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.

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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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