- The Spike Lee Brand: A Study of Documentary Filmmaking by Delphine Letort
Few contemporary American filmmakers have inspired as much scholarship as Spike Lee. Yet, despite the fact that he has directed more feature-length documentaries than fiction films in the last decade, the vast majority of the work on Lee remains about the latter, particularly his earliest ones. In her latest book, Delphine Letort sees the titular "Spike Lee Brand" as clear in all of his films—fiction and nonfiction—but here focuses on the documentaries, since they act as "living histories," just as thought provoking as his fiction films. She also explores how the overt political content of his documentaries stands in dialectical tension with his "sellebrity auteur" persona: "The 'Spike Lee' label has become a trademark that not only connotes the director's commitment to relating stories from the perspective of African Americans, but it also signifies the marketing strategies endorsed by the filmmaker to pursue a career in the mainstream" (8).
Lee's documentaries generally fall into two categories: the historical (4 Little Girls , Jim Brown: All American , When the Levees Broke , If God is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise , Bad 25 , Michael Jackson's Journey from Motown to Off the Wall ); and the performative (Freak , The Original Kings of Comedy , A Huey P. Newton Story , Passing Strange , Kobe Doin' Work , Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth , Katt Williams: Priceless Afterlife ). Rather than the usual chronological approach, Letort organizes her chapters around themes such as history, memory, media, race, and Black Nationalism. Her work reveals an indebtedness primarily to documentary scholar Bill Nichols, even if Lee's nonfiction "joints" cannot so be so easily labeled under Nichols's system, as Lee blends Nichols' modes of poetic, expository, participatory, and performative documentary at varying points throughout his oeuvre. Likewise, Letort also employs a multi-methodological approach to her study, examining Lee through semiological, narratological, historical, and ideological lenses.
Despite Lee's prolific documentary work, Letort largely ignores the performance documentaries and leans most on the Katrina documentaries: When the Levees Broke and its sequel, If God is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise. She identifies the latter as a turning point in his documentary work, for it offers a leftist critique of neoliberalism and its effect on the 2010 BP oil spill. Lee proves particularly effective at securing testimonial interviews that "allow the director to fashion an informing historical narrative that counters the media short-term and flagging interest in the drama of Katrina" (57). Letort also extensively treats the use of photographs in the Katrina documentaries as well as in his first documentary, 4 Little Girls. After these three, Jim Brown: All American probably receives the most attention, as Letort employs critical race theory to sports.
This emphasis on the political content of Lee's work is why Letort views him as a documentarian in the tradition of Emile de Antonio and Errol Morris, someone interested in uncovering "untold truths." This could also explain her lack of attention to Lee's performance documentaries (save for a [End Page 94] few pages addressing A Huey P. Newton Story), which are generally less overtly political. But as the author points out, any consideration of Lee's political views can be vexing considering his long-term relationship with Nike, as well as his commercial work through Spike DDB, or what Letort refers to as the "discrepancy between Lee's political and economic discourse" (118), Still, Letort admirably analyzes the commercials in a way few other Lee scholars have before.
Those readers more interested in Lee's aesthetics, particularly as manifested in his performance documentaries (for example, how he made A Huey P. Newton Story more cinematic than previous one-person shows/monologues) will find less of interest in The Spike Lee Brand. This reservation aside, Letort's work fills much of the scholarly void concerning Lee's non-fiction. As evident in the laundry list of documentaries above, Lee is concerned almost entirely with documenting the...