Spike Lee : Documenting Truth to Power

70th Annual Peabody Awards
Spike Lee at the 70th Annual Peabody Awards, May 23, 2011. Photo: Anders Krusberg

To many, Spike Lee is one of the best, most politically astute filmmakers of his generation. To others, he is an agent-provocateur whose films provoke as much controversy as they do acclaim at times by design, and other times by default.

Lee came through when Hip-Hop pioneers such as the Kool Herc (born Clive Campbell in Jamaica) and Africa Bambata’s Zulu Nation were giving way to the Daisy Age of De La Soul and the emerging unapologetic Public Enemy in New York. This era came at a time when Black British identity had yet to be defined. Having stayed with family in Brooklyn during the early 1980s, I lapped up his early NYC-centric racially charged films. This added substance to my quest for knowledge about who I was and the world I inhabited. I admired him as someone who never blinked, when the trap door was opened, and the question posed: ‘Are you a black filmmaker or a filmmaker who happens to be black?’ this was never a dilemma for him, more an opportunity to counter-punch! I would applaud as Spike defined himself as someone who can hold both positions whilst still breathing comfortably in his own skin.

Beyond race, Lee has explored issues that we now know as inter-sectionality juxtaposing race and female sexuality, She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Girl 6 (1996) and Chiraq (2015). His masterpiece Do the Right Thing (1989) introduced gentrification and class. It was also defined by the revolutionary “Fight The Power” by Public Enemy and his muse Rosie Perez’s dance moves.  His father William Lee is a musician and also scored his early films. I admired him for never being afraid to use the director’s chair to speak on issues beyond the silver-screen. After all, if you name your film production company 40 Acres and a Mule to highlight the pathetic repatriation given to African-Americans after slavery what do you expect is going to come next?

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Mourners in Birmingham, Ala., after the funeral for Carole Robertson, who was killed in a bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church there on Sept. 15, 1963. Bettmann / Getty Images

However, for me, the two best Spike Lee films are documentaries. In recent years, the documentary has become increasingly revered as an art form thanks bizarrely, to content-behemoths Netflix and Amazon winning a slew of awards and championing the documentary albeit on their own digital terms. The New York Times in an interview with him last year said 4 Little Girls (1997) and When the Levees Broke (2006), are two of the best documentaries ever made about black life —or perhaps just life — in the South. These documentaries brought tears of rage yet inspired me to visit and document the lives, the horrors, emotions and pain in my book “My American Odyssey: From the Windrush to the White House”. 4 Little Girls tells the story of the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama and four school children that Klansman murdered as they attended Sunday School. The church was rebuilt, including a stained-glass image of a Black Jesus, donated by the people of Wales. I have attended a church service there and the museum bears testament to the truth that terrorism will never triumph. The bombing occurred days after Dr, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and two months before President Kennedy’s assassination. I use these bloody reference points to remind people that America’s past has, and still is, tinged with violent tragedy. What we experience today is nothing new, just the most recent mutation of racism.

When the Levees Broke became the documentation of the before, during and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina devasting New Orleans in 2005. Lee showed how a modern-day disaster movie became a living reality for the inhabitants. He portrayed the anger, pain, conspiracies and truth of the authorities’ failure to care for their citizens. Unlike two of my other favourite Lee documentaries, Hoop Dreams (1994) and When We Were Kings (1996), they were filmed as fly on the wall portrayals. Spike crafted his stories from testimonies, footage and history books. Since my first visit in 2007, I have also been in admiration of the volunteers who rebuilt the neglected poorer black areas shown in the film. One such organisation lowernine.org, through their director Laura Paul, I am indebted to with her hospitality and insight.

Lee is actually a child of the south and he was reminded of this in the first season of the US version of Who Do You Think You Are? (2011). Here, he came face to face with his past discovering his Great, Great, Great Grandfather manufactured arms for the Confederate army during the civil war in his native Georgia. His face was a contorted composition of revulsion and intrigue as the camera was skilfully flipped on him.  There have been elements of this real-life footage and documentary approach in his films. His biopic Malcolm X (1992) opened with the beating of Rodney King that sparked the 1992 LA riots. In his latest film BlacKkKlansman, he revisits this method by adding real life footage of the murder of protester Heather Heyer by the Alt-Right in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. This is the genius of Spike Lee; documenting his truth to power through the camera lens, setting the standard for today’s generation of black filmmakers and leaders.

Come The Revolution founding member, curator, broadcaster and author Roger Griffith provides us with his regular blog for all you fans of black cinema and more, in his Notes on a Black Screen series. Follow Roger on Twitter at @Rogerg44

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