Athletic Iconography in Spike Lee's Early Feature Films

By Houston, Kerr | African American Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Athletic Iconography in Spike Lee's Early Feature Films


Houston, Kerr, African American Review


By virtually any standard, Spike Lee is a dedicated follower of professional sports. In winter, he can often be seen courtside at New York Knicks games, jawing at opposing players; in interviews, he has claimed that he grew up wanting to be a professional athlete. He made headlines in late 2001 by auctioning a ticket to Michael Jordan's comeback game and donating the proceeds to a September 11 relief effort, and he borrowed a phrase from the lexicon of baseball line scores in titling Five for Five (the book that accompanied the release of his film Jungle Fever)--implying that his fifth project, like his previous four trips to the plate, had resulted in a hit.

This lively interest in sports has clearly influenced his more recent work, as several of his latest films have featured athletes as subjects and actors. But his interest in sports also colored, if a bit less obviously, his first five feature films, none of which deals with explicitly athletic plotlines. From a slew of references to Knicks great Bernard King in She's Gotta Have It to the Mets telecast that accompanies our first look at Angela Tucci's brothers in Jungle Fever, allusions to professional sports--and specifically to New York sports--form a consistent pattern in Lee's early films.

Certainly, such references point in part to the close relationship between Lee's visual style and contemporary urban fashion. Air Jordans and Laker jerseys, after all, are not unique to Spike Lee joints; they were common sights on New York streets in the late 1980s. But much as Lee blended hip-hop tunes with Negro spirituals and jazz melodies in creating the complex soundtracks that echoed the very diverse voices of his characters, his references to athletic gear and jargon are not simply received stylistic statements. (1) In Lee's first five films, when characters chat about professional sports or wear a particular team jersey, the references usually advance our specific understanding of both the speaker and the situation. As S. Craig Watkins has noted, Lee's characters often represent distinct fields of discourse, and perform specific narrative functions (140). Lee's use of athletic iconography furthers this strategy, using established cultural codes as a means of characterization, and it creates, by extension, a general atmosphere of competition, or conflict, in which voices and visual images jostle and compete for legitimacy. While a parade of replica jerseys, athletic anecdotes, and photos of athletes thus grounds his early work in a relevant urban idiom, such references also allow Lee to nuance, as we shall see, the themes of racial conflict, individual pride, and social history that consistently characterize his work.

Lee's interest in athletic iconographies has no better, or better-known, ambassador than the flamboyant Mars Blackmon, the likable loser who is one of Nola Darling's suitors in the breakthrough 1986 film, She's Gotta Have It. Dressed when we first see him in a Knicks jacket and a Georgetown tee-shirt, Mars knits himself to two high-profile basketball squads of the early 1980s: to the New York NBA team that starred the acrobatic King, and to the Georgetown program that had won a national title in 1984, and finished second in the 1985 college tournament. The Knicks jacket, of course, also links Mars to the city in which he works as a bike messenger. The shirt is less geographically specific, but a quick look at Georgetown's hoops program in the 1980s reveals an equally basic relevance. Georgetown, then coached by John Thompson and thus one of the few teams in the country with an African American behind the bench, fielded several of the nation's best college teams in the mid-1980s--and some of its blackest. Led by Thompson, who spoke candidly on race and recruited heavily from Washington's inner-city high schools, Georgetown's squads were often entirely comprised of African Americans. Thus, by wearing the gray Georgetown tee, Mars suggestively links himself to college stars like Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning, but also to a quiet sense of black pride. …

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