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Spike Lee's Filmmaking Tree

Duke Men’s Basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski is legendary for his coaching tree: the many assistant coaches who have gone on to coach their own teams, and whose own underlings have risen to lead other teams, and so on. So it got me thinking, what would a filmmaking tree look like? And specifically, what would Spike Lee’s filmmaking tree look like?

It’s difficult to perfectly replicate this for a director, since many cast and crew who work on a given film have no desire to become directors themselves. But they do go on to make more movies, and launch other careers. So I identified the four types of branches on a filmmaking tree, and dove deep into the fruit on Spike Lee’s blossoming orchard. In each branch, I’ll examine the many careers and films that sprouted from the seeds Lee planted. Then I’ll rank the top 3 legacies of each branch on his filmmaking tree.

1. The Crew

Lee is known for working with a lot of the same talented crew behind the camera, cultivating caterpillars of talent and sending them out into the world as butterflies.* So what have they gone on to make?

*Of course, all of the individuals in this article have immense talent on their own, and while Spike Lee may have helped open doors, they all earned the opportunities they later found.

Ernest Dickerson (Juice, Surviving the Game, Bulletproof)

After serving as cinematographer for Lee’s first six film, Ernest Dickerson set out on his own in 1992 with the fantastic Black coming-of-age tale, Juice. Perhaps most importantly, it gave us the electric acting breakout of rapper Tupac Shakur, who would go on to star in Poetic Justice, Gridlock’d, and Gang Related.

Juice also starred Omar Epps in his first feature film role. Epps later starred in Love & Basketball, and spent nearly a decade as Dr. Eric Foreman on House.

Would TV’s most irritable-loveable Doctor be the same without Spike Lee? Would the history of the 90s hip-hop scene look completely different?

Ruth Carter (Black Panther, Dolemite Is My Name, Coming 2 America)

While working at the L.A. Theater Center, Ruth Carter met Spike Lee, who ended up hiring her to design costumes for his 1988 film School Daze. She has gone on to work with Lee 11 more times, and in the last half-decade has risen in prominence as one of film’s boldest visionary costume designers. Carter won an Oscar for her work on Black Panther, and she’s responsible for the look and feel of Eddie Murphy’s late-career comeback, designing the costumes for both Dolemite Is My Name and the upcoming Coming 2 America.

Can you imagine the inhabitants of Wakanda clad in different costumes?

Malik Hassan Sayeed (Lemonade, Formation)

Perhaps the least-known name of this bunch, Spike Lee gave the as-yet untested cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed his first opportunity in Clockers. Sayeed would go on to be the second-unit cinematographer for Stanley Kubick’s Eyes Wide Shut and the lead cinematographer for Lee’s He Got Game and the comedy special The Original Kings of Comedy, but would shift from film to music shortly thereafter, directing everyone from Nas to Kanye West to Enrique Iglesias.

Recently, Sayeed created the look for two music-based videos that likely had more viewers than most Spike Lee movies: Beyoncé’s Formation music video and her Lemonade special.

Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)

Though she had worked a half-dozen films before linking up with Spike Lee, Ellen Kuras’s career flourished beginning with her work as cinematographer on a trio of Lee movies around the turn of the millennium: 4 Little Girls, Summer of Sam, and Bamboozled. While she’s been less active recently, her visual stylings in the enigmatic Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind will live forever in the hearts of hopeless romantics.

Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Irishman)

This is a tough one. Prieto had already worked with Alejandro González Iñárritu on the Oscar-nominated Amores perros, but 25th Hour, Spike Lee’s 2002 masterpiece, was his first English-language hit. Paired with 8 Mile, that work would propel him to notoriety with U.S. audiences and filmmakers alike, where he would go on to work with Ang Lee and Martin Scorsese, among others. It may be the most exciting leaf on this branch of Lee’s filmmaking tree, but it’s also the one with the most tenuous connection to Spike himself.

