Two of the most commercially successful black filmmakers in the history of the art are Spike Lee and Tyler Perry. I have much respect for both of them as both artists and businessmen; despite the fact that they are often at odds with one another. (I like to consider them the Malcolm X and MLK of filmmaking).
Spike has been very critical of the imagery of black people that Tyler has portrayed in his films. Tyler has retorted every now and then. In his NAACP Image award acceptance speech, Tyler commented that “We no longer have to wait for Hollywood to give us 40 acres and a mule, we can get it ourselves” (an obvious dig at Spike’s production company 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks).
Regardless of whose side (if any) you take, and regardless of whether or not you are a black filmmaker (click here for tips on becoming one 😉 ) there is something each of them has taught me about making it in this business. (To clarify, they didn’t teach me personally, these are lessons I’ve learned from watching their careers).
Spike: By Any Means Necessary
Spike Lee came to prominence in 1986, the year his debut feature film “She’s Gotta Have It” came out. It was a hilarious yet poignant portrayal of a fiercely independent black woman and her relationship with three very different men. It was a movie that explored everything from sexual and romantic relationships to class conflict. Made for about $175,000, it went on to gross over $7 million. It heralded Spike as an independent filmmaker to be reckoned with.
One of the first books about filmmaking I ever read was “Spike’s Gotta Have It,” Spike’s published journal about the making of that film. It was raw, gritty, funny, inspiring and extremely informational. In reading that book I learned that making films is hard. Like real hard. Like remember that scene in “Fellowship of the Ring” where Gimli tries to smash the ring with his axe at the council of Elrond and the axe shatters and sparks fly…yeah, THAT hard. But Spike did whatever he could to get that film made. I could feel the pain he felt. But I was encouraged. To see someone work that hard and have it pay off in such a big way was inspiring.
The other thing I’ve learned about Spike is that you gotta do what you gotta do, regardless of what people think or say about you. I learned that film can be a powerful medium to generate important conversations in culture. As filmmakers, we should not take that power lightly. I credit his groundbreaking film “Do the Right Thing” as one of the five most influential films in my own filmmaking style. (Spike always made it a point that people, usually Caucasians, were asking the wrong questions regarding that film. More people were concerned with whether Mookie did the right thing by throwing that garbage can through Sal’s pizzeria window, than they were with Radio Rahim being killed).
Love him or hate him, Spike is a filmmaker who exemplifies artistic integrity with a healthy dash of shrewd business sense.
Tyler Perry: Faith and Focus
On the other end of my Malcolm X/MLK filmmaker spectrum is Tyler. He is unquestionably THE most successful black filmmaker ever. He is the first black man to own his own studio. Not just a production company, but a full-blown STUDIO! He was listed by Forbes as one of the richest and highest paid entertainers of the year. His net worth is upwards of $350 million. This is a man who survived physical and verbal abuse from his father, and sexual abuse from a neighbor while a child. At one point I believe he was even homeless.
He attributes his success to his faith in God and a laser-like focus. He started writing plays based on feelings he had at time and experiences he went through in his life. He put all his energy into those plays. For over five years he pursued making those plays to little success. But he finally found his audience, capitalized on it, and kept his focus. He’s not afraid of sharing about his faith in public (which can be taboo) and he is extremely passionate about giving back. In the face of heavy criticism he pushes on; criticism from fellow African-American filmmakers and criticism from film critics. But he presses on. His resolve is inspiring.
There’s More There Than You Think
Lastly I want to say that for each of these filmmakers, there’s more there than you think. If you dig deeper into their lives and stories, if you take the time to learn more about them as not just filmmakers, but as people, I think you may find yourself saying “Wow. I never knew that. I see him totally different now.” If you’ve ever read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” you’ll know what I mean. By the time you get to the end of that book, you learn things about Malcolm that are not part of his “brand” as the voice of the angry black man who hated all “devil whites.” His thoughts and feelings he had about whites that changed after his trip to Mecca. Likewise, some have raised questions about MLK’s fidelity that have haunted his legacy. In short, Malcolm was not “all bad” and King was not “all good.” They were both men, men with flaws. Like every man. Spike and Tyler are the same. Neither is “all good” nor “all bad.”
Two Videos Worth Watching
The videos speak for themselves. First Spike addresses his issues not only with Tyler, but black folks in general who “vote” with their pocketbooks.
Next, Tyler on his secret to success. This is particularly important for you photographers and filmmakers out there who list every kind of photography on your website (e.g. weddings, senior portraits, babies, dogs, etc.)