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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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“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" (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” (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” (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" (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]

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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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