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  • Writer's picturetatum van dam

the public intellectual: a spike lee joint

Updated: Jan 16, 2020

Exactly what does it mean to be a public intellectual? Can the title truly be obtained? Doctors take an extra four years of college to obtain the title of PhD, and “Sir” Paul McCartney was given the title of “Sir” when he was knighted by the Queen. Who falls into the elite category of being a “public intellectual?” Is it limited to certain professions -- politicians, professors, inventors? If so, who decides which professions gets to qualify for the title of “public intellectual” and which professions do not? When I was little, I got my writing published in a book. By all common standards, I was a professional writer. Does that make me a public intellectual like writers Oscar Wilde or George Orwell?

The Collin’s English Dictionary defines a “public intellectual” as: an intellectual, often a noted specialist in a particular field, who has become well-known to the general public for a willingness to comment on current affairs.

Often, these intellectuals are academics with published pieces of work or research that has made a significant impact to society. In his article, “The Supposed Decline of the Public Intellectual,” Stephen Mack writes on the common type of work done by a public intellectual. He states, “the measure of public intellectual work is not whether the people are listening, but whether they’re hearing things worth talking about.” Given the fact that my published piece of work was a poem centered around the iconic “Twilight” series written by Stephanie Meyer, I do not think that it is safe to deem myself as a public intellectual. While public intellectuals often have important, published works that help advance society, these “works” are not always in the form of a paper and pen -- but rather sometimes, a camera and a vision. I am interested in exploring this hybrid of public intellectual and artist. More specifically, I am interested in exploring the filmmaker, Spike Lee, as a public intellectual.

The artist can be distinguished as a certain type of a public intellectual; a certain flavor, if you will. While other public intellectuals might write theories to explain and explore their ideas, an artist works through their medium of choice (in this case, filmmaking) to conceptualize their thoughts. They have a critical way of looking at society, which is often reflected in their creations. It is important to distinguish between the artist who tells and the artist who shows; I will argue that Spike Lee does not only make films solely for the love of the art -- but rather, to show his radical ideas and view of the world through a medium that (compared to a tedious and infinite essay) is easy to digest -- a movie.

Lee, though a Georgia-native, grew up in Brooklyn, New York where he eventually obtained a degree in film production from New York University in 1982. Both his environment in the classroom and in the city shaped his filmmaking. Film school has a tendency to impact the types of films people create and how these films are created. It is worth noting that Lee’s provocative and forward-thinking persona has always been a significant part of his work; the more resources he was given to flesh out his ideas, the clearer these ideas were able to be articulated. While attending a film school can influence one’s style of filmmaking, the area in which one’s school is located can also play a key role in acquiring artistic inspiration.

It is to my belief that current events in New York City are what lead Lee to create and release his third feature length film, Do The Right Thing (dir. Lee, 1989) -- one that the Library of Congress would later deem as “culturally significant”. The Reagan Era, lasting from 1981-1989, was, in some ways, a pushback to racial progress in America. Reagan retreated multiple Civil Rights Acts, whilst advancing the War on Drugs -- he even opposed the creation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, singing the bill against his own will. During his reign, combined with the rise of hip-hop, police brutality, and riots breaking out in urban areas, racial tensions in New York City heightened. This trend would only continue with the 1989 mayoral election of David Dinkins.

David Dinkins was the first African American to be elected mayor in New York City. His election signaled a transition of power -- for some, in a beneficial way, and for others, in a not-so-beneficial way. There was a concern that “whiteness” was being marginalized, and mainly because of racism, Dinkins did not gain enough support to run again -- what Andy Pollack describes as a “re-exclusion of Blacks from electoral power” in his article “The Unmaking of Mayor Dinkins”. Pollack continues to analyze Dinkins’ failed attempt at a re-election, arguing that racism, the media and uninspired voters were the largest contributions to his “unmaking.”

So, why am I mentioning the election of Mayor Dinkins? Lee released Do The Right Thing in July of 1989, amidst the chaos occurring in the city. Do The Right Thing is a drama-comedy taking place in the streets of Brooklyn, New York on the hottest day of summer. Through the means of a pizzeria and a boom box blasting Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” racial tensions of New York City are explored; though the film takes place on a street in Brooklyn, its message travels far beyond those two blocks in Brooklyn. A film as controversial as Do The Right Thing was bound to receive praise and critique, and, indeed, it did.

