Spike Lee couldn't seem to get much credit lately.
"She Hate Me," his last film before "Inside Man," was easily the worst of his career, an overstuffed turkey that attempted to take on everything from lesbian parenting to Enron-style corruption to Watergate. It failed. Miserably.
Lee's previous directing effort, "25th Hour," was possibly the finest film about post- 9/1 1 New York to date, yet disappeared among the crazed 2002 Oscar race with less fanfare than a Britney Spears-and-hubby reality show.
And his 2003 clash with Viacom over the name of its Spike TV network brought guffaws nationwide.
That's why it is high time a truly comprehensive study of his career was released, as a way of reminding the world of his many successes and showing the tremendous impact he has had on filmmaking for the last 20 years. "Spike Lee: That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It" does just that, in an entertaining and often surprising manner.
Lee is on a very small list of filmmakers whose names represent brands -- David Lynch, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese are a few others. His name means something; his films are "joints," and "Spike Lee" is, itself, a category. However, as Lee himself tells it in Kaleem Aftab's literate, engrossing and marvelously detailed book, a new Lee joint invariably carries with it an assumption of racial anger and outrage. Lee, to many critics, cannot simply make a film; instead, he must constantly find new ways to explore the black experience in America.
This is one of the many issues dealt with in the book, which can be called something of a quasi-autobiography. While it is not written by Lee, a vast series of interviews and recollections with Aftab form the narrative core, and show an artist who is forcefully blunt, ceaselessly active and candidly honest. It also features memories, both happy and angry, with some of the major names who have worked with Lee: John Turturro, Samuel L. Jackson, Edward Norton, Ernest Dickerson and more.
Many reviewers, filmgoers and observers love to pigeonhole Lee, and judge his work, sight unseen. Aftab writes, "To pigeonhole Spike Lee on the ground of his race would be to inflict a great injustice," and he is correct. How can a filmmaker whose work encompasses everything from a bio-pic about Malcolm X ("Malcolm X"), a documentary about the racially motivated murder of four young girls in 1963 Alabama ("4 Little Girls"), a study of New York City during the Son of Sam killings ("Summer of Sam") and a college-set musical ("School Daze") be considered one-note?
This is likely a result of the intense power of "Do the Right Thing," the film that catapulted Lee into the ranks of America's finest directors and still causes controversy. Some of the most interesting sections of Aftab's book highlight the creation of this masterpiece, and the firestorm of media interest that quickly ignited. Much of this arose from the film's complex study of ethnic and racial discord in America.
"Historically," Lee says, "there has always been a dynamic between Italian-Americans and African-Americans that sometimes turns into violence."
Characters like Bill Nunn's Radio Raheem and Danny Aiello's Sal are forever burned into the memory of cinephiles, as is the film's finale, with Mookie, played by Lee himself, symbolically launching a garbage can through the window of Sal's Pizzeria. Aftab shows how Lee fought to keep the ending from being changed: "In the course of post-production, the final scene of 'Do the Right Thing,' which had once led to Lee's deal with Paramount collapsing, would again cause problems."
What is ironic is that executives were fine with the garbage can being tossed. It was the coda, in which Mookie comes to collect his outstanding wages from Sal, that caused troubles:
"Money is all Mookie cares about," says Lee. "When Sal throws the money at him, if he had any self-respect, he wouldn't take it. But he's about the money, so he took it. Sam Kitt, another executive at Universal who was assigned to the film, he felt the same old s--- where the studio wants their main characters to be the most lovable people, otherwise people won't like the movie. I don't agree."
Aftab's intense focus on these small details in Lee's work stands out. So, too, does the gossip, for Lee has made his share of enemies in the world of cinema.
One feud was with Quentin Tarantino, who actually acted in Lee's "Girl 6," a disastrous comedy about the phone sex industry. Lee took umbrage with the liberal use of the "n" word in Tarantino's films, with Samuel L. Jackson, who has starred for both directors, caught in the middle. Jackson defended Tarantino, and hit back at Lee, who, of course, had his own response.
"Well, Sam and I had a disagreement," Lee says. "Also, I wasn't talking about Sam; I was talking about Quentin Tarantino. I found it mildly amusing that Sam felt that he had to come to defend the 'Massa.' "
Clearly, Lee's comments, as well as the themes and characters in his films, take no prisoners, and don't apologize. But Lee is rankled when critics take the dialogue of his characters as his own.
"People who think those are my views are not smart," he says. "They don't do that s--- to Woody Allen."
Among the other Hollywood heavyweights Lee takes on are directors Jonathan Demme and Spielberg ("The Color Purple" particularly rankles him, as does "Beloved"), producer Brian Grazer ("I think he often sees black people as buffoons and coons," Lee says) and even rapper 50 Cent, who Lee sees as a hypocrite ("When your CD is entitled 'Get Rich or Die Trying,' that is not about elevation," says Lee). He seems to relish his role as a pop culture provocateur, and especially enjoys fighting back at the often knee-jerk criticism of his work.
A perfect example is his clash with filmmaker Wim Wenders at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, which many expected to award its top prize to "Do the Right Thing."
"Wim Wenders, president of the jury, was said not to like the fact that it's my character, Mookie, who throws the garbage can through the window of Sal's Famous Pizzeria. Apparently Wenders considered it an unheroic act," says Lee. "Are you telling me that James Spader in 'sex, lies, and videotape,' who tapes women and watches them so he can masturbate, is heroic?"
As Aftab tells it, Lee's reaction post-Cannes was rather succinct: "I have a Louisville Slugger baseball bat with Wim Wender's name on (it)."
But Aftab's work is more than just a collection of rants. It is a keen and probing account of a filmmaker who has had to struggle every step of the way, who occasionally misfires, but is every bit as gutsy as John Cassavetes or Pier Paolo Pasolini was. A film like "Bamboozled" doesn't fully work, but few other artists would have the vision or the sheer boldness to tackle the representation of blacks on film and television via a story of a "New Millennium Minstrel Show." Lee saw the film as satire, but it turned off many critics and viewers.
However, DVD let the film find a whole new audience, something Lee sees as representative of new possibilities.
"That is the great thing about DVDs," he says, "Films have another life."
The book ends with a contemplative quote from Edward Norton, one that points to where Lee might, in fact, be heading: "If you look at Scorsese's career, Spike's is in a very similar arc," says the star of "25th Hour." "At the moment he is where Scorsese was before 'Goodfellas,' acknowledged by the generation that came of age with him as a master craftsman, as one of the great virtuoso stylists, one of the original voices, one of the people who is sticking in a fork and looking at the really dysfunctional things of our generation's times, Spike is not going to get his full due until the generation that was most impacted by his movies becomes the mainstream adult generation."
Does Lee have a success on the level of "Goodfellas" within him? Only time will tell. What will truly be intriguing is seeing his "Kundun" or "The Age of Innocence." If these do, indeed, come to pass, volume two of "That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It" should be interesting stuff.
Spike Lee: That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It
A biography by Kaleem Aftab written in close collaboration with Lee himself and published by Norton