Spike Lee’s "Essential Films": More Annoying Than Your Average List

Filmmaker Spike Lee

Written by Robin Hitchcock

Any list of the “greatest” “essential” “best” “definitive” films (or books/tv shows/albums/Got Milk? ads/insert your pop cultural poison) is going to have its detractors. The controversy that inevitably follows these lists is a big part of the reason we make them in the first place. Dissecting a list’s failures and defending its bold choices is most of the fun. So I suppose I should thank Spike Lee for giving us all another opportunity to quibble, with his recently-released selection of 87 “essential” films he tells his NYU students every aspiring filmmaker must see. But mostly, I’m just so tired of this bullshit.

Spike Lee’s Milk ad, which is on my essential list.

The only movie on the list with a female director is City of God, co-directed by Katia Lund. Spike Lee thinks aspiring filmmakers will have the essentials even if they have only seen one movie with a female (co-)director.

Which I don’t have that much to say about. I am ZERO SURPRISED. The marginalization of women filmmakers is nothing new. Seeing it happen again annoys me, of course, but it also EXHAUSTS me. We keep telling male cultural arbiters, “HEY, DON’T IGNORE US” and they keep doing it.
And what makes me particularly upset in this case is that Spike Lee released this list in the context of trying to prove his genuine support of filmmakers excluded from the Hollywood power system.
Spike Lee is funding his latest project with Kickstarter. Like Rob Thomas’s and Zach Braff’s recent Kickstarter campaigns, this has generated a bit of controversy. Sure, we’re all excited there is going to be a Veronica Mars movie, but most of us have mixed feelings about established artists crowdsourcing their projects. It seems to co-opt the platform from the truly independent artists initially associated with Kickstarter, artists without access to the alternative resources (including, among other things, significant personal wealth) these established filmmakers could tap if necessary.

In the YouTube clip above, Spike Lee argues that criticism is a fallacy. Kickstarter isn’t a zero sum game, and he’s bringing people who have never even heard of Kickstarter, especially people of color, to the site and to the crowdfunding movement generally. I have no idea if that is true. He says there is data regarding Thomas’s and Braff’s Kickstarters bringing in first-time backers, but I haven’t actually seen that data. Anyway, it’s a plausible idea, and a nice one. I hope it is true.
But wishing doesn’t make it so. And when Spike Lee points out that he’s been crowdsourcing his movies his whole career, he seems to fail to recognize that so has every other independent filmmaker in the history of ever and the entire point of the Kickstarter revolution is to help out those people who don’t have the personal networks he refers to. [I know Spike Lee has had trouble with studios over fear of controversy, and that his films haven’t been huge financial successes, but he is a LIVING LEGEND. When he makes those phone calls, people will answer.]
In the same video defense, Spike Lee argues that he must be on the side of young filmmakers because he’s taught at NYU for fifteen years and has donated $20,000 to the Spike Lee production fund at NYU for young filmmakers. [Lee’s Kickstarter goal is $1,500,000.]
[He also name drops Mike Tyson as “his good friend.” I can’t tell if he is kidding?]
Lee shared this list, part of his curriculum for this students, as evidence of this “I just want to advance the medium” message. And then the list pretty much ignores women, and is surprisingly mainstream in a lot of other ways (choosing an “unexpected” Woody Allen movie isn’t really THAT outré). I’m not reassured by it at all.  
Though I’m guessing this additional angle of controversy brought more eyes to Spike Lee’s Kickstarter. Someone remind me when I’m famous and revered to use my immense media platform to argue that Gremlins 2: The New Batch is the greatest film of the 20th century so I can generate some hype through grumpy blog posts like this one. 

Robin Hitchcock is an American writer living in Cape Town who really does love Gremlins 2, even if it isn’t quite as good as Do the Right Thing.


  • Posted August 2, 2013 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    Out of curiosity, what films directed by women would you like him to put on his list?

  • Posted August 2, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    I’ve already written about how I believe Eve’s Bayou, directed by Kasi Lemmons, belongs on any list of this sort. There are plenty of other great movies directed by women that have essential lessons to teach aspiring filmmakers, to list SOME: Boys Don’t Cry, American Psycho, The Hurt Locker, A League of Their Own, The Kids are All Right, Frida, Away From Her, Clueless, Wayne’s World (no those last two were not a joke). You should also check out Bitch Flicks’s female directors tag: http://www.btchflcks.com/search/label/Female%20Directors

  • Leopold Vincent Medley
    Posted June 3, 2015 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    so spike lee should be forced to include female-made productions in his list just for the sake of “equality?” No, that’s BS. He should view the films on their own merit. That is like a company telling their employers that they have to employ this or that amount of black people. It’s not right.

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