The Spike Lee Enigma

Challenge and Incorporation in Media Culture

by Bill Yousman (Author)
©2014 Monographs X, 241 Pages


The Spike Lee Enigma is an exploration of ideology and political economy in the films and career of one of America's most controversial filmmakers. Since the 1980s Spike Lee has created numerous films that are socially challenging, some would even say radical, while simultaneously maintaining a collaborative relationship with mainstream Hollywood and the global advertising industry. Lee, thus, seemingly represents an enigma – operating on the margins of both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic cultural production.
This book incorporates multiple perspectives, ranging from media effects theories, critical cultural studies, and the political economy of media, to semiotics and ideological, auteurist, and feminist approaches to film theory and analysis. Early chapters provide a clear explanation of these theoretical and methodological approaches while later chapters explore several of Lee’s films in great depth. In a social environment where popular culture has supplanted education and religion as a primary force of socialization and enculturation, this book demonstrates why a popular filmmaker such as Spike Lee must be taken seriously, while introducing readers to ways of viewing, reading, and listening that will allow them to achieve a new understanding of the mediated texts they encounter on a daily basis.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Media Saturation and Media Culture
  • Questioning Spike Lee
  • Overview of Subsequent Chapters
  • Chapter 2: The American Film Industry, Race, and Spike Lee
  • Development of the American Film Industry
  • Black Filmmakers and the American Film Industry
  • Black Stereotypes in American Film
  • Black Independent Cinema
  • The Emergence of Spike Lee
  • Popular and Academic Reception of Lee’s Films
  • Artistic and Cultural Merit
  • Representing Race, Class, and Gender
  • Lee’s Political Agenda
  • Chapter 3: Theory and Method: Media Culture, Ideology, and Spike Lee
  • Mass Society and Mass Media
  • Contesting Paradigms I: Media Effects and Critical Theory
  • Media Effects
  • Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School
  • Contesting Paradigms II: Critical Theory and Cultural Studies
  • Limitations of the Frankfurt School Approach
  • British Cultural Studies
  • Celebratory Cultural Studies
  • Contesting Paradigms III: Cultural Studies and Political Economy
  • Origins of Ideology
  • Marxist Perspectives on Ideology
  • Althusser on Ideology
  • Hegemony and Counter-Hegemony
  • Mainstream, Alternative, and Oppositional Media
  • Mainstream Media
  • Alternative Media
  • Oppositional Media
  • Applying Critical Theory to the Films of Spike Lee
  • Why These Films?
  • Critical Film Theory
  • Semiotics and Structuralism in Film Studies
  • Methods of Ideological Analysis and Spike Lee
  • Chapter 4: She’s Gotta Have It, but He Already Got It
  • Production Background
  • Narrative Structure
  • The Beginning
  • The Middle
  • The End
  • Coda
  • Critical Reception
  • Analysis of Structural Oppositions in She’s Gotta Have It
  • Men/Women and the Privileges of Gender
  • Defining Morality/Immorality—Enculturation Through Modern Myth
  • Chapter 5: The Undecidability of Doing the Right Thing
  • Production Background
  • Film Narrative
  • Critical Reception
  • Structural Semiotic Analysis of Do the Right Thing
  • Indeterminacy—Complex Moral and Ideological Positions in Do the Right Thing
  • Harmony/Discord
  • Ideological Choices and Contradictions in Do the Right Thing
  • Male Agency/Female Spectatorship—A Continuing Theme
  • Chapter 6: Lee Goes Big: Identity and Ideology in the Epic Malcolm X
  • Production Background
  • Narrative Structure
  • Part One—Detroit Red
  • Part Two—Malcolm X
  • Part Three—El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz
  • Coda
  • Critical Reception
  • Structural Analysis of Malcolm X
  • Identity—Detroit Red/Malcolm Little
  • Identity—Malcolm X/Detroit Red
  • Identity—Malcolm X/El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz
  • Hollywood Iconography—Race and Ethnicity
  • Hollywood Iconography—Gender and Sexuality
  • The Invisible Dimension—Class and Class Consciousness
  • Chapter 7: Spike Lee and the Paradox of the Alternative Mainstream
  • Gender and Sexuality—Spike Lee’s Marginal Women, Violent Men, and Repulsive Gays
  • Race and Racism—“Us vs. Them”
  • Class Struggle—The Missing Dimension
  • Spike Lee—Advertising Man
  • Chapter 8: The Mainstreaming (?) of Spike Lee: Challenge and Incorporation
  • Challenge and Incorporation
  • The Conservative Tendencies of Media Culture and the Marginalization of Dissenting Voices
  • Afterword
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

