistic spirit. “His films helped me as a young Black man come to terms with my own identity,” he admits. “I viewed myself through the lens of Spike Lee. Without Spike, I might have felt a little lost. [Instead], I felt like I had this guidance and somebody who was basically pointing me through the forest, through works, before even meeting the man… Do the Right Thing was definitely the first [movie] to really get me to examine my own place in the world and who I was as a Black man. Malcolm X was another film that I really responded to… It was such a tour de force, to see that performance by Denzel – it was wonderful to have such pride in being African American and seeing someone who had such a growth and revelation during his lifetime. I even had to check out the Koran at the library as a result of watching that film… The lessons [in our house] came from Dad, but they also came from the films that Spike Lee made at the time. So when I decided to become a filmmaker, there was one person I wanted to learn from more than anybody else, and that was Spike Lee.”
Determined to meet his idol, Rashaad initially encountered Spike in person while studying at Dartmouth, where the legend was delivering a keynote speech. After walking the quad with Lee, Rashaad made plans to attend NYU for graduate school, and he impressed Spike again during a chance meeting. “I went to a talk that Denzel [Washington] was giving at NYU and asked a question about acting and compromising yourself with certain roles that were available to African American actors at the time. Spike was in the room and he really liked the questions, so he had his assistant ask me for my head shot right after that talk… A couple of days later, I had an audition for Inside Man, the [latest] film that he was making with Denzel.”
You can see Rashaad in several sequences throughout Inside Man, a bank heist thriller, and he confirms the report that to be on a Spike Lee set is a unique learning experience: “Spike has people around him that he’s worked with for decades. He runs a very tight ship. He does not play around when he’s on set; he’s all business. But the people around him know him very well. They keep the folks happy. [We] were in good spirits, but also we had to tow that line. We had to listen and not disrupt the process, because the man was at work and he comes in on time and under budget, so there’s an intensity on set. When the man is talking, you do not interrupt. You really listen to what’s being said so you don’t have to ask again, and that kind of leadership is wonderful to see and learn from.”
Many have noted, unsurprisingly, that Lee also cultivates some of the most diverse sets in the entire industry. The man himself maintains an admirable dedication to inclusivity, commenting, “From the very beginning when I was at NYU, I had the mindset that if I was able to slip in the door, I was going to take everybody with me. Women, [people of color], everybody who’s young and hungry, who’s talented and wanted to work… And the industry’s not really set up for people of color and women to succeed. So I’m just trying to do my part… What’s great now is, I’m really grateful to see so many people telling their stories, because we all have a need to tell our story from our own particular perspective. That’s just part of being a human being. To tell the world, tell the universe, this is who I am, this is who we are, this is our story, and sometimes negate the false stories that are out there.”
This responsibility to instill self-confidence in others, to be a good role model for future generations, is seen most vividly in a memorable sequence from BlacKkKlansman. Rookie detective Ron Stallworth’s first undercover assignment is to attend a meeting where Civil Rights leader Kwame Ture (played by Corey Hawkins) speaks to college students about Black Power. As Ture’s speech builds from emphasizing African American beauty to pride in one’s identity and the need for resistance in the face of white oppression, the viewer is treated to loving portraits and close-ups of people in his audience. Each listener is distinctly gorgeous in his or her own way, and the scene unfolds so potently that it strikes anyone who has ever felt out of step with conventional aesthetic standards. You don’t have to be Black to appreciate the meaning behind “All power to all the people.”
Lee notes, “One of my favorite photographic things we did [in BlacKkKlansman] was with those portraits… [Ture’s] telling them, ‘You have big lips, broad noses, your hair is kinky. You come in many different shades, from blue-black to high yellow, Creole to redbone. Whatever it is, you are beautiful.’ Kevin [Willmott] and I didn’t write that script. We compiled several of Kwame’s speeches. And when we were shooting that scene, we were shooting in an auditorium [and] in a side room we had another camera. In between takes I would go through the audience and pick different Black people… And then we incorporated them into that scene so we could demonstrate, so we could visually see the many different versions of people, because it was very important to see. Back in the day, if you called somebody Black, there was a fight. And it was Kwame Ture and even James Brown with his song, ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud’ – So all these things are very, very powerful for people to believe themselves, when they’ve been told from the moment they come out of the womb that you’re inferior, you’re subhuman and whatnot.”
