There have been few mavericks that have been more productive and more controversial than Spike Lee. With over twenty feature films in twenty years, few filmmakers can match him in productivity or versatility. He's made documentaries, dramas, musicals and comedies. His most impressive films include 'When the Levees Broke', 'Clockers', 'Jungle Fever', 'Mo' Better Blues', 'Malcom X' and the classic 'Do the Right Thing'.
When a filmmaker is this active, people tend to dismiss their less successful films and paint them as 'washed up' or 'past their prime'. Woody Allen gets this all the time as there is some kind of expectation that he'll make 'Annie Hall' again and again. Francis Coppola once described 'The Godfather' as the albatross they hung around his neck because every single thing he does is compared to it. It's as if the critics think that an 'American Classic' is an easy thing to achieve! Lee's finest film may arguably have been the 1989 classic 'Do the Right Thing' but instead of trying to repeat the success, he's fearlessly gone forward and has made a body of work that is personal, diverse and engaging. It's that 'fearlessness' is what makes these filmmakers special. They don't just repeat themselves, but go forward and experiment and try new things. Does it fail sometimes? Of course. Most experiments have failure, that's the point. What are you going to learn from repeating yourself?
There aren't many feature film directors that cross over the divide of documentary and drama. Spike Lee's 2006 documentary 'When the Levees Broke' showed that Lee is just as dynamic and thought-provoking as he has ever been. Over the course of four hours, Lee's film takes the viewer through the Hurricane Katrina tragedy and it's aftermath. It's a powerful historical document that will have a life far beyond our own. (I wrote a short blog piece on it last year - you can read it here)
Spike Lee was also the reason that I decided to go to film school and take up this mad endeavor of filmmaking. After making 'She's Gotta Have It' he wrote that he wanted to demystify the process of making movies. He wanted to show people that you could make movies independently, outside of the big Hollywood machine. Although I loved film, photography, literature and drama, I didn't even consider that it could be a vocation. That's the spirit of the maverick - the determination to get your vision out there and not get caught up in all the nonsense that this business gets wrapped up in. Film is one of the toughest industries to break into. It's extremely costly to make a film and even the cheapest films could buy you a house. Somehow, filmmakers like Lee have been able to raise the financing and consistently push the boundaries of their own creativity. We're just along for the ride.