Veteran Brooklyn filmmaker Spike Lee is everywhere these days, rightfully soaking in the glow of his first Best Picture and Best Director Oscar nominations.
BlackkKlansman, the 2018 film which earned him those nods, is just the latest in a rich and eclectic career that has spanned over 35 years. In that time, he has often garnered equal amounts of praise and scorn for his films, which, in their most pointed moments, deal directly with issues of race, culture, sex, and ontological corruption.
While this new film is the first to earn notice from the Academy, Mr. Lee has several masterpieces in his cinematic canon already. Get on the Bus might be his most perfect film and Inside Man, He Got Game, and 25th Hour are also powerhouses. No other filmmaker has captured sibling dynamics and the pain of playing music to an empty house better than Lee did in Crooklyn. His undisputed classic Do the Right Thing, starring a sweltering New York City summer, turns 30 this summer.
The 2015 film Chi-Raq is one of the most controversial and scathingly critiqued of the bespectacled artist’s oeuvre. The title is a portmanteau of Chicago and Iraq meant to express the war zone-like environment that gun violence has wrought in the Midwest’s largest city. Starring John Cusack, Nick Cannon, and Teyonah Parris, the film itself is a contemporary retelling of Lysistrata, a Greek comedy by Aristophanes where women withhold sex as a way to end a war that is killing their men. Even with Mr. Lee’s unimpeachable commitment to dealing with all aspects of the Black American experience as a backdrop, everything from the title to the casting to the narrative approach in the film was attacked from many corners. Several prominent Chicagoans characterized the filmmaker and his crew as exploitive interlopers. Multiple think-pieces about the film’s (and Lee’s) ostensible problematic core are still easy to find online; these are not the subject of this post.
Given the noise surrounding Chi-Raq, it was easy to overlook that it contained a unique and important cinema first: an intimate look at Black American Catholicism. I spent about 10 years working in a primarily Black Catholic parish, both as a drummer for the Jazz/Gospel Mass and as a teacher at the church’s school. It was a crucial and tremendously influential time for me, and seeing a version of my own experiences onscreen brought back a powerful wave of memories and emotions. The film’s centerpiece features Cusack’s character Fr. Michael Corridan (based on real-life Chicago priest Fr. Michael Pfleger, a controversial guy himself) delivering a searing homily as well as a beautifully-rendered liturgical dance sequence, both in a Black parish. While exuberant scenes in Baptist, Pentecostal, and other churches have been deployed in films for years as a signifier of the vitality of Black American spirituality, the church scenes in Chi-Raq were truly something new. Besides one brief scene in Dead Man Walking, I can’t recall another film that has even gotten close to capturing the significantly under-heralded but distinct world of Black Catholicism.
This might seem like a small thing, but that’s the point. When one looks back at the numerous ways Spike Lee’s films have given voice and representation to communities and individuals who feel unseen or even unseeable, an aesthetic and commitment emerges that is more powerful than any resultant controversy or promotional conceit. Whatever you may think of the man, Chi-Raq, BlackKlansman, or any of his films, Spike Lee is an artist seeking to make work filled with meaning. He is a true American original, and an artist to be celebrated while he’s still here with us. What better time to shout about it than the first day of Black History Month in the year of his first Oscar nomination?