The Evolution Of Spike Lee And How He Built A Brooklyn Empire

Shelton Jackson Lee was born in Atlanta, but grew up in New York. At an early age, the filmmaker was keenly aware of his Africa American roots, and soon he began making amateur films when he was in college.

While Lee has won numerous accolades for his work, he’s yet to earn himself an Oscar victory. That could all change, but let’s look at some of the things he did along the way during his career.

Lee continues to create provocative films, exploring race relations, political issues, urban crime and violence.

Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads Was Lee’s First Feature Film

Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop- We Cut Heads

Even in college, the aspiring director proved he had the tools to be someone big. While attending the Tisch School of Arts at New York University, Lee made his first film in 1982. The plot is straightforward and linear as Zack runs afoul with black mobsters and now faces their revenge.

He submitted the film as his master’s thesis, eventually becoming the first student film to be showcased in Lincoln Center’s New Directors New Films Festival. Lee took home a Student Academy Award and his father even composed the score.

His First Feature Film Had A Budget Of $175,000


She’s Gotta Have It was Lee’s first feature-length motion picture as a writer and director. Filming was completed in twelve days during the summer of 1985 on a budget of $175,000. The film catalyzed the Fort Greene, Brooklyn neighborhood where it was shot.

Lee portrayed the neighborhood as a vibrant community where successful African Americans thrived. Following the film’s release, media attention was focused on Brooklyn, and to its artists and musicians, as it grossed over $7 million at the box office.

Seeking Relevant Questions

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Due to the subject matter of Malcolm X, Lee caused some controversy. The director made a special request that media companies send black journalists to interview him for the film. He explained to the New York Times, “I’m doing what every other person in Hollywood does: they dictate who they want to do interviews with. What I’m doing is using whatever clout I have to get qualified African-Americans assignments. The real crime is white publications don’t have black writers, that’s the crime.”

The request was turned down by the Los Angeles Times. But, outlets including Premiere, Vogue, and Rolling Stone all agreed.

There’s a reason why many people protested the movie when Lee was filming it.

Lee Vented His Anger After The Death Of Trayvon Martin

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Shortly after the 17-year-old was shot to death, the director vented his anger on Twitter. Lee retweeted what he believed to be the home address of George Zimmerman, the man who was tried and acquitted of Martin’s murder. However, the address belonged to a married couple unrelated to the case.

In an episode of Oprah’s Next Chapter, Lee regretted the Tweet. “I did a stupid thing. I don’t know what my intention was.” He clarified that he was angry, but anger is not a justification for stupidity.

Lee Received A lot Of Heat For Mo’ Better Blues


After releasing the musical drama, the Anti-Defamation League was upset with the movie. The ADL wasn’t pleased with the portrayal of Jewish nightclub owners Moe and Josh Flatbush.

The organization claimed that the characterizations of the nightclub owners “dredge up an age-old and highly dangerous form of anti-Semitic stereotyping.” Lee continues to refuse to apologize for those characters, insisting that to say that a Jewish person never once exploited a black person in American history is “unrealistic and unfair.”

There Was A Ton Of Challenges To Film Malcolm X

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Protests were made against honoring a radical black activist. Members of the black Muslim community in the United States sent threats against the director, warning him against portraying the activist.

But, that didn’t stop other protestors from rallying against Denzel Washington as Malcolm, insisting the actor was too short and too dark-skinned to play an influential figure. Lastly, Lee couldn’t film the entire movie as part of it was filmed inside the Islamic Holy Center of Mecca, which is when he had a second-unit Muslim director go inside to film the rest.

His next movie was inspired by true events.

Samuel L. Jackson Owes One Thing To The Director

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In an interview with Esquire, Jackson credits Lee, who helped him through the creative process of Jungle Love.

“I was two weeks out of rehab. I’d been smoking cocaine for a year and a half, two years, and I understood the nature of the disease. I had done the research. So when I started talking to Spike about it, I said, “You don’t see him high that much. You always see him when he needs something. He’s on a mission to get some stuff. That’s what I wanna do.” And that was my breakthrough. That got me into Hollywood. It was the perfect marriage of experience and opportunity.

Oldboy May Have Kept His Own Fanbase Away


Lee has made a habit out of crediting each of his films as a “Spike Lee Joint.” One exception to his rule is the movie Oldboy, which was heavily re-edited by the producers soon after the director completed production.

At his insistence, the movie was dubbed as a “Spike Lee Film.” But, switching credits may have kept his own fanbase away, as such a bland billing implies that the film is without his personal stamp, and maybe even his own support as well.

His Next Movie Was Inspired By A Real-Life Incident

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Do The Right Thing tackled racial tension and police overreaction. On December 19, 1986, four black men were traveling when their car broke down. After they walked three miles to the Italian-American Howard Beach neighborhood, they got into an argument with some white teenagers before heading to the New York Pizzeria.

When they left the pizza joint, they were accosted by a larger group of white men. Two were beaten, one was hit by a car and killed, and the other was chased onto the Belt Parkway.

