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Spike Lee Imprint on Cinema

Updated on March 22, 2017
Cinematography.  That is what comes to mind about Spike Lee. He paints incredible cinematic images.  Happy birthday Spike! Turned 60 in March 2017.
Cinematography. That is what comes to mind about Spike Lee. He paints incredible cinematic images. Happy birthday Spike! Turned 60 in March 2017. | Source
Shelton Lee, known as Spike Lee, the man who loves movies.
Shelton Lee, known as Spike Lee, the man who loves movies. | Source

Directors as Celebrities

Film directors make headlines and create television sound bites because they are bus drivers.

Famous passengers in the bus like Keke Palmer of the Akeelah and the Bee fame, the pliant Colman Domingo, a key cast member of Lee Daniel’s The Butler and the film Selma, Keith Robinson from Dreamgirls etc. also get attention.

This is often bad news for the star of the film, which is the story itself and how it deals with who, what, why, when and where.

This is why we are reluctant to delve into the historical importance of Spike Lee’s films especially Crooklyn. We are too preoccupied with what the director says in the media. Over the years, we even gave Shelton Jackson Lee another surname, ‘controversial’.

First Amendment Freedom of Speech

Such a label for this American filmmaker is ironic because of the First Amendment, which was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1789 and ratified, in 1791.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Jazz Movies

I initially missed the bus in Crooklyn, which is set in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, starring Delroy Lindo and Alfre Woodard because I thought it was a jazz film, about Lindo’s character Woody, and his music. How does a man cling to the elusive dream of creating haunting jazz and feed his kids in a Brooklyn brownstone at the same time?

Spike Lee is big on cinematography so I tend to screen his films more than once. When I went back to the theatre, I realised that Crooklyn is about Troy Carmichael (Zelda Harris) and how she became ‘the mummy’ to her brothers at a very early age.

Troy is very close to Carolyn her mother, played by Alfre Woodard. What is sad is how Carolyn looks at her only daughter. She never says it but it is there is her eyes, as if she is saying, you are the only other woman in this house and you have to take care of this family.

Woody also silently recognises this because he treats his daughter like an adult and confides in her. I think it is his way of making her understand the problems with money, which leads to friction at home.

Baby Girls and Family Responsibilities

Troy is more than a mother, she also defends her brothers on the street, but somehow she knows that she can never be part of the free world baby boys take for granted. There is a scene where she is inside looking at what is happening outside, the reality of many baby girls.

Box office reports usually concentrate on Canada and the U.S. How a film fared overseas is just an addendum, which is unfortunate because African American films are extremely popular in Africa. Spike Lee himself is the inspiration for many African men and women who became filmmakers.

African girls relate to the Troy character on many levels. They may not like it, but they understand that boys have more play time than them. There are all kinds of African expressions about girls and their role in keeping the home machine running. English expressions too, like a way to a man’s heart is his stomach.

I still remember how my sisters would tell mama that I did not cook. ‘Nonqaba, you gave my kids bread?’ Mama did not regard bread as food. I never understood that because I was also her child, but I was a girl and the eldest, so I had to take care of everybody.

Troy was so busy being a little homemaker, she didn’t realise that her mother was sick. I don’t think Carolyn got sick all of a sudden. I don’t remember the name of her illness because I saw the movie some time back.

African girls are much better than girls in Europe and other parts of the world because they understand that the sun will always shine during the day and the moon takes over at night. They are expected to cook and clean whether they work full time or not and this will never change.

European and North American girls grow up in the luxury of constitutions, legislation, Bill of Rights, Gender Commissions and other instruments that make men and women equal, but a female vice-president of an American company, still goes shopping after work to replenish mushrooms, cereal, soap and toilet paper for the family.

America North and South

Crooklyn is an American historical film for many reasons, like Troy and her brothers watching the Patridge family on television and African Americans with their hair puffy and challenging the sky in afro hairstyles.

The screenplay, written by Spike Lee, his sister Joie and brother Cinque is divided into two: the Brooklyn part and the down south part, where Troy spends the summer with her aunt and uncle and their adopted daughter Viola (Patriece Nelson).

North and South is part of American history. Black people left the south to run away from lynching, chain gangs, being murdered to steal their land, rape and all sorts of atrocities perpetrated on a people on the assumption that they are not human beings.

Some went to cities like Chicago and New York, but there was always family that remained down south. Crooklyn is important because it records part of that history.

In fact, Spike Lee’s productions company 40 Acres and a Mule is American history, where former slaves were promised 40 Acres and a mule so that they could be independent. That never came to pass.

One Child Policy

Crooklyn has a few contrasts. A very obvious one is Troy’s life with her brothers in New York where she shares very little resources, and her cousin Viola’s.

Viola has everything a little girl wants: a fairy tale bedroom with pretty clothes. She does not have four brothers invading it to watch television. She is always well-groomed and does not lift a finger to help her aunt with house work.

Troy does not have all the material things but she has parents and brothers who love her, while Viola is adopted. Brooklyn streets taught Troy how to fight and protect your own.

Viola’s adoptive parents give her everything she wants. Troy knows how to run a home under very difficult circumstances, which will help her should she decide to live alone in future.

European and North American women have fewer children for a variety of reasons including the fear of divorce and being a single parent, desire to further their careers, high cost of bringing up kids and desire to give one or two children the best in life.

For a long time, people in China were allowed only one child, a policy the government introduced in 1979. The policy was relaxed in 2013. Children born after 1979 are parents themselves now and the 2013 policy change says if one of the parents was an only child, the couple could have two.

Angela Bassett as Betty Shabazz in Spike Lee's film Malcom X.
Angela Bassett as Betty Shabazz in Spike Lee's film Malcom X. | Source

Classic American Films

The best film about Malcolm X, the African American leader assassinated on 21 February 1965, came from Spike Lee's production studio, 40 Acres and a Mule.

It is important to watch Lee’s original films in order to witness his depth as a director, writer and cinematographer.

  1. She’s Gotta Have It 1986

  2. School Daze 1988

  3. Do the Right Thing 1989

  4. Mo Better Blues 1990

  5. Jungle Fever 1991

  6. Malcom X 1992


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