Art Sims (American, born 1954) has designed graphics across entertainment media, but his most famous and prolific work is that for film posters. His collaboration with Academy Award–winning filmmaker Spike Lee (American, born 1957), in particular, has produced some of his most iconic designs.

Sims was first drawn to Lee’s work after seeing Lee’s first feature film, She’s Gotta Have It (1986); Lee aimed to cement their working relationship when he heard Sims’s poster for New Jack City (1991) was so popular that people were stealing the posters off of bus stations.[1] Both creators, along with their scores of collaborators, champion the stories of middle class Black Americans, often rejecting comfortable conclusions in favor of confronting persistent racial tensions and historical trauma. Sims translates Lee’s complex narratives and themes into approachable public design.

In the majority of these designs, Sims’s work thrives in saturated color palettes and engaging photography of the films’ stars. Those that depart from this aesthetic approach are that much more striking in their contrast.

Below are seven posters in Cooper Hewitt’s collection by Art Sims, with his firm 11:24 Design (Playa del Rey, California, USA), for films written, directed, and produced by Spike Lee, with his production company 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks (Brooklyn, New York, USA)—for creative appreciation and movie night inspiration.

 

School Daze (1988)

Poster for the Spike Lee film, ‘School Daze.’ Four men and one woman are positioned around a piece of lined paper. At lower center, Spike Lee appears as a bald man with glasses and a dog collar, with the letter G on his forehead and a dog dish in his hands. Printed in white, on black banner, upper center: A SPIKE LEE JOINT; in white, directly below, on top of a black crown: SCHOOL; in black, directly below, on top of two crossed white bones: DAZE. Includes a purple border and the following text in purple, upper center: a nEW comEdy WitH Music / froM the DiRector oF ‘SHe's Gotta HAVE it’. The film credits are listed in pink at the bottom of the poster. The rating information (R) and the Dolby Stereo logo appear on the bottom left, and the Columbia Pictures logo appears on the bottom right.

Poster, School Daze, 1988
Distributed by Columbia Pictures (Culver City, California, USA)
Offset lithograph on paper
120 × 68.5 cm (47 1/4 × 26 15/16 in.)
Gift of Art Sims, 1996-92-4

Sims’s first poster for a Lee film was for Lee’s second film, School Daze. Set at a Historically Black College, the film depicts fraternities and sororities sparring over their differing approaches to their Black identities.

 

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Poster for the Spike Lee film, ‘Do the Right Thing.’ Shows a bird’s-eye view of a blue street with a man standing cross-armed by the tail of a car on the left. At right, a man holds a pizza box. Printed in yellow, upper center, with children's feet on either side: It's the hottest day of the summer. / You can do nothing, / you can do something, / or you can... Printed larger in yellow, center: DO THE / RiGHT / THing. Rows composed of colored triangles appear between the lines of text. In light blue, directly to the right: BEd-Stuy. In white, below, written by a young girl with chalk: A Spike Lee Joint. A child-like drawing of a man with a gun and a cop car appear in the lower right. Film credits listed in white at the bottom of the poster. The rating information (R) and the Spectral Recording/Dolby Studio logo appear on the bottom left.

Poster, Do the Right Thing, 1989
Distributed by Universal Pictures (Universal City, California, USA)
Offset lithograph on paper
92.4 × 62.1 cm (36 3/8 × 24 7/16 in.)
Gift of Art Sims, 1996-92-2

Taking place over the course of one day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of New York City, Do the Right Thing presents a friendly community full of amusing personalities, but one rife with racial tension, as the story ends in a chillingly relevant episode of police brutality and rioting. Sims assembles contrasts to relay a playful but profound tension—hot color saturation with yellow typography on a cool background, manipulated perspective, and confrontational gazes amidst childhood innocence.

Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture holds in its collection a prop boombox, an object whose destruction becomes an explosive catalyst to the film’s underlying racial tension.

Design anthropologist Dr. Dori Tunstall further discusses this poster and collecting practices around Black designers in her talk “A Change Is Gonna Come: Black Speculative Futures for the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum Collection,” part of Cooper Hewitt’s Morse Historic Design Lecture series.

 

Mo’ Better Blues (1990)

Poster for the Spike Lee film, ‘Mo' Better Blues.’ On the right, Spike Lee appears in front of a stage entrance, wearing a brown hat, glasses, brown pants, and brown houndstooth jacket. He looks at the viewer while bending and offering his right hand. His left hand holds a rolled up edition of the New York Post. Behind him, a brick wall is seen with a poster of three musicians and a trumpet, with the word TONIGHT in white against a black background in the upper left corner. Posters for Spike Lee’s film, ‘Do the Right Thing’ can be seen behind the musicians’ poster. Printed in yellow, upper margin: DENZEL WASHINGTON • SPIKE LEE; in yellow and blue, bottom left: a spike lee joint / mo’ better / blues. The words ‘spike’ and ‘better’ appear inside blue circles, while ‘lee’ and ‘mo’’ appear inside yellow circles. The film credits are listed in light grey at the bottom of the poster. The Spectral Recording/Dolby Studio logo appears on the bottom left, and the Universal logo appears on the bottom right.