Read ahead to see why Lee gave an inflammatory comment about Charleton Heston.

His Commercial Work Began In 1988

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After making his first few films, Lee turned to commercials. But, this wasn’t an ordinary commercial for shopping or back to school. Instead, he teamed up with Michael Jordan and his Air Jordan campaign. Lee resurrected his popular character, Mars Blackmon, from She’s Gotta Have It.

He also produced a PSA for UNICEF called Two Michaels, which also featured the six-time NBA Champion. In addition, Lee is well-known for his Levi’s Button-Fly 501, AT&T, and ESPN television commercials. He also directed several Art Spot Shorts for MTV and a short film for Saturday Night Live.

Do The Right Thing Was Directly Targeted Towards A New York City Politician

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It appeared that Lee blamed Mayor Ed Koch for the deaths of black men and women, such as Eleanor Bumpurs, one person to whom the movie is dedicated.

On the set, he added graffiti that said “Dump Koch” next to an image of Mike Tyson punching Koch and Jesse Jackson campaign posters that say “Our Vote Counts!” “We had this plan because the film came out in August and that fall was the Democratic primary,” said Lee to New York Times.

Lee’s Joke About Charlton Heston Was A Triggered Moment

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In May 1999, the New York Post reported that the director made an inflammatory comment about Heston. While speaking to reporters at the Cannes Film Festival, Lee was quoted as saying the National Rifle Association and its president should be disbanded.

Plus, he said that someone should shoot Heston with a .44 Bull Dog. Lee said his intentions were nothing but a joke. However, not only was that controversial, but it was one of the worst moments of his career.

Read ahead to see which well-known director Lee clashed with after accusations of misrepresentation.

He’s Quite The Passionate Sports Fan

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New York Knicks basketball and Spike Lee are synonymous with each other. It’s no surprise that the filmmaker is one of the most passionate NBA celebrity fans of all-time. His infamous fan moment came during Game 5 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals.

He nearly cost the Knicks a birth to the Finals thanks to his run-in with Reggie Miller. The Hall of Famer famously gave the choke sign to the director after hitting a jump shot. Luckily, the Knicks went on to the Finals after a seven-game battle.

Some Of His Movies Are His Chronicles Of Brooklyn

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Interestingly enough, a semi-official series appears within the director’s filmography. While most fans of Lee don’t realize that, it’s been on display in six films.

These films all take place in the heart of Brooklyn, where his family moved to after he was born in Atlanta. The movies, Red Hook Summer, She’s Gotta Have It, He Got Game, Clockers, Do The Right Thing, and Crooklyn are all filmed in the same borough of New York City.

Spike Accused A Well-Known Director Of Misrepresentation

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Lee was quick to criticize the absence of African-American actors in Flag of our Fathers. Directed by Clint Eastwood, Lee said that the Dirty Harry star did two films about Iwo Jima back-to-back and there was not one black soldier in both of those films.

Eastwood hit back with this response to The Guardian: “Has he ever studied the history? I mean, it’s not accurate. A guy like him should shut his face.”

Did they squash the beef? Read ahead to see for yourself.

He Has Quite A Few Acting Credits

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In addition to being a filmmaker, Lee has acted in many movies. What’s fascinating is that he even appeared in his movies as well. He played Mars Blackmon in She’s Gotta Have It, Mookie in Do The Right Thing, and held roles in Jungle Fever, School Daze, Mo’ Better Blues, and Red Hook Summer.

Lee joins an extensive list of well-known directors who regularly appear in their own films. Clint Eastwood, Peter Jackson, and Mel Brooks were among the few to do the same.

He Began Teaching A Course On Filmmaking At Harvard

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In 1991, Lee began teaching at Harvard University. The director has degrees from Morehouse College and New York University, but learned to teach as he went along. But, in 1993, he switched gears and returned to his alma mater at NYU.

He began to teach at the school’s Tisch School of the Arts in the Graduate Film Program. Eventually, he would receive his Masters of Fine Arts Degree as he was appointed the Artistic Director in 2002.

The Directors Are Cooler Than Ever Before

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Lee’s public beef with Eastwood is over for good. He told Access Hollywood’s Shaun Robinson, “That thing with Clint was overblown, and that stuff was squashed. We’re cool.” The truce came about during the 2008 NBA Playoffs, and Steven Spielberg handled the mediations.

“I’m going to the bathroom, and Spielberg’s sitting there with Eddie Murphy and Jeffrey Katzenberg. And Katzenberg was getting on me about leaving Clint alone. I said, ‘Steven, let me talk to you for a second.’ So we talked, I conveyed a message, and he said, ‘I’ll call Clint in the morning.'”

Coming up, Lee is now taking his filmmaking experience to the classroom.

His Siblings Co-Wrote One Of His Movies

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In the spirit of Brooklyn, the film was a semi-autobiographical film about his life. In that spirit, Lee co-wrote the screenplay with his brother and sister, Joie and Cinque. In addition to Joie’s work on the film, she and Spike both had roles in She’s Gotta Have It.

