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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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 "Bamboozled" (2000)
Just last month Entertainment Weekly film critic Owen Gleiberman, who initially (and favorably) compared the film to Oliver Stone's splatter-satire "Natural Born Killers," was calling "Bamboozled" (which was largely panned upon its initial release), "Spike Lee's most misunderstood film." And while there are a thousand interesting ideas in the film – about a straight-laced TV executive (Damon Wayans) who creates a new minstrel show that ends up becoming a sensation – few of them actually gel. Instead, what we get is a gritty-looking experiment (it was shot on crummy digital video and slightly less crummy super 16 mm), loaded with a fine supporting cast (including Tommy Davidson, Savion Glover, Jada Pinkett Smith, Michael Rapaport, Mos Def, and Paul Mooney), and a message that often becomes unbearably heavy handed, especially when the movie becomes painfully overwrought (and violent) in the last act, culminating in an epic montage of racist imagery from various sources – everything from "Gone with the Wind" to "Our Gang" shorts. (Yes, this is actually how Lee chooses to end the film.) At 135 minutes, it's way too long, and what could have been a lively, spritely satire for the new media age, instead gets bogged down with grim violence and repetitive symbolism. For a supposed comedy, it takes itself awfully seriously. [C]

25th Hour

25th Hour” (2002)
Overlooked during its day, and buried by Touchstone Pictures after it failed to earn any Golden Globes nominations (they figured Oscars had no chance either), if there is a Spike Lee film that demands reconsideration it is certainly “The 25th Hour,” a mature, angry, melancholic and soulful near-masterpiece. Starring Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Anna Paquin and Brian Cox, and set during the last 24 hours of freedom before its protagonist (Norton) goes away to prison for dealing drugs, “The 25th Hour” may be one of the greatest post-9/11 pictures because the drama rarely touches upon the tragedy specifically. Instead, a doleful and subtle polish of pain, anguish and suffering covers the film like scattered ashes. Sober, mournful and meditative, the film also centers on regret and redemption while effortlessly weaving in themes of trust, paranoia, friendship, love, anger (see the brilliant “Fuck You, New York” monologue) and reconciliation. To boot, composer Terence Blanchard (Lee’s go-to composer and ace in the hole) delivers a deeply moving and elegiac score that is his finest work outside of the equally lugubrious ‘Levees Broke’ requiem while Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto gives the picture some of that hot, popping, almost over-exposed attention that Lee loves so much. Aside from the righteous indignation and sorrow of "When the Levees Broke" and the sweaty confused rage of "Do The Right Thing," "The 25th Hour" is easily Lee's most emotionally rich and textured film.  Additionally, this powerful drama is not only a great American picture, it’s one of the great films about New York City, and ultimately is conflicted, but a powerful loveletter to the noisy, dirty, frustrating and exhilarating place many of us call home. [A]

She Hate Me

She Hate Me” (2004)
Understanding the title of Lee’s largely insane epic of 2004 goes a long way towards understanding where Lee exists as a filmmaker. It’s a play on the name “He Hate Me,” last seen on the back of a football jersey for the XFL, the failed football league shepherded by wrestling impresario Vince McMahon to primetime television in the early aughts. Because players were allowed to select self-created handles instead of birth names to place on the back of their jerseys, one black player decided to crystallize his entire career in badly-spoken English, proudly displaying it in the XFL’s first, highly-rated primetime game for millions to see the perceived victim complex of a professional athlete. Of course, no one remembers He Hate Me’s actual name (Rod Smart), and the XFL was a failed experiment that crashed into oblivion within a year, so pointed are Lee’s politics in this film. With suddenly unemployed John Henry Armstrong (Anthony Mackie), Lee is tackling the world of corporate whistleblowers, mirrored by cutaway flashbacks to Frank Wills (a silent Chiwetel Ejiofor), the security guard who discovered the Watergate break-in. In John Henry’s new profession, providing sperm for a string of cartoonishly seductive lesbians eager to procreate, Lee’s making a point about the inherent bias towards an unemployed black man. And in the sullying of his name during the ensuing investigation, Lee is making a point about class conflict ensuring minorities will always get steamrolled in courts by their rich white overlords. It’s a mess of classic Lee: passionately angry, slyly satirical, a tad misogynistic, completely ridiculous and never, at any moment, dull. [B-]

