- Believes that “racism is woven into the very fabric of America”
- His 1996 film Get on the Bus celebrated Louis Farrakhan’s “Million Man March.”
- Believes that blacks cannot be racists because they lack social, political, and economic power
- Asserts that the Iraq War “has nothing to do with disarmament. It’s about oil.”
Shelton “Spike” Lee is an African American filmmaker who views the United States as a nation thoroughly infested with white racism.
Lee was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1957. Soon thereafter his family moved to Brooklyn, New York, where Lee was raised. His father was a jazz musician, his mother a teacher. Lee graduated from Morehouse College in 1979 and attended the graduate film program at the Tisch School of Arts, where he began producing short, independent films.
Lee’s breakthrough movie was She’s Gotta Have It (1986), which he followed up with successes like School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), and Malcolm X (1992). Although Lee has made a number of additional movies since then, none have enjoyed the commercial or critical success of his early films.
The name of Lee's production company is “40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks” -- an allusion to General William T. Sherman’s 1865 Special Field Order which set aside the Sea Islands and a tract of land along the southern coast of Charleston, South Carolina for the exclusive settlement of black families, each of whom was to receive 40 acres of land and an army mule.
Described by film critic Roger Ebert as “one of the greatest filmmakers working in America today,” Lee has taught film classes at Harvard University.
Lee’s films often have strong racial and political overtones. The most obvious examples are: (a) Do the Right Thing, which depicted racial tension and violence between Italian-Americans and blacks; and (b) Malcolm X, which glorified the life of its eponymous Black Muslim leader. Films like Bamboozled (2000) and Mo’ Better Blues (1990) portrayed Jews as manipulative, evil racists. Get on the Bus (1996) celebrated Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan‘s “Million Man March” and depicted a Jewish bus driver as the villain of the story. In 2002 Lee made a short film titled We Wuz Robbed, about the 2000 Florida election recount -- accusing Republicans of having stolen the American presidency.
In October 2005 Lee produced and directed a movie for HBO entitled When the Levee Broke -- a reference to the devastating floods of Hurricane Katrina that had engulfed much of New Orleans the previous month. Lee made clear his belief that President Bush had been slow to dispatch federal aid workers to Louisiana because so many of the victims were black. When Lee was asked by CNN anchorwoman Daryn Kagan whether he thought the government had purposefully allowed blacks to drown or to lose their homes, he replied, “It’s not too far-fetched … I don’t put anything past the United States government. I don’t find it too far-fetched that they tried to displace all the black people out of New Orleans.” The film featured interviews with Harry Belafonte and Sean Penn.
According to Lee, “racism is woven into the very fabric of America.” He believes that the problem of contemporary racism is caused overwhelmingly by whites, and that blacks are incapable of being racists because they lack social, political, and economic power. “Racism,” he says, “is when you have laws set up, systematically put in the way to keep people from advancing, to stop the advancement of a people. Black people have never had the power to enforce racism, and so this is something that white America is going to have to work out themselves. If they decide they want to stop it, curtail it, or to do the right thing … then it will be done, but not until then.”
In Lee’s opinion, the legacy of slavery is very much alive today:
"We’re still wrestling with this question because it comes down to this. Black people were stripped of our identities when we were brought here [as slaves] and it’s been a quest since then to define who we are. That’s why we’ve gone through the names — Negro, African American, African, Black. For me that’s an indication of a people still trying to find their identity.... So there is this definition of black: if you’re a young black kid today in urban America and you speak correct English and you get great grades, you’re not black. But if you’re f***ing around getting high, standing on a corner, drinking a 40, saying ‘Know’m sayin?’ Know’m saying?’ then you’re black."
Lee believes that the U.S. government created the AIDS virus to eradicate nonwhites and homosexuals. In a 1992 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, he stated, “I’m convinced AIDS is a government-engineered disease. They got one thing wrong, they never realized it couldn’t just be contained to the groups it was intended to wipe out. So, now it’s a national priority. Exactly like drugs became when they escaped the urban centers into white suburbia.”
Viewing cop-killer (and former Black Panther) Mumia Abu Jamal as a political prisoner of a racist nation, Lee in 1995 was a signatory to a New York Times ad voicing support for Abu Jamal. Other notable leftists who signed the letter included Noam Chomsky, Roger Ebert, Mike Farrell, Danny Glover, bell Hooks, Michael Moore, Charles Rangel, Susan Sarandon, Gloria Steinem, Norman Mailer, and Cornel West.
