Welcome to Screen and Film School’s third instalment of Making History, where each week we’ll be celebrating the Black directors changing the game in an industry historically lacking diversity.
“You’ve got to have heart and you’ve got to have drive. And when you get knocked down you’ve got to pick yourself up – put your hands up on the ropes and pull yourself to your feet. Because, if you can’t take a hit, you’re not going to last long, that’s for sure.”
Academy Award winner Spike Lee is an American film director, producer, screenwriter, actor, and professor, known for his films that explore social and political issues. Typically referred to as Spike Lee Joints, Lee’s films also famously end with the iconic phrases “By Any Means Necessary,” “Ya Dig,” and “Sho Nuff,” in the closing credits.
With a 2015 Academy Honorary Award for his contribution to film under his belt, and a career that spans over 3 decades, Lee is one of the most well respected directors in Hollywood with an ability to make his audiences wake up to injustices in the world, regardless of the genre he takes on. Lee’s films Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, 4 Little Girls and She’s Gotta Have It were each selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry for being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.
In addition to his feature films, Lee has also released a number of critically acclaimed documentaries through his production company Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks including 4 Little Girls, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, and If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise. He is also an accomplished music video director for artists such as Prince, Michael Jackson, Anita Baker, Public Enemy and Eminem.
“So many people – DPs, writers, and the assistants that go on to be directors and writers – come from the School of Spike Lee. He’s almost set up an Institution of Spike Lee.” – John David Washington
“One of the great screen biographies, celebrating the sweep of an American life that bottomed out in prison before its hero reinvented himself.” – Roger Ebert
Malcolm X is a 1992 American epic biographical drama film about the life of the African-American activist Malcolm X. The film stars Denzel Washington in the title role and features cameos from Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and Nelson Mandela.
In the run up to the film’s release, Lee famously asked that media outlets to send Black journalists to interview him, as he felt that they would have more insight about the film’s subject matter- a request that at the time was seen as controversial. Addressing the backlash, Lee noted “What I’m doing is using whatever clout I have to get qualified African-Americans assignments. The real crime is white publications don’t have Black writers, that’s the crime.” The editor of Premiere said that the request had resulted in changes at the magazine after sparking internal discussions: “Had we had a history of putting a lot of Black writers on stories about the movie industry we’d be in a stronger position. But we didn’t. It was an interesting challenge he laid down. It caused some personnel changes.”
Malcolm X was released to critical acclaim, with critic Roger Ebert and director Martin Scorceses both ranking the film among the ten best films of the 1990s. Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm X was widely praised and he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.
“Fearless embrace of contradiction gives BlacKkKlansman its velocity and heft. It is worth pausing to admire its sheer, dazzling craft, the deftness of its tonal shifts — from polemical to playful, from humorous to horrific, from blaxploitation to Classical Hollywood and back again — and the quality of its portraiture.” – A.O. Scott
BlacKkKlansman is a 2018 American comedy crime film, set in the 1970’s. The film is based on the 2014 memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth and follows the first African-American detective in the city’s police department as he sets out to infiltrate and expose the local Ku Klux Klan chapter. QC Entertainment teamed up with Jason Blum’s company Blumhouse Productions, and Jordan Peele’s company Monkeypaw Productions, to produce the project.
The film was nominated for an incredible six Academy Awards including included Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing and Best Original Score, and went on to win Best Adapted Screenplay. The American Film Institute also selected it as one of the top 10 films of the 2018. It opened in the United States on the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville rally- footage from which ends the film.
Da 5 Bloods
“His film arrives at a moment of historic protests decrying systemic racism, even as black men and women continue to serve and die for this country. It now comes stamped with a searing sense of urgency, as a contemplation on black inequality through the prism of the Vietnam War. There couldn’t be a better time for a film that questions the definition of real Americans.” – Tambay Obenson
Da 5 Bloods is a 2020 American war drama film following a group of four ageing African-American war veterans who return to Vietnam in search of the remains of their fallen squad leader, as well as the treasure they buried while serving there.
The film was originally scheduled to premiere at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival, however due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a decision was made to release the film for streaming on Netflix in June 2020, and was the top-streamed film in the first week of its release.
“Lee deftly steers it all full circle in a series of brief wrap-up scenes that are both fancifully tidy and deadly serious, acknowledging the Black Lives Matter movement in a way that allows this sprawling, unwieldy, frequently brilliant film to close on a profoundly affecting note of hope and catharsis. Structural flaws notwithstanding, this movie is a gift right now, and there’s no other director that could have made it.”– David Rooney
“This is my path in life, so I’m not gonna run from it. I’m just gonna speak the power of the truth, and continue to tell our stories.”