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BHM Profile: Spike Lee’s cinematic storytelling

Spike+Lee+is+a+groundbreaking+filmmaker+who+explores+topics+like+race+relations.+Design+by+Aaron+Ziegler.+
Aaron Ziegler
Spike Lee is a groundbreaking filmmaker who explores topics like race relations. Design by Aaron Ziegler.

Award-winning director, producer and screenwriter Spike Lee stands as a powerful storyteller in the world of cinema. The countless projects he has worked on have garnered many awards and achievements, including five Academy Award nominations, and one win for  “Best Adapted Screenplay” for the movie  “BlacKkKlansman.” Lee’s approach to storytelling has made him one of the most influential directors of the 21st century. His depictions of Black experiences in film have challenged stereotypes, creating cinema that gives a platform to Black voices in a truly impactful manner.

Since the start of his filmmaking career, Lee has captured the Black experience at its fullest. As a young student at New York University (NYU), he enrolled at the Tisch School of Arts graduate film program. Even on his first-year project, Lee broke boundaries and expectations the mostly-white program had placed on directing films; he parodied D.W. Griffith’s classic film, “The Birth of a Nation,” in a world where a remake was made by a Black director.

”I was told I was whiskers away from being kicked out,” Lee told “Mother Jones Magazine,” “They really didn’t like me saying anything bad about D.W. Griffith, for sure.”

His Oscar winning film, “BlacKkKlansman,” is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, a Black police officer in the 1970s. Stallworth worked to become an undercover police officer, finding himself in the position of puppeteering a sting operation against the local Klu Klux Klan division, while impersonating a white man. “BlacKkKlansman” entered theaters on the anniversary of the Charlottesville riots, and served as a reminder that the bigotry Stallworth was fighting against all those years ago was still a real threat.

In the dozens of shows and movies Lee has produced and directed, he’s traversed nearly every genre. With each film Lee produces, no matter the genre, he has one quality many directors often don’t: timing. 

Lee’s 1992 film “Malcolm X” was released at a pivotal moment in American history. The aftermath of the Rodney King beatings had led to nationwide protests and heightened racial tensions. The film, a depiction of the life and experiences of one of the most influential figures in the civil rights movement, served as a testament to the power of storytelling. “Malcom X” provoked a great reflection upon the calls for justice and social upheaval in the 1990’s just as it did in the Civil Rights Era.

Lee’s mother, Jacquelyn Shelton Lee, a teacher of Black literature, kickstarted the director’s interest in cinema and film from a young age.

“My mother is the reason why I’m a filmmaker today. She dragged me to movies and plays. I didn’t want to go.” Lee said in a 2020 speech.

Lee’s mother instilled in him a rigorous work ethic and education, and aided him through college. This aid soon led to his discovery of filmmaking. Her lasting impact is the basis and foundation of the platform and voice of Lee’s films and their messages.

The impact that Spike Lee has had over not only the film industry but the Black community as a whole is monumentous. Lee’s career is one that shows great success through his dedication to cinema. Now as a professor at NYU, his stories and experience will be passed on to a new generation of filmmakers and storytellers.

About the Contributors
David Schenk, Staffer
David Schenk is a staffer on Manual RedEye. When he's not writing, he enjoys photography, podcasting, and apples in his free time. You can contact him at @[email protected]
Aaron Ziegler, Staffer
Aaron Ziegler is a staffer for Manual RedEye. You can contact him at [email protected].
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