In the aftermath of the Columbine school shootings in May 1999, Lee said the following about National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston: “Shoot him with a .44 caliber Bulldog.” Lee is a National Advisory Board member of the Disarm Education Fund, which seeks “to ban all private ownership of handguns.” Other board members include: Robert Schwartz, Aris Anagnos, Ed Asner, Mario Obledo, Michael Ratner, Dave Dellinger, Pete Seeger, Martin Sheen, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Pete Seeger, Ramsey Clark, and Howard Zinn.
In 2002 Lee appeared on ABC‘s Good Morning America and claimed, falsely, that Republican Senator Trent Lott "is a card-carrying member of the Klan." "[Lott’s] gotta go," said Lee, "he doesn’t belong in the Senate. I know he has that [Klansman’s] hood in the closet somewhere, the hood and the robe....” When pressed to substantiate his charge, Lee said, “It’s metaphysical.”
In 2004 Lee told Playboy magazine that NASCAR -- because there was a paucity of blacks among its fans, employees, and participants -- was a racist enterprise. Said Lee, “I just imagine hearing some country-and-Western song over a loudspeaker at NASCAR: ‘Hang them niggers up high! Hang them niggers up high!’ I’m not going to no NASCAR.”
Lee has been an outspoken opponent of the War in Iraq:
In 2002 Lee was a signatory to the “Statement of Conscience“ crafted by Not In Our Name, a project of C. Clark Kissinger’s Revolutionary Communist Party. This document condemned not only the Bush administration’s “stark new measures of repression,” but also its “unjust, immoral, illegitimate, [and] openly imperial policy towards the world.”
“They [the U.S. government] are trying to sell the world something that isn’t true. When [Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld [whom Lee has called “a gangster”] makes statements like, ‘If you don’t support our war you are supporting terrorism,’ I feel disgusted. They have shown no evidence of a link [between Iraq and al Qaeda]. This [war] has nothing to do with disarmament. It’s about oil. We all know Iraq is a country with a great reserve of natural resources.”
In 2007 Lee said, “My belief is that World War II is the last war that America was right about. Anything after that, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq -- they were wrong.”
During the course of his cinematic career, Lee has won two Emmy Awards. His production company, 40 Acres and a Mule, won a Peabody Award in recognition of Lee’s film A Huey P. Newton Story, about the notorious Black Panther.
Over the years, Lee has given money to the campaigns of a handful of political candidates -- all Democrats. These recipients include Hillary Clinton, Bill Bradley, Harvey Gantt, Ronald Kirk, and Barack Obama.
In February 2008 Lee announced his endorsement of Barack Obama for U.S. President. He predicted that Obama would win the November election and, by so doing, would “change everything.” “You’ll have to measure time by ‘Before Obama’ and ‘After Obama,’” Lee said.
Holding black conservatives in low regard, Lee once said that the late Malcolm X would have called Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas "a handkerchief-head, chicken-and-biscuit-eating Uncle Tom."
In February 2014, during a Black History Month event at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, Lee angrily stated that racism was behind some of the perks that had resulted from a recent wave of gentrification -- an influx of new, wealthier, and disproportionately white residents -- in certain historically black New York City neighborhoods. These perks included things like better police protection and improved amenities in those neighborhoods. Said Lee:
"So, why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better? Why’s there more police protection in Bed Stuy and Harlem now? Why’s the garbage getting picked up more regularly? We been here!...
"Then comes the motherfuckin’ Christopher Columbus Syndrome. You can’t discover this! We been here. You just can’t come and bogart. There were brothers playing motherfuckin’ African drums in Mount Morris Park for 40 years and now they can’t do it anymore because the new inhabitants said the drums are loud. My father’s a great jazz musician. He bought a house in nineteen-motherfuckin’-sixty-eight, and the motherfuckin’ people moved in last year and called the cops on my father. He’s not — he doesn’t even play electric bass! It’s acoustic! We bought the motherfuckin’ house in nineteen-sixty-motherfuckin’-eight and now you call the cops? In 2013? Get the fuck outta here!"
Lee then likened the wave of gentrification to efforts to wipe out the Native Americans already living on the continent during the nation's formative years:
"Nah. You can’t do that. You can’t just come in the neighborhood and start bogarting and say, like you’re motherfuckin’ Columbus and kill off the Native Americans. Or what they do in Brazil, what they did to the indigenous people. You have to come with respect. There’s a code. There’s people."
During a question-and-answer period, when an audience member at the Pratt Institute tried to defend the changes in the neighborhoods, Lee said: "Let me just kill you right now."
Lee is one of the wealthiest individuals in the world today. In 1998 he and his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, purchased a three-story, five-bedroom, 8,292-square-foot New York City townhouse for $16.6 million. The dwelling has original-detail fireplaces, an interior courtyard, a library, an elevator, and staff
quarters. In 2013 Lee put his home on the market, with an asking price of $32 million.