Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Ranking Spike Lee

Spike Lee has had an interesting career to say the least. He is, to me undeniably, the best African American filmmaker in history – but more than that, he’s a great filmmaker by any measure. But he has a tumultuous, uneven filmography. Having said that, while he has certainly bad some bad movies, he has never made an uninteresting one – even his “failures” have something of interest in them. Like with Scorsese last year, I decided not to rank Lee’s many documentaries among his features – and I include the wonderful “concert” film Passing Strange among those. They are a different animal, and perhaps worthy of their own post – but I haven’t seen them all, so I won’t do one at this time. So on the eve of Oldboy being released, this is a look back at his 18 feature films. I have high hopes for Oldboy – as it’s based on a great Korean movie, has a wonderful cast, and a great trailer. Back in 2006, when Lee made Inside Man, I thought perhaps he had found a secret to making great movies in this new age – a genre film, that is still undeniably the auteur’s film. It hasn’t quite worked out that way since – but maybe Oldboy will get him back on track.

18. Girl 6 (1996)
The biggest knock on Spike Lee is that his female characters are never as interesting as their male counterparts. So perhaps it’s inevitable that one of the few movies in his filmography centered on a female character is his worst – even if it is written by a woman. The film is basically a male fantasy disguised as a female empowerment movie. The main character is played by Theresa Randle, as an aspiring actress who works for a phone sex line to pay the bills – and finds she prefers the fantasy world of the calls, to real men. This is, of course, the opposite of what we would normally think – the men are paying for the fantasy of talking dirty to the women, who provide the service for a fee. That the movie is rather aimless in terms of its plot doesn’t help, but the biggest problem is that you never believe the central concept – or the main character. The rest of the film doesn’t stand a chance.

17. Red Hook Summer (2012)
Lee’s latest film is perhaps the messiest one he has ever made. It tells the story of a young teenager dropped off in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook by his mother to spend the summer with the grandfather he doesn’t know. The best thing about the movie is Clarke Peters amazing performance as the grandfather – a Baptist preacher idolized by his very small congregation. He keeps the movie as grounded as possible, as Lee moves through his overstuffed and meandering plot, that has one twist too many at the end. That final plot twist derails the movie, but it had problems well before then – specifically that other than Peters, none of the performances are very good. This is Lee at his rawest – it actually feels like a film by a promising young director, rather than an established master. There are things in Red Hook Summer to admire, but basically, the film is a mess.

16. She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
I am more than willing to concede that in 1986, a film like She’s Gotta Have It must have seem almost revolutionary to many. This was an indie film, by a black filmmaker, about black characters, that wasn’t about crime and poverty – but instead was about sexuality. It marked Lee as a filmmaker to watch – and he’s more than fulfilled the promise that She’s Gotta Have It shows. Yet like Girl 6, She’s Gotta Have It really doesn’t seem to understand it’s central character, and really seems to be more of a male fantasy than what it purports to be – an exploration of female sexuality. The central character is played by Tracy Camilla Johns, playing a promiscuous young artist, juggling three very different men – and then, for some reason, there’s also a lesbian thrown in as well, although her portrayal is positively cringe worthy nearly 30 years later. She’s Gotta Have It certainly has a place in American Indie movie history – and among Lee’s filmography. But it’s a film that is far more interesting in terms of what it shows was possible to do with no budget, and what Lee would later do, than it is on its own terms.

15. Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
Mo’ Better Blues is a solid, respectable film that is certainly less flawed than some of the movies that I rank higher, but also a little less interesting. It plays very much like a standard issue musical biopic (although Lee does upend some clichés of the genre) except, of course, it’s not really a biopic as there was never a musician named Bleek played by Denzel Washington in his first pairing with Lee. Lee obviously knows the world of New York Jazz clubs – being the son of a jazz musician himself – and the look and feel of the movie is just about right, and the performances – by Washington, who is almost willfully self-destructive, Wesley Snipes as a member of his band who wants the spotlight, Cynda Williams and Joie Lee as the opposite women in Bleek’s life, and Lee himself as his gambling addicted manager – are all excellent as well. There is not much to complain about in Mo’ Better Blues – except I feel like I’ve seen this film before, and done better – and I’ve never really had the urge to revisit it.

14. Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
Out of all Spike Lee’s films, Miracle at St. Anna is perhaps the most frustrating – because there are scenes of greatness in the movie, scenes that are different from practically any other WWII movie I have seen, but they are marred by a lot of scenes that really don’t belong in the film. The film tells the story of four Americans caught behind enemy lines in Italy in WWII – three black men and a Puerto Rican. They are angry about their treatment in America – where during basic training, they are treated worse than Nazi prisoners of War, and suffer racism at the hands of their superior officers. This is an important story – because it’s not the way things are usually presented in WWII movies (which far too often, ignore African Americans soldiers completely). And there is also a wonderful battle sequence in the movie that really should be more widely seen. But there are too many subplots – anything in modern day could be jettisoned without losing anything, and the story of the bond between the gentle giant soldier and a young Italian boy doesn’t fit). There is so much to like in Miracle at St. Anna – and it’s far better than the reviews suggest it was – but there are so many flaws in the movie as well.

13. She Hate Me (2004)
I have a feeling most lists of Lee’s films would probably have She Hate Me as his worst. I cannot really argue with the points that many critics have used to beat the movie to death. There is no doubt that movie is offensive and ridiculous. It is about a man (Anthony Mackie) who loses his high paying job when he becomes a whistleblower, and in order to make ends meet, starts impregnating lesbians for $10,000 each. Oh, and not only that, he usually impregnates them the first time, and the sex is not just by the book, standard issue baby making sex, but earth shattering sex – for both him and the lesbians. And then Lee throws in a bunch of other stuff as well. So no, you can’t really believe any of She Hate Me. But this is a movie that is so brazen and in your face, and so gleefully over the top and politically incorrect, you have to kind of admire it. I’m not quite sure I agree with Roger Ebert that Lee is in on the joke, and instead of making a movie that condemns what the film seems to celebrate, he decided to take the opposite tact, and celebrate it, so the audience draws the same conclusions that they would have had he condemned it – but then would have felt preached at. But maybe Lee did. He’s not an idiot after all. But whatever the intentions of She Hate Me, it is an unforgettable mess of a movie – that I would gladly watch again.

12. School Daze (1988)
Lee’s second film, School Daze, was a major step forward for Lee – and already showed his willingness to tackle taboo subject matter within the African American community. It takes place at an all-black university that seems deeply divided. There are those, like Laurence Fishburne, who reject the conservative administration and Greek frats, and those, like Giancarlo Esposito, who embrace it. There is an even a musical number between two sets of black women – the lighter skinned ones with straight hair, and the dark skins ones with short hair and afros, that expresses their differences better than any dialogue would. And then there is a painful scene where Esposito talks his girlfriend into deflowering a frat pledge – played by Lee himself – and then condemns her for it. In a way, School Daze may well be the best film Lee has ever made about African American women. The movie is still flawed – it tries to cram too much in, like many of Lee’s films, and its ragged around the edges. But it goes for broke like no one except Lee would ever attempt to do.

11. Get on the Bus (1996)
Get on the Bus was made by Lee quickly and cheaply when he got funding for a group of black celebrities. It is about a group of men travelling from L.A. to Washington D.C. on a bus for the Million Man March. The men are wildly different – from their reasonable leader, to the old man who remembers more clearly the abuses of the past, to a father and son who have to be chained together, to a cop, to a former gang banger who now does social work, to a gay couple who still finds prejudice on the bus from one of the other passengers, to a silent member of the Nation of Islam. Like some of the film I already listed, Get on the Bus feels at times to be largely improvised – like Lee is making it up as he goes along. And yet, unlike many of those films, he sustains that tone for the whole movie. This isn’t Lee’s most ambitious film, nor his best, but in its own quiet way, it’s profound – and it’s hard to find anything wrong with the film.

10. Crooklyn (1994)
Crooklyn is Lee’s most nostalgic film – and in some ways, his most innocent. It is not an autobiography of his life growing up, but it was inspired by it (and co-written his brother and sister). It is about a large family in Brooklyn in the early 1970s, and perhaps Lee’s greatest accomplishment is that they actually do feel like a family – the kids needle each other in just the way only brothers and sisters can do, the parents love each other, but are stressed, and at times don’t really like each other. The movie looks back at a more innocent time – before crime ruined Lee’s neighborhood. In many ways, it’s a laid back film, which Lee hasn’t often made – but a funny, perceptive and emotional one.

