Shelton “Spike” Lee is an African American filmmaker who adamantly believes that “racism is woven into the very fabric of America.”
Lee was born in Atlanta, Georgia on March 20, 1957. Soon thereafter his family moved to Brooklyn, New York, where Lee was raised. His father was a jazz musician, his mother a teacher. After graduating from Morehouse College in 1979 with a BA in mass communication, Lee attended the graduate film program at New York University’s Tisch School of Arts. There he began producing short, independent films and earned a Master of Fine Arts in film & television.
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 numerous 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.
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 iconic title character. 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. And 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. For a more comprehensive listing of Lee’s many films, click here.
In the story line of Do The Right Thing, a white police officer in a black ghetto inadvertently chokes an African American youth to death while trying to break up his fight with the white owner of a local pizzeria. Shortly thereafter, another black character angrily throws a garbage can through the pizzeria’s plate-glass window, sparking a violent riot and the burning down of the shop. Meanwhile, the movie sound track exhorts: “Fight the power! Fight the power!” At the end of the film, the words of Martin Luther King Jr. scroll up the screen: “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral.” These are followed immediately by the words of Malcolm X: “I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense; I call it intelligence.”
When reporters in 1989 asked Lee if he was concerned that his film might spark violence or rioting, he replied: “I’m not advocating violence. I’m saying I can understand it. If the people are frustrated and feel oppressed and feel this is the only way they can act, I understand…. I think all of black America threw that [garbage] can. Black America is tired of having their brothers and sisters murdered by the police for no other reason than being black.”
Also in Do The Right Thing, a brick wall outside of Sal’s Pizzeria bore the phrase “Tawana told the truth,” a reference to Tawana Brawley, a black teenager who in 1987 had falsely claimed that she had been kidnapped and raped by several white men; Al Sharpton served as Brawley’s leading adviser during the time period when her case was in the headlines.
When Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape beat out Do the Right Thing for the Cannes Film Festival’s coveted Palme d’Or award in 1989, Lee blamed racism, saying, “They’re always looking for their white golden boy.”
In Malcolm X, Lee omits any reference to the fact that in the early 1960s Malcolm, a racial separatist, met with leaders of the Ku Klux Klan to discuss ways that he could work with them to thwart the integrationist agendas of the civil rights movement.
On numerous occasions, Lee has been critical of fellow filmmakers — black and white alike — for reasons related to race. For example:
Lee has been outspoken on racial matters in many different contexts and venues. After visiting apartheid-era South Africa in the early 1990s, for instance, the filmmaker said: “I seriously wanted to pick up a gun and shoot whites. The only way to resolve matters is by bloodshed.”
On other occasions, Lee has bluntly articulated his contempt for black-white couples. “I give interracial couples a look,” he once said. “Daggers. They get uncomfortable when they see me on the street.” Lee was asked about this topic in a 1991 interview with Playboy magazine and said: “I never see black men with fine white women. They be ugly. Mugly, dogs. And you always see white men with good-looking black women.” When the interviewer then made reference to a prior statement where Lee had vowed never to become romantically involved with white women, the filmmaker replied: “I don’t need the trouble. Like I don’t go for that, don’t like that sh*t. I just don’t find white women attractive, that’s all. And it’s way too many fine black women out there.”
In the same 1991 interview, Lee gave voice to his belief that black people are incapable of being racists:
“Black people can’t be racist. Racism is an institution. Black people don’t have the power to keep hundreds of people from getting jobs or the vote. Black people didn’t bring nobody else over in boats. They had to add sh** to the Constitution so we could get the vote. Affirmative action is about finished in this country now. It’s through. And black people had nothing to do with that, those kinds of decisions. So how can black people be racist when that’s the standard? Now, black people can be prejudiced. Sh**, everybody’s prejudiced about something. I don’t think there will ever be an end to prejudice. But racism, that’s a different thing entirely.”
