Spike Lee’s documentary filmsBy: Alonso Díaz de la Vega @diazdelavega1
It isn’t hard to say that Spike Lee is the most important African-American director since Oscar Micheaux. A singular pioneer for introducing racial themes into an industry dominated by white, Anglo-Saxon protestants, Micheaux was also remarkable for doing so with a unique ingenuity. Lee, on the other hand, has distinguished himself as an influential filmmaker during the second half of the 20th century with a vibrant style which includes low angles, steeper than usual, sudden changes in the film format and unforgettable dolly-shots which turn the characters into disoriented ghosts in a world full of inequality and resentment.
But just as his career in fiction has been prolific and varied, his documentary works reveal an endless concern for the themes of African-American life. Lee has delved into sports, racism, humor, music, in an attempt to recreate a vast image of his community in the many fragments that are his films. It’s a labor which normalizes Lee’s culture and that invites us to recognize both its peculiarities and its universal qualities from anguish to success.
Two films work in this particular sense of normalization: Kobe Doin’ Work (2009) and Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall (2016). Their main characters, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson, are not different from their spectators due to their race but because of their genius. In his documentary on Bryant, Lee captures a game between the Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs but always centering the attention of his cameras on his protagonist. Bryant himself adds his commentary on every one of his actions in an attempt to describe his strategies, his perception on what happens on the court and even anecdotal information which reveals his consciousness as a brilliant core which has made him one of the major players in basketball history.
In Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall Lee uses a more journalistic approach to follow Jackson’s career from his beginnings alongside his brothers up to his first solo album, which is one of the essential records of the late 70’s. Throughout interviews with his family, friends, collaborators and fans, we meet an individual who succeeded beyond stereotypes and consolidated himself as one of the essential figures in popular music. A good complement to this film might be Bad 25 (2012), Lee’s documentary on Jackson’s definitive record of the 80’s.
Humor is also a peculiarity in any culture. The Original Kings of Comedy (2000) documents a show starred by comedians Steve Harvey, D.J. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac, in which the four of them explore everything from racial tension to the African-American style of smoking and driving a space shuttle. In their hilarious monologues the details of their everyday lives appear, creating a possibility for spectators from any context to identify with them.
Perhaps Lee’s two most important documentaries are the most political ones. The first one, 4 Little Girls (1997), earned him an Oscar nomination for telling the lives of four girls and their deaths in an Alabama church in 1963. The singularity of this story is that these girls participated in the struggle for the African-American community’s civil rights and were finally murdered in a bombing. Lee’s method is once again journalistic but flashes of style give the film a unique personality as they reach a moment of devastating pathos when we see former Alabama governor George Wallace insisting that he’s no racist because his butler has black skin.
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006) is probably Spike Lee’s masterpiece. Divided in four episodes, this miniseries is an oral history of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath which exposes the institutional racism, the failure of an army that knows only how to combat and not how to rescue, and the plain disillusion of being poor and African-American. In many ways it’s the testament of a man who has devoted his filmography to scream on behalf of his race, demanding equality and, most of all, justice.