Spike Lee: Selling the Black Aesthetic

Curator's Note

Over the past three decades, Spike Lee has championed the people of Brookyln and romanticized the neighbourhood of Fort Greene in the majority of his films. The Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It (2017) sees a return to the area and a reimagining of the characters made famous in his 1986 debut film of the same title.   

In the 2nd episode, #Bootyfull (SELF ACCEPTANCE), Mars Blackmon appears at Nola Darling’s Brownstone and subsequently gets into an altercation with the white neighbour Bianca. As Mars cycles up to the stoop, we not only hear Ahmed Sirour’s ‘We Rep Brooklyn’, but the rap lyrics appear as intertitles on the screen. The roll call lists famous African American musicians, actors, artists, sportsmen, writers and other people of note from Brooklyn, including the director himself.

The quarrel that ensues epitomises a running theme throughout the Netflix series: the gentrification of Fort Greene. It is this ritual of roll call and the promotion of black artistry that has culminated in the neighbourhood becoming a ‘hip’ place for middle-class white homeowners. Lee’s love of the district has significantly led to a change in demographics which has resulted in many African American artists no longer being able to afford rental prices.

In spite of Lee's reproach towards the new white inhabitants, the Netflix series once more foregrounds local cultural producers. In episode 9, #ChangeGonCome (Gentrification), Nola visits local cemeteries and pays homage to 24 great artists and activists. Furthermore, at the conclusion of some scenes, Lee includes still images of album covers; providing viewers with the information required to purchase tracks which accompany the narrative whilst simultaneously promoting local black talent. 

Back in 2014, Lee vehemently referred to the process of gentrification as the ‘Christopher Columbus Syndrome’, stating ‘You can’t discover this! We been here. You just can’t come and bogart’. Lee seems to be blissfully unaware of his own culpability. In selling the black aesthetic, he has attracted the white bourgeoisie to inhabit the neighbourhood renowned for its rich creativity. Lee's romanticism is in part to blame. Ironically, although Lee is openly scathing about the changing face of the community, he no longer resides in the area having moved to the Upper East Side in 2010.


Lee's career as a filmmaker has always placed his politics central to his works. The notion of space and place and who has access to it certainly serves as one of those key facets of his politics. We need only reflect back on the scene in "Do the Right Thing" where the new (white) neighbor steps on Buggin' Out's Jordan sneakers and he encourages the new neighbor to move back to Massachusetts (because he's wearing a Larry Bird t-shirt) only to learn he's actually from Brooklyn. In that one clip, Lee highlights the complexity that exists around issues of gentrification, while also further exploring how we put physical (and mental) boundaries around people based on race. But even still, he reveals to us that gentrification, in its complexity, often has negative impacts on those currently occupying the space and often find themselves (dis)placed like "Da Major" is in the Netflix series, "She's Gotta Have It." I like your perspective on Brooklyn that suggests Lee has, in fact, encouraged this love of the borough, while also being critical of those seeking it out as their new space to exist. Brooklyn is romanticized in his films in the same nostalgic way that Barry Levinson recreates the Baltimore of his childhood. And currently occupying the space as home does not matter because it still allows one who called that place "home" the foundation in which to critique those changes as he often does.

Hi Kimberly, thanks for your comment. I completely agree that Spike Lee always places politics at the centre of his works. I think part of Lee's agenda is to pose questions rather than offering neat solutions. His discourse on gentrification is testament to this. As you point out, he inituated the debate in 'Do the Right Thing' and continues you to explore the complexity of the changing demographic in his latest work. I feel there is a sense of plurality in his approach, on the one hand you have the new resident Bianca who is clearly objectionable with a misplaced sense of entitlement. On the other, you have 'Da Mayor', originally from Fort Greene, but now displaced and homeless after returning from fighting in Afghanistan. In addition to the two ends of the spectrum, Lee depicts a diverse community struggling to find a collective voice, but unafraid to engage in dialogue. In spite of the tensions, that are at times paplable, I believe that Joie Lee's (Septima) statement rings true: 'It's our differences that make Fort Greene great. The new folks, you gonna keep on comin'. And the old heads, well, we aint goin' nowhere. But we have to find a way to make it work.'

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.