Spike Lee’s Influences Coalesce in His Beloved Brooklyn

In the borough where his presence is most strongly felt, the Oscar-winning filmmaker shares 400 objects and artworks that have shaped his impact on contemporary cinema—many of which are deeply entwined with Black history and culture.

Spike Lee. Photography by Jamel Shabazz

Spike Lee’s presence can be seen, felt, and heard throughout Brooklyn, where the director, screenwriter, and actor spent many of his formative years: after living in Crown Heights, the Lees were the first Black family to move to the largely Italian-American enclave of Cobble Hill. The borough’s stately brownstones and chalk-drawn sidewalks became honorary characters in a multitude of his films—She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Do the Right Thing (1989), Crooklyn (1994)—that have become defining artifacts of youth culture, race relations, and social issues shaping Black American life. “I grew up here, it’s my home,” Lee once said. “It developed who I am and what I’ve become.” He once joked that he had collected enough ephemera to fill up an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.

He wasn’t exaggerating. “Spike Lee: Creative Sources,” opening there today, offers a rare look inside the manifold people, places, and ideas that inspired Lee’s incisive storytelling. Distilling his inspirations into an arc of 400 objects is no small feat, but curators Kimberli Grant and Indira A. Abiskaroon were up to the challenge, assisting Lee in donating historical photographs, album covers, movie posters, costumes, cultural artifacts, and film memorabilia that encapsulate his resounding influence on the landscape of cinema. Among the highlights: an African National Congress flag signed by Winnie and Nelson Mandela, tennis rackets belonging to Arthur Ashe and Serena Williams, and Prince’s “Love Symbol” guitar. 

Installation of “Spike Lee: Creative Sources.” Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

“We wanted to not only look at who his creative inspirations are, but also get inside of Spike’s mind, to see him from a different perspective,” Grant tells Thrillist. “People know him as a director, but [they] don’t know this other side of him. He’s a collector, a preserver, and presenter of culture. Specifically, American history through a Black diasporic lens.”

The show’s biggest draw is Lee’s world-class art collection—many of which are deeply entwined with Black history and culture. The centerpiece, a Kehinde Wiley painting commissioned by Lee, depicts a Black man wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers jersey with the number 42, nodding to Jackie Robinson. (Mookie from Do the Right Thing wears the same one.) It’s joined by a Jean-Michel Basquiat drawing of baseball player Satchel Paige, a Deborah Roberts collage of Trayvon Martin, and a Tim Okamura portrait of Toni Morrison, as well as photographs by LaToya Ruby Frazier and Richard Avedon. For Lee, who prioritized family both on- and off-screen, perhaps the most poignant comes from Carrie Mae Weems: a photograph of him and his wife, Tonya, with the inscription “From Carrie to Tonya and Spike with Love.”

“Investiture of Bishop Harold as the Duke of Franconia” (2005) by Kehinde Wiley. Photography courtesy of the artist/collection of Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee
“Portrait of Toni Morrison circa 1993” (2020) by Tim Okamura. Image courtesy of Tim Okamura/collection of Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee

Spike Lee: Creative Sources” will be on display at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway) until Feb. 4.

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