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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But beneath the arrogance he wears like a badge of honor is the deeper, profound racial anger that fueled Do the Right Thing. "Racism usually erodes self-confidence. It seems to have triggered his," observes actress Ruby Dee, who plays Mother Sister in Do the Right Thing. The Howard Beach incident, in which a black man died after being chased onto a freeway by a white mob -- an expression in Lee's mind of a double standard inflicted on blacks -- inspired the film. Even the controversy that erupted over his use at the end of the film of a Malcolm X quote condoning violence in the name of self-defense reflects the pervasiveness of that double standard, he argues. "We're not allowed to do what everyone else can. The idea of self-defense is supposed to be what America is based on. But when black people talk about self-defense, they're militant. When whites talk about it, they're freedom fighters." Why is black life less sacred than white life? he asks. Why do blacks need the "stamp of approval" of whites to feel affirmed? Why are his films lumped together as black, when each one examines a distinctly different aspect of the human condition? Looking for racism at every turn, he finds it.

Lee's own personal conflict is far more subtle than simple black and white. "I want to be known as a talented young filmmaker. That should be first," he says. "But the reality today is that no matter how successful you are, you're black first. You know what Malcolm X says: 'What's a black with a Ph.D.? A nigger.' Why should I spend my time and energy getting around that. I know who I am, and I'm comfortable with that . . . It's difficult because I don't have the luxury white filmmakers have. Hollywood makes 500 films a year. How many of those are black films? On the one hand you want to be yourself, on the other hand you can't turn your back on black people. We're torn."

In each of his films, Lee stirs the social pot. His first success, She's Gotta Have It, in 1986, explored sexual stereotypes with the tale of a liberated young black woman who refuses to give up her three lovers. School Daze, Lee's 1988 musical, examines the tensions between light- and darker- skinned blacks on an all-black college campus; it evoked the ire of some blacks, who charged him with airing the race's dirty laundry in public. With Do the Right Thing, Lee has produced his most provocative film yet.

It is a passion for filmmaking, not racial anger, however, that drives the director. "Spike has an appreciation, a love and an inherent understanding of cinema," notes Barry Brown, who worked on editing Lee's films for the past four years. Lee's cinematic preferences run the gamut, from Hector Babenco's Pixote and Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets to musicals such as The Wizard of Oz and West Side Story, a taste inherited from his mother. Lee, who has been called a "black Woody Allen," says he admires Scorsese's work. But suggest that he has been cinematically influenced by others and he jumps. "I don't try to emulate anyone -- especially Woody Allen."

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