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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Lee is a cool strategic thinker, a shrewd businessman and cunning marketer. He plans each detail of his productions down to the last frame, in part, says Ross, to counter the racial stereotype that blacks are slipshod businessmen. His marketing sense extends beyond his proven ability to reach an audience; he has cultivated a brand awareness of himself. Making a movie isn't enough, he says. "We're up against the giants trying to hold our own." Stacks of Do the Right Thing T shirts were poised ready for distribution before the film opened. A journal chronicling the making of the film, which Lee writes for each production as a text for aspiring filmmakers, is published simultaneously with the movie's release. Although he doesn't particularly enjoy acting, Lee says, he stars in his pictures because he knows it will draw moviegoers. Even his appearance in ads for Barneys and the Gap clothing stores has helped attract a mainstream following, though Lee rejects the notion. "Black people spend money at Barneys and the Gap just like everyone else," he snaps.

The ability to market his own films gives Lee an edge when he deals with Hollywood. Still he approaches it with distrust and stubbornness. "I have a script, and they know I have final say. They know there are things I'm going to demand. If they want to do the film, these things have to be met, or else we don't do it." But Lee is in a precarious position: he needs the power, muscle and money of a major studio to market and distribute his films, while still protecting his work. "He is fighting for his creative life," says former Columbia Pictures President David Picker, who worked with Lee on School Daze.

Back in Brooklyn, Lee is at home. When he was honored last month by the Black Filmmaker Foundation, Lee pledged allegiance to his home borough and teasingly swore never to join Hollywood's "black pack," whose members include Eddie Murphy and director Robert Townsend. Lee's next picture, the story of a jazz musician who must balance his career and love life, will also be shot in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Hollywood holds little allure for the man who rides around on a twelve-speed Peugeot bicycle (he doesn't have a driver's license) and considers a relaxing evening "going to a Knicks game, where the Knicks are winning in a nail biter, and I have two seats on the floor." If Do the Right Thing is a financial success, Lee will be playing in another league. Future movies will bring bigger budgets, probably accompanied by pressure for more control from the big studios anxious to protect their investments. Independence may be harder to retain. "Then the fights will come," says the director. Spike Lee is ready.

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