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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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"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” (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" (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” (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" (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

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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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