Shelton Jackson Lee was born in Atlanta, Georgia March 20, 1957. Born to teacher Jacqueline Carroll and jazz musician William James Edward Lee, Shelton grew up in Brooklyn, New York where he was provided with a rich cultural upbringing that included plays, movies, and music (Gale 1). At a young age, Lee was nicknamed “Spike” by his mother who noticed his rough nature and the nickname stuck well into his adult life. He attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia where he gained an interest in film and then graduated with a Bachelors degree in Mass Communication. Lee went on to attend New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts where he created his first student film and graduated in 1982 with a Master of Fine Arts in Film and Television. Being one of the few black students to attend Tisch School of the Arts, the aspiring filmmaker’s first year at New York University was a particularly difficult one. Lee’s experiences, race, and upbringing have all led him to create controversial films to provide audiences with an insight into racial issues.
Spike Lee’s first student production, The Answer, was a short ten minute film which told of a young black screenwriter who rewrote D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. The film was not well accepted among the faculty at New York University, stating Lee had not yet mastered “film grammar.” Lee went on to believe the faculty took offense to his criticisms towards the respected director’s stereotypical portrayals of black characters (1). For his final film project, Lee wrote, produced, and directed Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. The film won him the 1983 Student Academy Award for Best Director and the Lincoln Center chose the film as its first student production. The film was located in Brooklyn, where the majority of his movies take place.
After graduation, Lee decided to start a film based upon a New York bicycle messenger. The movie never went into production due to a dispute between Lee and the Screen Actors Guild who did not grant him a waiver which would have allowed him to use nonunion actors. Lee believed they did not grant him the waiver due to his race. This experience only added to his determination to make films portraying other racial issues currently circulating the country.
With a burning determination from his previous refusal, Lee scrapped together funds to create She’s Gotta Have It, a low budget film made in two weeks about a black woman’s encounters with three men. Starring himself as one of the men, a trait very common through out his film career, the movie was an expected success in the United States making $7 million. She’s Gotta Have It emphasized the gender issue of double standards that women face when dating several men at a time. The film, although not directly about racial issues, was definitely a black film which set off his important and controversial career (Sheridan 4).
To continue his controversial career, Lee followed She’s Gotta Have It with School Daze,...