Some critics argued that the film would not calm tensions, but rather, intensify them. Upon the release of the film, Joe Klein of the New York Magazine wrote: “If Lee does hook large black audiences, there’s a good chance the message they take from the film will increase racial tensions in the city. If they react violently -- which can’t be ruled out -- the [New York City mayoral] candidate with the most to lose will be David Dinkins” (14).

Alternatively, other critics found the film important because of its cultural relevance. David Sterritt of The Christian Science Monitor explained: “The context of Do The Right Thing, which draws on such recent and real New York incidents as the death of a graffiti artist while in police custody and the harassment of blacks in the Howard Beach neighborhood. These direct connections with actual events are one reason why Mr. Lee’s film must be heeded, even when its content may seem distasteful to some white moviegoers.” Regardless of whether the responses were positive or not, the film did exactly what Lee wanted it to do: start a conversation that America was not ready to have.

Do The Right Thing set Lee on the trajectory to become a celebrity filmmaker -- one that is not only known for his angles and aesthetics, but one that is known for his ability to bridge the gap between fiction and non-fiction. Lee makes great use of the “hammer” -- a stylistic tool that artists use to make certain points. Lee has a reputation for being straight to the point when it comes to his ideas, which can be shown through his inclusion of other films and current events within his own films. As noted above, due to his overt political context, he has created enemies; however, there are people who find his work refreshing for the very same reason. Despite his critics, Do The Right Thing has earned Lee numerous awards and nominations since its release.

Throughout the years, Lee has done campaigns with major brands -- one of the most noteworthy being Nike. Though the objective was to market a product, Lee did it in such a way that addressed issues in contemporary American society. The African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) notes Nike’s decision to pair with Lee: “By using Lee as a marketing spokesman -- both as an actor and director -- Nike chose to align themselves with a dynamic young Black cultural producer who was seen to be unapologetically outspoken on the issue of race.” By choosing to participate in corporate activism and extend his work beyond the big screen, Lee has been able to reach a wider audience, with the strong possibility of creating a global impact -- given Nike’s worldwide reach.

Between working on campaigns, activism, television shows, and several other entertainment industry projects, Lee released a film in 2018 that returned him to the height of his career: Blackkklansman. Quite possibly the most important film of 2018, Blackkklansman reinforces messages concerning race and the representation of African American politics in the United States. It tells the story of Ron Stallworth, an African-American cop who goes great lengths to spy on and infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. Upon hearing the summary or watching the trailer, one might suspect a laugh or two; what they might not expect is the film to pack a punch as hard as it does. The film’s Rotten Tomatoes ‘Critic’s Consensus’ states: “BlacKkKlansman uses history to offer bitingly trenchant commentary on current events -- and brings out some of Spike Lee's hardest-hitting work in decades along the way.” I am in full agreement with this consensus. Blackkklansman, despite taking place in the seventies, is commenting on contemporary society. It is historical, showing the impact of history on modern day America -- any of the events that take place in the film can very well be taking place today. This idea of historical impact can be explored through the film’s intertextuality; referencing media from the past and present, fiction and nonfiction. One scene includes a clip from Birth of a Nation, a 1915 film thought to be the foundation of Hollywood cinema. Though it is regarded for its technological advances in the art of filmmaking itself, it showcases the Ku Klux Klan rioting as heroes; speaking to the racism that has always been embedded in films in American society. Lee also includes clips of real-life current events that leave an uneasy feeling in the viewer’s stomach. Similar to a musical artist sampling another artist’s song to create a beat, filmmakers use clips of other films and media in their movies. Lee uses the inclusion of other media as a way to make a larger point, not only on the general public, but of problems of African American representation within Hollywood -- his own industry. Rightfully so, Blackkklansman won a multitude of awards, including the Cannes Grand Prix Award and an Academy Award.

Referring back to the definition of a “Public Intellectual,” it is clear that Lee fits the category of one “who has become well-known to the general public for a willingness to comment on current affairs” (Collins). There is no doubt that Lee’s voice is not shy of anything related to current affairs; however, it is worth noting that Lee does not create films for the sole purpose of bringing the stories he has conjured in his head to life. He makes films to tell the stories of those that are no longer able to, and those whose voices struggle to be heard. He makes films for those who have been wronged by the criminal justice system; those who are behind bars for the wrong reasons. Lee makes films for those who are living in Trump’s America -- to realize issues that have been prevalent in society since the beginning of time. Lee takes advantage of the cinema, a novelty in America that has remained popular since its creation, and uses it to express his powerful views.

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