But, that wouldn’t be the last time the director would work with his siblings. That same movie became a series for Netflix, and both Joie and Cinque came on as writers for the show.

Netflix Ordered Lee’s First Movie For A Series

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Lee’s first feature-film became a television series for Netflix. The filmmaker is revisiting She’s Gotta Have It for the small screen. The media-service provider ordered a 10-episode season, with a second season has been given the green light to film.

While he directed all episodes for the series, he will serve as an executive producer with his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee. This is nothing more than a contemporary update of Lee’s groundbreaking film, paving the way for other black filmmakers.

Now He’s Launching His First Online Filmmaking Class

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The filmmaker will offer his first online class in partnership with MasterClass. Lee’s class launched in the summer of 2018, which hosts more than two dozen other celebrity-led tutorials.

In a statement, Lee said “I’ve learned in 30 years things that I can give back. I’m teaching this Masterclass because very few people get to sit in my classes at NYU, so this is an opportunity for me to share what I’ve learned with as many students as possible, no matter where they are in their film career.”

What will the course offer? Lee has more information about that just ahead.

He Met Tonya After She Graduated From Law School


Tonya attended the University of Virginia School of Law after completing her undergrad at Sarah Lawrence College. After college, she ended up working for a law firm in Washington, D.C., working with corporate and First Amendment issues.

In 1992, she would eventually meet her future husband while attending the Congressional Black Caucus Weekend in D.C. They were married a year later in a private ceremony in New York. Together, the couple has a daughter, Satchel, and son, Jackson.

Lee Wanted The Star Of Taxi Driver In Do The Right Thing

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It’s no surprise that the director wanted Robert De Niro for his movie. The director wanted the actor to play the role of a brash Italian-American pizzeria owner, which eventually went to Danny Aiello. Interestingly enough, Aiello would earn an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

In an interview with Indiewire, Lee said, “What young filmmaker wouldn’t want him to star in their own film? So, I gave him the script and he liked it, but he said it wasn’t for him.”

What Will The Lectures Feature?

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In the online class, Lee will have an interesting take on filmmaking. He analyzes his work both on the page and on the screen, covering the technicalities of writing stories, working with actors, camera angles, financing, and choosing music for scenes.

Plus, he’ll address the hurdles facing first-time filmmakers, sharing his own experiences overcoming obstacles in the film industry. He urges students to be conscious of the relationship between their work and the world.

Is the Academy finally ready to give Lee his long-awaited award?

He’s Still Looking For That Golden Statue


Of all the awards the filmmaker has been nominated for, Lee has yet to win an Oscar. However, he was nominated for two awards in his early days. The first came in 1989 where he was nominated for Best Original Screenplay for Do the Right Thing.

His second nomination came at the 70th Awards show when he was nominated for Best Documentary Feature for 4 Little Girls. He would lose to Dead Poets Society and The Long Way Home.

He Finally Got Major Recognition At The 91st Academy Awards

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After more than three decades of making films, Lee is finally an Academy Award nominee once again. His movies were notoriously passed over in a number of categories in the past. But, this time, he’s nominated for Best Picture as well as Best Director for BlacKkKlansman.

Lee is the sixth black filmmaker to be nominated for an Oscar for directing. This comes after John Singleton, Lee Daniels, Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins, and Jordan Peele all earned nominations, but all lost in their respective years.

He Hasn’t Escaped The Notice Of The Academy

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His 4 Little Girls was nominated for best documentary in 1998. But, he was given an honorary Oscar in 2016 when he rebuked Hollywood’s diversity record, saying: “It’s easier to be president of the United States as a black person than be head of a studio. Honest.”

However, the filmmaker may have the best shot of his career with BlacKkKlansman. “It’s the dark horse– pun intended. You know what? That’s fitting. I’ve always been an underdog, from the beginning, even in film school.”

Timing is everything for the director and you’ll see why shortly.

His Parents Were Artists Too

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Lee is the son of Jacqueline Caroll, a teacher of arts and black literature. His father, William James Edward Lee III, was a jazz musician and a composer. He has composed original music for many of his son’s films including She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, Do the Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues.

Director Malcolm D. Lee is also a cousin of Spike who directed films like Undercover Brother and Girls Trip.

An Oscar Winner’s Son Appeared In Lee’s Movie

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Denzel Washington has starred in four of Lee’s films. While the actor had roles in Malcolm X and Inside Man, he’s more thrilled about his son, John David Washington, working with Spike. His son starred in BlacKkKlansman as Detective Ron Stallworth.

Washington said his son’s success is evidence that the film industry now is very different from the one he started out in. He told The Telegraph “There’s a big difference from what I started out. They’re pushing the envelope. It’s up to them. But they’re doing it.”

Those Six Oscar Nods Are About Timing

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Lee knows that timing is everything. Now, he believes the newly diversified Academy will make a big difference for their next show. It’s been a long time since the Honorary Oscar winner was nominated for Original Screenplay for Do the Right Thing.

In an interview with Indiewire, the Oscar nominee said, “This was the right time for this film. I do think in many years from now, historians are going to look back on this film as on the right side of history.”