Spike Lee: That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It

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.

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.

Popular on Variety

More Reviews

  • Mindanao

    Tokyo Film Review: 'Mindanao'

    Filipina actor, TV star, reality show host and social media queen Judy Ann Santos turns in a de-glammed, gently anguished, remarkably sympathetic performance in “Mindanao,” the latest title from prolific Filipino director Brillante Mendoza. Her watchability, however, comes despite a storytelling approach that is undercut by several unconvincing directorial decisions — chief among them the [...]

  • Marona's Fantastic Tale

    Tokyo Film Review: 'Marona's Fantastic Tale'

    “Everyone had the right to love and a bone.” That’s just one of the many canine insights served up by “Marona’s Fantastic Tale,” a dazzling expressionistic view of the world through the eyes of a stray dog who wants nothing more than those two comforts. Actually, the unassuming narrator (Lizzie Brochere) — who looks like [...]

  • Lungs review

    London Theater Review: 'Lungs' Starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith

    What, to ask the perennial theatergoer’s question, is Duncan Macmillan’s “Lungs” about? It’s about climate change, isn’t it? No, it’s a play about deciding whether to have a baby. Actually, like his earlier success “People, Places, Things,” in which Macmillan balanced a personal story with a depiction of addiction, it’s a juggling of two subjects [...]

  • Bella Bella review

    Off Broadway Review: Harvey Fierstein's 'Bella Bella'

    Harvey Fierstein is one busy guy. A Broadway institution with four Tony Awards for acting (“Torch Song Trilogy,” “Hairspray”) and playwriting (“Torch Song Trilogy,” “La Cage aux Folles”), he has also written everything from teleplays (“The Wiz Live!”, “Hairspray Live!”) to an award-winning children’s book, “The Sissy Duckling.” His movie work includes “Mrs. Doubtfire” and [...]

  • Linda Hamilton, left, and Arnold Schwarzenegger

    Film Review: 'Terminator: Dark Fate'

    Back in 1984, seven years before “The Terminator” spawned a sequel that was big, sprawling, and James Cameron-y enough to elevate the franchise into what felt like the dystopian Marvel spectacle of its day, it’s worth noting that Cameron’s original film was a ruthlessly efficient post-apocalyptic B-movie — a proto-video-game sci-fi nightmare that took its [...]

  • Mountaintop

    Film Review: Neil Young's 'Mountaintop'

    If you ever wished you could be a fly on the wall at a Neil Young recording session, his new film “Mountaintop” may put that desire to the test. Or at least it’ll severely try the patience of any unsuspecting dates who get dragged along by Young fanatics to the movie’s one night in North [...]

  • Chasing Rainbows review

    New Jersey Theater Review: Judy Garland Bio 'Chasing Rainbows'

    Judy Garland’s voice was unparalleled and rich, an emotive contralto that lasted long into her later years with a loud and winning showiness to go with its melodramatic nuances. But that voice concealed a troubled backstory, as the woman born Frances Ethel Gumm toted the baggage of a closeted gay father, an ugly duckling’s insecurity [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content