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Working his 40 Acres

Spike Lee That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It As told to Kaleem Aftab W.W. Norton: 326 pp., $25.95

October 30, 2005|Angela Ards | Angela Ards is a freelance journalist and doctoral candidate in African American and 20th century American literature at Princeton University.

ANYONE who's followed filmmaker Spike Lee's career might have guessed that he'd next train his lens on Hurricane Katrina and its political aftermath in a documentary for HBO. For two decades his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule, whose name echoes America's broken promise to its black citizens after slavery, has plumbed the country's racial divide that Katrina once again exposed.

"Spike Lee: That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It," as told to British writer Kaleem Aftab, chronicles the director's career and the development of 40 Acres, which was created to put African Americans "in front of and behind the camera as filmmakers." An appendix lists the hundreds of black actors, cinematographers, directors, casting agents and designers for whom Lee has opened doors, including Academy Award winners Halle Berry, whose film debut was as a convincingly crusty crack addict in his 1991 interracial love story "Jungle Fever," and Denzel Washington, whose first romantic lead role was in "Mo' Better Blues," Lee's 1990 paean to jazz.

Lee single-handedly changed the face of the movie industry with "She's Gotta Have It." When this sex comedy opened in 1986, there had been few African American moviemakers. Oscar Micheaux -- who wrote, produced and directed more than 40 films in the early 20th century, including "Body and Soul" (1925), without studio backing -- and '70s blaxploitation directors Gordon Parks ("Shaft") and Melvin Van Peebles ("Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song") are mere film history footnotes. Lee's directorial debut, financed on a $175,000 shoestring, grossed $8 million -- a remarkable feat for an independent film, then and now, Aftab writes. But what turned heads was that "Spike Lee was black, and he had made a film about black people, starring black people, that played for black audiences."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 06, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Spike Lee -- An article in the Oct. 30 Book Review described director Spike Lee's film "25th Hour" as a documentary. The 2002 movie is a fictional crime drama.

The book covers Lee's early work as a graduate student at New York University, where he displayed the hallmarks of his burgeoning directorial style: "a propensity to make use of friends and family, a fascination with New York as a backdrop and a desire to tell stories from a black perspective." Woven throughout the text are comments from filmmakers in 40 Acres' black-pack collective, such as Ernest R. Dickerson, Samuel L. Jackson, Roger Guenveur Smith and sister Joie Lee. The strength of this memoir is its behind-the-scenes account of the cultural, political and personal events that have shaped Lee's 18 feature films, from "She's Gotta Have It," featuring his basketball-loving, bad-boy alter ego Mars Blackmon, the cinematic embodiment of an emergent hip-hop aesthetic, to New York City's tense, post-9/11 mood captured in the documentary "25th Hour."

Lee's first major films -- "She's Gotta Have It," "School Daze," "Do the Right Thing," "Mo' Better Blues," "Jungle Fever" and "Malcolm X" -- emerged like stair-step children in an astounding seven years, establishing him as a prolific director of incisive if incendiary social commentary. Overexposure was followed by a backlash just as his black-pack collective began moving into the mainstream, leaving Lee to flounder for several dodgy years with critical and box office disappointments like "Crooklyn" and "Clockers." But perhaps marriage and fatherhood have grounded the director. In the last decade, Lee has returned to innovative form with the civil rights movement documentary "4 Little Girls," the underrated media satire "Bamboozled" and his production of such lucrative projects as "The Original Kings of Comedy." The late Ossie Davis, who reprised his eulogy for Malcolm X in Lee's controversial epic about the slain black nationalist, told Aftab that the maturing director "is one of the few people who could have sat at the same table as Cecil B. De Mille, Samuel Goldwyn and Jack Warner -- all those guys who invented Hollywood."

Born Shelton Jackson Lee, the director has institution-building and creative daring in his blood. His great-grandfather William Edwards Williams founded the Snow Hill Institute in Alabama, an industrial school for black children in the vein of Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee University. And despite a tense relationship with his father, jazz purist Bill Lee, who played for Miles Davis and John Lee Hooker but languished in obscurity rather than compromise his music, the director seems to have inherited his sense of artistic integrity and autonomy.

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