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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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Chapter 1: Introduction

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“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...

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