by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Film auteurs have come along less frequently since their heyday in the 1970s. However, a few storytellers have managed to remain relevant, all while writing and directing their own material, throughout the decades. Spike Lee first addressed racism and the struggles of black culture in his third feature film, Do the Right Thing. He has continued to challenge institutions that marginalize people throughout the years, earning two Oscar nominations and launching the careers of multitudes of creators of all races on both sides of the camera.
His latest film, BlacKkKlansman, has again sparked discussion about cycles of racism in America and how differing communities see these issues. Because of the significance of the message in Lee’s films, sometimes the fact that he is a master storyteller gets lost in the process.
Here are six story lessons we can learn from the work of Spike Lee.
1. Stories = Characters = Archetypes
Get on the Bus
Stories really do boil down to the effective execution of interesting characters. When we root for someone onscreen, we will follow them anywhere, on any journey, and forgive most any mistake. The quickest way to help your audience identify with a character is to lean into an archetype they are already familiar with. Spike Lee has expertly presented nuanced archetypes throughout all his films, causing audiences to fall in love with the characters in his work.
Get on the Bus primarily takes places on a Greyhound, where a group of men ride together to the Million Man March in Washington DC. Despite the single location and a script chiefly driven by dialogue, the story is enchanting, thanks to the fascinating characters that represent archetypes within the black community — getting to know each other, sometimes fighting each other, and eventually growing to love each other in this classic road trip story.
2. Don’t be afraid to try something different
Just when many began to accuse Lee of ringing the same bell time and again, he surprised audiences with a noir-inspired bank robbery tale. It was a change of pace and expectations for Lee, but one he was able to bring his unique style to in order to articulate a different take on stories in this tradition. His willingness to try something different paid off.
3. Write honestly and take risks, even when its unpopular
Lee was one of the first modern storytellers to take on the challenges of interracial dating from the perspective of the minority voice in the relationship. Jungle Fever was both loved and criticized by both white and black audiences alike. The honesty of the storytelling opened up conversations within culture that caused many discomforts. The unrelenting complexity examined in the story gave no one easy answers, which was exactly Lee’s intention. Some of the most needed stories in a society are the hardest to tell. We, as storytellers, have to be willing to risk the boundaries of comfort if we are to get at the truth.
4. Don’t neglect the classics
Set against a backdrop of gang warfare in Chicago, Chi-Raq is a modern-day adaptation of the Greek classic Lysistrata by Aristophanes. The source material seemed an odd choice for Lee – an opinion voiced by many. However, storytellers recognize the importance and enduring power of some of our most ancient stories. There are reasons these narratives have had the historical impact they have. Harvesting the deep truths of these classics and then finding ways to bring them into modern application has long been a tool of those who understand the power of their own writing.
5. Small localized stories can have universal implications
Do the Right Thing
A story that many consider Lee’s greatest work, Do the Right Thing takes place on a single day in Brooklyn. It also takes place on a single block. It is a small story unique to certain neighborhoods in New York City, until at the end of the film, when suddenly it isn’t. We quickly realize that Lee has been building universal themes and characters all along, as the story climaxes in an explosive ending that is anything but small. Great stories don’t depend on big budgets, special effects, and name stars – they depend on emotion. When a storyteller can produce deep feelings in her or his audience, the effect surpasses any cotton candy-like spectacle or cheap thrill.
6. Some stories about the present work better in the past
Sometimes we need space between ourselves and sensitive topics. We need to be able to process. We need metaphor if we are to dare look in the mirror. Setting a story in another time can help an audience place some separation between their inside world and their outside world. BlacKkKlansman takes place in a by-gone era, yet somehow feels clearly addressed at the current state of culture. When storytellers have something meaningful and profound to say, helping position the audience in a place to hear the message is essential.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.