Spike Lee. Steven Spielberg. Of all the major American filmmakers who have achieved elder statesmen status, it’d be hard to find a more disparate pair than Spielberg and Lee. I never thought of such a thing until a friend mentioned his idea of writing a book comparing the two and their respective approaches to portraying American life. I don’t know if that book will ever be written, but it planted a seed, forever linking this unlikely duo in my mind.
At some point it occurred to me that one thing that really links these two men is the fact that their filmographies are dominated by daddy issues so vast they can only be seen from the stratosphere. But how do their father complexes differ? And what do those differences tell us about the filmmakers?
I grew up with the films of these men. Spielberg (b. 12/18/1946, Cincinnati) made the films that I loved as a ‘tween. Spike (b. 3/20/1957, Atlanta) burst on the scene when I was in high school, and needless to say his films changed everything. I can’t say either man made me want to be a filmmaker. That impulse was already there before my acquaintance with either. But they certainly fed my movie lust in a way few other filmmakers did during my formative years.
Spike & Spielberg’s personal issues with their fathers are part of their lore, and aside from a brief sketch, I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about or presuming to know the depth of their real-life daddy issues. A few words will suffice.
Lee’s paternal conflicts have played out quite publicly. After collaborating closely on his first four films, Spike and his dad had a falling out brought on partly by Bill Lee’s struggles with addiction. Spike has, with his typical candor, spoken openly of the double-barreled trauma he suffered after his mother’s death when his father swiftly took up with a white woman. That wound haunts his films like a ghost.
Though less contentious, Spielberg too has had a difficult relationship with his father Arnold, but where Lee lost his mother to cancer, Spielberg lost his mother to divorce. He stayed with his father in Northern California, his mother and sisters returned to Phoenix, Arizona where she remarried and began a new family.
In both cases, the directors have subsequently reconciled with their fathers but it’s important to understand that their daddy issues both stem from the loss of their mothers.
Spielberg had to work up steam to come to grips with his daddy issues, as did Lee. In his early output (he was turning 30 when he made Close Encounters of the Third Kind), it doesn’t rear its head in a deeply significant way. The overture to the Spielberg Daddy Issues Cycle is Close Encounters. Perhaps turning 30 compelled him to do battle with fatherhood, or perhaps it’s just happenstance that it begins here. But it should be noted that Close Encounters was Spielberg’s first outing as a writer-director (as opposed to just directing). This was his first sole screenplay credit. That’s only happened one other time since.
The Spielbergian Father has two manifestations usually. If he’s the father of our hero, he is a distant or absent deity. He’s larger than life not just despite his absence, but because of it. When the Spielbergian Father is our protagonist, we see these men as embattled and fallible. They are beset by their own shortcomings and trying desperately to live up to a standard that may be impossible.
Roy Neary (Dreyfus in Close Encounters) is only somewhat in the second category. Close Encounters is merely an overture because the Spielbergian Father hasn’t quite taken shape yet, at least not on screen. The film comes out of Spielberg’s anxiety that his filmmaking obsession (made a metaphor by Roy’s post encounter mania) may be a more powerful pull than fatherhood (his first child Max wasn’t born until 8 years after Close Encounters).
In E.T. (one of my least favorite Spielberg films and the film that I think gives rise to the phrase “That’s so Spielberg” being used as a pejorative), we have a fatherless family front and center; whereas in Close Encounters a conspicuously single mother and her son are part of a larger picture, not the main focus. Elliott’s father is only a voice on the phone, delivering a message of disappointment to his son that makes the latter cry.
Before that, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, our protagonist’s father is not mentioned, but we have Abner Ravenwood, father of Indiana Jones’ love interest and one time mentor, who Indy “had a falling out with.” And the most delicious irony is that during Raiders, Indy himself unknowingly becomes a Mark 1 Spielbergian Father, absent from the life of his son for the entire series until the fourth film (and of course, Indy becomes a father figure in the much derided second film).
When Indy’s absent father is finally introduced to the series, it takes no less than James Bond himself to fill the shoes. Henry Sr. is a Mark 1 Spielberg Father, distant and stern. Thusly, no single strain of Spielberg’s oeuvre encapsulates his father complex as do the Indiana Jones films. Indy is the son of a Mark 1 who becomes a Mark 1 himself. Whether or not he goes on to become a Mark 2 will be seen in future chapters.
