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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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Mo' Better Blues
“Mo' Better Blues” (1990)  
Amid smoky late night bars, jazz trumpeter Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington) takes the stage with his Bleek Quintet. Once Bleek places his golden lips against the mouthpiece of his trumpet, he makes magic. Of course, this does little to eliminate the drama in his life -- the Quintet continues to struggle, playing gig-to-gig as infighting leads to a more flexible hierarchy, with Bleek’s longtime pal Shadow (an excellent Wesley Snipes) attempting to usurp the spotlight. Bleek, who probably has too much misplaced passion, can’t help but humor childhood friend Giant (Lee), despite Giant being a terrible agent for his band, nearly thousands of dollars in debt. And then there’s the women -- does Bleek want the stability provided by Indigo (Joie Lee) or the sumptuous lust of aspiring singer Clarke (Cynda Williams)? Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues” cuts narrative corners with some of the laziest generalizations of his career, as the dichotomy between Clarke and Indigo is far too simplistic. And there’s an ugly note in the representation of a pair of Jewish club owners played by John and Nicolas Turturro, penny-pinching stereotypes that seem like they’re out of a broader film. But when the Bleek Quntet takes the stage, the music, from Terence Blanchard and Branford Marsalis, is intoxicating, and musicians and jazz fans will note the authenticity and rawness of the backstage scenes, particularly in the friendly friction between Bleek and Shadow, with both Washington and Snipes at the top of their games. [B]

Jungle Fever
“Jungle Fever” (1991)
Don’t be fooled by that ridiculous, and ridiculously catchy, Stevie Wonder theme song: “Jungle Fever” goes to very dark places in its upsetting parable about urban interracial dating. With “Jungle Fever,” Lee is attempting to explore the responsibilities felt by the modern middle-to-upper class black male, and his avatar is the noble, dignified Flipper (Wesley Snipes). One of New York City’s most successful architects, Flipper is aware his presence in his mostly-white firm is an anomaly, and he stews when his bosses ignore his request for a black secretary. He’s wracked with guilt, however, when he finds himself attracted to Angie (Annabella Sciorra), feeling, in a confused mixture of social activism and ego, that he’s denying his own blackness, and therefore harming the black community. All the while, Flipper and his elderly parents are struggling with the drug-addled state of Gator (Samuel L. Jackson), Flipper’s crack addict brother, who is both charmingly entertaining and seriously dangerous, dancing a jig in one moment and threatening violence in the next. “Jungle Fever” is like a well-prepared meal of several diverse plates, and Lee intentionally overheats a few in order to better illustrate his point about Flipper being a black man struggling to define the proper contemporary definition of his own status. Also, for completists’ sake, among Samuel L. Jackson’s five thousand film credits, this is likely his best performance. [B+]

Malcolm X
“Malcolm X” (1992)
Originally slated to be helmed by Norman Jewison, an outraged Spike Lee was given the director's chair once Jewison bowed out citing script issues. And given the tremendous weight and controversy around the subject -- and around Lee himself -- the filmmaker had to deliver for what was easily his biggest picture in scope to date. And boy, did he ever. Rewriting the script, directing the film, and even penciling in a small role for himself, “Malcolm X” is a powerful piece of filmmaking. But the film's sprawling runtime and breadth would never have worked or been as engaging as it is without a committed, commanding lead performance by Denzel Washington. Evoking the Muslim minister and human rights activist in voice, style and mannerism so accurately that it is, at times, downright eerie, his portrayal goes far beyond mere imitation into capturing the spirit, magnetism and intelligence of Malcolm X, in what is easily the defining portrait of the man. Lee's filmmaking prowess here is among the highlights of his career. He makes a sharp distinction stylistically between Malcolm X's early life, one full of live jazz music and color, and his post-prison life as a Nation of Islam minister, full of sombre grey tones and an understated score. And his desire to do his best by the film and subject found him battling Warner Bros. to allow him to shoot on location in Mecca. And the result? It's the first feature film to be allowed to shoot on that sacred ground. A towering achievement that somehow managed only two Oscar nods -- for Costume Design and Best Actor (how Washington lost to Al Pacino for "Scent Of A Woman" if beyond us) -- Lee's film is an impressive, must-see biopic of the highest order. [A]

Crooklyn
"Crooklyn" (1994)
Charming and warm, the director's semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story (co-written by the director's siblings Joie and Cinque) is sweet but won't rot your teeth. Set in 1970s Brooklyn and focusing on the cute-as-a-button Troy (Zelda Harris), Lee tours the neighborhood as his adolescent muse deals with sassy neighbors, argumentative parents, rambunctious brothers, and -- worst of all -- the onset of puberty, with the increased awareness of body and sexuality hitting the wee one like a ton of bricks. The narrative is particularly loose here, mostly being a collection of moments as opposed to a meticulously plotted story, though certain characters have their own individual arcs (the parents, played by Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo, have an especially subtle dynamic that gives generally contrived plot points some legitimacy). That said, the approach works wonders and allows the filmmaker to fully channel the free-spirited nature of being a city kid during the endless summer holiday, forgoing a sprightly, rose-colored trip down memory lane for something more honest: candy is akin to gold, crackpot neighbors are harassed, and harsh words belted on stoops are instantly forgotten the next day. And when the filmmaker finally decides to tug at the heart strings, it's heartbreaking and more than earned. "Crooklyn" is also a contrarily pleasant depiction of city life; the movie is free of the menacing alleys and gritty streets that generally characterize any urban setting. Save for an occasionally forced score that dabbles in Spielberg bathos (and maybe the ‘70s hits are a little too obvious -- at least they’re enjoyable tunes), it's Lee at his most earnest, and a solid, level-headed love letter to a long-gone Brooklyn. [B+]

Clockers
“Clockers” (1995)
While African-American films in the early '90s were often defined by their stories of drugs and gang violence (“Boyz In Da Hood,” “Menace II Society,” "New Jack City,” “Juice”), Lee resisted the urge to go there, going as far to swim upstream against the current with 1994’s sweet and nostalgic “Crooklyn.” When Lee finally relented to the genre, it was largely due to Martin Scorsese, who brought him the screenplay by celebrated author Richard Price (Scorsese was originally going to direct). Even then “Clockers” far from pretties up thug life; it relentlessly deglamorizes the drug trade and hews closer to thriller and police procedural. One of the film's stars -- other than its cast, which included Harvey Keitel, John Turturro, Delroy Lindo and Mekhi Phifer -- is the film’s young cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed. Up until this point, the largely untested Sayeed had been an electric on "Crooklyn" and Gregg Araki's "The Doom Generation" (he'd later serve as the second unit DoP on Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut," and recently reunited with Lee on HBO pilot "Da Brick"). Lee called him up for “Clockers,” and the white hot, sickly and rusty sheen of the picture injects the engrossing urban drama with a sweaty and arresting psychology that elevates each moment of drama, violence, humor and character development (not to mention it might be the finest photography of African-American skin in decades). Set in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill projects where young drug pushers live hard, dangerous lives, trapped between their drug bosses and the detectives out to stop them, “Clockers” is uneven and familiar, featuring some of Lee’s worst tendencies (overstylized sequences and moments of editorializing), but it's refreshingly unpreachy (relatively speaking), and the urgency with which it’s told is utterly absorbing and bruising. [B+]

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


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