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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 3: Theory and Method: Media Culture, Ideology, and Spike Lee

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In an essay about images of black masculinity in Spike Lee’s films, Elise and Umoja eloquently sum up why cinematic representations should be taken seriously:

Motion pictures are indeed profound and curious phenomena. They are instruments for socialization, mass propaganda, historical vehicles, outlets for aesthetic expression, entertainment, and commercial endeavors.…Films can just as easily reinforce the status quo as usher in revolutionary ideas and expand consciousness (2009, p. 287).

In this chapter I offer a review of major paradigms in critical media studies and film theory that have sought to explicate the power and purpose of media representations. I do not intend for this chapter to provide an exhaustive review of the complex history and development of media and film theory. Rather, I provide an overview of basic assumptions and contesting paradigms in order to explore how various theoretical perspectives in media studies can be used as starting points to investigations of the cultural impact of the films of Spike Lee. I discuss how the media effects tradition asks us to consider the impact of Lee’s productions on audiences, how Frankfurt School-inspired critical theory positions Lee’s films and advertisements as manifestations of the dominant culture industries, how the British cultural studies tradition opens the space for multiple interpretations ← 33 | 34 →of the ideological tendencies in Lee’s work, and how studying the political economy of media directs our attention to the influence of corporate power over Lee’s career as a filmmaker and advertiser. I also explain...

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