Cinema and Media Studies Spike Lee
Paula J. Massood
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0055


Spike Lee burst onto the national and international film scenes in 1986, when his first feature, She’s Gotta Have It, was a hit at the Cannes film festival. At that time, the young filmmaker, along with the directors Jim Jarmusch and Steven Soderbergh, helped usher in a new moment in American independent filmmaking. But Lee’s significance extended beyond independent filmmaking or international film festivals, as he began making films at one of the bleakest moments in the history of contemporary African American cinema. Following the disappearance of blaxploitation film and the rise of blockbuster production, there was little money or interest left in Hollywood to fund films either by African American filmmakers or for African American audiences. Lee, along with newcomers Robert Townsend, Warrington Hudlin, and Reginald Hudlin, and veteran Michael Schultz, changed the look and sound of black filmmaking during this time by borrowing from African American popular culture, particularly hip-hop music and dance. Since his debut in 1986, Lee has branched out from theatrical film production to a variety of media, including television, advertising, and publishing. The same time period has witnessed the growth of scholarship on African American film in general and on Lee in particular. Such a development cannot be fully credited to Lee, as changes in the methodological and theoretical foci of film studies more generally and the establishment of cultural studies as a field have expanded considerations of African American film and popular culture. In this expanding field, however, Lee holds an interesting position. On the one hand, he is responsible for ushering in a new moment in African American film, through his prolific output and support of younger artists. On the other hand, Lee can be seen as representative of the changes in American film more generally over the last three decades, changes that have seen the rise of film schools, an increased use of popular culture references, and a decreased reliance on Hollywood financing. The following bibliography provides a cross-section of the scholarship currently available on Lee, with an emphasis on film and popular culture. The subsections of the bibliography represent some of the most common approaches to Lee’s work, from studies that situate the director within the larger rubric of African American filmmaking to others that focus on myths of black masculinity and media’s role in their production. Lee’s productivity is ongoing, as is the work that follows.

Reference Works

Spike Lee is a common listing in reference books focused on African American filmmaking, such as Emery 2002, Berry 2000, Berry 2007, and Bogle 1989. More often, he is included in collections focusing on the work of African American directors in particular; for example, Alexander 2003, Donaldson 2003, and Moon 1997. Additionally, Lee appears in reference works focusing on African American popular culture more generally, such as Boyd 2008. Nicholas 1999, on the other hand, lists Lee’s work in a general collection of important film scenes for actors to master.

  • Alexander, George. Why We Make Movies: Black Filmmakers Talk about the Magic of Cinema. New York: Harlem Moon, 2003.

    A collection of the author’s interviews with more than thirty African American filmmakers, including Lee, Gordon Parks Sr., and Melvin Van Peebles. For undergraduate students.

  • Berry, S. Torriano, and Venise T. Berry. The 50 Most Influential Black Films: A Celebration of African-American Talent, Determination, and Creativity. New York: Citadel, 2000.

    Discussions of films made by or featuring African Americans. Selections include Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986) and Malcolm X (1992), as well as brief “society profiles” of the films’ social and political context decade by decade. For undergraduate students.

  • Berry, S. Torriano, and Venise T. Berry. The Historical Dictionary of African American Cinema. Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts 12. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2007.

    Reference work that includes multiple references to Spike Lee. For undergraduate students.

  • Bogle, Donald. Blacks in American Films and Television: An Encyclopedia. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.

    Includes entries on Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986). For undergraduate students.

  • Boyd, Todd. African Americans in Popular Culture: Theater, Film, and Television. 3 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2008.

    A three-volume compendium of new essays on various aspects of African American popular culture, arranged thematically. Lee is discussed in numerous references throughout the volumes. For undergraduate and graduate students.

  • Donalson, Melvin. Black Directors and Hollywood. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

    Profiles of more than sixty African American directors arranged thematically (and roughly chronologically). Includes a full chapter, “Spike Lee: The Independent Auteur,” on Lee. For undergraduate students.

  • Emery, Robert J. The Directors: Take One. New York: Allworth, 2002.

    A collection of interviews with thirteen directors, including Lee. Sections include brief introductions by the author and the subject’s comments on his childhood and observations about different films. For undergraduate students.

  • Moon, Spencer. Reel Black Talk: A Sourcebook of 50 American Filmmakers. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1997.

    Profiles of African American directors and producers, including Lee. For undergraduate students.

  • Nicholas, Angela. 99 Film Scenes for Actors. New York: Avon, 1999.

    A collection of seminal film scenes, including the closing moments of Lee’s Do the Right Thing. For undergraduate students.

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