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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 7: Spike Lee and the Paradox of the Alternative Mainstream

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In previous chapters I offered in-depth analyses of Spike Lee’s most important early films in an exploration of the ideological standpoints and positions privileged through these texts, their production processes, and their critical reception. One of the guiding impulses behind this inquiry was to identify the location of these films, and Lee’s overall status as a cinematic auteur (see Sarris, 1976; Wollen, 1972), within Raymond Williams’ (1977) framework of dominant, emergent, and residual culture (also see Gitlin, 1994; and Chapter III of this book). More broadly, this analysis uncovered hegemonic and counter-hegemonic aspects of Lee’s vision through a critical approach to the ways media texts both reinforce and challenge dominant ideologies about race, class, gender and sexuality (see Kellner, 1995a).

In this chapter, I place these key films within the context of Lee’s overall body of work, both in film and advertising, in order to trace the underlying ideological positions that are articulated throughout his cinematic project and his activities outside of the film industry. My analysis of Lee’s films suggests that Lee, as might be expected of any accomplished screenwriter/director, offers viewers a panoply of rather complicated or ambiguous representations of gender, sexuality, race, and class. Nevertheless, I also discovered that certain identifiable dominant, emergent, and residual patterns emerge through close reading and analysis.

Harris notes: “Spike’s women are subject to the whims and fantasies of men. The women are controlled by men. Men are the actors, and women the acted upon” (2009, p. 27)...

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