← vi | vii →PREFACE

I came to Spike Lee initially as a fan. When I first saw Do the Right Thing I was in my 20s, one of those young people who loved movies but was generally bored and disappointed by the standard Hollywood blockbusters and action films. I had grown up in primarily black neighborhoods and attended schools where, as a white Jewish kid, I was a double minority. I had been deeply interested in issues of race, racism, and racial justice since I was a teenager. I listened to black music and read black literature. As a young child in the 1960s I was afraid of the Black Panthers…by the time I was a teenager I wanted to be one. At my high school graduation in 1979 I quoted Bob Marley (“A hungry man is an angry man…”) in a polemical speech on U.S. neocolonialism. How that ever got approved is still a mystery to me, but hey, it was the ’70s.

A decade later Lee’s film made me delirious. I loved every single bit of it, from Señor Love Daddy’s roll call, to the racial slur montage, to the provocative ending and the invocation of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X (!). I even laughed at the disrespect toward my beloved Boston Celtics. Lee had me at “Wake up!”

Sometime later, in the first couple of years of the 90s, when I heard he was making Malcolm X, I was ecstatic. Yes, I was one of those white guys, by now ← vii | viii →approaching 30, who wore an X baseball cap, partially to hide my thinning hairline, partially as an inchoate political gesture.

When I went to graduate school to study communication and media in 1995 it seemed almost predetermined that I would write a Master’s thesis on Lee and his films. In grad school I encountered critical media studies, feminism, critical race theory, and Marx. (The last of these a reintroduction of sorts as I had first been exposed to socialist philosophy by my father.) These theoretical lenses changed how I saw the films, but I remained a fan—albeit one with a more complicated relationship to Lee’s body of work.

That thesis would eventually become the raw material for this book, a book that has been many years in the making. Lee’s public persona remains as vibrant as ever but audiences and critics now seem to be paying less attention to his films. This is a shame, because, for all my reservations, I still regard Lee as one of the most important filmmakers of the first century of American film and one of the few media voices that has succeeded in getting mainstream audiences to reflect on social issues and political conflicts, even for just two hours at a time.

I find Lee’s films to be often sexist, homophobic, classist, and generally conservative, despite a patina of radicalism. I am appalled and disgusted by his work in the advertising industry, particularly for the military industrial complex and imperialist corporations like Nike. Yet I am still a fan. This is indeed a discomforting paradox for someone who holds the political beliefs that I hold. This book is an attempt to deal with that paradox, an attempt that, like many of Lee’s films, probably opens up more questions than it answers.


Obama was right. No one “builds” anything all by themselves. In the case of a book there are always multiple authors, multiple voices.

Spike Lee must be acknowledged first for his massive achievements in shaking up the American film industry while constructing an incredible body of cinematic work.

I have drawn inspiration from many scholars and critics whose names are referenced throughout the text of this book. For their critical readings of previous versions of these words I want to specifically thank Elizabeth Burt, Lynne Kelly, Robert Lang, and, especially, Jack Banks who taught me so much and has provided years of knowledge and friendship. Sut Jhally, Michael Morgan, and Justin Lewis made my years at UMASS some of the best and most important years of my life. They deepened my understanding of critical and cultural media studies in ways I never imagined before I first took my seat in that dirty Machmer seminar room. David Sterritt and Douglas Kellner have recently been wonderfully generous with precious time and extremely encouraging in their support of this text.

Generations of personal influence must also be given their due. To my father, Morris Yousman: You are gone but you are not gone. Every time I glance ← ix | x →at the stacks of books piled high beside my bed I see your face. You were the first person to teach me to “do the right thing.”

Rachel, Nathan, and Kayla are empirically, objectively, quantitatively the three best children in the world. My life would be a desert without them.

Lori Bindig is an unwavering source of support, consolation, cheerleading, optimism, and love. My PFFF. She’s gotta have it.

← x | 1 →·1·


“Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union” (attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, in Augarde, 1991, p. 91).

This disparaging remark about the role of Hollywood films in conveying social and political messages is often erroneously attributed to the influential film producer, Samuel Goldwyn (see Marx, 1976). Goldwyn, in truth, was astute enough to recognize that movies have significance that extends far beyond entertainment. The medium of film is fraught with ethical implications because cinema has the potential to open up discourse about the most pressing issues of the day—what it means to be human, sources of power and inequality in society, the catalysts and consequences of violence, how we cope with the differences that can drive us apart, alienation and discontent. Recognizing the importance of film, and other forms of media and popular culture, to contemporary society was the initial impetus behind this book: a critical examination of the films of Shelton Lee, Jr., better known as Spike Lee.

