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Spike Lee Biography: Life and Career of the Director

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Born March 20th, 1957 and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Spike Lee became interested in the arts when he was a young boy and began making student films in school. While he's most well-known for being a director and producer, Lee has often acted in his movies. He's been no stranger to both success and controversy throughout his career, often pushing the boundaries when it comes to issues of race, politics and violence. He has also found success directing commercials and music videos. In this video, we take a look at the life and career of Spike Lee.

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This American director is no stranger to controversy. Welcome to and today we’re taking a look at the life and career of Spike Lee.

Early Exposure to Arts

Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee was born March 20th, 1957 and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Since his mother taught the arts and his father played jazz, he was exposed to the arts early on.

Student Films

After graduating high school, Lee began making student films in college. He already started to make a name for himself during the early 1980s while studying for his MFA at New York University; in fact, the independent film he submitted as his thesis was honored with a Student Academy Award.

Music Videos

During this period, Lee also began directing music videos and he pursued this avenue of his career for decades. Notable artists he created videos for include Public Enemy, Naughty by Nature and Michael Jackson.

“She’s Gotta Have It”

His first feature-length movie was 1986’s “She’s Gotta Have It.” Lee wrote, directed, co-produced, edited and appeared in the comedy-drama that explored relationships between African-American men and women.

TV Commercials

Its success at the box office essentially launched Lee into a career directing television commercials. Though Nike was one of the first companies to approach him, Lee later worked with several other brands through his production company 40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks.

“School Daze”

Lee also wrote, directed and acted in his second feature film, “School Daze.” The 1988 musical drama became a commercial success and raised controversy for its depiction of student life at a historically black college.

“Do the Right Thing”

Success and controversy once more followed Lee after 1989’s “Do the Right Thing.” Tackling issues such as race, politics and violence, the comedy-drama was recognized with numerous Oscar and Golden Globe award nominations.

“Mo’ Better Blues”

Lee next directed Denzel Washington in the 1990 drama “Mo’ Better Blues,” and then returned to his examination of socio-political and racial themes with his next two films.

Race and Politics

1991’s “Jungle Fever” dealt with dating between different racial groups and featured Samuel L. Jackson in the role that truly made him a star. The next year saw Lee explore the life of an African-American Muslim who fought for equal rights in the critically acclaimed “Malcolm X.” Washington’s admirable performance as the title character earned him an Oscar nomination in the process.

Varied Movies

In 1994, Lee released the motion picture “Crooklyn,” in which his sister, Joie Lee, had a small role. This was followed by the crime thriller “Clockers,” starring frequent collaborator, John Turturro. In 1996, Lee received poor reviews for the comedy “Girl 6,” but things turned around later that year with the positively reviewed drama “Get on the Bus.”

Oscar-nominated Documentary and Dramas

Lee next earned an Oscar nomination for his venture into documentary filmmaking with “4 Little Girls.” He then returned to fiction with the sports-drama “He Got Game” in 1998. He ended off the decade by entering dark territory with the crime-drama “Summer of Sam.”

More Films

After opening the new century directing the film “The Original Kings of Comedy” with comedians like Steve Harvey and Bernie Mac, Lee experimented with satire and blackface in the movie “Bamboozled.” 2002 saw the release of “25th Hour,” which was a well-received film based on a novel. Two years later, Lee took the indie route with the comedy-drama “She Hate Me.”

Success of “Inside Man” and “When the Levees Broke”

Following a few documentaries, some production work and smaller projects, Lee was back in theatres in 2006 with the crime-thriller “Inside Man.” The well-received movie featured respected actors like Jodie Foster, Clive Owen, Willem Dafoe and Denzel Washington, and became his highest-grossing film to that point. Next, he directed the television documentary “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” which dealt with life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and won several Primetime Emmy awards for his work.

More Feature Films and Other Projects

For the next few years, Lee continued working on feature films like the 2008 war movie “Miracle at St. Anna” and documentaries like 2009’s “Kobe Doin’ Work.” Things didn’t slow down the next decade as he continued to write, direct, produce and develop several projects.

A Talented Director

Sho Nuff, Spike Lee is a talented director. Through his films, he’s always been willing to share his passion for socio-political causes by any means necessary and that is what truly makes them Spike Lee Joints. Ya dig?

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