Many assume that the filmmaker was born in New York, but Shelton Jackson Lee, nicknamed Spike by his mother, was born in pre-civil rights Atlanta to Jacqueline Carroll, an art teacher, and William James Edward Lee III, a jazz musician. When he was 2 years old, his family moved to the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Captions by Clay Cane
After Lee's mother passed away in 1977, to escape his grief, he lost himself in the world of movies. He made one of his first films, Last Hustle in Brooklyn, as an undergrad at Morehouse, and went on to graduate from New York University Film School in 1982 with a master's in fine arts. When his thesis film, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, won a Student Academy Award, it was clear that Lee was on his way to success.
With no hit movie to his name, an ambitious Spike Lee started the production company 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, which he named after the post-Reconstruction promise that some former slaves would receive 40 acres and a mule, which they never did. The company has produced more than 35 films and collaborated with clothing companies such as Eckō and Nike.
In 1985 Spike started production on She's Gotta Have It, which was filmed in two weeks with a budget of $175,000. The black-and-white film was written and directed by Lee and told the story of a sexually liberated young woman in Brooklyn, N.Y. The film opened in 1986 and was critically acclaimed, grossing more than $7 million at the box office.
Spike upped the ante with the color-struck musical School Daze. Loosely based on Lee's experience at Morehouse, the film (written and directed by Lee) detailed the strife between light-skinned blacks and dark-skinned blacks at a historically black college. Lee was criticized by some faculty at HBCUs for what they perceived to be a negative portrayal of the black college experience. School Daze included a cast of fresh talent, including Tisha Campbell-Martin, Laurence Fishburne and Samuel L. Jackson.
The controversy of School Daze was nothing compared to the media firestorm surrounding what is widely considered to be Lee's seminal work, Do the Right Thing. Critics ranted that Lee was fanning the flames of America's racial issues. Nonetheless, Lee became the first black man to receive an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. When there was no nomination for best picture, actress Kim Basinger famously said on the Oscar stage, "The best film of the year is not even nominated, and it's Do the Right Thing."
By the '90s, Lee had transcended film to become a marketable pop-culture figure. In a popular ad campaign, his character from She's Gotta Have It, Mars Blackmon, was paired with basketball powerhouse Michael Jordan to promote Nike's Air Jordan sneakers. Jordan and Mars Blackmon shone in timeless commercials and print ads for the franchise. Arguably, Lee and Jordan helped the Nike brand achieve the legendary status it has today.
Spike Lee tackled interracial relationships in the classic Jungle Fever, released in 1991. Starring Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra, the cast also included Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis and Samuel L. Jackson — plus, Queen Latifah and Halle Berry made their film debuts. The term "jungle fever" became part of the pop-culture lexicon, and the movie grossed more than $43 million at the box office.
If anyone questioned Lee's filmmaking skills, 1992's Malcolm X shut down all the naysayers. His Malcolm X biopic, starring Denzel Washington, who received an Oscar nomination for his performance, was a cinematic home run. But it wouldn't be a Spike Lee film if it didn't cause controversy. Some black nationalists were uncomfortable with Lee tackling Malcolm's life, and one protest brought out more than 200 people in Harlem. Still, film critic Roger Ebert ranked it the No. 1 film of 1992.
In 1993 Spike married attorney and entrepreneur Tonya Lewis. They have two children: Satchel Lee, born in 1994, and Jackson Lee, born in 1997. In early 2011, the two parents penned their third children's book together, Giant Steps to Change the World.
After a series of hit movies, the tide changed for Spike at the box office. Girl 6, the story of a phone-sex operator, was a critical and commercial bomb, even with the powerhouse cameos of Madonna and Naomi Campbell. Get on the Bus, about a group of black men traveling to the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., received mixed reviews and performed poorly at the box office.
The late '90s were a quiet time for Spike. He made 4 Little Girls, the Oscar-nominated documentary about the 1968 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing. But other films, such as the modest hit He Got Game and the commercial failure that was Summer of Sam, didn't garner the same attention he once received. With a wave of new black directors ruling the '90s (think John Singleton, F. Gary Gray and the Hughes brothers), many wondered if Spike's time had ended. They were wrong.
In 2000 Spike Lee pushed audiences' buttons again with Bamboozled, which was about a new-millennium minstrel show and starred Jada Pinkett Smith and Damon Wayans. Although it wasn't a massive hit, the film is considered a classic among fans. He also directed The Original Kings of Comedy, a documentary about the comedy tour of Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac.
Lee's bank-heist film Inside Man hit theaters in 2006 and starred Oscar winners Jodie Foster and Denzel Washington. It was Spike's most mainstream film to date and his most successful at the box office, grossing a whopping $180 million. But Spike wasn't selling out — later that year, he released the gripping When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, an HBO documentary on the horrors of Hurricane Katrina.
Lee criticized the legendary actor and director Clint Eastwood for not including any black soldiers in his World War II film, Flags of Our Fathers. Eastwood quickly snapped back, stressing the diversity of his films, such as 1988's Bird, a biopic about jazz icon Charlie Parker. At the time, Eastwood was also working on Invictus, about postapartheid South Africa and starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. Eastwood said that Lee should "shut his face." Lee retorted, calling Eastwood an "angry old man."
The Eastwood beef wasn't Lee's last public argument with a fellow director. In 2009 he compared some of Tyler Perry's work, mainly House of Payne, to minstrel shows. A back-and-forth played out in the media, with some saying Lee was jealous of Perry's success, and others claiming that Perry was oversensitive. In April 2011 Perry said, "Spike can go straight to hell! You can print that." Lee has yet to respond.
It took 18 years, but Spike Lee finally got some major recognition for 1992's Malcolm X. The film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, which deemed it "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant." On The View in early 2011, Lee gave the credit to star Denzel Washington, saying, "He's the reason why the film made it to the Library of Congress."