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He’s Gotta Have It! – How Spike Lee Pioneered Independent Cinema

The 1980s was all about excess. From the extreme fashions to the money-hungry Yuppie culture, everything about the era was bigger, louder and more elaborate than the decade that had come before. And nowhere was this more evident than in the film industry. Following the decline of the old Hollywood system in the late 1960s, a new generation of independent filmmakers brought an uncompromising portrayal of the world to the silver screen without the star power of its leading actors. Rising from the film schools or nurtured by producers like Roger Corman, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen would usher in the dawn of the independents, riding on the wave that came from the overnight success of Easy Rider. But when one of these brave new voices created a modest picture called Star Wars that would rewrite every element of filmmaking from the special effects to marketing, the independents soon became the new system and Hollywood was rebuilt as a corporation, a conglomerate more loud and obnoxious than anything that had come before.

The most successful film of 1980 was The Empire Strikes Back, the highly-anticipated sequel to Star Wars. Its phenomenal impact, along with the surprise success of a low budget horror called Friday the 13th, would mark the dawn of the movie franchise. Sequels were nothing new, they had been around since the dawn of cinema and had become a staple of the Universal horror pictures of the 1940s, but when the studios of the ’80s saw the products that they could market, coupled with the advent of home video, sequels soon became franchises as carbon copy follow-ups to A Nightmare on Elm Street and Police Academy were produced often at a rate of one a year. The new Hollywood would also feast on the old, updating such low budget classics as Little Shop of Horrors and The Blob with technicolour and groundbreaking special effects for a generation of MTV-obsessed teenagers unaware of the original classics. The new environment left little space for independent filmmakers but across America there were film schools feeding the imaginations of young wannabe directors and it would only be a matter of time before they were released out into the world. One such person was Spike Lee.

Shelton Jackson Lee was born into an artistic family. His father Bill Lee was a jazz musician and mother a school teacher of literature, so perhaps it was inevitable that their child Spike would display his own artistic flair. His introduction to filmmaking came at the age of twenty when he received a Super 8 camera and made his first short film, Last Hustle in Brooklyn, while studying at Morehouse College in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. He then enrolled at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University where he created his first controversial project, The Answer. One of the most notorious motion pictures in American history was D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a film that from a technical standpoint was an outstanding achievement but demonstrated a distasteful view of the Civil War. ‘Birth revels in the coarsest racial imagery: of crude Negroes (most of them played by white actors in blackface) who act like savages both in the Reconstruction Senate, as they deprive the white gentry of their rights and in their sexual brutality toward Southern white women,’ explained Richard Corliss in an article for the Time on the movie’s centennial.

The seed for The Answer was first sown when a lecturer at NYU screened The Birth of the Nation for the class, an experience that Lee found disturbing as the filmmaking of Griffith was celebrated with no comment on the negative effect the movie had on racism in the country at that time. Lee’s story told of an African-American filmmaker who is approached to write a big budget remake of The Birth of a Nation, but the short film that Lee would deliver to the school was met with both criticism animosity as it was perceived as an attack on a legendary filmmaker, as if the young student had dared to offend Citizen Kane. ‘They told of the great innovations that D.W. Griffith came up with. He’s also called the Father of Cinema. But they never talked about how this film was used as a recruiting tool for the Klan and was responsible for black people getting lynched. So the faculty took it that I was attacking the father of cinema, so they kicked me out,’ Lee explained to musician Pharell Williams. Lee remained in school, however, due to a technicality, having already been granted a Teaching Assistantships for the following year. In a somewhat ironic turn of events, Lee returned to New York University in 1993 as a member of the faculty, teaching students how to become the next generation of filmmakers.

Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads

Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads

Following the storm created by The Answer Lee commenced work on his thesis project, a crime comedy entitled Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. Lee’s first attempt at creating a feature film, the sixty-minute piece told of the owner of a suburban barbershop in Brooklyn who is forced to face a moral decision when he is given the choice whether to allow local racketeers to use his establishment for illegal activities or lose the business he had worked so hard to create. The film would mark the first collaboration between Lee and two of his closest associates. In the role of the proprietor was Marty Ross, whose association with Lee would last throughout their career as he would produce many of Lee’s most respected works, from Do the Right Thing to the biopic Malcolm X. The camerawork would be handled by Ernest Dickerson, whose cinematography alongside Lee woukd ultimately lead to a filmmaking career of his own. Another participant on the project would be Ang Lee, who had immigrated from Taiwan and joined NYU, serving as an assistant cameraman on the film. Ang Lee would enjoy a prolific career in his own right with the Academy Award-winning dramas Sense and Sensibility and Brokeback Mountain.

