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It’s hard to imagine Black Hollywood–or Tinseltown period–without Spike Lee, arguably one of the best filmmakers cinema has ever seen. Chrysler recently bestowed upon the filmmaker its coveted Behind the Lens Award, which is given annually to behind-the-scenes trailblazers in the movie business. Past recipients include Gordon Parks, Melvin Van Peebles, and Quincy Jones.
CNN’s Soledad O’Brien hosted the sixth annual event before a glistening crowd of some 400 industry glitterati who gathered in Beverly Hills last month. Costume designer Ruth Carter, casting agent Robi Reed, jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, tap dancer Savion Glover, and actors Laurence Fishburne and Rosie Perez were among entertainment cognoscenti who dropped accolades on the man many argue has employed more African Americans in Hollywood than any other filmmaker ever.
Hill Harper, an actor in Lee’s films Get on the Bus and He Got Game, proclaimed with all sincerity from the podium, “Spike Lee is the best director in Hollywood!” Harper also went on to point out that in spite of Lee’s contributions, he is often overlooked in the industry.
Such grandiose compliments are not without merit, particularly from a fellow African American. After all, it was Spike who made the nearly impenetrable world of cinema seem accessible to the many young would-be African American directors and producers who, prior to Spike’s 1986 feature debut She’s Gotta Have It, had lived in a world largely absent of black entertainment power behind and in front of the camera. Since Lee hit the scene, Hollywood–black entertainment in particular–has never quite been the same. Debatably, without Spike Lee there would be no John Singleton, no George Tillman Jr., no Kasi Lemmons, no Gina Prince-Bythewood, Tim Story, Tyler Perry, or other African American filmmakers who have forged ahead, setting their own milestones in the entertainment business.
Lee’s 21st film–Miracle at St. Anna–is set to hit theaters this fall. The World War II drama, based on the James McBride novel, focuses on four Buffalo Soldiers trapped in Italy during the Italian Resistance. A two-time Oscar nominee and an Emmy award-winner, Lee has garnered box-office draw in the director’s chair totaling almost $400 million. His greatest box-office success was the 2006 heist film Inside Man starring Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster.
But even with the success of such films as Inside Man, the New York Knicks-loving Brooklyn native has not seen Tinseltown rushing to back his projects. Never known to shy away from speaking truth to power, Lee offered his take on the hurdles he still faces in the film business despite his longevity and recent blockbuster breakthrough.
“I made the movie Inside Man and it made $200 million worldwide, and I thought I was in,” he said in his acceptance speech. He went on to say that despite the success of Inside Man, he has still been unsuccessful at getting financing for his James Brown biopic or a film about the L.A. riots. Lee attributes the situation to the perennial dearth of African Americans with the power to greenlight movies.
To make Miracle at St. Anna,
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