Authorship and Expanded Self: “Spike Lee”’s Performance Documentaries

Curator's Note

For two decades Spike Lee has had a significant side gig: Documenting live performances by men of color.

Starting in 1998 with John Leguizamo: Freak for HBO and manifest most recently with Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man show Rodney King for Netflix in 2017, Lee has directed… hmmm, recordings? captures?... of shows by comedians and musicians, actors and athletes: Leguizamo, Guenveur Smith (twice), D.L. Hughley + Steve Harvey + Cedric the Entertainer + Bernie Mac (The Original Kings of Comedy), Stew (with band and acting ensemble), Kobe Bryant, John Legend and the Roots, Mike Tyson, Pharrell Williams, Katt Williams, and Jerrod Carmichael.

All these things are something like concert documentaries, and all these “concerts” would have happened without Spike Lee. (The exception is Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth, which Lee directed on stage. The film is credited to Philip Marcus, despite most reporting and reviewing naming Lee as director.) So in what senses is it meaningful, valuable to connect these things—artifacts?—to Lee?

From an auteurist perspective, they amplify two strands of Lee’s canonical work: his focus on black men and his interest in performance and performers. Sometimes these themes intersect explicitly in Lee’s films’ stories, as in Mo’ Better Blues or Bamboozled. But often they take on more aslant relations, as in the dance numbers in Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X or the church “performances” in Red Hook Summer and Chi-Raq or the performance poetry that starts both Lee’s Hurricane Katrina documentaries.

Simultaneously, these works amplify both the direct article and the final word in Lee’s proprietary credit—A Spike Lee Joint—complicating the possessiveness of the proper name. All these concerts by men of color emphasize the labileness of self and identity, seeing them as socially constructed and constrained, but also as individual work, and work in progress, arenas for agency but never exactly solo performances.

These performance documentaries, at once Lee’s and not-Lee’s, suggest a sort of shifting, growing group portrait of (mostly) black male cultural producers. They add, emphatically, to an existing archive (e.g., concert docs of Robeson, Hendrix, Pryor) to ensure these mens’ labor-as-ideas-and-identies is available for audio-visual revisiting and revaluing. They also work a dynamic of agency and cultural capital exchange: Lee’s name can sometimes make documents of shows happen (e.g., of Guenveur Smith’s) and a star name (e.g., The Kings, Jerrod Carmichael) can expand attention to—and supply work for—Lee.

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