Spike Lee was born Shelton Lee on March 20, 1957, in Atlanta, Ga., the son of a musician and a teacher. He moved to Brooklyn at the age of 2 with his family.
He was educated at Morehouse College in Atlanta and at NYU’s film school. After forming his own production company, Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks, in Brooklyn, he made a number of motion pictures focusing on the contemporary black experience and interracial conflict, many of them set in Brooklyn.
He first gained attention in the late 1980s for his films She’s Gotta Have It (’86), which was compared to Woody Allen’s work by the New York critics, and Do the Right Thing (’89), a controversial study of racial tension. In Do the Right Thing the state of the nation is seen as a slice of life in Brooklyn, where the residents of one block swirl in and out of Sal’s (Danny Aiello) pizzeria, the focal point of the street. The pace and the uneasy racial dynamics are shrewdly stepped up as the summer temperatures and tempers soar to a shocking climax, acknowledging that people, when pushed, choose sides. Lee acted in this film as well as wrote and directed it. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Ever cool to mainstream formulas and always the subject of debate, Lee’s jazz film Mo’ Better Blues (’90) and his inter-racial relationship story Jungle Fever (’91) met with mixed receptions, which did not deter him from his ambitious, powerful and meditative biopic Malcolm X (’92). Denzel Washington received much acclaim for his performance in the title role. Washington and Lee collaborated again more recently in the father-son basketball flick He Got Game (1998) and in Inside Man (2006), a suspenseful bank heist film co-starring Jodie Foster and Clive Owen.
Bamboozled (2000) is a dark satire of the television industry depicting a revival of the minstrel show featuring blacks in blackface. Critics did not show great favor for this production and it did not prove very successful at the box office.
Lee’s film Summer of Sam (1999) tackled the “Son of Sam” murders in New York in the sweltering summer of 1977.
Lee has also directed a number of acclaimed documentaries. In 1997 he released 4 Little Girls, which was about the egregious bombing of a church in Birmingham in 1963 that resulted in the deaths of four young African- American girls. The film was nominated as a Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards in 1998.
In 2006, Lee released a documentary on Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, for which he won an Emmy award.
Lee’s other films include Crooklyn (1994), Clockers (1995), 25th Hour (2004), Miracle at St. Anna (2008), and Red Hook Summer (2012).
Lee is a seminal figure to a younger generation of filmmakers. He is held in regard for his style, originality and uncompromising independence.