“Racism,” Lee elaborated on another occasion, “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 1991 Lee publicly reflected on how deeply he despised Lilies of the Field, the classic 1963 film depicting a respectful and loving relationship between a black handyman named Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) and a convent of white nuns. “I hated that movie,” said Lee. “… I felt like putting a rock through the [TV] screen. Later with these nuns! You [Smith] better get outta here before one of ’em [nuns] says that you raped ’em! But we owe a lot to Sidney Poitier, because in order for us to get to where we are today, those films had to be made. And Sidney had to do what he had to do. He was the perfect Negro.”
Giving voice to his belief that the U.S. government created the AIDS virus to eradicate nonwhites and homosexuals, Lee stated in a 1992 interview with Rolling Stone magazine: “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.”
In August 1995 Lee signed a New York Times ad advocating a new trial for the convicted cop-killer, former Black Panther, and leftist icon Mumia 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 May 1999, when Charlton Heston was president of the National Rifle Association, Lee stated that the organization “should be disbanded” and that someone should “shoot [Heston] with a .44-caliber Bulldog,” a heavy-duty pistol. He made this remark only a month after the deadly Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado that left 13 innocents dead and 21 others wounded. When radio broadcaster Steve Malzberg later brought the remark to public attention, Lee said that he had made the comment as a joke and refused to apologize.
In a 2000 interview, Lee stated that the legacy of slavery was still very much alive in America:
“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.”
In 2002 Lee was enraged when Republican Senator Trent Lott toasted Senator Strom Thurmond (a former segregationist) at the latter’s 100th birthday party, where Lott said: “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years, either.” In response, Lee said of Lott: “The man is a card-carrying member of the Klan. I know he has that hood in the closet.” When pressed to substantiate his charge, Lee said, “It’s metaphysical.”
In 2002 Lee was a signatory to the “Statement of Conscience” drafted by Not In Our Name (NION), 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.” To view a list of additional NION supporters, click here.
Lee was an outspoken opponent of the War in Iraq. In February 2003, less than a month before the war would begin, he said that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (whom Lee has called “a gangster”) made him “feel disgusted.” “This [war] has nothing to do with disarmament,” Lee added. “It’s about oil. We all know Iraq is a country with a great reserve of natural resources.”
Lee has viewed virtually every foreign military action by the United States as morally unjustified. As he said in 2007: “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.”
In 2004 Lee told Playboy magazine that the NASCAR auto-racing association was a racist enterprise because there was a paucity of blacks among its fans, employees, and participants. Said Lee, “I just imagine hearing some country-and-Western song over a loudspeaker at NASCAR: ‘Hang them ni**ers up high! Hang them ni**ers up high!’ I’m not going to no NASCAR.”
In 2006 Lee produced and directed a movie for HBO entitled When the Levees Broke—a reference to the devastating floods of Hurricane Katrina that had engulfed much of New Orleans the previous year. The film featured interviews with Harry Belafonte and Sean Penn. The filmmaker made clear his belief that President George W. Bush had been slow to dispatch federal aid workers to Louisiana because so many of the victims were black. Regarding rumors that the U.S. government had somehow engineered the flooding of that city’s mostly black Ninth Ward, Lee said: “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.”
In February 2008 Lee announced his endorsement of Barack Obama for U.S. President, and he subsequently campaigned hard for the senator from Illinois. Predicting that an Obama victory in the upcoming November election would “change everything,” Lee said: “You’ll have to measure time by ‘Before Obama’ and ‘After Obama.’”
“The Clintons, man, they would lie on a stack of Bibles. Snipers? That’s not misspeaking; that’s some pure bullit. I voted for Clinton twice, but that’s over with. These old black politicians say, ‘Ooh, Massuh Clinton was good to us, massuh hired a lot of us, massuh was good!’ Hoo! Charlie Rangel, David Dinkins—they have to understand this is a new day. People ain’t feelin’ that stuff. It’s like a tide, and the people who get in the way are just gonna get swept out into the ocean.”
Over time, Lee grew quite close to Obama, who told him that Do the Right Thing was the first film he had ever taken Michelle Obama to see when the couple was dating. Lee subsequently gloated: “I’m riding my man Obama. I think he’s a visionary. Actually, Barack told me the first date he took Michelle to was Do the Right Thing. I said, ‘Thank God I made it. Otherwise you would have taken her to Soul Man.’ Michelle would have been like, ‘What’s wrong with this brother?’”
