Spike Lee’s brother reveals filmmaker’s life and career in new photography book
NEW YORK – When David Lee was growing up in Brooklyn, his older brother would drag him out of the house whenever he felt like making a movie.
“Spike would say, ‘You have to come with me. I’m shooting something, âsays David Lee. âHis initial impulse was to document. The 77 blackout he got out and filmed. He would pull me sharply and say, ‘Come on. Go on.'”
In a family of artists (Spike and David’s father, Bill Lee, is a renowned jazz musician who composed many of Spike’s early films), David took to photography. David, Spike’s four-year-old youngest, discovered photography when a tenant upstairs in their family’s brownstone taught him how to process 35mm black-and-white film.
Spike, meanwhile, was already on his way as a director. And from the start, no one has been at the forefront of the birth and development of a master American filmmaker like David. Since Spike’s first feature film, “She’s Gotta Have It,” and ever since, David has been his brother’s still photographer.
He was there to capture Spike, in a Jackie Robinson jersey as the Mookie in “Do The Right Thing,” in the afternoon light of a Brooklyn street. He was there to photograph Denzel Washington lying in the backseat of a convertible in “Malcolm X”. He was there for some of Chadwick Boseman’s last moments in the movies while directing “Da 5 Bloods”.
âSpike,â a new book of retrospective photographs to be released on November 17, is filled with images taken by David over the years, with photos from more than 35 Spike films. It even comes with custom typography based on Radio Raheem’s âLOVE / HATEâ brass knuckles from âDo the Right Thingâ. It is a voluminous and brilliant collection of the still ongoing career of one of the clearest voices in cinema. It’s also an intimate family story, with siblings on both sides of the camera: Spike seen through his brother’s lens.
“It’s pretty funny when your brother gets famous,” said David, 60, in a recent interview. âHe’s always been my brother, but he’s kind of a global possession. The people of Fort Greene always spoke to him as if they knew him.
And from the start, Spike understood something about self-promotion. Few filmmakers since Alfred Hitchcock have made themselves more recognizable to a film-loving audience. As a unit photographer whose images are used in the marketing of a film, David’s photos helped create his brother’s iconography, including the Nike ads with Michael Jordan. He fondly remembers a first trailer for “She’s Gotta Have It” where Spike sells the movie by making tubular socks on Fulton Street.
Lots of images – like Mookie’s – David doesn’t always remember who the idea was.
“I don’t know if I did or if Spike said, ‘Take a picture of this or that. âSpike has always had this other consciousness of promoting himself,â David said. âSpike entered the mainstream on his own terms.
This included, through his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule, much more diverse film sets than seen elsewhere in the industry. David remembers that Spike brought lists of black crew members, including himself, to the various guilds to induct them into the unions.
But the 40 Acres crew – many of which spanned from the late ’80s and early’ 90s – also included Spike’s real family. Their younger sister, Joie Lee, has appeared in at least nine of Spike’s films. Their younger brother, CinquÃ© Lee, has served in a variety of roles, including co-writing 1994’s “Crooklyn”. There are, David jokes, no business school graduates among the Lees.
âFrom the start I kept everything in the family, thank God for the talent of the Lee family,â Spike said in an email.
But why would Lee want a 360 page cornerstone for a film career when he’s still in the middle of it? Just during the pandemic, Lee released two feature films (the Vietnam War drama “Da 5 Bloods”, the documentary “David Byrne’s American Utopia”), served as jury chairman for the Cannes Film Festival and began preparing a musical comedy about the origins of Viagra. . He also, as during the outage of 77, documented New York under the first wave of the pandemic in a short film.
In the first pages of the book, Spike explains, âThis book revisits everything Da Werk that I put in place to build my body of work. Cinema is a visual art form and this sense of my storytelling has been somewhat overlooked. Why now, after all these years? PEOPLE FORGET.
For David, the book is a time to reflect on how his brother’s work – once considered so inflammatory by some – has only become more prescient over time. When âDo the Right Thingâ debuted, some columnists predicted it would incite riots.
âIt shouldn’t have sounded revolutionary or such a surprising conversation to begin with. It really underlined the difference for me in the way whites and blacks, very generally, perceive different attitudes towards race relations, âsays David. âWhites seem eternally surprised by black indignation. It shouldn’t be a new story.
David doesn’t exclusively shoot Spike movies. He has over 90 credits. During a recent interview, he was in Pittsburgh for a Netflix movie about civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. And sometimes their experiences over the past 35 years vary wildly.
âI’m not sitting next to the field at Knicks games,â David laughs. “I’m not kidding with the Obamas.”
But flipping through âSpikeâ captures a filmmaker’s journey that begins as a family photo album. There, in a photo from Spike’s film school graduation, there’s David next to him, with a camera slung over his shoulder. The fact that he’s been along the ride since then still amazes David.
âThere is so much talent in front of you. It’s like a jazz trio. I am in the group! David said. “So much is planned for me to try to capture.”