Spike Lee made his first controversial appearance on the American popular culture scene in 1986, with an independently financed film entitled She’s Gotta Have It. In subsequent decades, Lee emerged as one of America’s premier, and most polarizing, film directors and media figures. As Sterritt points out:

← 1 | 2 →Most of Lee’s movies set forth pointed challenges to conventional ideas of what roles filmmaking, popular culture, and racial discourse are supposed to play in American society. Lee’s very career amounts to such a challenge, for that matter—he is the only black filmmaker in history to sustain a major presence in American film over a period of decades, and his output during that time has been both varied and profuse, comprising almost fifty theatrical features, short films, and TV movies and episodes as director, almost as many as producer, and more than a dozen each as screenwriter and actor (2013, p. 3)

In this book, I propose that a close examination of some of Lee’s most provocative films allows us to explore the complicated intertwining of popular culture and political ideology. Lee’s films are often overtly political in nature, and he has defined himself as a politically engaged filmmaker (Lee and Aftab, 2006; Orenstein, 1989; Sterritt, 2013). Moreover, Lee is often described as a radical by critics who have depicted him as a feiry voice of political challenge (Campbell and LeDuff, 2012, Coleman and Hamlet, 2009; Orbe and Lyons, 2009; Taubin, 2002). As Harris and Moffitt put it: “His willingness to confront sensitive issues of race, politics, religion, and even sexual prowess in his films is indicative of his desire to challenge the status quo, enlighten us on matters of the world as well as champion the cause of the underprivileged” (2009, p. 303).

Yet, if Lee truly is a challenging, radical voice, then it seems almost paradoxical that he attained a large measure of status and financial success within the mainstream film and advertising industries as his career progressed. A critical political economic approach to media (as discussed in the next chapter) suggests that it is unlikely that mainstream media institutions will allow the space for truly oppositional perspectives to be widely disseminated, especially if they are not seen as surefire profit generators. Lee, then, would seem to represent an enigma: a politically and ideologically oppositional artist who has managed to utilize mainstream channels to achieve a tremendous amount of success. How then do we make sense of a filmmaker who has created texts ranging from the politically provocative Malcolm X (1992) and the challenging post-Katrina documentary When the Levees Broke (2006) to advertisements for Nike and the U.S. Navy?

There is no doubt, and this warrants emphasis, that in many of his films Lee has broken asunder the facile stereotypes of mainstream Hollywood. For example, consider what Campbell and LeDuff (2012) wrote about his 2006 Katrina documentary:

We believe that Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke is an example of compelling televisual storytelling that provides unusual insight into a complicated story and that ← 2 | 3 →recasts the catastrophe in New Orleans as a story of an underdog population that behaved heroically in the face of enormous government ineptitude (p. 215).

Yet, for all of the counter-hegemonic challenges he has presented over the last generation, Lee remains, in many ways, a paradox. How do we reconcile the progressive impulses of a film like When the Levees Broke or its 2010 follow up, If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise, with other aspects of Lee’s career such as his shilling for major corporations or aiding the U.S. military in recruiting young men and women?

There are two explanations for this paradox that are worth considering. The first is that this really isn’t a paradox at all. Considering Lee’s status as a black filmmaker working in a white-dominated industry, it has been simply a matter of pragmatism for Lee to vacillate among challenging independent productions, commercial films, and advertising ventures. Lee has said that he has always wanted to produce a large body of work and this required a steady source of income:

The generation of filmmakers above me, people like Haile Gerima and Charles Burnett and individuals like that, it seemed like they spent so much time frantically trying to raise money. Sometimes it would take two or three years to raise that money. It was hard to do films back-to-back but I really wanted to continue working (quoted in Harris, 2002, p. 135).

From this perspective Lee’s more commercial films, adept self-marketing, and advertising are all tactics in a successful strategy that has allowed him to remain a public figure and a force in Hollywood for decades.


X, 241
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2013 (July)
ideology political economy cultural production film theory
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 241 pp.

Biographical notes

Bill Yousman (Author)

Bill Yousman, PhD, teaches in the Communication Department at Central Connecticut State University. He has published numerous essays on media literacy education and popular culture and the construction of ideology in peer-reviewed journals and anthologies. His book, Prime Time Prisons on U.S. TV: Representation of Incarceration, was published by Peter Lang in 2009.


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