March 20, 2013
People criticize SPIKE LEE (born 1957) for so many reasons it’s useful to recall the roots of his unlikely career. He grew up at 186 Warren Street in a largely Italian neighborhood of Brooklyn that preservationists had only recently named “Cobble Hill.” Lee’s Fort Greene middle school, Rothschild JHS 294, was within walking distance, while John Dewey High School in Gravesend was a long subway ride away. After college in Atlanta, Lee attended NYU film school, where he made three movies. The Answer (1980) was a screenwriter’s short, sharp riposte to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. Along with works by Julie Dash and Alile Sharon Larkin, Lee’s Sarah (1981) comprised part of an August 1982 Black Filmmakers Foundation program on “Women”; held at the Manhattan nightclub Leviticus, a “disco celebration” followed. Lee’s lyrical — even understated — meditation on crime and community, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983) won a Student Academy Award and aired on PBS. (Unseen at the time was Lee’s video — shot on spec and rejected by Sugar Hill Records — for Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel’s epochal “White Lines.”) Despite his growing acclaim, Lee’s bicycle-themed picture called Messenger floundered in financing. As for his audacious 1986 breakthrough, She’s Gotta Have It, not all black folks were amused. “She’s Got to Have It [sic] fails to have whatever,” archly announced the Amsterdam News’s Phillis L. Simpson. Opined the same paper’s Debra Jones of Lee’s often dazzling 1988 follow-up, “School Daze sets race back 200 years.”
Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel “White Lines” (1983), dir. Spike Lee
On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Lee “Scratch” Perry.
READ MORE about members of the Original Generation X (1954–1963).