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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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Girl 6
“Girl 6” (1996)
With 2002 Pulitzer Prize (For Drama) -winner Suzan-Lori Parks and legendary musician Prince tapped for their respective talents, one would estimate that the trio's end product wouldn't be so under the radar -- surely a Spike Lee joint written by a successful playwright, and set to music from a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, would kick up more enthusiasm. Of course, one would also probably assume that such a project wouldn't be so bromidic, which is the unfortunate case for "Girl 6." That's not to say it doesn't have its highlights (lead Theresa Randle seizes the central role, the director's occasional experimental flairs keep things afloat), but the team just can't seem to find anything terribly interesting about a struggling actress turned phone-sex operator. After being ordered to show her bust at an audition, the unnamed thesp (playfully referred to as Judy by ex Isaiah Washington) grows tired of the male chauvinist industry and takes the aforementioned call-line gig to make ends meet. While the script gets merit for actually being about something (society's oppression of women, for one), the turns on this narrative road are foreseeably obvious -- she falls in love with a caller, gets addicted to the job, etc -- and Parks, known for some raw stage plays like "Fucking A" and "Topdog/Underdog," seems bafflingly content to coast along with a by-the-numbers script. Lee fills the gaps with insistent clunky visual metaphors of a fall down a dark elevator shaft, but it never connects. Cap it off with a severely uncharismatic supporting turn by the director himself and, at the end of the day, you've got yourself a more or less mediocre 1990s movie with some scattered bright spots. Then again, no other movies from that era featured cameos by a madcap Quentin Tarantino, an insanely goofy John Turturro, and... Madonna's dog. Gotta give credit where credit is due, we suppose. [C-]

Get On The Bus
"Get On The Bus" (1996)
Sandwiched as it was between the middling curio “Girl 6” and the stirring doc “4 Little Girls,” “Get On The Bus” is every bit a Spike Lee joint, a travelogue that pits the competing ideologies of a dozen black men against one another, en route to the Million Man March. The topics on hand are familiar, and Lee’s passion for them never wavers: racism, lighter-skinned vs. darker-skinned, fathers and sons, lifestyle and economic strata clashes, all adding up to a thesis on living while black in America. The director populates his uniformly strong cast with equal parts veterans and newcomers. The venerable Ossie Davis delivers a moving monologue, while the ever-reliable Andre Braugher gets to indulge in a less sympathetic role. Lee regular Roger Guenveur Smith plays a cop burdened by an itch for vengeance, while Isaiah Washington and Harry J. Lennix portray a gay couple that gives the two talented thespians an opportunity to shine (curiously, Washington's career was later derailed after he was fired from "Grey's Anatomy" for allegedly insulting a co-star with a homophobic slur). The rest of the players (including Bernie Mac, Charles S. Dutton, Hill Harper, Steve White, Gabriel Casseus, and Albert Hall) each get their moments, but the biggest impression by far is left by Thomas Jefferson Byrd, a familiar pockmarked face that Lee knowingly casts as a father struggling to keep an eye on his son (De’aundre Bonds) even though the duo are shackled to one another via court-order. Byrd’s performance feels so off-the-cuff natural that it's easy to forget about the artifice some of the other actors struggle with. While “Get On The Bus” is easy to slip into, the character and plot revelations have an unexpected weight, and the small space allows for unbroken moments of humor intermixed with drama that build the film up and keep it compelling for the full two hours. [B]

