Hollywood’s Jibananda: Spike Lee

Underrated much?

Spike Lee is one of those directors whom Hollywood does not have the sense to acknowledge and appreciate to the fullest like they do with a lot of other directors. Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorcese, Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino are the big name directors of current Hollywood among few others. Spike Lee, unfortunately, was not ever among such big names in any era. This can be surprising because Lee started making films way back in the early 80's. His first major breakthrough was ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ (1986).

Until now, Lee has directed around 24 films, around 17 of 18 of them written by him! He wrote, produced, directed and acted in a good number of his early movies. Notable among those were ‘Do the Right Thing’ - a film on racial issues in a black community. Spike Lee can be considered the first major American director who brought black culture into spotlight in the Hollywood industry.

There have been films before where black people had been cast but Spike Lee garnered unprecedented international attention for black actors and actresses. And he did so by making drama films - not high budget action movies - which explored daily life problems of black people in the local communities of the United States. Those early films did not accomplish much in the box office - in fact many were box office failures - but they did get critically well received.

In spite of this, Lee’s talent was certainly visible to many because all of those films were written, produced and directed by him. Lee got an Oscar nomination in 1990 in ‘Best Original Screenplay’ category for 'Do the Right Thing'. He also played the lead character in that film. However, 'Do the Right Thing' created controversy among audience, especially with white people who thought the film endorsed violence.

Similar pattern

One thing to be noticed in Lee’s films is that they tend to follow a similar theme - black culture. And this was really an evolution in the Hollywood world because no one cared to bring black society into viewers’ attention so seriously as he did. Yet in many ways, this evolution remained underrated in its time and still remains, to some extent. First of all, why in its time? Chiefly because the 80's were not the most racially advanced time. Discrimination persisted to a wide extent, though not displayed so openly like in earlier decades. In the professional field, such examples could be felt. And speaking of the movie industry, blacks were the outcasts.

The whites would not be telling the story of blacks, though there were some exceptions like the late visionary director Sir Richard Attenborough.  Sir Richard was one of those rare brave filmmakers who had the guts to make masterpieces like Gandhi (based on the Indian independence from the British clutches), Cry Freedom (based on anti-apartheid movement in South Africa) and Glory (American civil war against slavery). But even so, the number was alarmingly low. No romance movies would involve a black couple as protagonists, no action movie would cast a black person as the main character. Which is why - just as in case of literature when Chinua Achebe finally took a stance and wrote 'Things Fall Apart' - many young black filmmakers wanted to start telling their own stories instead of being sidelined in a minor role in a white director’s movie just for the sake of making a living. And one such young filmmaker to strike first was Spike Lee.


Lee wanted to draw the attention of audiences to the Afro-American ghettos in a large scale because most white filmmakers were not willing enough to explore those. Afro-American ghettos were in very poor condition with people being denied proper livelihood. Many houses did not have electricity for long hours and old people often had to sit in the streets under open air so as not to get boiled. I personally would recommend anyone reading this article to watch 'Do the Right Thing' - which is a perfect portrayal of Afro-Americans in ghettos.

Another theme in Lee’s films is jazz. Lee’s father was a jazz musician and in an interview with famous American reporter Bobby Wygant in 1991, he talked about the struggles that his father went through in this profession. Being a jazz artiste requires tremendous hard work and yet after several good performances, it really felt bad when payment was insufficient. Lee’s fifth feature film - 'Mo Better Blues' - was a musical comedy movie, depicting the life of a jazz player. Even Lee’s magnum opus Malcolm X had some element of jazz in it.

I somehow was observed strikingly similar patterns of the working life of Jibananda Das with that of Spike Lee. Both were not appreciated as they should have been, in their lifetimes

Drugs and sex are two other recurring elements in Lee’s movies. It is true that Afro-Americans have encountered problems regarding drug addiction for a very long time. Spike Lee demonstrated this as a problem for black people to cope with depression, anxiety, stress and a lack of social awareness. The presence of drugs in movies is often perceived as uncomfortable and controversial by many film critics although Lee believes otherwise. He insisted that “art should not be just for the sake of pure entertainment but should focus on real life issues”. His 1995 film - 'Clockers' - heavily focuses on this aspect of African Americans.

Test through time

Renowned Bengali poet Jibananda Das is idolised by modern day Bengali poets. Even West Bengal poets nowadays lean towards Jibananda’s style. The style does not follow the traditional ‘rhyming pattern’ of words which is why - back in the day - it was considered unorthodox and raised the eyebrows of a good number of powerhouses. Rabindranath Tagore is one of them. Das’ style was dismissed by many and looked down upon as unattractive. Ironically, his style won the long-term test of time as modern day literary figures have adapted his way of writing. Jibananda’s style is flexible,  effective and contemporary.

I somehow was observed strikingly similar patterns of the working life of Jibananda Das with that of Spike Lee. Both were not appreciated as they should have been, in their lifetimes. However, after Jibananda’s death, there was a revival of his works to an extent that came close to Tagore’s and Nazrul’s. Spike Lee is not dead yet, he will be turning 65 this year. But finding this similar aspect between the two of them makes me hopeful that maybe at one point in the near or distant future, Lee will be looked at in greater regard than he is being now. Like Das, Lee too might win the test of time.