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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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Bamboozled

 "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+]

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


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