Spike Lee

Shelton Jackson "Spike" Lee (born March 20, 1957) is an American film director, producer, writer, and actor. His production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, has produced more than 35 films since 1983.

Spike Lee
Lee at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival
Shelton Jackson Lee

(1957-03-20) March 20, 1957
ResidenceNew York City, U.S.
EducationMorehouse College (BA)
New York University (MFA)
  • Filmmaker
  • professor
Years active1977–present
Home townBrooklyn, New York, U.S.
Board member of40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks
Tonya Lewis
(m. 1993)
Parent(s)Bill Lee
AwardsFull list

He made his directorial debut with She's Gotta Have It (1986). He has since written and directed such films as Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), He Got Game (1998), The Original Kings of Comedy (2000), 25th Hour (2002), Inside Man (2006), Chi-Raq (2015), and BlacKkKlansman (2018). Lee also took starring roles in ten of his films.

Lee's films have explored race relations, colorism in the black community, the role of media in contemporary life, urban crime and poverty, and other political issues. He has won numerous accolades for his work, including an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, a Student Academy Award, a BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, two Emmy Awards, two Peabody Awards, and the Cannes Grand Prix. He has also received an Academy Honorary Award, an Honorary BAFTA Award, an Honorary César, and the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.[1][2]

Early life

Lee was born in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of Jacqueline Carroll (née Shelton), a teacher of arts and black literature, and William James Edward Lee III, a jazz musician and composer.[3][4] Lee has three younger siblings, Joie, David, and Cinqué, each of whom has worked in many different positions in Lee's films. Director Malcolm D. Lee is his cousin. When he was a child, the family moved from Atlanta to Brooklyn, New York. His mother nicknamed him "Spike" during his childhood. He attended John Dewey High School in Brooklyn's Gravesend neighborhood.

Lee enrolled in Morehouse College, a historically black college, where he made his first student film, Last Hustle in Brooklyn. He took film courses at Clark Atlanta University and graduated with a B.A. in mass communication from Morehouse. He did graduate work at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts in film and television.[5]



Lee's independent film, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, was the first student film to be showcased in Lincoln Center's New Directors/New Films Festival.

In 1985, Lee began work on his first feature film, She's Gotta Have It. With a budget of $175,000, he shot the film in two weeks. When the film was released in 1986, it grossed over $7,000,000 at the U.S. box office.[6] Lee's 1989 film Do the Right Thing was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1989. Many people, including Hollywood's Kim Basinger, believed that Do the Right Thing also deserved a Best Picture nomination.[7] Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture that year. Lee said in an April 7, 2006, interview with New York magazine that the other film's success, which he thought was based on safe stereotypes, hurt him more than if his film had not been nominated for an award.[8]

After the 1990 release of Mo' Better Blues, Lee was accused of antisemitism by the Anti-Defamation League and several film critics. They criticized the characters of the club owners Josh and Moe Flatbush, described as "Shylocks". Lee denied the charge, explaining that he wrote those characters in order to depict how black artists struggled against exploitation. Lee said that Lew Wasserman, Sidney Sheinberg, or Tom Pollock, the Jewish heads of MCA and Universal Studios, were unlikely to allow antisemitic content in a film they produced. He said he could not make an antisemitic film because Jews run Hollywood, and "that's a fact".[9]

His 1997 documentary 4 Little Girls, about the girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary.

On May 2, 2007, the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival honored Spike Lee with the San Francisco Film Society's Directing Award. In 2008, he received the Wexner Prize.[10] In 2013, he won The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, one of the richest prizes in the American arts worth $300,000.[11] In 2015, Lee received an Academy Honorary Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his contributions to film.[12]

Lee directed, wrote, and produced the MyCareer story mode in the video game NBA 2K16.[13]

Lee's 2018 film BlacKkKlansman, a true crime drama set in the 1970s, won the Grand Prix at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, and opened the following August.[14] It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director (Lee's first ever nomination in this category). Lee won his first competitive Academy Award in the category Best Adapted Screenplay.


In 1991, Lee taught a course at Harvard about filmmaking. In 1993, he began to teach at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in the Graduate Film Program. It was there that he received his master of fine arts. In 2002 he was appointed as artistic director of the school.[15] He is now a tenured professor at NYU.[16]


In mid-1990, Levi's hired Lee to direct a series of TV commercials for their 501 button-fly jeans.[17]

Marketing executives from Nike[18] offered Lee a job directing commercials for the company. They wanted to pair Lee's character, Mars Blackmon, who greatly admired athlete Michael Jordan, and Jordan in a marketing campaign for the Air Jordan line. Later, Lee was asked to comment on the phenomenon of violence related to inner-city youths trying to steal Air Jordans from other kids.[19] He said that, rather than blaming manufacturers of apparel that gained popularity, "deal with the conditions that make a kid put so much importance on a pair of sneakers, a jacket and gold".[19]

Through the marketing wing of 40 Acres and a Mule, Lee has directed commercials for Converse,[20] Jaguar,[21] Taco Bell,[22] and Ben & Jerry's.[23]


Lee's films have examined race relations, colorism in the black community, the role of media in contemporary life, urban crime and poverty, and other political issues. His films are also noted for their unique stylistic elements, including the use of dolly shots to portray the characters "floating" through their surroundings, which he has had his cinematographers repeatedly use in his filmography.