Crew Branch Top 3:

(1) Beyoncé’s Late-Career Domination

(2) Tupac’s Ascent in the East-West hip-hop feuds of the 90s

(3) Wakanda Forever

2. The Spike Regulars

Just like he has reunited the same crew members for film after film, Spike Lee has also returned to the same acting talent to fill out his ensembles. Who are the highlights of the Spike Regulars branch?

Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, The Mandalorian)

Though he had a few small roles throughout the 80s, it was his turn as the swagger-filled frat star Julian in Spike Lee’s School Daze that helped thrust Giancarlo Esposito into the spotlight. Esposito continued in a string of roles for Lee – in 1989’s Do the Right Thing and 1990’s Mo’ Better Blues – but hasn’t worked with the director since a brief appearance in 1992’s Malcolm X as one of the assassins of the legendary civil rights figure.

Instead, Esposito has made his name in television, particularly as Gus Fring in both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Fring is one of the most enduring characters in the recent wave of prestige era anti-hero television, and a worthy entry on Spike Lee’s Filmmaking Tree.

John Turturro (Barton Fink, Quiz Show, The Big Lebowski)

Along with Samuel L. Jackson, John Turturro is the Spike Lee regular whose success can be chalked up to a number of other sources. He originated the main role in playwright John Patrick Shanley’s Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, inhabiting the role of Danny for two years and winning an Off-Broadway Obie Award in 1984. And he had a substantive role in William Friedkin’sneo-noir To Love and Die in L.A. in 1985.

But Turturro is best known for his collaborations with Lee and the Coen Brothers, and those were all kicked off by his aggressive performance as the racist son of Sal the pizza joint owner in 1989’s Do the Right Thing. After a decade of scrapping post-Yale, Turturro’s decade after his first collaboration with Lee included Miller’s Crossing (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), Barton Fink (1991), Quiz Show (1994), Clockers (1995), Rounders (1998), The Big Lebowski (1998), and a gig hosting Saturday Night Live.

Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction, Snakes on a Plane, Django Unchained, MCU)

Another actor who had performed in theater for over a decade before linking up with Lee, Samuel L. Jackson certainly had the makings of a future star, but it was back-to-back roles as Leeds in School Daze and the smooth-talking Mister Señor Love Daddy in Do the Right Thing that put Jackson on Martin Scorsese’s radar, who cast him in a small role in 1990’s Goodfellas.

After winning an award created specifically for his performance in Lee’s Jungle Fever at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, Jackson went on to Pulp Fiction, which launched him into the stratosphere. Snakes on a Plane, a series of collaborations with Quentin Tarantino, and Nick Fury – all of them owe a small bit of themselves to Spike Lee.

Bill Nunn (Spider-Man Trilogy)

Radio Raheem will always be Bill Nunn’s enduring legacy, “love” and “hate” plastered on his knuckles in an homage to 1955’s Night of the Hunter. But after appearing in a trio of additional roles for Lee, Nunn introduced himself to a new generation of filmgoers as Robbie Robertson, a small but important role in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy.

Spike Regulars Branch Top 3:

(1) Jules Winnfield (Pulp Fiction)

(2) Jesus Quintana (The Big Lebowski)

(3) Gus Fring (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul)

3. The Discoveries

While Spike Lee contributed to launching dozens of acting careers, this branch is reserved for the performances that can truly be considered discoveries. These are the actors whose first or second roles came in a Spike Lee movie.

This section will be a little different: for each entry, I’ll list the role with Spike Lee, any prior roles, and a few highlights from their latter career.