In a 2009 interview, Lee reflected on the significance of Obama’s recent election as U.S. President:
“It was witnessing history. It was like being alive when Jackie Robinson integrated baseball, when Joe Louis knocked out [Max] Schmeling — it was like that. When Jackie Robinson played for the Dodgers, every African American in this country was praying for him. When Joe Louis fought and won, black communities — in Detroit, Harlem, Chicago-black communities from all over the world would come out of the house after listening to Joe knock out those guys on the radio … and celebrate. With [President Obama’s victory] it was the same thing!”
In March 2012, soon after a “white Hispanic” man named George Zimmerman had shot and killed a black Florida teenager named Trayvon Martin in a February 26 altercation that made national headlines, Lee used his Twitter account to circulate a message that claimed to give Zimmerman’s home address. This came at a time when Zimmerman was already receiving numerous death threats, and when the New Black Panther Party was offering a large bounty for Zimmerman’s capture — “Dead or Alive.” The address that Lee supplied, however, turned out to be incorrect, forcing the actual occupants — an elderly couple named Elaine and David McClain — to leave their home and stay at a hotel due to the numerous death threats they began to receive. Lee issued an apology to the McClains and quickly entered into a $10,000 settlement agreement with them. But in November 2013, the McClains filed a $1.2 million negligence lawsuit that accused Lee of “encouraging a dangerous mob mentality among his Twitter followers, as well as the public-at-large.”
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 (like better police protection and improved amenities) that had resulted from a recent influx of new, wealthier, and disproportionately white residents to certain historically black New York City neighborhoods. He also resented what he viewed as the white newcomers’ efforts to quash local black traditions and pastimes. 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 [blacks] been here!…
“Then comes the motherfu**in’ Christopher Columbus Syndrome. You can’t discover this! We been here. You just can’t come and bogart. There were brothers playing motherfu**in’ 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-motherfu**in’-sixty-eight, and the motherfu**in’ 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 motherfu**in’ house in nineteen-sixty-motherfu**in’-eight and now you call the cops? In 2013? Get the fu** 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 motherfu**in’ 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 that had come to the neighborhoods, Lee said to him: “Let me just kill you right now.”
In an August 19, 2014 interview on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, Lee spoke out on the matter of Michael Brown, a black teenager whose recent shooting death by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri had sparked a series of violent black riots. Said Lee: “Something smells bad in Ferguson, and it’s not just [police] tear gas…. And I’m not saying that people should burn down stuff and riot and loot, but this is not the first time we’ve seen this [a white policeman killing an unarmed black male]. And I just hope that things will really blow up if the people aren’t happy with the verdict of this upcoming trial.”
In January 2016, Lee announced that because, for the second consecutive year, no African Americans had received an Oscar nomination for the “best actor” category, he would not be attending the February 28 Academy Awards ceremony. “We cannot support it and [I] mean no disrespect … But, how is it possible for the second consecutive year all 20 contenders under the acting category are white?” Lee wrote on Instagram. “And let’s not even get into the other branches. Forty white actors in two years and no flava at all. We can’t act?! WTF!! Dr. King said, ‘There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it’s right.’” According to Lee, the “’real’ battle” over racism in Hollywood was being waged in “the executive offices of the Hollywood studios and TV and cable networks,” where executives decide which film projects get made. Wrote Lee: “People, the truth is we [nonwhites] ain’t in those rooms, and until minorities are, the Oscar nominees will remain lily white.”
In February 2017, Lee posted a photo to Instagram of himself holding a pair of custom Black History Month Air Jordan sneakers bearing anti-Donald Trump slogans. One shoe featured the “RESIST,” while the other shoe read “REPEL AGENT ORANGE” — a reference to rapper Busta Rhymes’s recent dubbing of Trump as “President Agent Orange.”