Looking at his recent output, the Daddy Issues Cycle has gone into overdrive. In War of the Worlds the protagonist is the second model of Spielbergian Father, a screw-up, usurped dad looking for redemption in the eyes of his children. Munich features both Mark 1 and 2: the omnipresent absentee dad (Abner’s dad is an institutionalized national hero) and a protagonist who becomes a guilt-wracked father himself. The big reveal in The Terminal is that our hero’s mission is motivated by a desire to make his deceased father’s unrealized dream come true.
Catch Me If You Can is all about a young man who loses one father figure only to gain another (more on that later). A.I. Artificial Intelligence is noteworthy for its cold and distant mother, but it’s meeting the father-creator that serves as the beginning of the film’s climax. In Jurassic Park, Sam Neill’s character wants nothing to do with fatherhood but is drawn into being a Mark 2 Spielbergian Father anyway. In the sequel, Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Malcolm takes over the mantle when his daughter stows away.
Amistad features an ex-president who was the first to be a second generation president. Oskar Schindler is another Mark 2 Spielbergian Father, and “his Jews” are clearly posited by the film as his children. Perhaps this is how Spielberg identified with Schindler, who he has many reasons not to identify with at all.
Saving Private Ryan lacks daddy issues, but the film has been widely seen as Spielberg’s love letter to his WWII veteran father and the whole generation that served.
Peter Pan becomes a (Mark 2) Spielbergian Father in Hook.
And then there’s The Color Purple. Celie’s father is a terrible example of the Mark 1 Spielberg Father (we learn later that he was only her stepfather, thereby making his rape of her a bit less horrific). And Mister also is a Mark 1, one who even has his own Mark 1 dad (in the form of Adolph Caesar’s Old Mister). Just as the hero must commit symbolic patricide to fulfill his destiny, Celie’s freedom only comes when she can do the same to Mister, who is more of a despotic father to her than a husband.
The Color Purple makes a perfect pivot point to turn to Spike Lee. Lee emerged one year after the release of Spielberg’s Alice Walker adaptation. Spike’s timing was impeccable as the film sparked conversation over the propriety of Spielberg directing the film and the paucity of viable African-American director alternatives.
So what is the Spike Dad? In Spike’s universe, fathers are not like the Mark 1 Spielberg Father, but a cousin to the Mark 2. More than that, the Spike Dad is the nightmare of the Mark 2 Spielberg Father. That is to say, the thing Mark 2 Spielberg Fathers fear to become is what the father in most Spike Lee’s films are: enfeebled failures.
Catch Me If You Can is an interesting case study. Frank Abagnale Sr. (played by Christopher Walken) is the one case where a Spielbergian (Mark 2) Father is really more like a dad in one of Spike’s films. Fallible, pathetic, moribund, Frank Sr. provides his son with a handy motivation for his adventures above pure hedonism: he’s taking revenge on the world for crushing his father.
For me, one of the most iconic examples of Lee’s vision of father-as-enfeebled-failure is in Malcolm X. The newly minted upright Minister X goes to visit his mentor and father figure (one of several in X’s life), a petty gangster named West Indian Archie. The man who taught Malcolm Little how to be suave is now crippled and raggedy, living in a hovel. This is a foreshadow to what Malcolm will learn about his new father figure Elijah Muhammed, who will last be glimpsed in the film ill, wracked by coughs in bed.
Bill Lee, Spike’s dad and an accomplished musician, plays Nola’s dad in She’s Gotta Have It (Lee’s feature debut), but his role is limited. The Spike Dad doesn’t appear here or in the next film. The Spike Dad spends four films in a chrysalis, waiting to be hatched. One could argue that Ossie Davis’ comic turn as the doomed sermonizing coach in School Daze is a comic variant on the nascent Spike Dad. Daddy Issues begin to take shape in Do The Right Thing. Mookie is a father, though not exactly a model of fatherly duty; and the other father figure is Sal, father to his own sons, and a man who sees himself as a father figure to Mookie and to much of the neighborhood. That feeling is not exactly reciprocated.