Halle Berry

Spike Role: Vivian in Jungle Fever

Prior Roles: None

Future Roles: Leticia Musgrove in Monster’s Ball; Catwoman in Catwoman; Gothika in Gothika

Rosario Dawson

Spike Role: Lala Bonilla in He Got Game

Prior Roles: Ruby in Harmony Korine’s Kids

Future Roles: Gail in Sin City; Claire Temple in Daredevil; Star in Senator Cory Booker’s Life and Presidential Campaign

Martin Lawrence

Spike Role: Cee in Do the Right Thing

Prior Roles: None

Future Roles: Marcus Burnett in Bad Boys, Big Momma in Big Momma’s House, Martin in Martin

Mekhi Phifer

Spike Role: Strike Dunham in Clockers

Prior Roles: None

Future Roles: Future in 8 Mile; Dr. Greg Pratt in ER

Rosie Perez

Spike Role: Tina in Do the Right Thing

Prior Roles: None

Future Roles: Gloria Clemente in White Men Can’t Jump; Carla Rodrigo in Fearless; Renee Montoya in Birds of Prey

Hill Harper

Spike Role: Xavier in 1996’s Get on the Bus

Prior Roles: small parts in Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings and Drifting School

Future Roles: Dr. Sheldon Hawkes in CSI: NY; Dr. Marcus Andrews in The Good Doctor

Gretchen Mol

Spike Role: Girl No. 12 in Girl 6

Prior Roles: None

Future Roles: Jo in Rounders; Gillian Darmody in Boardwalk Empire

Richard Schiff

Spike Role: JFK Reporter in Malcolm X

Prior Roles: None

Future Roles: Toby Ziegler on The West Wing; Dr. Aaron Glassman on The Good Doctor

Discoveries Branch Top 3:

(1) (tie) Leticia Musgrove (Monster’s Ball) and Catwoman (Catwoman)

(2) Future (8 Mile)

(3) Toby Ziegler (The West Wing)

Honorable Mention: Cory Booker’s happiness

4. The Fingerprint Projects

Whether on film or in television, the descendants of Spike Lee’s projects often come together to create their own art. The tendrils of Lee’s filmmaking tree go off in their own directions, only to combine down the road, joining together to form the final branch: these are the projects with Spike Lee’s fingerprints all over them.

Love & Basketball

Participants: Omar Epps, Ruth Carter, Terence Blanchard

Lee’s fingerprints exist all over Gina Prince-Bythewood’s directorial debut, Love & Basketball, primarily because Lee produced the film through his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. He loaned a number of his regular crew members, including Ruth Carter for costumes and Terence Blanchard as composer, and Lee discovery Omar Epps continued his breakout 90s run in one of the two lead roles.

Bad Boys

Participants: Martin Lawrence, Theresa Randle

Martin Lawrence’s film debut came in Do the Right Thing, while Theresa Randle anchored her slow rise to fame in the 90s on the back of her roles in Jungle Fever and Malcolm X. Without these two, Bad Boys may not have turned into a successful star vehicle for the Fresh Prince himself. Is Spike Lee responsible for Will Smith’s 90s takeover? Perhaps.

White Men Can’t Jump

Participants: Wesley Snipes, Rosie Perez, Kadeem Hardison

Rosie Perez debuted in Do the Right Thing, just three years before White Men Can’t Jump. And while Wesley Snipes landed a supporting role in 1989’s Major League, his back-to-back turns in Mo’ Better Blues and Jungle Fever helped him build momentum in the years leading up to his breakout as Sidney Deane. Lee’s imprint runs deep on this one, with School Daze actor Kadeem Hardison filling out the cast as Junior.

HBO Prestige Dramas: The Wire and The Sopranos

The Wire Participants: Frankie Faison, Wendell Pierce, Felicia Pearson, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr., James Ransone

The Sopranos Participants: Annabella Sciorra, Michael Imperioli, Michael Badalucco, Victor Colicchio, Dania Ramirez, Hill Harper, Frank Vincent, Brian Tarantina

Some came before, some came after. Either way, there’s no denying the inextricable connections between Spike Lee’s depiction of the lives of working class African-Americans and Italian-Americans, and the success of HBO’s The Wire and The Sopranos. As far as legacies go, Spike Lee could do a lot worse.

Fingerprint Projects Branch Top 3:

(1) (tie) The Wire and The Sopranos

(2) Love & Basketball

(3) White Men Can’t Jump


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