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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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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" (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” (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+]

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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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