For decades, Spike Lee has been a Hollywood gadfly, keeping race and the plight of black artists a topic of discussion. He has been critical of the film industry’s many biases, unabashedly saying the things most are too career-conscious to admit publicly. So when Lee published a list of Essential Films for Filmmakers to draw attention to his Kickstarter campaign on behalf of the newest Spike Lee Joint, many folks expected something beyond the typical whitewashed and testosterone-fueled canonical list. Yet, that is exactly what we got– a list featuring few people of color and zero women.
If Spike Lee, the dude who’s been calling out Hollywood on its racism for nearly three decades, can’t fathom an essentials list that includes, say, Oscar Micheaux, then who can? And while I know Spike’s feminist politic is pretty weak–Julie Dash? Kasi Lemmons?
Of course, here is the spot where we talk about what belongs in canon. Essentials lists are ostensibly about greatness not affirmative action. This makes me recall, again, an online discussion I had about the Amazon Kindle’s original screensaver: revolving images of very white and very male authors, save a few. A commenter informed me that, while it was too bad about the lack of diversity on the e-reader, it was unavoidable: No woman or person of color had ever created literary work on the same level as accepted white, male greats. Anyone reading this should know that is not true. What is true is that the work of white and male artists, whether in literature or film or other media, is more likely to be supported, distributed and thought great; more likely to be lauded as possessing a universal truth.
But what is Spike Lee’s truth? In his estimation, is it that few filmmakers of color or women filmmakers have created “essential” work? If so, why? Is it because they lack the skill or the opportunity?
And for the community, what if any films by women filmmakers or filmmakers of color are missing from Lee’s list?