L'Enfant Terrible of Black Cinema

Twenty years after Do the Right Thing, and Spike Lee, that angry, ebony wunderkind of the ’80s, is now middle-aged. The 1989 film may not be his masterpiece, but no other film got people talking about race—or still has people talking about race—like it did, and does.

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Amy Sussman/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

I FIRST INTERVIEWED Spike Lee in the spring of 1991 in his office at 40 Acres and a Mule Productions, located in the heart of the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn. I was in the process of moving from Duke to Harvard to head the Department of Afro-American Studies in the fall. I had met Spike at a lecture he delivered before a standing-room-only crowd in Duke’s largest auditorium. Every black person in North Carolina seemed to be in that room, hanging on Spike’s every word. My wife and I had agreed to host a small reception in his honor afterwards at our home in Durham. Somehow, word leaked out; everyone who had been in the audience seemed to think that the reception was just another part of the price of their tickets! But it was a night to remember.

I was quite nervous about the interview. I admired Spike’s work enormously, especially his productivity, his artistic integrity and his entrepreneurial brilliance. Most of all, I loved his films and recognized, like just about everyone else, that this young man was a genius, the enfant terrible of black film, the one we had been waiting for, the person who could suss out the zeitgeist, then put it on the silver screen. I was nervous because I wanted the interview to be the best that had been done, or at least one that was memorable for him.

In the middle of the interview, for some reason, I asked Spike if he had ever taught college. He said no. When I asked why, he replied that no one had asked him. That was the opening I needed. I excused myself, as if I had to go to the bathroom. I ducked into an adjacent office, called Henry Rosovsky, the dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, had him dragged out of a meeting, apologized for claiming that this was an emergency, and then, in a whispering voice, asked if he knew Spike Lee’s work and if I could hire him, explaining that Lee was just down the hall, waiting for me to return from the bathroom.

Rosovsky was both delighted and intrigued by the audacity of the idea: The dean, it turns out, was a film junkie who loved Spike’s films, and he told me to go for it. I returned to Spike’s office, told him that Kwame Anthony Appiah and I were moving to Harvard to build “the Dream Team” of African-American studies and asked if he would be a part of it. He accepted on the spot. Spike taught for three years, two courses one day a week; he never missed a class, and he graded his own papers. Fourteen hundred Harvard kids showed up to enroll in his class on the first day, all begging to be admitted into a seminar of 30 students.

When I interviewed Spike Lee for Transition back in 1991, he had already, at 34, established himself as the freshest, most incendiary and most accomplished black filmmaker not just of his generation but of any generation. In the previous six years, he'd made five films for wide theatrical release: She's Gotta Have It (1986), School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), Mo' Better Blues (1990) and Jungle Fever (1991). Malcolm X, which would be released a year later, was well under way.

Now, Spike would say that he was in the right place at the right time and that, say, Oscar Micheaux and Melvin van Peebles weren’t. There may be some truth in this, I suppose, and his modesty is commendable. But I'd like to put out there that Spike Lee is “Spike Lee” because of his films—the rich textures that are like paintings, the color palettes that themselves tell stories, the performances that he elicits from actors across race and gender, and the musical scores that are not background or accompaniment but fully fleshed-out characters.

Spike is a third-generation Morehouse Man, raised among artists and educators. For him, black life isn't despairing and pathologized; rather, it's vital and vibrant and electrifying. Do the Right Thing may make us think like sociologists about race relations and urban life, but it also lets us in on the way black people talk to each other, live together and love each other. Spike learned how to make films at Clark Atlanta University and, famously, at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts (where he now teaches), but he learned how to look and listen long before that, within the self-contained and nurturing world his family and neighbors created in Fort Greene. His films are technically brilliant, yes, but they are also about personalities and ideas that have been observed, understood and distilled through decades of being black.

It is, quite frankly, difficult to believe that we are commemorating the 20th anniversary of Do the Right Thing and that that angry, young black cinéaste, the ebony wunderkind of the ’80s, is now middle-aged with two children in their early teens (one perhaps a future fourth-generation Morehouse Man) and has for at least a full decade been his own corporate icon, as familiar a part of the American icon establishment as Jack Nicholson, Michael Jordan or Denzel himself. I'm not sure that Do the Right Thing is his masterpiece; it may be, or perhaps his masterpiece is another of his 20 films and documentaries or even a film yet to come. (My personal favorite is She’s Gotta Have It, which Spike told me during our interview for The Root remains his most profitable film.) What I am sure of is that I do not know of another film that got people talking about race—or that still has people talking about race—in the way that this film did, and does. Mookie, Sal, Radio Raheem, Buggin Out, Tina, Da Mayor, Mother Sister, Pino and Vito, Mister Señor Love Daddy, Sonny, Sweet Dick Willie and Coconut Sid: All are indelible characters and types, with each representing a facet of Brooklyn, indeed, of American urban life, and of race, but with each saying it in his or her own peculiar way.

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