4 Little Girls
“4 Little Girls” (1997)
Not many filmmakers earn an Oscar nomination for their first documentary feature, but that's exactly what happened with Lee on "4 Little Girls," focusing on the death of the titular youth in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham AL, 1963. A passion project of sorts, the filmmaker first read about the incident as a NYU student, but couldn't secure the family members' participation until he was a well-established, world famous director. The passage of time not only gave them more time to be comfortable with the prospect, but it also saw Lee grow in recognition, hone his skill, and ultimately morph the project from a narrative, as originally intended to documentary. Around the time segregation was coming to a close, there was increased retaliation from those disgusted by the mere prospect, a sentiment which culminated in the bombing of an African-American church. Many were injured, four were killed: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair. The director interviews the family members with a sensitive touch, allowing them to focus on the lives of their departed children, while others provide the context of the social climate at the time. Along with stills of the victims (including the highly unsettling autopsy photos) is footage from the time, rendered in blue and white, a curious stylistic choice that likely emphasized the extreme racism in Lee's own way. Most notable are the reels that display a large white tank roaming the street (owned by Bull Connor, ironically the Commissioner of Public Safety) and passionate speeches by segregationist governor George Wallace. The director manages to nab Wallace, now considerably aged and speaking incomprehensibly (Lee subtitles him) for interview; he defends his ways, and not once but twice introduces his "best friend" (read: employee) to the camera, an African-American man who doesn't say anything, but manages to convey volumes with his uncomfortable expression. Informative and riveting, "4 Little Girls" is an indelible piece of work, showing the horrors of pre-Civil Rights America and the humanity of those who endured it despite their losses. The Academy, rightfully impressed with Lee’s work, gave the film a nod for Best Documentary but ultimately gave the award to Rabbi Marvin Hier and Richard Trank’s “The Long Way Home.” It’s his second snub next to “Do The Right Thing,” and the last time to date he was nominated for an Oscar. [A]

He Got Game
“He Got Game” (1998)
Shuffling things down South to Coney Island, “He Got Game” marks Denzel Washington and Spike Lee's third collaboration (there’s been four to date). And while basketball has always been at the forefront of the the Knicks-obsessed filmmaker’s life, this soulful contemporary father-son melodrama is one of Lee’s most accessible films, dialing back any of his militant tendencies to reveal something ultimately graceful and dignified. The set-up is a little jejune -- a convicted killer is let out on temporary parole with the promise of a commuted sentence by the warden if he can convince his gifted son, the top-ranked high-school basketball player in the country, into signing with the governor's alma mater. Nevertheless, the picture makes the most of its unlikely premise and Washington has never been better as the disgraced and beleaguered father who has to trade on his dignity and scrounge for redemption while trying to make amends with his estranged daughter and son. He carries the emotional gravitas of the film and takes it with him throughout every scene that is humorous, playful, painful or heartbreaking. Lee also coerces a convincing performance out of first-time actor NBA star Ray Allen as the promising athlete Jesus Shuttlesworth; no small feat. Featuring a score composed of numerous solemn and joyous orchestral pieces by Aaron Copland (iconic works like “Fanfare for the Common Man” and vibrant cinematography by both Ellen Kuras and Malik Hassan Sayeed, “He Got Game” is not flawless (some of the slick brothers trying to hitch their ride to Jesus become a little much at times), but overall it remains one of the watershed triumphs in Lee’s oeuvre.  [B+]

Summer of Sam

"Summer of Sam" (1999)
In what might be one of his most ambitious features, Spike Lee dramatizes the events surrounding the Son of Sam killings, when David Berkowitz terrorized New York City, killing six people and wounding seven more. The results are something of a mixed bag but are frequently galvanizing and always totally nuts. Since Lee is interested in the marginalia surrounding the murders, he chooses to focus on a group of Italian Americans who live in the Bronx neighborhood that Berkowitz frequented. John Leguizamo is an unfaithful hairdresser driven to madness after having a close encounter with the killer, Mira Sorvino is his doting wife, Adrien Brody is the troubled artist, and Jennifer Esposito (whatever happened to her?) is a neighborhood floozy. What could have been a tight character study, though, expands outwardly, with Lee citing just about every cultural, political, and civil issue of the summer – everything from the burgeoning punk rock scene to the 1977 blackout is given screen time. Sometimes this tips into the absurdity, like a single sequence that somehow manages to reference CBGB, Studio 54 and Plato's Retreat. It kind of feels like a rough draft for something like David Fincher's brilliant "Zodiac" (with its tagline "There's more than one way to lose your life to a killer"), except that Lee is hardly interested in the particulars of the murders. When "Summer of Sam" is "on," it's pretty much unstoppable – like a radio baseball play that plays over one of the killer's attempted murders, or a wordless sequence set to The Who's "Baba O'Riley" (Lee uses music brilliantly, including a climax staged to Thelma Houston's "Don't Leave Me This Way"). The problem is, pound for pound, there's as much unnecessary bullshit as there is absolute genius in "Summer of Sam," and extraneous plot threads like Adrien Brody's career as a gay S&M dancer or Ben Gazzara's mob boss going on a renegade hunt for the killer, bloat an already ungainly narrative. Still, for pure chutzpah, it's hard not to love "Summer of Sam," even when you hate it. [B]

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


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