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The Films Of Spike Lee: A Retrospective

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist August 10, 2012 at 4:05PM

If this weekend feels special for movie fans, it's not because of the trio of big-name blockbusters hitting theaters, it's because it sees a new dramatic feature -- the first in four years -- from Spike Lee, one of the most talented, idiosyncratic, maddening and controversial American filmmakers of the last thirty years. It's a rarity for a director to be instantly, iconically recognizable, but Lee's one of the exceptions, gaining visibility through starring roles in his early films, a famous appearance in a Nike ad alongside Michael Jordan, and plenty of moments when he's spoken his mind and caused an uproar.
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Spike Lee

If this weekend feels special for movie fans, it's not because of the trio of big-name blockbusters hitting theaters, it's because it sees a new dramatic feature -- the first in four years -- from Spike Lee, one of the most talented, idiosyncratic, maddening and controversial American filmmakers of the last thirty years. It's a rarity for a director to be instantly, iconically recognizable, but Lee's one of the exceptions, gaining visibility through starring roles in his early films, a famous appearance in a Nike ad alongside Michael Jordan, and plenty of moments when he's spoken his mind and caused an uproar.

It's fortunate then, that to go with the fame and controversy, Lee has, from the beginning, been a fearsomely talented filmmaker who's moved effortlessly between features and, more recently, documentaries. He's made politically engaged cinema while still working within the mainstream (and even his most crowd-pleasing films never feel like any other director could have made them), and with "Do The Right Thing," "Malcolm X" and "25th Hour," made one of the best films of the 1980s, the 1990s and the 2000s, respectively.

His first feature of the new decade, "Red Hook Summer," isn't quite in that company, but there's an awful lot to like in the film (read our review here), and it's certainly a sign that the director isn't mellowing with age. With the film hitting theaters today, and his "Oldboy" remake with Josh Brolin, Sharlto Copley and (possibly) Elizabeth Olsen hoping to go before cameras before the end of the year, it seemed like perfect time to look back over Lee's filmography. So below you'll find our (near) complete look at the director's wide-ranging and fascinating resume. For more on Lee, you can read our extensive interview with the director here.

She's Gotta Have It
"She's Gotta Have It" (1986)
Maybe in retrospect what’s most impressive about Lee’s feature debut is that just three (3!) years after this distinctly studenty, micro-budget black-and-white effort, he would not just throw a metaphorical trashcan through the metaphorical window of the Hollywood establishment with the incandescent “Do The Right Thing,” but that he would do it with such consummate verve and style. Because, with the best will in the world, and enjoyable despite its flaws though it is, “She’s Gotta Have It” looks pretty amateurish these days, and is of most interest to completists and nerds (like ourselves) who want to comb through it for hints of future greatness. And to be fair, the hints do exist: Lee combines documentary stylings, theatrical moments and even a delirious, full-color dance sequence with outrageous assurance for one so inexperienced; his '80s Brooklyn feels vibrant and authentic even when the performances are stilted; and not least, Lee himself takes an acting role for the first time, creating a charming, motormouth onscreen persona that is one of the film’s chief pleasures. But less successful is the film’s focus on the sexually frank and free Nola (Tracy Camila Johns) as its central character. As accurate as Lee’s eye has proven in many areas, his writing of female characters has proven occasionally problematic, and here that’s already in evidence. We don’t know Nola the way we should, because really it feels like Lee doesn’t know her either -- like the men she juggles, it seems he is in awe of her. And so because she’s this frustratingly unknowable creation, the astonishing ambition (for the time, which is not to say it’s a genre that is oversubscribed these days either) to tell a story not just from an urban black perspective, but from an urban black female perspective, somewhat flounders. Still, overlook the film’s weaknesses and there is, all these years later, enough freshness and irreverence and candor on display to make it an engaging watch, if only a fragmentary foreshadowing of the brilliance to come. [B-]

School Daze
"School Daze" (1988)
Almost the platonic ideal of cinematic second-album syndrome, Lee's big-studio coming-out party (he was snapped up by Columbia after the success of "She's Gotta Have It") is a messy, overstuffed, incredibly uneven film that falls well short of its enormous ambitions. Which is not to say to that it's not worth watching. Set at the mostly-black Mission College, it follows a number of students, including the politically engaged Dap (Laurence Fishburne, looking like the world's oldest college student; he was only 27 when the film was made, but still looks older), his cousin Half-Pint (Lee himself), who's pledging into the Gamma Phi Gamma Fraternity, and Julian (Giancarlo Esposito), the head of the fraternity. And against this canvas, Lee tackles a whole host of issues; the African-American middle-class, sexual politics, the battle against apartheid, the frat system and, most of all, the clash in African-American culture between, as the film puts it, 'Wannabees' (those trying to fit in to white culture) and 'Jiggaboos' who are prouder of their own heritage. Given that it tries to deal with all of this and more, while essentially using the form of both a college movie and a full-blown musical, it's not entirely surprising that the film doesn't quite work: the performances are too inconsistent, the ideas not quite fully developed. But it's much more interesting to watch an ambitious failure over a unambitious success, and compared to the vast majority of college movies, Lee's second joint is a feast, even if his filmmaking skills had yet to catch up with his imagination. [C+]

Do the Right Thing
“Do the Right Thing” (1989)
It’s the hottest day of the summer, and all Mookie (Lee) wants to do is get through his work day. Of course, nothing can be that simple in Lee’s memorably fractured, chaotic Brooklyn neighborhood, which provides the backdrop for a bubbling cauldron of class and racial strife. Maybe it’s the hassle from his boss Sal (Danny Aiello), who joylessly serves overpriced pizza slices to young black customers who insist on listening to “jungle music.” Maybe it’s the shared wisdom from local drunk Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), who doles out advice while tightening an iron grip on a brown-bagged beverage. Maybe it’s Mookie’s uneasy relationship with baby mama Tina (Rosie Perez), who berates his lack of upward mobility through her nagging, nasal siren call of a voice. Whatever it is, it’s polluting the air, and it’s easy to see that despite the humor and honesty at the heart of “Do The Right Thing,” the picture is building to an inevitably ugly conclusion. No one, not even Mookie, can be the bigger man in the face of perceived slights, as Lee creates a world where each petty disagreement erases the goodwill coming from Da Mayor’s innocent flirtation with Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), Mookie’s growing bond with Sal’s son Vito (Richard Edson), and the local flair from monosyllabic love-spreader Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn). It’s somewhat unfortunate that “Do The Right Thing” still plays as sharp and incendiary as it did in a Koch-supervised New York City, though Lee’s chronicle of a tragic day absent of heroes still looms large as possibly the last truly great film of the 1980s. [A+]

This article is related to: Spike Lee, Red Hook Summer, Retrospective, Features, Feature


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