Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Films of Spike Lee: An Introduction

I have been a Spike Lee fan since the 1990s – along with Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, the Coens and Oliver Stone, Lee was one of the first filmmakers I went through to watch all of their films. While it’s true he has had an uneven filmography over the years, he is also a filmmaker unafraid of style or controversy, and never seems to be phoning it in.
According to IMDB, Lee has over 80 directing credits – features, shorts, docs, TV episodes and just about anything else you can think of. To keep it simple before the release of BlackKklansman I’m going to watch just his previous 21 dramatic theatrical features as part of this series. This isn’t to say that his doc work is somehow lesser – When the Levee’s Broke would be in my top five Lee films easily, and 4 Little Girls would be close as, or even that some of his concert films are weak either – Passing Strange is wonderful. It’s just to try and keep the watch list here manageable – how would decide which docs to see and which to skip, etc.?
Below is the ranking of Lee’s films as I now see them. As always happens when I embark on these re-watches, I’m almost certain this will be different after seeing these 21 films again. I cannot wait.
21. Girl 6 (1996)
Lee has always had trouble when writing female characters – which perhaps explains why one of the only films to focus almost exclusively on them is the weakest film he ever made. The film feels like it’s trying to call out the exploitation of black women, while also exploiting black women. This is the hardest film of Lee’s to find – probably because it has so few defenders. I’m very curious to revisit.
20. Oldboy (2013)
Lee remade Park Chan-wook’s unforgettable masterpiece about a man who was kidnapped and held captive for years never being told why, and then released with (little explanation – and then has to piece it altogether. The filmmaking is actually quite good here – but the film never hits the heights of the original, the shocks aren’t (shocking when you know they’re coming, and seem more farfetched this time. Lee just didn’t seem right for this material.
19. Red Hook Summer (2012)
Lee returned to Brooklyn to make this odd film about a young boy from the South coming to stay in Brooklyn – and the deeply flawed preacher (brilliantly played by Clarke Peters) at the local church. The whole thing is a mess – the ending doesn’t work at all. But (with many of Lee’s messes, it’s always interesting no matter how farfetched it gets.
18. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014)
Lee’s very odd remake of the very odd Blaxploitation adjacent film Ganja & Hess, about black vampires. Lee turns it into a commentary on class within the black community. The oddly mannered performances will put many (most?) off – but is key to its effect. It’s a strange one to be sure – but one I think is interesting.
17. She Hate Me (2004)
Lee’s film fully and completely embraces every cliché about the sexual prowess of black men – and takes it to ridiculous extremes in this satire. Some felt Lee was being genuine here – with Anthony Mackie (a black stud who gets paid $10,000 a pop to impregnate lesbians – and brings them all to screaming orgasm. But Lee is smarter than that – and I think it was a deliberate attempt to make it all look silly. Most hate this film, but I found it to be immensely entertaining and engaging when I saw it years ago – and look forward to seeing it again.
16. Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
Lee used the clout he got after the hit of Inside Man to make this WWII epic, set in Italy, in which an all-black unit saves the locals. The film is an utter and complete mess, but an entertaining and provocative one, so it is never boring, and deserved better than it got.
15. She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
I’ve always had issues with Lee’s debut film – the female protagonist isn’t (interesting (the three men trying to woo her, the depiction of the lesbian neighbor is pretty homophobic, and the climatic rape doesn’t sit right (last year’s Netflix shows fixed those problems). Still, the importance of this film cannot be overstated – it showed a completely different kind of film could be made by African American directors, and at its best, it’s very entertaining. It’s one of Lee’s most important, but not best, films.
14. Mo’ Better Blues (1990)
Mo’ Better Blues is the rarest of things for Lee – a largely forgettable film. I haven’t seen the film in years – and while that’s true of several Lee films, I really don’t remember much about it, other than it’s a fine performance by Denzel – his first for Lee – and some great music and filmmaking. I look forward to finding out if it’s better than I remembered.
13. Get on the Bus (1996)
Lee made this film quickly, set entirely on a bus travelling from L.A. to Washington and back again to the Million Man March. The film doesn’t shy away from the politics of its organizer – Louis Farrakhan – but argues that it wasn’t really about him. This is the kind of low key, low budget film Lee hasn’t made much of – but I wish he had.
