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The Films Of Spike Lee: A Retrospective

by The Playlist Staff
August 10, 2012 4:05 PM
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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" (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" (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” (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+]

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  • Fred | August 15, 2012 2:35 PMReply

    Spike Lee is NOT A RACIST, REALLY??? Spike Lee has even lashed out at Eddie Murphy, insinuating that he was a race traitor and Uncle Tom for selling out to a movie business dominated by white interests, as well as African American actors Ving Rhames and Cuba Gooding Jr. for behaving in a “servile” way.

  • Fred | August 15, 2012 2:34 PMReply

    Spike Lee is NOT A RACIST, REALLY??? Upon visiting South Africa in the early 90s, Spike Lee told London’s Guardian newspaper that "I seriously wanted to pick up a gun and shoot whites. The only way to resolve matters is by bloodshed."

  • Patti | August 15, 2012 1:48 PMReply

    most comments on here are not even of the English language....

  • Ali | August 14, 2012 2:53 PMReply

    PPL don't waste you time on ignorant fuckers like FRED. He's probably just pissed cuz some big dick brotha came along and fucked his wife or grl keep crying BITCH!!!! Spike Lee is laughing his black ass all the way to bank and counting millions while you haven't put out a god damn thing in your community.Your probably some 40 yr old white fuck who failed out of college, HAVE NO BALLS AND TOOK A SHIT JOB RATHER THAN FOLLOW YOUR HEART AND DREAMS TO MAKE SOMETHING REAL. At least Spike has the balls to make something unlike you sorry ass! Now go fuck off and die cuz the world dosen't need fucked up ass people like you!!!!

  • Fred | August 15, 2012 2:30 PM

    You can erase my comments, but you can't erase reality. There's an old saying... "want to make enemies quick tell the truth." The "hate speech" excuse is always used by people who put their fingers in their ears and hum really loud because the truth is very painful.

    Fred is not your enemy here, if he is, then I guess the people who wrote these articles are too, some of them are even black!!! Wow, how could that be??

  • Gone | August 14, 2012 5:28 PM

    Hate speech removed at the request of normal human beings everywhere.

  • Fred | August 14, 2012 1:55 PMReply

    Hate speech removed.

  • Fred | August 16, 2012 1:59 PM

    D, you must be the biggest fuckin moron that ever walked the Earth. You have zero comeback on anything I've written because you know it's a fact and a painful one at that. Stop with your pussy bullshit and grow up. You have nothing to say but to backup a douche bag like Spike Lee who puts people in harms way because he's a fucking racist. No wonder no one watches this asshole's movies, except for schmucks like you. Have a nice day dick face!

  • d | August 16, 2012 1:08 PM

    I don't remember saying that at all. In fact, I didn't. Spike Lee saw this as a racist murder, and so he tweeted (what he thought was) the home address of the racist murderer. I have no idea, nor do I care, what he would have done were the incident not a hate crime. Now if you don't mind, fuck off. I'm done talking to you.

  • Fred | August 16, 2012 11:25 AM

    D, so what you're saying is, if Zimmerman was black (btw he's hispanic) Spike Lee would have still tweeted his home address? On what planet would this happen D? If Spike Lee is so interested in black kids being murdered, he needs to look in his own community because it's a STATISTICAL FACT that black people kill their own exponentially more than whites kill blacks. But Spike Lee, just like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson ain't interested in "black on black" crime because it doesn't involve blaming another group of people. These people have an inner selfishness, a need to look like super hero's to the black community at the black community's expense. Besides, what if the family at that wrong address was home raided or killed by an angry vigilante or mob? Screw the other family right? They're just collateral damage. Face it, Spike Lee is an irresponsible race baiting prick.

  • d | August 15, 2012 2:52 PM

    @Fred: Last I checked, tweeting the home address of a racist is not racist in and of itself. I don't know why anyone would think it is. The fact that it wasn't Zimmerman's address was a big mistake on his part. Still doesn't make him a racist.

  • Fred | August 14, 2012 4:47 PM

    As you can see, Oliver and D can't handle the truth. Notice they have nothing to say about 72% of blacks in Chicago born to single mothers because it's a fact they couldn't care less about. They just look for excuses to blame whitey like Spike Lee does. Spike Lee is also a giant asshole for tweeting George Zimmerman's home address which turns out to be someone else's address and he did this because he's not a racist right?

