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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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When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts

"When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts" (2006)
One of the worst natural disasters in recent history, an event that reignited passionate discussions about the iniquities between race and class in America, Hurricane Katrina seemed like a subject tailor made for Spike Lee. And indeed, only three months after Hurricane Katrina landed, Lee and his camera were on the ground for what would be the beginning of an extensive series of shoots that would see the filmmakers interview over 100 people including longtime residents, politicians, volunteers, journalists and more. And combined with a sharply observational and critical eye, a deep love of New Orleans and an unwavering sympathy for everyone left scarred by this tragedy, 'When The Levees Broke' is simply the most important document and chronicle of everything that happened on August 25th...and after. Running over 4 hours long (and spread over 2 nights during its first airing on HBO), while Lee does touch upon the images and incidents that have become synonomous with Hurricane Katrina -- the haunting pleas from those stranded on rooftops, the ugliness of the Superdome, and the callous inaction and indifference from the governement -- the director goes far beyond that scope, using firsthand accounts, news footage and much more to capture the outrage, anger, frustration, loss and even hope left in the aftermath. Lee wisely doesn't insert himself into the narrative, allowing the stories to unfold as they are told by those who experienced it. An epic documentary portrait that is dramatically rich, emotionally potent, but also fueled by a deserved sense of political, historical and social significance, 'When The Levees Broke' is a triumph of the genre, and a tremendous piece of reporting. No surprise then that film earned rave reviews and rightfully won three Emmys and a Peabody Award. [A+]

Miracle At St. Anna

Miracle at St. Anna” (2008)
Just as Spike Lee had earned audience and critical goodwill from “Inside Man,” that evaporated completely through Disney’s dumping of Lee’s expensive war epic. Based on the novel by James McBride, 'Miracle' tells the story of a group of African American jarheads in the segregated Buffalo Soldiers unit in 1944, stranded by their officers in an Italian village. Soon, they receive orders to find and capture a German soldier, a mission with knotty agendas at play that divides them, particularly practical sharpshooter Aubrey Stamps (Derek Luke) and hot-blooded Corporal Negron (Laz Alonzo). The story plays out sandwiched between a 1980’s wraparound narrative where one of the soldiers fired upon an existing German, leading the cops to this untold story. Lee treats the material as if it’s the very last war film he’ll ever do, spicing up war clichés with dollops of modern cynicism and magical realism. Though some touches feel genuinely Lee (Walton Goggins plays a racist Captain with zero restraint), it’s impossible to ignore the realities of the war that no one had yet captured, like the seductive German-accented female voice blaring over battleground loudspeakers in an Axis attempt to demoralize black soldiers -- were this not a real detail, surely Lee would have been credited with fabricating it. What separates Lee’s story from casual war films, and likely why it was ignored in a way that other films about this era were not, is that Lee’s film is eventually about forgiveness, about the scars of the past erased by the compassion of the present, a rebuttal to Lee’s critics that he preaches division and disharmony, one that most left unheeded. [B+]

Passing Strange

Passing Strange" (2009)
What makes Spike Lee such an enduring, memorable and often fascinating director is his vibrant, bold, red-hot, sometimes unsubtly frustrating filmmaking. Love him or hate him, Lee’s always had a fiery and idiosyncratic voice. Which is what makes projects like “Passing Strange” so deflating. Because “Passing Strange,” the comedic and dramatic Broadway rock musical about a young African American's artistic journey of self-discovery in Europe, is the brainchild of L.A. singer/songwriter/playwright Stew (né Mark Stewart). Not Spike Lee. And yes, the eclectic metafictional and self-referential “Passing Strange” is funny, engaging and brimming with an all-embracing superabundance of funk, rock, punk, soul and more. It’s a thoughtful, smart and clever play. The downside is that it’s not much of a Spike Lee joint at all. While it’s hard to capture the essence of a live play, musical or concert if you’re not there, Lee, and his myriad cameras, achieve a mean snapshot of this Tony Award-winning musical. It’s an exemplary job that does this wild and funky musical justice. But while its honorable that Spike puts his artistic feelings aside for most of the picture to document this uniquely expressive story, sometimes you’d just prefer Spike Lee to tell one of his own stories. [C+]

Kobe Doin Work

Kobe Doin' Work” (2009)
The element that usually defines all the great sports movies in cinema is a filmmaker that understands the movie, while about a particular sport, is ultimately not about those games at all. It’s about the human beings behind them, their adversities, their relatable conflicts, problems and the special-something human qualities that allow them to overcome their limitations and win. Sports movies, in that sense, are the very fundamental basics of drama, and are therefore universal. Perhaps Spike Lee took this idea to heart when creating the documentary “Kobe Doin’ Work.” It’s not about the sport, or in this case basketball, it’s about an individual who excels, and utilizing 30-odd cameras, Lee zeroes in on basketball superstar Kobe Bryant during one day of the 2007–08 Los Angeles Lakers season. Unfortunately, in doing so, Lee creates a movie so myopic that it’s anything but universal, and only for the hardcore basketball or Bryant fan. For 83 minutes, “Kobe Doin’ Work” plays out like a real-time hoops game, only with Bryant himself narrating what he was thinking at the time (in that respect it feels more like a brand-u-mentary). The doc occasionally breaks for half-time and spends time in the locker room post-game, but rarely does it illuminate much other than the fact that Bryant is seasoned player who thoughtfully understands his game, and for a superstar, is a rather generous player. But “Kobe Doin’ Work” is generally dry as the sahara unless you’re a basketball fanatic. Something that Spike Lee and the ESPN’ers who footed the bill may be, but it sure leaves a lot of other people standing in the cold nosebleed section. Strangely inessential and a rare documentary miss for Lee. [C-]

If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise

"If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise" (2010)
Lee's follow-up to his monumental 2006 documentary "When the Levees Broke," "If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise" is frequently compelling but just as often feels like a compendium of footnotes, rather than an entirely new documentary. It's more "Silmarillion" than "Lord of the Rings," if you know what we mean. Part of this has to do with the scattershot nature of the documentary, ostensibly about Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, which includes everything from the Patriots winning the Super Bowl to a federal suit brought against the Army Corps of Engineers to the shoddy construction of new housing developments to the BP oil spill. Lee is a talented documentarian, and you can tell that his subjects feel at home in front of the camera (and him). Memorably, one resident of the water-ravaged lower ninth ward describes one of the new housing structures as, "Like a supermodel – pretty on the outside but on the inside it's bulimic, anorexic, and probably full of drugs." But it somehow feels (pardon the pun) watered down, not only by the expansiveness of his first documentary but by everything else that came out between then and now. This includes things like Harry Shearer's pointed documentary "The Big Uneasy," and books like Douglas Brinkley's "The Great Deluge" and Mark Jacobson's brilliant "The Lampshade." Also, real life New Orleans residents that were featured in the initial documentary went on to appear in HBO's "Treme," a dramatized account of the same material. While it's totally brilliant in a lot of places, it feels like a postscript more than anything else, and not a particularly happy one at that. [B+]

- Rodrigo Perez, Oliver Lyttelton, Gabe Toro, Drew Taylor, Christopher Bell, Kevin Jagernauth, Jessica Kiang, Sam Chater, Mark Zhuravsky

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


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