Mo’Better Blues is an anomaly. Bleek (Denzel) has a good relationship with his father Big Stop (Dick Anthony Williams). And fatherhood is framed as the salvation for the self-absorbed artist. What little we see of Bleek’s domestic tranquility gives us no reason to think otherwise. It must be noted that (most ironically) this is the last film where Bill and Spike Lee collaborated. The Spike Dad is ready to emerge from the cocoon.
The Good Reverend Doctor Purify in Jungle Fever (played by Ossie Davis) is a failed minister who now offers his sons nothing but Old Testament rebuke for their sins. Released one year before Malcolm X, this is the first pure expression of the Spike Dad. Lee based the character on Marvin Gaye Sr., but it’s key here that he wrote an ill-defined Fall in the Good Reverend Doctor’s back story. For all his self-righteous bluster, he too is a failure. And the peak of that failure comes in his final scene. The filicide he commits in the end is a harrowing aspect of the Spike Dad: father figures in Malcolm X and He Got Game will also either murder or threaten to do so.
His son Flipper (played by Wesley Snipes) is Spike’s version of the Mark 2 Spielberg Father, a man paying for his sins who is haunted by the fact that his poor choices are hurting the child he loves above all. One cannot end discussion of Jungle Fever without also mentioning Anthony Quinn’s smothering papa to John Turturro’s Paulie. Paulie has to stand up to his father to save his life.
Following Malcolm X is Crooklyn. Delroy Lindo plays a Spike Dad, this one explicitly based on Bill Lee. This one was written largely by Spike’s siblings, and it’s tempting to wonder if Spike had written this alone whether or not he’d have continued the story to include the father taking up with a Jewish woman “before the body was even cold” as Lee once described it. In any case, this is a fairly benign portrayal of the Spike Dad, but the film does portray him as a bit of a failure, foundering artistically and making his wife feel as if she’s doing it all alone.
Where Spielberg has taken his Daddy Issues to the mat with increasing frequency, Spike has dealt with his more irregularly. It is less of a defining aspect of his films, and it should be noted that Spike has directed his own scripts more than Spielberg.
A few more Spike Dads have to be commented on. Jake Shuttlesworth (Denzel again) is the protagonist of He Got Game, a man who has failed in epic fashion, resulting in the death of his wife and the estrangement between himself and his son. Spike’s use of Copland may seem bombastic when Jake and his son Jesus square off on the basketball court, but it fits, because this showdown stands in for all heroes who must overcome the pater familias in order to realize their own potential.
Spike seems to be letting rip his own Daddy Issues in He Got Game while simultaneously empathizing with that father. This film was a turning point for him, and I daresay he’s never shown such anger towards a father in a film since.
Finally comes a trilogy of relatively benign fathers who are nonetheless viewed as failures by their sons and by the director. In Bamboozled, the legendary Paul Mooney plays the protagonist’s talented stand-up comic father who never got a chance to become a success because of his inability to “play the game”. Even though there’s no anger, the point is clear: the Spike Dad is a cautionary figure. Even at his best, he’s usually a guy our main character doesn’t want to become.
The last decade also gave us Brian Cox as a bartending father in 25th Hour and Jim Brown as a pitiful wheelchair-bound diabetic in She Hate Me. Lee commented that it was hard for him and the crew to see Jim Brown act in a wheelchair (shades of West Indian Archie), and like Catch Me If You Can, we are meant to understand that in some way the son’s actions are meant to avenge the failures of the father.
This Father’s Day Weekend, a younger filmmaker’s feature length Father’s Day Card to Spielberg is playing on screens across the country. Spielberg’s love of fatherhood seems to apply to filmmaking, he seems to relish his status as beloved cinematic father figure to my generation of filmmaker. Spike, on the other hand, has been embroiled in a pissing match with a filmmaker who in a broad sense is his heir apparent; a director who has the same Oedipal need to take on Lee that Jesus Shuttlesworth displays in He Got Game.
And so, the sons have become the fathers. Their Daddy Issues were never identical, nor have they worked through them in the same way. But they both turned their considerable cinematic gifts towards the problem, and one hopes they were both as successful at making peace with their fathers as they were at making memorable, era-defining films.