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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 2: The American Film Industry, Race, and Spike Lee

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In this chapter I offer a brief survey of the mainstream American film industry, black involvement in that industry, and Spike Lee’s emergence as a filmmaker and media figure. This historical review of race and the American film industry is not intended to be an exhaustive examination of the massive amount of scholarship that has been done in these areas. Instead, the most salient topics that are required to provide historical context for an examination of Spike Lee and his films are highlighted.

Originating as a technological novelty at the end of the nineteenth century, moving pictures quickly became a dominant form of mass entertainment. By 1929, over 90 million movie tickets were sold in the U.S. every week (Lowery and De Fleur, 1983). While the film industry as a whole is a global enterprise, since World War I American film companies have generally dominated this industry both economically and aesthetically (Ellis, 1992). This domination originated with a small number of Hollywood film companies early in the twentieth century and continues to this day (Balio, 1996; Giannetti, 2011; Moran, 1996). Despite structural changes and some brief periods of divergence, ← 11 | 12 →the major Hollywood studios of the first decades of the 21st century are quite similar to those that were dominant at the beginning of the 20th.

American film companies capitalized on their preeminence through the process of vertical integration—the control of all three elements of the film industry: production, distribution, and exhibition. The major...

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