How Spike Lee Got His First Big Break: From She’s Gotta Have It to That Iconic Air Jordan Ad

“Film found me,” says Spike Lee in the clip above from medi­a­bistro’s “My First Big Break” series. We may now know him as one of his gen­er­a­tion’s most out­spo­ken, con­vic­tion-dri­ven Amer­i­can film­mak­ers, but he says he only got into the game because he could­n’t land a job. Enter­ing the long, hot, unem­ployed sum­mer of 1977, the young Lee spied a Super‑8 movie cam­era in a friend’s house. Bor­row­ing it, he roamed the streets of an unusu­al­ly down-at-heel New York City, shoot­ing the exu­ber­ant emer­gence of dis­co, the anx­i­ety over the Son of Sam killings, the unrest that bub­bled up dur­ing black­outs, and the count­less oth­er facets of urban life he’s con­tin­ued to explore through­out his career. Encour­aged by a film pro­fes­sor at More­house Col­lege, he then put in the hours to edit all this footage he’d sim­ply grabbed for fun into a doc­u­men­tary called Last Hus­tle in Brook­lyn. Near­ly a decade lat­er, he made his first fea­ture, She’s Got­ta Have It, an ear­ly entry in what would become the Amer­i­can indie film boom of the nineties.

Lee not only direct­ed She’s Got­ta Have It, but played one of its most mem­o­rable char­ac­ters, a smooth-talk­ing hus­tler of a b‑boy named Mars Black­mon. Mars cares about hav­ing the fresh­est gear, a trait he shares with the man who cre­at­ed him. This did not escape the notice of famous adver­tis­ing agency Wieden+Kennedy; when a cou­ple of their employ­ees saw Lee’s per­for­mance as Mars, they knew they’d found the ide­al pitch­man for one of their clien­t’s prod­ucts. The com­pa­ny: Nike. The prod­uct: the Air Jor­dan. As sur­prised as any­one that such a major firm and the icon­ic ath­lete Michael Jor­dan would take a chance on a young direc­tor, Lee went ahead and shot the com­mer­cial above, which announced him as a new force in the late-1980s zeit­geist. To learn much more about this peri­od of Lee’s career and its sub­se­quent devel­op­ment, watch his episode of Inside the Actors Stu­dio. Though con­sid­er­ably less of a motor­mouth than Mars Black­mon, Lee tells a com­pelling sto­ry, espe­cial­ly his own.

Relat­ed con­tent:

40 Great Film­mak­ers Go Old School, Shoot Short Films with 100 Year Old Cam­era

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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