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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 6: Lee Goes Big: Identity and Ideology in the Epic Malcolm X

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In this chapter I examine Spike Lee’s sixth major film, 1992’s Malcolm X. At the time of its debut, Malcolm X was Lee’s highest budgeted film and the longest, eventually costing over $35 million and running three hours and twenty-one minutes. The previous stages of Lee’s career seemed to progressively bring him closer to the point where he was ready to make this epic film, and in 1991 he finally felt able to tackle a project of this magnitude and historical significance. Each of Lee’s previous productions had been financially successful, generating profits for the studios and distribution companies that financed them. Lee was consequently able to demand higher budgets for each successive film, peaking with $14 million for Jungle Fever in 1991 (Lee and Wiley, 1992). Through the success of his earlier films, and his increasing presence within the American advertising industry and media scene, Lee had established name recognition. Each new Spike Lee “joint,” as he calls his films, was an awaited event both for the Hollywood industry and for the audience that sought out his films primarily because of his presence as director, writer and actor. In this manner, Lee had established himself as a contemporary auteur in the manner of Woody Allen (whose work he despises) or Martin Scorsese (whose work he idolizes). By 1992 Lee was one of a relatively small number of filmmakers who consistently attracted audiences to their films, not simply because of the ← 123 | 124 →presence of stars in their casts, or...

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