Let's Make Our Own Movies Like Spike Lee...

by gabe
March 26, 2006 7:57 AM
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Let's Make Our Own Movies Like Spike Lee...
In a Sunday piece the theNew York Times this weekend, Caryn James provided a selective overview of comebanck kid Spike Lee's career.

In a Sunday piece in the New York Times this weekend, Caryn James provided a selective overview of comeback kid Spike Lee's career, paying special attention to "Do the Right Thing", the joint she calls "the essential Spike Lee film."

At one point, Ms. James observes that the once incendiary film "seems tamer and even more realistic now."

When "Do The Right Thing" came out, in 1989--the number, another summer, sound of the funky drummer--the film was anything BUT tame. Op-Ed pages bristled with debate about the film. "Do the Right Thing" was a hot topic at every gathering all summer long--it not only struck a nerve, it drilled into a viewer's conscience like Steve Martin's sadistic Orin Scrivello, DDS in "Little Shop of Horrors" performing a root canal sans novocaine.

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Today, according to Ms. James "the film looks less like an argument than a work of social realism." This strikes me as ironic since one of the reasons I always admired the film was precisely for its formal elegance. I have always been impressed with how hyper-stylized it is. While telling a raw, and powerful story, Lee (and his director of photography Ernest Dickerson) experimented with a variety of dynamic techniques--they employed Lee's trademark dolly shots, saturated the streets of Bed-Stuy with bold colors and shot from a double-dutch kaleidoscope of angles. Lee broke the 4th wall with ramped up direct address montages. He dropped more cinematic references than Terminator X spinning samples--from Radio Raheem cribbing Robert Mitchum in "Night of the Hunter," to a shot from the back of a police car snatched directly from Cocteau's "Orphee."

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Some thoughts:

1) "Do the Right Thing" was released pre-Rodney King. The riotous fury expressed in the climax of "Do The Right Thing" seems tame (albeit prescient) compared to the riots of the very real and public case of police brutality. In many ways Rodney King vindicated "Do the Right Thing."

2) More recently, images of blacks literally abandoned after Hurricane Katrina provides a new context and perspective for Lee's anger. "Do the Right Thing" and some critics have dismissed Lee’s other works as paranoid or radical. Many accuse Lee of stirring things up, of stacking the deck or creating false polemics. Katrina proved something. The whole world saw something. When Kanye West utters similar sentiments, he doesn't seem so paranoid.

3) "Crash" happened. Paul Haggis' heavy-handed take on racial divisiveness might feel like a mash-up of "Falling Down" and "Magnolia," but it did win Best Picture at the Oscars. Compared with the artless "Crash," "Do the Right Thing" is downright subdued.

4) Is a film about race easier for the Academy to swallow if it is made by a white director? "Crash" won Best Picture, while "Do the Right Thing" received nominations only for Original Screenplay and Supporting Actor.

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5) In other words: "How come there ain't no bruthas up on the wall!?!"

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