L'Enfant Terrible of Black Cinema

Amy Sussman/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival
Amy Sussman/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

WATCH VIDEO of Henry Louis Gates Jr.' recent interview with Spike Lee.

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.

I love this film, and I still don't know what to make of Mookie's throwing the garbage can through the window of Sal's Famous Pizzeria. On June 30, 1989, when the film was released in the United States—three years before the Rodney King verdict set Los Angeles on fire—there was serious discussion that it would spark riots, that the anger so vividly written and acted on the screen would be realized by black viewers. The film, of course, caused no riots. But lingering anger has been directed against Spike Lee from various quarters of American society precisely because that film not only confronted the miasma of race so squarely, but also because it linked the analysis of race to class, inextricably, and did so with enormous subtlety and complexity, through the lens of Ernest Dickerson’s splendid sense of color, angle of vision and depth of field.


One thing for sure about Spike Lee: The man isn't afraid to open his mouth; I'd say he's been an equal opportunity offender throughout his remarkably productive career. But in 1989, with Do the Right Thing, he got us all talking about race and class in a fresh, new and compelling way, and that is as sure a sign of his enormous talent as a writer and a director as anything, and the ultimate sign that this film was destined to be a classic from the get-go. It's worth remembering how Vincent Canby began his review on June 30, 1989, in the New York Times: "In all of the earnest, solemn, humorless discussions about the social and political implications of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, an essential fact tends to be overlooked: it is one terrific movie."

And, indeed, it is. Let us be neither earnest nor solemn nor humorless as we look back to the premiere of Spike Lee’s historic, seminal and masterful film. None of us back then could possibly have imagined all that has transpired for our people, and for this country, in the intervening two decades: a black prince and princess so elegantly sitting up in the White House, and their very first date was in a movie theater in 1989, watching—what else? Do the Right Thing.


Henry Louis Gates Jr. is editor-in-chief of The Root and is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University.


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