During a CNN town hall event on September 27, 2017, Lee discussed the National Football League – many of whose players had recently knelt during the playing of the national anthem, as a protest against racial injustice in America – with former Pittsburgh Steeler Hines Ward, former Green Beret Nate Boyer, and Baptist minister Michel Faulkner. In reaction to Faulkner’s assertion that the performance of the national anthem is “not the time nor place” to protest, Lee said: “Politics and sports have always been intertwined, and you can’t — we live in the United States of America. Race is a part of the DNA of this country. This country, the foundation of the United States of America was the genocide of Native Americans and slavery. That’s the foundation of this country that cannot be disputed and so, that’s the foundation. Everything else comes from that.” When Hines Ward subsequently said that “in … the football world, we don’t see color … we see teammates come from all different places all over,” Lee retorted: “What did it take for Bear Bryant to get a black player in Alabama? They played USC and he said, ‘We need to get some ni**ers.’”
The previous month, Lee had used his Instagram account to promote a planned New York City rally in support of Colin Kaepernick, who had started the practice of kneeling during the national anthem. Wrote Lee: “I Did Not Organize And Set Up This Protest. However I Still Support My Brother And His Stance On The Injustices In These United States Of America.”
Because he sees white racism as a ubiquitous phenomenon in American society, Lee believes that blacks have good reason to harbor anger and resentment in their hearts. He once told a reporter, for instance, that “I’ve been described in the press as an angry black man … the angry black man is an image they can use.” When the reporter asked whom “they” referred to, Lee replied: “The media, the studios. The infrastructure.” He then expounded: “Even if I was angry, I think African-Americans are more than justified in feeling that way, considering the situation that’s been forced upon us for centuries.”
Lee has particularly low regard for black conservatives who do not share his view of African Americans as perpetual victims of white racism. “They think like whites,” he says. “There’s a difference between having a black skin and black thinking.” On another occasion, Lee said that the late Malcolm X, if he were still alive, would have viewed conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as “a handkerchief-head, chicken-and-biscuit-eating Uncle Tom.”
At a May 2018 press conference for the premiere of his film BlacKkKlansman at the Cannes Film Festival, Lee accused President Trump of having failed to sufficiently denounce the white supremacists who had clashed violently with Marxist and anarchist protesters affiliated with Antifa in Charlottesville nine months earlier. Denouncing Trump for asserting that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the conflict, the filmmaker said: “That motherfu**er was given a chance to say ‘we’re about love and not hate,’ and that motherfu**er did not denounce the motherfu**ing Klan, the alt-right, and those Nazi motherfu**ers. He could have said to the world, not [just] the United States, that we’re better than that. We look to our leaders to give us direction, to make moral decisions. This bullsh** is going on all over the world, this right-wing bullsh**.” (Lee’s charge that Trump did not sufficiently or explicitly condemn the white supremacists was false. For details of exactly what the president said, click here.)
In an attempt to draw a parallel between President Trump (whose 2016 campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again”) and the Ku Klux Klan, the trailer for Lee’s new film included a scene featuring Klan leader David Duke toasting “America First.”
In June 2019, Lee joined numerous other celebrities in demanding that Hollywood studios pull their productions out of Georgia to protest a new state law designed to ban abortions after approximately six weeks of pregnancy, upon detection of a fetal heartbeat. Likening his proposed boycott of Georgia, to the boycott of racially segregated facilities in the Jim Crow South, the filmmaker said: “They got to shut it down, you know? I’m sorry — I’m not sorry — but I know it’s going to affect people’s livelihood, but that’s how things change. There were black bus drivers in Montgomery and they were effective by the boycott but so be it.”
A few days after the November 2018 midterm elections in which Democrats had recaptured control of the House of Representatives, Lee indirectly likened Republican lawmakers to Nazis. Said Lee: “We just had the mid-terms and I’m gong to use a World War II analogy: the mid-term was the landing of the Allies at Normandy. So we’re just on the beach. But for the next two years, it’s going to get really serious and I believe that 2020 election is going to be a referendum on the soul of America. That election is going to determine which way the supposed cradle of democracy is going to go. Is it going to go with love or hate? That’s how I see it.”