In October 2018, a Los Angeles Times article pointed to the rise of a “Black Lives Matter Cinematic Universe,” counting titles including Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal’s Blindspotting, and Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning Get Out as significant reflections on contemporary life relating to the African American community’s sense of self. The story, by Tre’vell Anderson, also named BlacKkKlansman among such films even though it’s set decades earlier than the others (Jordan Peele was an executive producer on the movie). Additionally, he spotlighted one project, a Sundance Grand Jury winner entitled Monsters and Men about an African American man being killed by police á la Eric Garner, as the next ascendant to that canon. It was Reinaldo Green’s first feature as a director.
Reinaldo followed his brother Rashaad to film school (after a long and varied career doing many other things), quickly becoming a Spike Lee disciple at NYU. If one looks closely at Monsters and Men, the parallels between Reinaldo’s work and Spike’s – you might even call them homages – become readily apparent. The film stars John David Washington as another conflicted cop and original Hamilton cast member Anthony Ramos (who now stars in the Netflix reboot of Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It) as a young man who captures the shooting on video. According to Reinaldo, Spike was instrumental in connecting both actors to his up-and-coming protégé.
“Not only did Spike give grants to both Rashaad and [me], which helped get our first features off the ground,” he states, “but also the offspring of the actors that he’s worked with are now in our films [and some of the actors themselves]… It is amazing how Spike’s influence has really played a big part in Monsters and Men and how we shot in Bed Stuy, how we chose which area to shoot in. A lot of that was trying to pay tribute to him and how he’d go out to Bed Stuy for Do the Right Thing… He’s all over [Rashaad’s and my] work. I respect how he uses visuals and locations as characters… He’s so great at building characters and making people feel you’ve given them a voice. He’s great at improv and letting actors do their thing. It’s incredible to be in the same sphere as Spike… Again, it crosses so many genres. It’s not just about Black culture. There are so many people that respect Spike for his work and what he does to bring people together to enjoy cinema.”
Indeed, togetherness is a guiding principle of Lee’s oeuvre, however it may look at face value. For all their ambiguity, films like Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, and even BlacKkKlansman in its cynical frankness are steering us toward a multicultural conversation. Finding the courage to broach that conversation is a major step on its own.
“I tell my friends all the time,” Lee said at Lincoln Center, “President Barack Obama did not become president just by Black folks voting for him. We couldn’t do it alone… it’s a coalition. People come together; we do it together – Civil Rights, women’s rights, gay rights… We have a very complicated history as a country and I think history has shown that when we get together, that’s when things move forward.”
“I hope to still retain that cultural nuance,” Reinaldo adds, “to be able to engage our communities in front of and behind the camera. To bring diversity and inclusion to the forefront, and not just for the purposes of ticking boxes, but to change the cultural landscape… I think when we take from everywhere, different perspectives, they make our products stronger. Ultimately Spike has been doing that for a long time and he can pass the baton and we should do the same. We’re hoping to bring up a generation of filmmakers behind us… It’s a network to build on the work that Spike has devoted his whole life to building.”
Both Rashaad and Reinaldo took full advantage of Lee’s office hours while students at NYU. Rashaad audited his class in Directing Strategies three years in a row to absorb Spike’s wisdom. As a mentor, Rashaad says, Spike Lee is “a man of very few words, but a man of such great deeds.”
He elaborates, “We’re a culture that uses language to beat around the bush, to evade, to deflect. [Spike] doesn’t do any of those things. He uses his language to say what he means, and that’s it… As a teacher, he’s somebody who always tells the truth whether you like it or not, [but] he doesn’t like to repeat himself. When you know it’s office hours with him, he doesn’t really have time for niceties. He’ll acknowledge you, but then you have to get right to business. It’s the same when you say goodbye. If the meeting was from 3 to 3:30, when 3:30 comes, he says, ‘All right, bet,’ and that means your time is up.”
