SPIKE Lee, whose new movie “BlacKkKlansman” was the runner-up at the Cannes film festival Saturday, has captivated audiences for more than 30 years with his depictions of black America fired with his mix of entertainment, activism and rage.
His new film, which picked up the Grand Jury Prize is a searing, sometimes hilarious broadside against racism with the stranger-than-fiction true story of an African-American police officer who manages to infiltrate the highest levels of the Ku Klux Klan.
With Adam Driver of “Star Wars” fame playing his white sidekick, the New York Times declared that Lee had “shook up Cannes all over again. It’s very much about the American present — a direct, furious protest against the Trump era.”
Lee first made a splash at the festival with his breakout feature “She’s Gotta Have It” — shot in two weeks in black and white during the hot summer of 1985, in part thanks to his grandmother’s savings.
With that film, which won a youth prize at Cannes, Lee “broke the glass ceiling” for black filmmakers and “opened the doors for everybody who’s come after him,” says Michael Genet, an actor and screenwriter who penned the script for Lee’s 2004 comedy “She Hate Me.”
African-American director Ryan Coogler “couldn’t be who he is today with ‘Black Panther’ without Spike Lee doing what he did,” he added. “It’s impossible.”
‘Cerebral kind of cat’
Lee — born Shelton Jackson Lee in Georgia on March 20, 1957 — was raised in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighbourhood, where he filmed “She’s Gotta Have It” and which is still home to his production company 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks.
He dedicated his Cannes victory Saturday to the “People’s Republic of Brooklyn”.
A small man with a piercing gaze from behind his round glasses, Lee acted in that first film, taking the supporting role of motor-mouthed Mars Blackmon, one of the main character’s three suitors.
John Canada Terrell, one of his co-stars in the movie, described Lee as a “very strange, cerebral kind of cat.”
“Spike was always quiet. He kept to himself but I called him the idea man,” recalls Herbert Eichelberger, an associate professor of film at Clark Atlanta University whom Lee calls his mentor.
“He would come with all kinds of ideas about doing films and making certain kinds of approaches to a situation.”
“From the start, he was a good storyteller,” says Eichelberger, who thought Lee’s career would be focused on documentaries, given his keen powers of observation.
‘We can’t be satisfied’
But Lee would embrace that format only once, in 1997 with “4 Little Girls” — the Oscar-nominated story of the racially motivated bombing of an African-American church during the US civil rights movement.
In the decade in between, Lee established himself as a force to be reckoned with, producing films with an often political bent like “Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X” and “Jungle Fever”.
Lee remained outside the usual Hollywood glare, mindful of keeping a hold on his own marketing, distribution and editing. His features starred mainly black casts.
“He wants to decide what he puts forth as his film,” said Eichelberger, adding that Lee usually only makes movies that he has written as well.
That allows him to tell the stories as he sees them, blending human relationships with social themes and dark humour.
His success at Cannes catapulted Lee to unexpected stardom — he made a series of black and white Air Jordan ads for Nike, in character as Mars Blackmon and co-starring NBA legend Michael Jordan, that changed sports marketing forever.
Lee has made various other commercials and music videos over the course of his career.
He also has sometimes turned away from his usual films to direct more traditional Hollywood fare like the crime thriller “Inside Man” (2006) — one of his greatest box office successes.
“Between ’85 and today is like between day and night,” Lee said in January when asked about the presence of black people in cinema.
“But we can’t be satisfied. It’s not just making a film. We have to get in those gatekeeper positions so we have a say at what gets made.”