At the February 2019 Academy Awards ceremony, Lee’s film BlacKkKlansman won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. After he ascended the stage, the filmmaker removed from his pocket two sheets of paper on which he had written a prepared speech for this occasion. As he started to deliver his remarks, he ordered the Oscar producers: “Do not turn that motherfu**ing clock on!” — a reference to a timer designed to limit the length of each award recipient’s remarks. Lee then spoke the following words:
“… Four hundred years. Our ancestors were stolen from Mother Africa and bought to Jamestown, Virginia, enslaved. Our ancestors worked the land from can’t see in the morning to can’t see at night…. Before the world tonight, I give praise to our ancestors who have built this country into what it is today along with the genocide of its native people. We all connect with our ancestors. We will have love and wisdom regained, we will regain our humanity. It will be a powerful moment. The 2020 presidential election is around the corner. Let’s all mobilize. Let’s all be on the right side of history. Make the moral choice between love versus hate. Let’s do the right thing! You know I had to get that in there.”
In a February 2019 appearance on MSNBC, Lee said the following about America’s racist history:
“I also have to say the reason why I’m wearing this hat and pullover is that many years ago the first slaves were brought to this country in Jamestown, Virginia, 1619 and 2019. I think that a lot of people need to know this. Because this is part of American history, which is not all good. You know, I think that when I was in public school in Brooklyn, New York, I was not told George Washington owned slaves. I was told he chopped down the cherry tree and wouldn’t tell a lie. In 1492, this guy [Columbus], this terrorist sailed the ocean blue. I mean, we have got to start teaching, I feel, my opinion, let’s be honest about our history and let’s move forward. We’re not honest about our history.”
During an August 2019 appearance on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, Lee said the following about the legacy of slavery in America: “I think that most woke historians would say that this country, the United States of America, was built upon the genocide of people and slavery. I mean, that’s a fact. And I think that if we Americans came to study how this country started, we wouldn’t be talking about kick immigrants out, you know, because if it wasn’t — I mean, Native Americans, people brought here as slaves, everyone was immigrants.” In the same interview, Lee characterized President Donald Trump as a white supremacist: “Another thing I’d like to say respectfully, why are we still asking is this guy a white supremacist? I mean, like it’s not even the question, I mean, the Muslim ban, all Mexicans are rapists, drug dealers. And then Charlottesville, we have marching — the KKK, the alt-right, neo-Nazis, and he can’t make a decision between what’s right and wrong? What’s love and hate?”
In a June 2020 radio interview, Lee said:
While accepting an award from the New York Film Critics Circle during a virtual ceremony on January 24, 2021, Lee used the occasion to liken former President Trump and his supporters to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis: “The whole world is laughing at the United States of America, the so-called cradle of democracy. We’re at a crossroads now, and everybody please be safe. This is not a game. These people [Trump supporters] got guns with ammunition. I hope to God that I’m wrong, but people are gonna get killed behind this bullshit. This president, President Agent Orange [Trump], will go down in history with the likes of Hitler. These guys — all his boys — they’re going down on the wrong side of history.”
Lee is immensely wealthy, with a net worth of approximately $40 million. 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. In 2013 Lee put the home on the market, with an asking price of $32 million.
Lee has taught film classes at New York University and Harvard University. In addition to his film-production and teaching endeavors, he also works for SiriusXM NBA Radio — an outlet run by the National Basketball Association.
Lee has served as a National Advisory Board member of the Disarm Education Fund (DEF), which seeks to ban all private ownership of handguns. Other DEF board members over the years have included such notables as: Aris Anagnos, Ed Asner, Ramsey Clark, Dave Dellinger, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Mario Obledo, Michael Ratner, Pete Seeger, Robert Schwartz, Martin Sheen, and Howard Zinn.
Over the years, Lee has given money to the campaigns of a handful of political candidates — all Democrats. These recipients include Bill Bradley, Harvey Gantt, Ronald Kirk, Roy Cho, Doug Jones, Karen Carter, Bill Pascrell Jr., and Barack Obama.
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.