It sure sounds reminiscent of Clive Owen’s opening lines in Inside Man: “Pay attention to what I say, because I choose my words carefully and I never repeat myself.” Maybe Lee was trying to tell us something.
Still, those who get that precious timeslot can tap into an unexpected generosity. “You can spend [your 30 minutes] any way you want to,” Reinaldo points out. “Spike is really open… So if you go in there and say, ‘Hey, will you watch my short film?’ if that’s how you want to spend your time, he’ll watch it. And for someone of his caliber to be so accessible, it’s rare. It’s odd that not every film student at NYU takes advantage of the fact that Spike is sitting there [in his office hours]… If he says one word to you, one sentence, he brings all this knowledge and wisdom. He’s like a Yoda figure. He’s emanating and embodying what it is to be a legacy filmmaker… Spike is not someone who’s going to go and make the film for you or make a hundred phone calls, but he’s someone who leads by example. So I found that my office hours were filled with trying to show Spike my work. And he’d ask questions: ‘Why did you shoot in that location? What camera did you shoot on? How many extras did you have?’ He was curious about the production, certain things that either stood out to him as a negative or a positive… Spike kind of talks in code, so you have to figure out what he’s saying to you and puzzle over what it means when he asks that question.”
One question Lee asked on Rashaad’s first day of class has stuck with him throughout the years. “[That day] he said, ‘How many of y’all want to be directors?’ And of course most of the room raised their hands. And then he said, ‘How many of y’all finished your scripts?’ Maybe two people raised their hands. And he said, ‘See, y’all are bullshit.’ There was like three years’ worth of education right there in the first two minutes of the class… Spike was able to point it out with such efficiency and flourish.”
“Spike is so paramount to where Rashaad and I see ourselves as filmmakers,” Reinaldo agrees. “Not only where we are now, but where we want to go… He’s created so much visibility for the role of the director. Oftentimes you don’t even know what a director looks like and Spike is out there on the front lines championing films, going to the events, speaking out on things that he cares about. Those are the things that I think we definitely ought to learn and take from his playbook, because he’s created a very successful career doing what he loves and talking about the things that need to be talked about in a way that’s digestible for the general public… I may not wear the same color suit, but I certainly wear the same color spirit.”
That sentiment holds true for both Green brothers as they develop their next features. Watch out for Rashaad’s next film Premature, about a young Black woman experiencing a transformational romance in Harlem (another Sundance selection), now on the festival circuit. Meanwhile, Reinaldo is in pre-production with Mark Wahlberg on a story from the writers of Brokeback Mountain, which follows a grieving father as he walks across America to survive the loss of his son. These emerging visionaries are internalizing all their lessons from Spike and then some.
And what of the iconic but mysterious Mr. Spike Lee? Well, BlacKkKlansman’s success and relevance have given him a perfectly-timed reason to share more than a few words this year. Everything comes full circle, and as we look to the future he can’t help but remind us of our legacy. Standing on that Oscar stage, he invoked the memory of 1619, the horrors of slavery and genocide, but also the amazing will of the human spirit. He paid tribute to his grandmother, Zimmie Reatha Shelton, who saved her Social Security checks for fifty years to help him attend Morehouse College and NYU.
Finally, this man of dualities, so insightful about human behavior yet in so many other ways infuriatingly impenetrable, closed with a call to action that left no ambiguity at all: “If we all connect with our ancestors for love, wisdom, and regaining our humanity, it will be a powerful movement. The 2020 presidential election is around the corner. Let’s all mobilize, let’s be on the right side of history. Make the moral choice between love versus hate. Let’s do the right thing!”
Fade out. Roll credits. Discuss.
Jaime Lubin is the Executive Editor of Honeysuckle Magazine. Her profiles on art and culture have appeared regularly in The Huffington Post and Observer, as well as Billboard and Irish America magazines among other publications. Also an actress, producer, and singer, Jaime is working on a solo show about Tarot. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram (both @jaimelubin).