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Do the write thing: New bio zooms in on Spike Lee

By Cary Darling

Knight Ridder Newspapers

"Spike Lee: That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It," by Kaleem Aftab, W.W. Norton and Co. ($25.95)

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My only encounter with Spike Lee was as chilly and uncomfortable as an Arctic sleepover.

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It was 1986 and the young director's "She's Gotta Have It" was generating heavy buzz as the next step in indie and black filmmaking. It was a low-budget, high-energy blast of cosmopolitan romance, its whimsical "please, baby, please" yearning seeming a distant cry from the gruff "you have the right to remain silent" threats of so much black-male imagery of the time.

Working for a music magazine that occasionally wandered afield to film, I was tucked in at the end of Lee's long day of interviews. He was irritable and distracted, lapsing into protracted silences that only emphasized his discomfort.

Later, I learned that was just his way. And the director's sometimes difficult personality comes up a lot in "Spike Lee: That's My Story and I'm Sticking to It," Kaleem Aftab's friendly but not fawning biography of Lee, a man whose contributions to film are often overlooked as the public only remembers some of his more inflammatory remarks.

British writer Aftab, a solid reporter if not the most artful writer, does a good job of rounding out Lee's persona. He talks not only to Lee, but also to his wife and family, film crews, business associates and even some of his critics -- though Quentin Tarantino, with whom Lee has had a long-running feud over the use of "the n-word" in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, begs off an interview with a dismissive, "I think I've done enough to make Spike Lee famous."

What becomes clear in Spike Lee is that Lee is a far more complex filmmaker than many realize. His public image veers between hothead -- his portrayal of Mookie throwing a trash can through a pizzeria window in "Do the Right Thing" is indelibly etched in the nation's moviegoing memory -- and forgotten man. Can most Americans, even film-literate ones, name any of Lee's last, say, seven films, and how many have actually seen them?

But to write off Lee as yesterday's headline, a flavor-of-the-month whom the calendar has long passed by, is a mistake. After a career trough of such disposable films as Crooklyn and Girl 6, he rebounded with some of his most well-reviewed works -- the basketball-set "He Got Game" and the New York-centric pair of "Summer of Sam" with John Leguizamo and Adrien Brody and "The 25th Hour," starring Ed Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Anna Paquin. The latter two showed that Lee could work outside of the black-themed box in which some had trapped him.

On top of that, he has become equally adept as a documentarian, cranking out the profitable "The Original Kings of Comedy" -- chronicling the barnstorming tour by comedians D.L. Hughley, Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac -- and the comparatively little-seen "4 Little Girls," about the civil rights-era church bombing in Birmingham, Ala.

One of the most fascinating through lines in Lee's work is his use of music, ranging from the wall-shaking D.C. go-go sounds of E.U. in "School Daze" to the contributions of his jazzman dad, Bill Lee, in Mo' Better Blues and the juxtaposition of composer Aaron Copland with hip-hop's Public Enemy in "He Got Game."

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Music supervisor Alex Steyermark tells Aftab: "Spike uses music in very unexpected ways. It is really bold: If I have to pick a quality that I've learned from Spike, it is that I've learned to be bold. Go for it: visually, stylistically, musically."

Aftab doesn't gloss over Lee's weaknesses -- the accusations of sexism in his films and the making of excuses for Nike (for whom Lee shot those famous Michael Jordan commercials) after accusations of overseas child labor and exploitation surfaced. "It seems that Spike's love of basketball and his respect for business have wrought a certain kind of havoc upon his beliefs," writes Aftab.

But, for all of that, Lee emerges from the book with his image uplifted, even if the man himself doesn't come out unscathed.

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