Lee's films are typically referred to as "Spike Lee Joints". The closing credits always end with the phrases "By Any Means Necessary", "Ya Dig", and "Sho Nuff".[24] His 2013 film, Oldboy, used the traditional "A Spike Lee Film" credit after producers had it re-edited.[25]

Personal life

Lee met his wife, attorney Tonya Lewis, in 1992, and they were married a year later in New York.[26] They have one daughter, Satchel, born in 1994, and a son, Jackson, born in 1997.[27][28]

Spike Lee is a fan of the American baseball team the New York Yankees, basketball team the New York Knicks, and the English football team Arsenal.[29] One of the documentaries in ESPN's 30 for 30 series, Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks, focuses partly on Lee's interaction with Miller at Knicks games in Madison Square Garden.

In June 2003, Lee sought an injunction against Spike TV to prevent them from using his nickname.[30] Lee claimed that because of his fame, viewers would think he was associated with the new channel.[31][32]

When asked by the BBC if he believed in God, Lee said: "Yes. I have faith that there is a higher being. All this cannot be an accident."[33]

While Lee continues to maintain an office in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, he and his wife live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.[34]


In May 1999, the New York Post reported that Lee made an inflammatory comment about Charlton Heston, president of the National Rifle Association, while speaking to reporters at the Cannes Film Festival. Lee was quoted as saying the National Rifle Association should be disbanded and, of Heston, someone should "Shoot him with a .44 Bull Dog."[35][36] Lee said he intended it as a joke. He was responding to coverage about whether Hollywood was responsible for school shootings. "The problem is guns", he said.[37] Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey condemned Lee as having "nothing to offer the debate on school violence except more violence and more hate".[37]

In October 2005, Lee responded to a CNN anchor's question as to whether the government intentionally ignored the plight of black Americans during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina catastrophe by saying, "It's not too far-fetched. I don't put anything past the United States government. I don't find it too far-fetched that they tried to displace all the black people out of New Orleans."[38] In later comments, Lee cited the government's past including the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.[39][40]

At the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Lee, who was then making Miracle at St. Anna, about an all-black U.S. division fighting in Italy during World War II, criticized director Clint Eastwood for not depicting black Marines in his own World War II film, Flags of Our Fathers. Citing historical accuracy, Eastwood responded that his film was specifically about the Marines who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima, pointing out that while black Marines did fight at Iwo Jima, the U.S. military was racially segregated during World War II, and none of the men who raised the flag were black. He angrily said that Lee should "shut his face". Lee responded that Eastwood was acting like an "angry old man", and argued that despite making two Iwo Jima films back to back, Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers, "there was not one black soldier in both of those films".[41][42][43] He added that he and Eastwood were "not on a plantation".[44] Lee later claimed that the event was exaggerated by the media and that he and Eastwood had reconciled through mutual friend Steven Spielberg, culminating in his sending Eastwood a print of Miracle at St. Anna.[45]

In March 2012, after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, Spike Lee was one of many people who used Twitter to circulate a message that claimed to give the home address of the shooter George Zimmerman. The address turned out to be incorrect, causing the real occupants, Elaine and David McClain, to leave home and stay at a hotel due to numerous death threats.[46] Lee issued an apology and reached an agreement with the McClains, which reportedly included "compensation", with their attorney stating "The McClains’ claim is fully resolved".[47][48] Nevertheless, in November 2013, the McClains filed a negligence lawsuit which accused Lee of "encouraging a dangerous mob mentality among his Twitter followers, as well as the public-at-large".[46][49] The lawsuit, which a court filing reportedly valued at $1.2 million, alleged that the couple suffered "injuries and damages" that continued after the initial settlement up through Zimmerman's trial in 2013.[46] A Seminole County judge dismissed the McClains' suit, agreeing with Lee that the issue had already been settled previously.[50]


Awards, honors and nominations

In 1983, Lee won the Student Academy Award for his film Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads.[51] He won awards at the Black Reel Awards for Love and Basketball,[52] the Black Movie Awards for Inside Man, and the Berlin International Film Festival for Get on the Bus.[53] He won BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman.[54]

Lee was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay for Do the Right Thing and Best Documentary for 4 Little Girls, but did not win either award. In November 2015, he was given the Academy Honorary Award for his contributions to filmmaking.[55] In 2019, he received his first Best Picture and Best Director nominations[56] and went on to win Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman, his first Academy Award.[57]

Two of his films have competed for the Palme d'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival, and of the two, BlacKkKlansman won the Grand Prix in 2018.[14]

In 2019, Lee's film She's Gotta Have It was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[58]


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