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The Spike Lee Enigma

Challenge and Incorporation in Media Culture

Bill Yousman

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.
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← 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.