As far as contemporary cinematographers go, there are not many in the American film industry held in greater acclaim – by movie aficionados as masters of their craft – than Spike Lee. Rich acclaim, deservedly ascribed to him, in recognition of the prolificacy of his creative genius, as evidenced by his impressive cinematic output. But it is also worthwhile noting that this ascription of acclaim is somewhat tempered by a corresponding level of disdain directed towards him, because of his occasional and high profile controversial utterances and spats. And in this regard also, only a few film directors are considered more controversial.
Napoleonic in stature and nature, as well as, in height and haughtiness; he is belligerent and combative and cherishes the thick and rush of battle, much like the historic Corsican. But in spite of his physical diminutiveness, he packs a formidable ‘punch’ often ‘punching’ well above his weight in his frequent spats with his numerous antagonists. He has, it seems, that unique capacity, of being able to start a fight in an empty film studio!
There is no doubt that he is a gifted filmmaker of towering and flowering talent, and a man of enormous courage and resilience; one not to be deterred, regardless of the odds or obstacles which occasionally rear their heads to stymie his creative output. In the early 1990s he decided upon a cinematic venture to capture the life and times of the late Malcolm X in celluloid. It was a venture, roundly considered by those in the upper echelons of the movie establishment, as risky, controversial, politically incorrect, and potentially damaging to his career as a film maker.
And rather predictably – given the subject of the project – he was to face considerable difficulties in his attempts to raise the required finance for it from conventional sources. He remained undeterred and turned instead to African-American sporting, entertainment, and business luminaries for funding. He was not to be disappointed in his quest. The resultant output was a colourful, captivating, and compelling cinematic depiction of one of America’s most controversial public figures. It was Spike Lee at his cinematic best.
Since, that venture other cinematic masterpieces have emerged from his ‘40 Acres and Mule’ film stable. And in between his creative output, he has also found the time to spar with certain other film makers, principally, about their portrayal or non-portrayal of African-Americans in American themed films. He took exception to, and issue with, Quentin Tarantino, at what he perceived to be his proclivity towards, the obsessive, excessive, and gratuitous use of the N***** word in some of his films.
Last year he also found time to spar with Clint Eastwood, whom he accused of airbrushing out of history the contributions of African-American soldiers in his depiction of American military skirmishes at Iwo Jima. Not for a moment did it occur to him to shrink away from a contention with one of the most iconic and venerable figures in American film history. To him no individual and no cause are off limits, insofar, as he believes that they touch upon the African-American constituency in an unfair light.
Most recently and surprisingly, however, he set his combative sight and aim upon Nollywood. At the Cannes International Advertising Festival, he is alleged to have dismissed Nigerian film makers as largely plagiarists; effectively accusing them of lacking in creativity and originality in the conception and production of their works. He also decried what he called the lack of an international standard in their cinematic output; and for good measure he accused Nigerians of bootlegging his movies. Harsh words indeed from the acclaimed film director.
It is difficult to determine how long Spike Lee has been aware of Nollywood and its cinematic output and how much of it he has actually viewed, in order to have made such sweeping and dismissive generalisations. When one considers the fact that the quantity of Nollywood’s cinematic output is considered to be the third largest in the world, behind that of Hollywood and Bollywood; one wonders how much of it, he could possibly have viewed to have made such remarks? This suggests that his comments are way off, and wide of, the mark and to such a degree, as to be unfounded and unrepresentative.
One does concede that it is not implausible that a handful of Nollywood directors may have taken ideas from the works of others. And if they have, they ought to be properly traduced for infringing the intellectual property rights of others. But in one’s limited viewing of Nollywood films, one is yet to come across any of such films that remotely resemble or replicate the plots of either Hollywood or Bollywood films. But this is not to say, however, that such films may not exist.
Without question there is obvious merit in the first of Spike Lee’s remarks even if one is doubtful as to the extent of its applicability to much of Nollywood’s output. But it is with the second aspect of his remarks – the absence of an ‘international standard’ – that one takes particular issue with. What is this ‘international standard’? And who defines it? And who is to say that such a standard must necessarily be adhered to in works of creativity? And does the purported lack of such a standard make certain works of creativity less attractive to a national, continental, or international audience? These are questions he may wish to consider.
Based on one’s direct and anecdotal knowledge, one is aware that there is tremendous interest in Nollywood films – in and beyond – Nigeria, and Africa for that matter. Which itself is a remarkable accomplishment given Nollywood’s relative youth and the lack of comparable investment in it – vis-à-vis – the levels ploughed into Hollywood and Bollywood.
It may not have occurred to Spike Lee that perhaps the unique selling point of Nollywood movies and that which stands them apart from other movies of so-called ‘international standard’ is their ‘earthiness’ and ‘naturalness’; the absence of that all pervading artificial ‘sheen’ that characterises many so-called movies of ‘international standard’. Perhaps Nollywood’s output represents to its huge following, something different and something more refreshing; a different presentation of different dramatic ideas from a different perspective and in a different setting.
Whilst, I agree that there is room for improvement in Nollywood productions, as indeed with anything else, I do feel that Spike Lee’s Nollywood remarks were suffocatingly patronising, condescending, paternalistic and hubristic; characteristics which he has often detested and decried in the many of the antagonists with whom he has crossed swords over the years. I would have expected a much more encouraging and conciliatory approach from him towards one of Africa’s most creative, productive, and self-reliant industries. Nollywood will come of age in the course of time.
As to the bootlegging charge regarding his films, he will discover – and this based on the simplest of enquiries – that his periscope of suspicion is best re-oriented in the direction of a particular nation in the Orient, if he is keen to identify the source of the practice and put an end to it.
But notwithstanding the above, I, remain a fan of much of Spike Lee’s cinematic output and acknowledge him as ‘one of the best in class’ in his industry; in much the same way that I also admire Nollywood’s cinematic prolificacy – even if my knowledge of its filmography is severely limited.