12. Crooklyn (1994)
Lee’s version of his childhood, put on screen, shows a different vision of the so-called “ghetto” – where his family is seen (loving, and the streets mainly safe. It’s probably a little too sentimental and nostalgic at times – but a welcome corrective to the films of the 1990s that painted those streets (a violent cesspool.
11. Chi-Raq (2015)
Lee takes on violence in Chicago by way of an old Greek myth of women going on a sex strike. The lead performance by Teyonah Parris is great, and the film is a wild, crazy mixture of comedy, crime, preaching and music that only Lee could make. Many hated it. They were wrong.  
10. School Daze (1988)
As often happens after a successful indie debut, Lee was given more money, and expanded his canvas for his follow-up. School Daze remains a fascinating film about life at a historically black college – full of life and energy, musical numbers, and complicated conversations about color and relationships. A provocative, entertaining, fascinating film.
9. Summer of Sam (1999)
10 years after Do the Right Thing, Lee made another film about a hot summer – this one in the late 1970s, where David Berkowitz was terrorizing New York, and no one felt safe. The cast is almost entirely white, and the film is about how this paranoia of people being different infects every neighborhood. One of Lee’s most underrated films.
8. Jungle Fever (1991)
Lee courted controversy in 1991, making a film about inter-racial relationships that many seemed to think he was against them. He wasn’t – he was against them if they were based on stereotypes, which the central relationship was (but the other relationship, between John Turturro and Tyra Ferrell did not). The other real problem is that the central relationship never really works – everything else is top notch.
7. Inside Man (2006)
A surprise hit for Lee back in 2006, this genre film – a bank heist in which Clive Owen robs a bank, and Denzel plays a (maybe corrupt) hostage negotiator to try and get him out, and Jodie Foster plays a wealthy fixer. This is a genre film, and works brilliantly (one, but Lee smuggles in a lot of commentary on the issues he has addressed into it, and it ends up being one of his most entertaining – and best – films.
6. Clockers (1995)
Lee has mainly stayed away from making films about gangs and drugs – but when he did one with Clockers, he made one of the best the genre has seen. The film is a complex examination of the economics of drugs, the racism of police, and the difficulty of avoiding the violence all around you. It is a murder mystery of sorts, but (Lee always does when he does a genre film, he complicates things more than normal.
5. He Got Game (1998)
The story of a star high school basketball player, whose father now in jail for murdering his wife (Denzel, again), is let out to try and convince his son to go to the local school. The film is full of love of basketball – while still acknowledging how it has become a business that uses young black men (little more than a commodity to be used up and thrown away. This is Lee at his most clear eyed, and so quietly tragic.
4. Bamboozled (2000)
Lee’s film got a lot of attention in 2000, but no one really went to see it. I understand why so many hated it or couldn’t watch it – using black face was a deliberate provocation on Lee’s part, and some cannot see beyond that. But Lee’s film is a racially charged version of network – throwing everything at the wall to see what will stick in terms of black entertainment, and how while a lot can be blamed on white people, it all cannot be. I don’t agree with everything in the film – who does – but it remains one of the most memorable provocations of Lee’s – or anyone’s – career.
3. 25th Hour (2002)
One long night before Edward Norton’s drug dealer reports to prison to do a 7 year stretch he may not survive. Lee turned this film into one of (if not the best) examination of New York in the aftermath of 9/11. A long sad, decline of a film about lives wasted or unlived. A masterpiece, whose reputation has grown and grown in the past 16 years – and deserves to grow even more.
2. Malcolm X (1992)
Malcolm X may just be the best biopic ever made (I’m probably forgetting something, but off the top of my head, this is it). Denzel gives the best performance of his career – one of the very best we’ve ever seen – in a complex look at the life of the controversial Civil Rights leader that doesn’t shy away from the controversy, or try and portray him (a saint. A long, complex, brilliantly well-made film. A true masterwork.
1. Do the Right Thing (1989)
Lee’s masterpiece, and the best film ever made about race in America. Over one long, hot summer day in Brooklyn, the racial tensions that have long simmered underneath the surface explode, and everyone has to deal with the new reality at the end. Sadly, the film hasn’t aged a day in nearly 30 years. An absolute masterpiece – one of the best American films ever made.

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