In Lee's vision, movies needed broad, Technicolor themes that reflected America, and if Hollywood wouldn't produce such movies, then he would himself.
From his groundbreaking "She's Gotta Have It" to "School Daze" to "Do the Right Thing" and "Mo' Better Blues", Lee established a reputation as a cutting-edge artist. He was fearless in focusing the camera's lens on racial tensions between Italians and blacks in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, or in having his camera explore "cool" on a black college campus.
Lee made real life in America the genre in which he performed his craft. He's found success that no other filmmaker of color has ever achieved. Along the way, the 50-year-old Lee and his edgy, hip and often political movies changed the Hollywood landscape and inspired others to mimic his work.
If anybody in the arts has been a beacon for change, Lee would be that person.
For his contributions to the body politic and the social climate in America, Major League Baseball will honor Lee on Saturday. He will join Vera Clemente, the widow of Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, and the late Buck O'Neil as the three recipients of the inaugural Beacon Award in Memphis, Tenn.
The three will be honored before the inaugural Civil Rights Game, presented by AutoZone, between the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Cardinals. The game, to be played at Memphis' AutoZone Park, home of the Cards' Triple-A Redbirds affiliate, will be broadcast live by ESPN and MLB.TV beginning at 5:30 p.m. ET. MLB.TV will also feature a two-hour pregame show beginning at 3:30 p.m.
The Beacon honors the contributions of people like Lee to civil rights and reflects their link to baseball, and Lee and his films contributed as much as anybody else in Hollywood to both. He will receive the Beacon of Change Award.
"The Beacon of Change is given to someone who's changing the consciousness; it's given to that person who's driving people to think about issues," said Sylvia Lind, senior manager of Minor League Operations and one of the coordinators of the award program. "That's been Lee's impact on civil rights; that's his contribution."
And Lee used his pioneering movies, his documentaries and his pen -- he has written several books -- to make people think. His docu-drama "Get On the Bus" brought the Million Man March to life in 1996; his film "Jungle Fever" in 1991 looked at the taboo of interracial dating; and Lee's adaptation of Alex Haley's book "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" in 1992 humanized the Black Muslim leader in ways that not even Haley's stirring prose could do.
Yet even as Lee, a Morehouse grad and a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, won acclaim for such films, he also angered people. His 1999 movie "Summer of Sam" with John Leguizamo and Adrien Brody, a film about the "Son of Sam" murders in New York, took Lee in directions few expected him to go.
How does a black man direct with conviction a film about Italian-Americans, their neighborhood and the distrust among friends?
Such questions have never weighed on Lee. He's continued to see life in unique ways; he's continued to showcase that vision in his work.
A few years ago, one writer called Lee, who will premiere his documentary on baseball and civil rights at the Beacon Award ceremonies, a "significant influence in the entertainment world."
To dispute that label is to ignore Lee's two-plus decades of success in the business. He's every bit the tour de force behind the camera today that he was during his "Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads" days.
"He just doesn't throw things out there and make people laugh," Lind said. "He wants to make people think. He thrives on being controversial, making people address issues that they might not be comfortable thinking about."
Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.