Here is the syllabus for my spring 2020 course Spike Lee’s Joints. The course studies select Lee films in a Black Studies context, blending critical race theory, engagement with the Black intellectual tradition, and the cultural significance of word-sound-image interplay in the African-American context. I emphasize direct engagement with films rather than commentaries.
Here is the syllabus description:
This course explores the cinema of Spike Lee, beginning with his early film School Daze and concluding with his recent Black KkKlansman. We will not watch Lee’s entire oeuvre – that would take much more than a semester – but instead examine key films in order to understand and come to terms with his thinking about race, class, gender, and sexuality, as well as his aesthetic choices that loop and thread together those overtly political concerns. All of these are structured around the central theme in Lee’s filmmaking: what it means to put Black bodies, Black people, and Black life on the cinematic screen. Across film history in the U.S., this screen is terrifying. Lee works to counter that by taking on the burden of Black representation.
The burden of filmmaking is therefore a central theme of our critical engagement with his films.
We begin with two pieces that place the crisis of Black people on the cinematic screen and the burden of filmmaking in raw, almost traumatic terms: Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (1987) and Lee’s Bamboozled (2000). How does Lee respond to this crisis? How is his response reflected in character, story, lighting, sound and other cinematic languages? How does Lee work as a political actor – a critic of Black life, defender of Black life, and witness to disastrous state violence? And, how does Lee develop as a thinker and maker, both in terms of self-criticism and commentary on emerging issues?
At the end of this course, you will have a strong sense of Spike Lee’s vision and development as a filmmaker. That is paramount. But you will also develop a clear sense of what a Black Studies approach to film looks like, how to practice it, and how to see Lee’s films in particular, and Black filmic practices and tasks more broadly, as part of the African-American intellectual tradition. Cinema thinks. With Lee, we will see how cinema thinks in specifically African-American ways as witness, elegy, and criticism.
Lastly, a word on discussion. I want us to move away from affirming or non-affirming judgment – “I liked this film” and “I didn’t like this film” – and toward what I call simply the interesting. We will ask: “What did you find interesting about this film and why?” This will allow us to explore edifying and problematic aspects of Lee’s work in productive ways.