How Spike Lee’s Been Ahead Of The Curve On Race In Movies For Decades

Spike Lee

Blackkklansman is new to buy or rent on 4k Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD and Digital.

If you’ve ever seen something that’s basically smacked you over the face with its message, chances are it was a Spike Lee movie, or documentary, or TV show. And if you’ve been to the movies in the last six months, it was probably BlacKkKlansman.

Based on an almost-unbelievable true story, the film follows the only Black cop in a Colorado police department who ends up going undercover in the Ku Klux Klan. But the events that play out on screen highlight why Spike Lee’s work is so valuable and so necessary, and are a reminder of how significant his previous work was in both politics and pop culture.

There is a scene in She’s Gotta Have It where artist and main protagonist Nola Darling is talking about how Denzel Washington was robbed at the Oscars for his role in Malcom X, all while she’s painting the movie poster. This seems insignificant, until you remember that S pike Lee wrote and directed Malcom X, and that he is directly referencing himself, his own movie in his own show.

Siri, show me iconic.

Few directors can say they’ve had the tenure, much less the influence, to create iconic pop-culture references that span decades, but Spike Lee in spite of – or perhaps because of – controversy surrounding his unashamedly black excellence, has done just that. Malcom X, for example, never would’ve happened were it not for Lee’s persistence to get it done. Call it stubborn, call it determined, Lee’s films have repeatedly defined him as the director of his generation, so there’s something to be said for his hard-headedness.

But iconic pop culture moments aside, Lee has been a huge advocate for Black people and POC from the get-go. BlacKkKlansman is a movie that could’ve easily leaned into creating comfort for white audiences, but instead is unashamedly shows a country that was, and is, in distress.

Lee has the ability to look back at these communities and stand with them against the adversity they face, but also to criticise the ways in which they operate. That’s part of what makes Do The Right Thing so hard to watch. It’s not just the tragic ending, but the events happening on the block leading up to that. The way the Latinos on the stoop talk about one another, and also the anti-blackness they display to those around them, is so real it hurts. It may have been controversial, but it portrayed the old-school views my community held (and that some still hold) pretty accurately.

Very few movies with Black protagonists were as successful in the ‘80s, especially ones that openly criticised machismo, like in She’s Gotta Have It (1986), police brutality in Do The Right Thing (1989), or even colourism in coloured communities in School Daze (1988). Even less movies crossed cultural bounds and went mainstream among all communities.

His did, though, and continues to do so, even now. BlacKkKlansman made more than five times its budget at the box office – an amazing feat for a film that looks back at the strange world of the KKK. At the same time, in many ways, it also criticises the modern world of Trump and his legion of followers. When watching Lee’s films, it’s important to remember that, whether it’s the cultural idiosyncrasies of the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s, a lot of what deserved criticism then still holds true today. It’s perhaps what makes them poignant and even more heartbreaking.

Lee also has the impressive ability to thread comedy into these typically dark narratives. Gator, Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Jungle Fever, begs his brother for money in order to buy drugs, convincing him to hand over a $100 bill by saying it’s either this or attacking elderly people for their wallets. The steps that led his character here, and indeed those in real life, are tragic and not for a lack of systematic racism and oppression. But watching him dance along while singing, “I like gettin’ high…I’m a c-c-c-c-crackhead” isn’t not funny.

But it’s the small moments crafted by Lee that have had the most impact over time. It’s Nola walking home, elated, from her friend’s place in She’s Gotta Have It, only to be attacked by a man for no reason. It’s the young child of the Korean family in Do The Right Thing watching them being criticised for not knowing English well enough to run a business. It’s the disapproval from both families of an interracial relationship in Jungle Fever.

Spike Lee’s films have remained timeless not because of the need for a hero or because someone came and ‘fixed’ racism. It’s the importance of merely existing as a Black person or as a POC in the face of hardship, every day, no matter what. The day after the riot in Do The Right Thing, Da Mayor wonders, “Hope the block is still standing”, to which Mother Sister replies, “We’re still standing’”. And, yes, we are still standing.

(All images courtesy of Universal Sony Pictures)

BlacKkKlansman is new to buy or rent on 4K Ultra HD™, Blu-ray™, DVD and Digital.