    Truth hurts boys don't it. Now go get some rubbers and stop producing welfare babies that I have to pay for. And please, blame yourself for your own fuck-ups in life.

  • Oliver Lyttelton | August 14, 2012 2:23 PM

    "Spike Lee doesn't hate African-Americans as much as I do? He must be a racist!" Please fuck off elsewhere, Fred.

  • Keith Demko | August 12, 2012 9:47 PMReply

    Great piece, so of course it provokes reactions ... You're dead on with all but two in my book ... Crooklyn was truly just warmed-over, milquetoast Spike, and particularly when he put those Maryland scenes through a gauzy filter, it was just completely over the top and useless ... And to disagree on another, I simply loved Bamboozled ... Audacious? Outrageous? Of course, but it's grade-A in-your-face Spike Lee, just the way I like it (and I loved Passing Strange too, just saying)

  • loudrockmusic | August 12, 2012 5:32 AMReply

    ALSO: I would like to put in a good word for Girl 6. It is by no means a terrible movie. Theresa Randle acquits herself very well under the heavy(?) hand of a talented director and the episodic nature of the movie aligns itself with the line of work our girl is in. Plus, Prince! Either way, I've always thought of it as his Woody Allen movie.

  • Christopher Bell | August 12, 2012 5:40 AM

    You're right, it's by no means a terrible movie, but considering the talent behind it, it should've been a lot better. It has its moments, but in the end I thought it was pretty mediocre. I don't really see the Woody Allen...

  • loudrockmusic | August 12, 2012 5:20 AMReply

    Good on y'all for recognizing one of our country's greatest filmmaking talents. You know what I would love to read (or listen to)? A conversation between Spike and the director Alexander McQueen. Can you imagine?

  • JOJODANCER | August 14, 2012 10:00 PM

    *Steve McQueen I believe

  • Dryer | August 11, 2012 6:53 PMReply

    25th Hour -this deserves better attention and should've been an awards contender during its release, certainly one of the most poignant post 9-11 thematical film to be released.
    Do The Right Thing

  • Robert | August 11, 2012 2:36 PMReply

    His best films are: Do The Right Thing, 25th Hour and Inside Man. In that order. The rest of the honors should go to the bulk of his documentary work.

  • J dawg | August 11, 2012 5:37 AMReply

    Can someone please explain why spike lee is a racist. Has he said black people are better than every other race. Has he not hired someone because they were white. Has he hurt someone just because they were white(well besides the mistaken George Zimmerman address incident. Lol). Really relax, people who claim Spike Lee is racist sound like morons. Go watch some video of Hitler, George Wallace, Neo Nazis that shot up a Mosque recently, etc... To familiarize yourself with real racism.

    At worst Spike Lee might be a bigot. On the same level of a white man whose friends with minorities and treats them as equals, but would have issues if his daughter brought one home for dinner, but I think that might even be a stretch.

  • The Playlist | August 11, 2012 6:49 AM

    Let's get back on topic: What's everyone's favorite Spike Lee movie? Let's not get sidetracked in the blathering nonsense of some random idiot.

  • KT | August 10, 2012 5:04 PMReply

    I love the "Spike Lee is a racist" rants. They never get old... Oh, wait, they do.

  • d | August 14, 2012 2:02 PM

    @Fred: When did KT say that?

  • Fred | August 14, 2012 1:35 PM

    You're right it's humanly impossible for black people to be racist. Keep smokin the dope son.

  • Matt N. | August 10, 2012 4:46 PMReply

    I love the retrospectives and "5 best" features you guys do, but I can't read this one. There are two directors whose work I refuse to watch: Roman Polanski and Spike Lee. Polanski is a child molester and Lee is an unashamed racist. Neither deserve to have their movies be an "event."

  • loudrockmusic | August 12, 2012 5:26 AM

    @Gabe Toro I always distinguish classist/racist Caucasians as White People. The caps denote their feelings of superiority. Just folks is simply white people.

  • Fran R. | August 11, 2012 5:15 PM

    I think someone's superiority is being questioned and they don't like it, hehehehehe

  • Gabe Toro | August 11, 2012 12:47 AM

    Hahahaha white people.

  • Katie Walsh | August 10, 2012 6:32 PM

    Well, I think you're the only one losing out in this situation, Matt N.

  • dan h. | August 10, 2012 4:56 PM

    @Yer: Agreed.

  • yer | August 10, 2012 4:51 PM

    You're a tool.

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