“Before there was any such thing as a Republican or a Democrat, we were Black,” Denzel Washington intones. “Before there was any such thing as a Mason or an Elk, we were Black. Before there was any such thing as a Jew or a Christian, we were Black people. In fact, before there was any such place as America, we were Black. And after America has long passed from the scene, there will still be Black people.”
Any one of those sentences, or the ones following it, might drift into your ears as you enter Brooklyn Museum of Art’s latest exhibit, Spike Lee: Creative Sources. It may catch you as you’re first entering and taking in a gallery wall packed with movie posters that give a sampling of Lee’s prolific discography—including Spike Lee Joint classics like Do the Right Thing, She’s Gotta Have It, Crooklyn and School Daze as well as other work like Inside Man. Or Denzel’s words, which are from a speech he gives as the title character in Lee’s 2992 feature Malcolm X, may catch you as you’re taking in the racist memorabilia featuring caricatured Black men and children in top hats or eating watermelon. Either way, it’s likely to catch you at some point and stay with you throughout the exhibit, establishing a foundation for viewing the rest of your experience.
Spike Lee: Creatives is not a retrospective of the multi-hyphenate’s work. It is, in ways, a Spike Lee Joint itself, comprising 350+ archival items from his personal collection that typically fill the walls and four floors of his office and creative studio, which is housed in a former firehouse in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn. Instead of posing as a mere survey of his output, the Brooklyn Museum show is a study of the cultural, creative, and historical influences that have made that output possible.
“He is surrounded with these objects, and I think that’s the feeling you get in the exhibition,” show curator Kimberli Gant says. “You walk into a gallery and it just feels like, woah.”
Part of that impact comes as a result of the installation, which sees walls of galleries (erected to resemble a movie set in places) covered in work. In a section focused on photography, maroon backdrops are bursting with imagery of The Supremes, Lena Horne, Marlon Brando, and Shirley Chilsom shot by Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Man Ray, and James J. Kriegsmann and more. It at once feels like a much-loved restaurant where longtime celebrity customers sign a photo and post it to the wall or the living room of a long-lived grandmother of a large family with a salon full of memories: the spaces feel instantly generative for both conversation and creative practice in ways that feel fresh for a museum show.
“It was very much a collaboration,” says Gant of the approach—she admits that what the museum had access to and what was included was largely a determination of Lee’s. “As a museum person, I’m very used to and like things to breathe. I like things to have a moment. We did try to do some of that, especially on some of the larger work, but all of these objects were very important to Spike and it was a negotiation. These were the things he really wanted on view so we adapted.” Kehinde Wiley’s Investiture of Bishop Harold as Duke of Franconia gets this sort of solo treatment in the sports section.
The show spans time (decades of the 20th century) and genres (photography, sports, music, film, history, family). In the cinema history section sit two of Lee’s Oscar trophies, and posters for the 1946 Italian film Paisan, 1960 French film Breathless, as well as a clapperboard for The Godfather. One room over, in a space dedicated to music, there’s a guitar and tambourine given to him by Prince, as well as a signed bass from Verdine White of Earth, Wind, and Fire. A blue gallery is a basketball fan’s dream with Knicks paraphernalia (signed jerseys, sneakers, and more) cramming the space. There is something for everyone, which is reflective of Lee’s expansive resume of work.
But as the press release for the show trumpets Creative Sources as “Brooklyn’s first major exhibition on Lee, an artist whose persona is synonymous with the borough,” it does beg the question of why the curation of such an exhibit has taken so long in the first place. As Creative Sources notes, Brooklyn is often the setting and sometimes a character within Lee’s work.
“As a curator, I think me and my colleagues are trying to give people their flowers as much as we can, when we can,” Gant says, noting that there had been start-and-stop conversations about honoring Lee prior. “We’re repeatedly seeing—especially Black artists, unless they are very young and making a big splash—that when you’re an older artist and you’ve been doing the work for a very long time, you tend to see these big exhibitions at the very end of their life, or sadly after they’ve passed. Spike is a global icon in terms of film and pop culture, and so we wanted to do something to show that. I’m pleased that we were also able to do it at a moment where a lot of people can appreciate it—even himself.”
Spike Lee on the set of Crooklyn (1994)
© David C. Lee
In the last room of the exhibit, three screens are set up with excerpts from Lee’s films BlacKkKlansman, Do the Right Thing, Crooklyn, School Daze, and Summer of Sam. It’s an open space with a few chairs faced toward footage which mostly features moments of music and movement, even ecstasy from the films. For Gant, the intent is to bring a moment of joy and possible levity at the end of an exhibit that is at times weighty and emotional. Like most every other aspect of the exhibit, it hearkens back to a hallmark of Lee’s work.
“Designed to provoke conversation, a Spike Lee Joint promises a candid window into contemporary society and how it is shaped by history,” the text reads. “No matter what they endure, his characters find moments of joy through music and dance, seeking respite, however brief, from their struggles.”
Spike Lee: Creative Sources is on display at the Brooklyn Museum from October 7, 2023–February 4, 2024.