Representation | Lee as an Actor

Scrolling through Spike Lee’s IMDb page in our last class reminded me of a thought I had at the beginning of the semester, one that we never had the opportunity to discuss. Lee has an incredible 65 credits as a director, but also an impressive 18 as an actor. The majority of these appearances come within Lee’s own films. Serving this dual role started off as merely an interesting observation and something I struggled to make a solid claim about. However, after our discussion regarding representation, I started to piece together the foundations of an argument regarding Lee’s presence in his own films.

The burden of representation is heightened with Lee’s role as both director and actor. Not only must he create a story that will accurately portray his message, but he also must enact this message through his character. Lee’s opportunity to transmit his message is increased, but he also risks skewing it through his presence within the film. It’s interesting to track which films Lee appears in. Out of the films we’ve watched this semester, he typically appears in films that fall within his comfort zone – like films based in New York or semi-autobiographical films. The avoidance of acting in films outside of his neighborhood like Chi-Raq or subject matters he might not have as much experience in is striking. It could boil down to question of his business model, which we explored in class, but it also might relate to representation. Lee already faces problems of representation by virtue of being viewed as a “black film maker”, but including himself on screen within these films also poses other questions. Venturing out of comfort zone might cause him to be accused of invading places he doesn’t belong, but there’s also a heightened sense of responsibility inherent in acting out his own story.

In thinking about these ideas I attempted to find some scholarship discussing Lee’s presence as an actor, but struggled to find anything substantial. One piece briefly discussed Lee’s acting, but focused on Lee’s role as a director. The language of the piece presents these two elements almost as if he was two different people. His role as an actor solely serves to further his message as director. This is of course the nature of an actor-director relationship, but thinking about one single person serving themselves is a particularly interesting dynamic. I’m still piecing together my thoughts regarding Lee’s presence in his own films, so please feel free to share any work you find regarding this, and of course your own thoughts!

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4 comments

  1. This was such ann interesting topic to bring up as I’ve often wondered why exactly he puts himself into his own films. It was interesting to see him act in such a pretty large supporting role in Mo Better Blues and the beginning of Malcolm X, and then fall back in a much smaller roles such as in Crooklyn. It’s also interesting to consider his role as a writer, and I wonder if he wrote these characters with himself in mind or if he tried to cast them out to other actors.

  2. I’m really interested in the relationship between the dynamics of his work as both an actor and director for must of his films. Interestingly, in the first few films of Lee’s I saw before this class I did not know that Lee was actually often a main character (including DTRT) but once I found out, my perception of the character’s role definitely shifted, but I’m not sure precisely how.

  3. I briefly discussed Lee’s role as an actor in one of my own posts. He always plays an outcast or loser, never the hero. I understand that he might not want to be the central character, but the roles he chooses makes me question how he feels about himself as a person. Does he still think of himself as the short loser who never got picked for basketball? Where’s his confidence?

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