The American cinematic landscape would be a lot less lively without Spike Lee, who has made a career of stirring things up.
Over the past three decades, the 57-year-old African-American filmmaker has never played it safe with his often controversial social-political dramas, comedies, musicals and historical documentaries that shine an unvarnished spotlight on race relations, relationships and class struggles.
Along the way he's received two Oscar nominations and influenced and inspired a generation of young black filmmakers. Several of his films are part of the cultural lexicon, most notably "Do the Right Thing," which came out 25 years ago. The vibrantly directed comedy-drama, set on a block in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy neighborhood on the hottest day of the year, examines simmering racial tensions that eventually erupt into unrest.
Lee continues to be one of the most prolific filmmakers; rarely has a year passed without a release of the latest "Spike Lee Joint" film. Though critical and box-office responses for his films have been mixed, he's never stopped pushing the envelope.
Once considered an outsider, Lee is now part of the filmmaking establishment and a major celebrity in his own right. His work is the subject of a Los Angeles retrospective by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which kicked off in June and continues through the summer.
But if you think all of this has made Lee any less of a firebrand, think again. In an interview he addresses the seeming proliferation of films by black filmmakers and the focus on the black experience in such 2013 films as "12 Years a Slave," "Fruitvale Station" and "Lee Daniels' The Butler."
Asked if this represents a cultural shift, Lee doesn't buy that. He notes there was a similar reaction after the 2002 Oscar ceremony, where Denzel Washington won the lead actor award for "Training Day," Halle Berry took home lead actress for "Monster's Ball" and Sidney Poitier received an honorary Oscar.
"Every 10 years I get flooded by requests from the media to speak about this black renaissance in Hollywood," Lee says. "I don't do it because history has proved that this happens every 10 years, and then there's a nine-year drought."
The only way there's going to be a shift in portrayal of minorities, Lee says, is to have people of color on the greenlight committees at major studios. "Until we are in those meetings, it's going to be the same thing."
Besides his studio and independent movies, the Lee oeuvre ranges from commercials to music videos and even the opening to "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." He has appeared in several of his own films, including the role of motor-mouth Mars Blackmon in "She's Gotta Have It" and the pizza delivery boy Mookie in "Do the Right Thing."
In addition to the academy's current film series, "By Any Means Necessary: A Spike Lee Joints Retrospective" -- its first major series on an African-American filmmaker -- it is presenting the exhibition "WAKE UP! David C. Lee Photographs the Films of Spike Lee" in the Linwood Dunn theater lobby, featuring images by Spike Lee's brother, David.
Lee personally selected the films in the retrospective, which include his acclaimed 1986 indie debut, "She's Gotta Have It," 1992's biopic "Malcolm X," his 1997 Oscar-nominated documentary "4 Little Girls" and the 2006 thriller "Inside Man."
Though Lee is known to be contentious with reporters, during an interview at his agent's office in Century City, he's friendly, funny -- and of course, unfiltered. For example, he says, he doesn't believe that "Do the Right Thing" and "Malcolm X" would be made by a studio today.
—'Do the Right Thing' is a studio picture," says Lee. "This is Universal Pictures. To this day, I will always give the love shout-out to my man Tom Pollock, because Tom Pollock was the unsung hero of 'Do the Right Thing.' "
The studio head was under tremendous pressure, says Lee, not to release the film, especially after several critics wrote that "Universal Pictures would be negligent if they released this film because this rabble-rouser Spike Lee is going to infuriate black people and make them riot across the country." But Pollock stood his ground.
"The only thing Tom Pollock said to me was, 'Spike, make the film you want, but it can't be a penny over budget.' I just wish there were more executives like that who run studios today."
Randy Haberkamp, the academy's managing director for programming, education and preservation, says Lee is "singular in his tenacity. It's truly amazing the number of different types of films that he's done and how they reflect a unique part of our culture."
Lee has been an outspoken critic of the academy over the years, not only about diversity but best-picture choices. He made headlines a few years back when he said: "What film won best picture of 1989? 'Driving Miss ... Daisy'! That's why (Oscars) don't matter -- because, 20 years later, who's watching 'Driving Miss Daisy'?"
According to Haberkamp, the academy holds no grudges; he says it welcomes a discussion with Lee. "There is need for change in the industry like there is need for change in society," he says. "Film is a great catalyst for that, so the academy embraces the fact that we don't know everything."
A big step toward more diversity in the academy, Lee says, came with the election last year of academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who is African-American. "I think she understands the academy, like the rest of the United States, has to advance with diversity," he says.
Lee, who has taught directing at NYU for 15 years and is artistic director of the graduate film program, learned about crowdfunding from his students who use Kickstarter, indiegogo and other sites to complete their student films. So he went the Kickstarter route, raising $1.4 million for a new film, "Da Blood of Jesus."
He ran into controversy because he was a well-established director. But for Lee, using Kickstarter was returning to his early days as a filmmaker when he personally raised the funds for "She's Gotta Have It." He notes, "We really don't spend too much time worrying about what other people think."