Unlike The Answer, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads would be well-received at NYU and would go on to receive critical acclaim and numerous accolades. ‘Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop was distributed by First-Run Features and appeared on Public Broadcasting Service stations across the country in 1983 and 1984,’ revealed an article in a 1988 issue of Black Enterprise. ‘In 1983 the film was chosen by the Film Society of Lincoln Center for their New Directors/New Films Festival, an annual series showcasing the best new avant-garde and independent films.’ Following the completion of the feature Lee graduated from NYU with a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Film Production and, with the participation of Ross, formed his own Brooklyn-based production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. Although he had only just left the safety of film school Lee had already experienced both controversy and acclaim, two conflicting elements that would follow the filmmaker throughout his career, but the success of Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop had fuelled his desire to produce a full-length feature film and so Lee and Ross began developing their first professional motion picture.

‘In the summer of 1984, I attempted to do a film called Messenger. We were in pre-production for eight weeks but I had to pull the plug because it just never really came together with all the money and stuff,’ explained Lee to Marlaine Glicksman two years later. ‘So out of that devastation and disaster we came up with the idea, out of desperation, to do She’s Gotta Have It. I was determined to do another film the next summer, for as little money as possible.’ Messenger was Lee’s first experience with the financial difficulties of producing feature films. The tale of delivery man who must step up and become a man following the unexpected death of his mother, the project had been developed with $18,000 donated by the NY State Council on the Arts and a further $20 contributed by his grandmother but with a cast and crew ready to commence shooting the production ground to a halt before the cameras even began rolling. ‘In total, we lost about $50,000. I couldn’t eat because I would throw up. I’ve never weighed a lot to begin with, but I was surely one sickly, skinny melink. I was devastated. Folks were mad as hell,’ Lee explained many years later in a piece later republished by the Washington Post. ‘I must have sat in that tub and cried for an hour. I was wrinkled as a raisin when I got out….Everything – the budget, the size, the scope – was too big.’

The experience of Messenger had almost defeated Lee but he remained determined to shoot a feature film and so returned to the drawing board to develop a concept that could be produced on a very modest budget. She’s Gotta Have It, which is identified in the opening credits as ‘A Spike Lee Joint,’ would be a collection of vignettes from the story’s narrator, Nola Darling, who regularly breaks the fourth wall to address the audience directly regarding the three men in her life. ‘I want you to know the only reason I am consenting to this is that I want to clear my name,’ she explains during her opening monologue. ‘Not that I care what people think but enough is enough!’ While his student efforts had told their stories from the point-of-view of a man, She’s Gotta Have It was Lee’s first attempt at featuring a female protagonist, one who is fiercely independent and confident in her sexuality. The script would serve as a prototype for many subsequent Lee films, based around one principal location or neighbourhood with a reduced cast and focusing on one day or a week in their lives. This mode of storytelling would later resurface in not only his breakthrough feature Do the Right Thing but also Crooklyn and Summer of Sam.

She's Gotta Have It

She’s Gotta Have It

She’s Gotta Have It was shot in twelve days during the long hot summer of 1985 in Brooklyn for a mere $175,000, without the participation of recognisable actors or the support of a studio. Lee’s approach to guerrilla filmmaking – serving as not only the writer and director but also producing, editing and appearing in a supporting role, would become a key moment in the birth of the new American independents. Shot with little time or money, She’s Gotta Have It would earn approximately $8 million at the box office, achieve the prestigious Prix de Jeunesse Award at the Cannes Film Festival and receive modest critical acclaim. ‘These people are not victims of blind forces; they make choices, defend them and grow in understanding, not always happily, as a result,’ stated the New York Times of the moral action of the film’s characters, while Variety described it as a ‘worthy but flawed attempt to examine an independent young woman of the 1980s.’ More importantly, Lee’s greatest achievement with She’s Gotta Have It would be ushering in a new wave of independent cinema, helping to pave the way for Richard Linklater’s Slacker, John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood and Kevin Smith’s Clerks. This revolution in indepedent cinema all began in the late 1970s when a young man from Atlanta first picked up a Super 8 came and began shooting around his neighbourhood. ‘With your summer job flipping burgers or wherever you’re going to be working, buy a camera,’ Lee once told an audience. ‘Buy a digital camera and just start shooting. It doesn’t have to be a movie, just get accustomed to the camera in your hands and start shooting!’

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