Sucker Free City

Sucker Free City” (2004)
Spike Lee has traveled out to Saudi Arabia for parts of “Malcolm X,” and Tuscany and Rome for the Italy-set war film “Miracle at St. Ann,” even centered all of “School Daze” in Atlanta, but generally, Lee does not stray far from his beloved Brooklyn. So it’s a rare treat to see Lee venture outside the five boroughs (and his comfort zone) to the unlikely location of San Francisco for the underseen “Sucker Free City.” What was supposed to be the pilot episode for a Showtimes series, “Sucker Free City” (like Lee’s recent would-be series “Da Brick” for HBO) wasn’t picked up by the cable network. And like most pilots, was set to die a quiet death. But Lee decided to submit the episode as a film to the Toronto International Film Festival where the telepilot was accepted and premiered. And while it’s open-ended conclusion does make it clear that there was more to come, “Sucker Free City” does work fairly well as a self-contained entity. Set in the culturally diverse melting pot of San Francisco, the drama looks at three young, low-level criminals who begin to overlap into each other’s territory while the late ‘90s gentrification boom begins to squeeze everyone. Ben Crowley plays a white mailroom worker in a corporate office who steals credit card numbers while his family is priced out of SF’s Mission (his tolerant father is played by John Savage); K-Luv (Anthony Mackie) is a gangster with a growing conscience, and Lincoln (Ken Leung) is a stooge for the Chinese mafia. And while with only one ep to its name it cannot be “The Wire,” its three-pronged look at San Francisco is an engaging tease of what might have come, presciently anticipating how gentrification, class, race and the city's infrastructure begin to affect all cultures and colors. [B]

Inside Man

"Inside Man" (2006)
Perhaps there is no better year to look at, if you want to sum up the zigzaggery of Lee’s later career, than 2006. ‘Levees’ sees him at his most socially engaged, his most soulful, his most, we guess, archetypally Lee. And yet that same year he turned in “Inside Man,” an inventive heist movie that is the kind of glossy entertainment we might hope for from a mainstream Hollywood stalwart, rather than from this outspoken champion of the independent movement. So in the context of the director’s back catalogue, perhaps this film is most notable for what it’s not -- not particularly concerned with race, not polemical, not political, not personal -- though his trademark ear for accurately observed New York exchanges is wholly in evidence and lends authenticity and wit to the proceedings (we love, for example, the tiny detail of the woman who, even with a gun in her face, simply refuses to undress for her captors). But if there is something of the artist on autopilot here, it just goes to show how much storytelling talent the guy has to burn, as he gets a clutch of delicious performances from supporting players (Jodie Foster in particular stands out for her arch, self-aware turn as a morally repugnant "fixer"), navigates a tricksy, twisty-turny plot with razor sharp intelligence and quietly forefronts a dynamic between the the good-guy protagonists that is almost subversive in how little mention or consideration is given to their skin color (Denzel Washington and Chiwetel Ejiofor both in charismatic, winning form). So he lets nothing slip, but it still seems like he’s doing what he maybe hadn’t really done for a decade: he’s having fun. It feels like the real ‘inside man’ is Lee himself, in disguise and hidden within the Hollywood establishment, effortlessly beating the big guys at their own game and giggling to himself all the while. We wouldn’t trade this lighthearted trickster for the political, stir-shit-up Lee we know and are provoked by, but if "Inside Man" is an anomaly in his catalogue, it’s the kind of outrageously entertaining anomaly that we can totally live with. Oh, and his final credit in 2006? Directing the pilot for the James Woods show “Shark.” Which, well, huh. [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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