Since he burst onto the scene with “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Do the Right Thing,” Spike Lee has gone from America’s most provocative black filmmaker to a somewhat marginalized figure, seen more often courtside at Knicks games than on the red carpet. With the upcoming Imagine/U big-budget pic “Inside Man” reteaming Lee with star Denzel Washington, Kaleem Aftab’s biog is a timely reminder of what Lee has accomplished and why he matters.
Book marks the 20th anniversaries of both his debut feature’s production and of the company behind it, 40 Acres & a Mule, named, with Lee’s typical bluntness, after the reneged-upon reparations offered to Civil War-era slaves. U.K. journalist Aftab’s engaging — and fully authorized — assessment of the legendarily combative and uncompromising Lee (christened Shelton and nicknamed Spike by his mother in recognition of his fiery and petulant nature) offers the definitive word on what is a determinedly controversial career.
And career is the focus here. Although the book is billed as a biography, that’s something of an overstatement. Lee’s youth in 1960s Brooklyn in the shadow of incendiary Civil Rights activity, his stint at NYU film school and his first filmic efforts — encapsulating some 25 years — is covered all too swiftly in an enticing yet meager 20-page chapter.
The book then settles into a groove of chronological “making-of” vignettes of Lee’s filmography. Although this material is covered perfectly well in Lee’s own books, here it’s suitably bolstered by Aftab’s excellent coverage of the social (especially rap culture) and political events that shaped Lee’s personal history and infused said films’ themes and attitudes.
The book’s “As Told to Kaleem Aftab” tag proves something of a hindrance. Although Aftab undoubtedly has a welcoming and suitably outspoken subject in Lee, there are strict boundaries. Most notably, Lee refused to allow Aftab to interview his jazz musician father, Bill; their relationship became fractious when, in the wake of his wife’s death, Bill married a white Jewish woman — an event Lee deems to have practically destroyed his family. Elsewhere, Lee clams up on some of his own relationships with women.
However, an extensive cast of interviewees, ranging from actors to family members to disgruntled ex-collaborators, engrossingly offsets Lee’s considerable yet up-to-a-point openness. They offer disarmingly frank — and not always complimentary — commentary, providing a portrait of someone whose reputation is fully deserved.
As expected, there is much testimony to Lee not being the easiest colleague, while leading ladies Rosie Perez, Annabella Sciorra and sister Joie Lee offer compelling views on Lee’s alleged misogyny on film.
Despite his clear enthusiasm for his subject, Aftab impressively rises to the challenge of putting Lee in the dock, especially concerning the director’s famous affiliation with Nike, for whom he produced a series of successful ads with Michael Jordan. Aftab is quick to highlight the contradiction in Lee’s defense of minorities against exploitation and his support of a company that faced charges of sweatshop conditions in overseas plants. It’s to Lee’s credit that he allowed this accusation in the book — although it’s not dwelled upon.
Ultimately, though, Aftab’s book perfectly captures how Lee, for all his faults, is an inspirational figure who has fostered a generation of black filmmakers and who remains thoroughly committed to his ideals even if, now 48 years old, he’s considerably more mellowed with a career in long-term commercial decline.
This book is by no means a “pussy media thing” (as Lee dubs most authorized biographies), but it could have benefited from a wider scope.
W.W. Norton publishes the U.S. edition in September.