Poster, Mo’ Better Blues, 1990
Distributed by Universal Pictures (Universal City, California, USA)
Offset lithograph on paper
99.5 × 66 cm (39 3/16 × 26 in.)
Gift of Art Sims, 1996-92-3

Mo’ Better Blues—itself a seemingly contradictory title—follows an ambitious jazz musician, played by Denzel Washington, as he navigates layered drama of romantic relationships, musical aspiration, and the consequences they have on each other. The poster within the poster papers over the poster for the prior film Do the Right Thing, posing a meta question of whether the main character—or anyone for that matter—does the right thing.

 

Jungle Fever (1991)

Poster for the Spike Lee film, ‘Jungle Fever.’ Features a close-up view of a dark skinned male hand entwined with a light-skinned female hand with polished red nails. A black row with white text at the top reads ‘A SPIKE LEE JOINT,’ with the primary cast members listed directly below in black: ‘WESLEY SNIPES, ANNABELLA SCIORRA, SPIKE LEE, ANTHONY QUINN.’ Film credits listed in black at the bottom of the poster. The logo for Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks, rating information (R), and the Spectral Recording/Dolby Studio logo appear on the bottom left. The Universal logo is seen on the bottom right.

Poster, Jungle Fever, 1991
Distributed by Universal Pictures (Universal City, California, USA)
Offset lithograph on paper
92.5 × 40.6 cm (36 3/8 × 16 in.)
Gift of Art Sims, 1996-92-1

As affectionately suggested by Sims’s intimate poster, Jungle Fever depicts an interracial relationship in the Concrete Jungle. The rough typography foreshadows a tumultuous future for couple.

 

Malcolm X (1992)

Poster for Spike Lee film, ‘Malcolm X.’ Features a large grey X on a black background with ‘November’ in small white letters at bottom. Includes a thin grey border.

Poster, Malcolm X, 1992
Co-written by Arnold Perl (American, 1914–1971)
Co-produced by Marvin Worth (American, 1925–1988)
Distributed by Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. (Burbank, California, USA)
Offset lithograph on paper
120 × 68.5 cm (47 1/4 × 26 15/16 in.)
Gift of Art Sims, 1996-92-9

For Malcom X, Lee’s epic biographical picture of the Civil Rights figure, Sims scaled down the color and star power while scaling up the typography for bold, commanding impact. Graphic designer Jerome Harris offers a nuanced analysis of the poster’s typography on Cooper Hewitt’s Object of the Week blog.

 

Crooklyn (1994)

Poster for the Spike Lee film, ‘Crooklyn.’ A man and women sit on a stoop in front of a green door with a dog and five children, the eldest of whom holds a basketball. They sit on stair steps between blue handrails. A record player is positioned towards the bottom of the staircase. Printed in orange text, inside a blue rectangle, upper margin: A new look at the old neighborhood from the acclaimed director of ‘Do the Right Thing’ and ‘Malcolm X.’ Printed in yellow, with a blue border, upper left: Crooklyn / A Spike Lee Joint. The film credits are listed in yellow at the bottom of the poster. The logo for Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks and DTS (the digital experience) appear on the bottom left, and the Universal logo appears on the bottom right.

Poster, Crooklyn, 1994
Co-written by Joie Susannah Lee (American, born 1962) and Cinqué Lee (American, born 1966)
Distributed by Universal Pictures (Universal City, California, USA)
Offset lithograph on paper
110 × 67.8 cm (43 5/16 × 26 11/16 in.)
Gift of Art Sims, 1996-92-5

Sims chooses the classic New York City stoop for the location of Lee’s semi-autobiographical film, Crooklyn, co-written with his siblings. Bold hues convey the playful interconnectedness of the family.

 

Clockers (1995)

Vertical rectangle. Poster for the Spike Lee film ‘Clockers.’ The top third is red and the bottom two-thirds are white. The silhouette of a body, in black, lies horizontally, with feet on the left and the head on the right. Four circles mimicking bullet holes surround the body. Red letters near the bottom read ‘Clockers’ hovering a block of film credits in gray.

Poster, Clockers, 1995
Co-written and produced by Richard Price (American, born 1949)
Co-produced by Martin Scorsese (American, born 1942) and Jon Kilik (American, born 1956)
Distributed by Universal Pictures (Universal City, California, USA)
Gift of Unknown Donor, 1996-128-8

Sims’s poster for Clockers, a crime drama based on a novel by Richard Price, references the cut-and-paste aesthetic of another famed film poster design, Saul Bass.

 

Matthew Kennedy is Cross-Platform Publishing Associate at Cooper Hewitt.

 

[1] Holly Willis, “Art Sims’s Design Journey,” AIGA, September 1, 2008, https://www.aiga.org/design-journeys-art-sims.

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