9. Summer of Sam (1999)
Summer of Sam takes place in New York in the sweltering heat of the 1977, when David Berkowitz was out shooting couples in their cars. Berkowitz is a minor character in the film – a pathetic man, who spends most of his time freaking out in his small apartment, yelling at his neighbor’s dog. But most of the movie is about two couples – a hairdresser (John Leguizamo) who cheats on his wife (Mira Sorvino), and the local kid (Adrien Brody) who has become a “punk rocker”, donned a British accent and works at a gay strip club, although he also has a girlfriend (Jennifer Esposito). As in many of Lee’s films, the film is really about this insular neighborhood – where everyone knows everyone else and as the paranoia about the Son of Sam serial killer reaches a fever pitch – they need to find someone to blame. One of Lee’s only films not to have a major black character, yet still undeniably his film, Summer of Sam is one of Lee’s more underrated films.

8. Jungle Fever (1991)
Jungle Fever is a fascinating movie about a black man (Wesley Snipes) and a white woman (Annabella Sciorra) who are attracted to each other for the wrong reasons. They throw their family lives into tumult, and all because of lust, not genuine affection or love. Lest you think Lee is suggesting blacks and whites shouldn’t date, in a subplot he offers another potential interracial couple – as John Turturro, the rejected fiancé of the Sciorra character, is drawn to a black woman – but not out of lust, but because he genuinely likes her, and she him. There is a lot of great things in Jungle Fever – not least of which is Samuel L. Jackson’s star making performance as Gator, Snipes’ drug addicted brother, but most of them are outside the two main characters, who are not quite as interesting together, as they are apart – with their families, and the reactions that they bring up. I do, however, think that is by design – after all, the whole point of the movie is that these two people have nothing in common, and shouldn’t be together anyway. Lee approaches interracial relationships in his own way – no one else could have made Jungle Fever the same way, so while there are flaws here, it remains one of his best films.

7. He Got Game (1998)
He Got Game is a basketball movie, that really isn’t about basketball. It’s about a lot of things. Denzel Washington gives one of his best performances as a man who is in jail for killing his wife – somewhat by accident – who is given a chance to get out of prison for a while to try and convince his son, the best high school basketball player in the country (real life NBA star Ray Allen) to attend the Governor’s Alma  Mater, he’ll reduce his sentence. That may not be believable, but the way the father and son act around each other is – Allen doesn’t want to see Washington and still blames him for what happened to his mother – not unreasonably. That is the heart of the movie, and that part is great. What is also great is how clear eyed Lee is in viewing the sport that he loves – and how it’s all business. Everyone is out to make money, everyone is looking out for themselves, and they will use and abuse these athletes if they don’t learn to look out for themselves as well. There is cynicism in He Got Game, but there is also heart. It’s combining these two elements that makes it one of Lee’s best.

6. Inside Man (2006)
Inside Man is Spike Lee’s biggest commercial hit – and I still think one of his most underrated films. On the surface, the film looks like a typical heist movie combined with a hostage drama. A group of bank robbers, led by Clive Owen, go to rob a bank, but then the police are called, and a hostage situation begins. The NYPD assign Denzel Washington to be their lead negotiator, because they have no one else, even though he’s currently being investigated for corruption. Then there’s Jodie Foster, a corporate fixer, who works for the bank’s President (Christopher Plummer) who has information in his safety deposit box he doesn’t want the world to know. Yes, Inside Man is a great genre film – and if you want to take it as just a genre film, that it works just fine. But there’s more to it than that – Lee adds in, around the edges, his views on institutional racism, black-on-black crime, rap music and corporate greed. I can almost guarantee that one day more people with agree with me that this is one of Lee’s very best films.

5. Clockers (1995)
On the surface, Clockers is a murder mystery and police procedural. A black man, who angered the local drug kingpin, is murdered in the projects and the logical suspect is a young, street level drug dealer. Harvey Keitel is the cop investigating the murder – and while he’s not as casually racist as some of the other cops, he doesn’t much care about another life lost in the projects – he sees it every day, and caring too much will take a toll on him. But he’s intrigued by this case – especially his prime suspect (Mekhi Pfeiffer), that low level drug dealer, who wants to move up in his organization, so at least he’s not on the streets. Then there’s his brother, Isaiah Washington, a good, hardworking man who works two jobs to support his family, is burnt out, and resentful that his lazy, drug dealing brother makes more money than he does. Yes, Clockers is a murder mystery, but it’s much more than that. It is about a culture of black-on-black crime that continues with no end in sight. That’s the real crime here.

