SPIKE LEE: He's Got To Have It His Way

Angry over racial inequities and stereotypes, filmmaker SPIKE LEE combines his message and his own pop image into a provocative media voice

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As producer, director and writer of the homecoming-queen coronation ceremony in his senior year at Morehouse College, Spike Lee had a vision. He imagined a sophisticated beauty pageant, reminiscent of the old Hollywood musicals he loved. Rather than the usual lineup of leggy girls scantily clad in slinky dresses, he pictured beribboned beauties in floor-length ball gowns. Lee failed to anticipate the outrage of campus males when they learned they would be deprived of the show of flesh that was traditionally part of homecoming. A group ganged up on the young producer, threatening to beat him up. But Lee stood firm. "In the end he did it his way," recalls Monty Ross, a friend from Lee's college days and vice president of his production company, 40 Acres and A Mule Filmworks. "It was Spike's vision that won out."

These days his subject matter is grittier, but Spike Lee is still fighting to make movies on his own terms. Paramount Pictures, Lee claims, asked him to tone down the ending of Do the Right Thing, his incendiary new film about race relations, so the 32-year-old director took his picture to Universal rather than subdue the race riot in his final scene. Fiercely independent, Lee writes, directs and produces his films to prevent others from "meddling." He doesn't have an agent, publicist or manager, but the trade-offs of independence are worth it. "What I get is peace of mind, sanity. I have control over my work. That outweighs everything else," he says. "So I don't get invited to Hollywood parties. So I'm not on the Hollywood circuit. So I don't own a home in Beverly Hills. So Barbara Walters doesn't include me in her specials. I don't give a s about all that stuff."

With his spindly legs, goatee and black New York Knicks cap, Spike Lee looks more like a cartoon character than the creator of the most controversial film of the summer. He is lean and wiry -- 120 lbs. tightly wound around a 5-ft. 6- in. frame. His hip, distinctively New York style has made him a familiar pop-culture image: stone-washed jeans, a Nike T shirt, a leather Public Enemy medallion around his neck, an ear stud and black Nike Air Jordans, practically his trademark since he appeared with basketball star Michael Jordan in Nike ads.

But his expressive style of dress belies an air of self-containment. Lee is serious and taciturn, especially around strangers. No one will ever accuse him of ingratiating himself to reporters; a question that bores him is likely to be answered with a yawn and roll of his eyes. But press the right button, and he engages like an assault rifle, his words ricocheting off familiar targets. He rails against New York Mayor Ed Koch: "He's a racist. Hopefully my film will force a couple of votes, and Ed won't be around for long"; Walt Disney: "Snow White, Song of the South? I hated that stuff. That's the difference between me and Steven Spielberg"; even Michael Jackson: "Cutting off his Negroid nose, I think that's sick. It's self-hatred."

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