4. Bamboozled (2000)
Not many people have seen Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled, which was barely released and inspired a hugely divided critical response to say the least. That’s a shame, because it is one of Lee’s very best films. It stars Damon Wayans as a TV writer, criticized by his boss (Michael Rappaport) for creating shows that are “too white”. Trying to get fired, he comes up with an idea for a TV show called “Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show”, which will feature black actors, in black face, tap dancing and doing the same type of routines that were popular in the early 1900s, when they were performed by white actors, mocking African Americans. Oh, and the show is set on a Southern Plantation. In a watermelon patch. To his surprise, his boss loves the idea – and the show becomes a critical and commercial hit. Bamboozled is a bold satire, that rubs our face in the racism that is still around us every day – although it is harder on the black characters, who after all are doing it to themselves, than the white ones (Rappaport’s character is portrayed as an idiot more than anything else). I don’t agree with every point Lee makes in the film – and can pretty much guarantee that whatever race you are, you will be offended by something in the movie – but I don’t have to agree with everything, and I think Lee’s point is to offend. Lee made one of the bravest satires to hit American screen in years. It’s too bad so few people noticed.

3. 25th Hour (2002)
Lee’s 25th Hour is a film about a man who has wasted his life, and now it’s too late to do anything about it, and he knows it. It is about the last day Edward Norton’s drug dealer has before he is set to report to prison for an 8 year jail term. He spends his time with his two old school friends – a teacher played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and a Wall Street type played by Barry Pepper, and his girl – Rosario Dawson, who has a secret, and his father, Brian Cox, stricken with guilt as he blames himself for the situation his son is in. Norton goes through his day with sad resignation – he has no out, nothing left to do, and knows prison will forever change him. In the film’s most memorable scene, he goes on a profanity and racism laced rant into a mirror, blaming everyone for what has happened to him, but ends up back at himself – because he knows that is who is really responsible. The film is a master class in acting – from Norton to Hoffman to Pepper to Cox to Dawson, and even small roles, like Anna Paquin’s, every performance hits its mark. Made just a year after 9/11, the film specifically evokes that day, but not in a cheap, tawdry way just to milk our emotions. 25th Hour was lost amidst the Oscar contenders at the end of 2002, but its reputation has grown in the past decade – and deservedly so – it’s one of Lee’s very best films.

2. Malcolm X (1992)
Lee’s Malcolm X is one of the great biopics of all time. Yes, it is a standard issue biopic – tracing its subject from their early days until their death – but a few things make Lee’s film stand out. For one, Malcolm X was a fascinating person – and it’s interesting to see his progression from a street thug, into a prominent figure in the Nation of Islam who got in trouble for being too militant, to his final days, when he softened his position. His story is an important one, and deserved to be told – and Lee doesn’t shy away from his flaws. For another, Lee’s film is extremely well made – with great attention to period detail. And finally, there is Denzel Washington’s towering performance as Malcolm X – Washington looks and sounds enough like the man to pass for him in the movie, because his performance goes well beyond impersonation (watch the famous speeches Malcolm made, and compare it to how Denzel delivers the same speeches – he makes them his own). This truly is one of the great screen performances of all time, and helps to make Lee’s film one of the best, and most important, of the 1990s.

1. Do the Right Thing (1989)
24 years later, and Lee’s Do the Right Thing remains perhaps the best film ever made about race relations in America. It’s remarkable how much has changed in the intervening almost quarter century, and yet how vibrant and relevant Lee’s film remains. The film takes place over one day in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn that have seen a lot of changes over the years. Sal (Danny Aiello) has run the pizza place for years – even back to when the neighborhood was filled with Italians, instead of African Americans. He believes that the people in the neighborhood love him, but over the course of one very long, hot day, racial tensions starting bubbling, first beneath the surface, and then finally explodes after a series of incidents led to a riot. Lee’s films was controversial at the time – some thinking it might inspire young black men to riot, but that was always a ridiculous claim – Lee’s film is fair to everyone involved, and any reasonable viewer will walk away feeling for all the film’s characters. There are no “good guys” or “bad guys” here (ok, the cops are bad), but a deeply felt film about race relations in America. We like to think that we live in a post-racial world, but that’s simply not true. And that is why, all these years later, Do the Right Thing remains Lee’s best film, and a masterpiece of American filmmaking.

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