This month The LAMBs in the Director’s Chair series is highlighting the works of Spike Lee. Over the years Spike Lee’s talents as a director have been overshadowed by his public comments about Quentin Tarantino’s use of the “N word” in films and Clint Eastwood’s lack of colour in his World War II films. Despite the media mishaps, Spike Lee has always been a director I admire. When I first started to pay attentions to films on a more serious level, Lee was one of the first mainstream directors I can remember whose films predominantly featured a cast that looked like me. Most importantly he has made many memorable films that still resonate with audiences years later. He are ten of Spike Lee’s film that I particularly enjoy:
Do the Right Thing – Hands down Spike Lee’s best films. I would even say it is one of the best films ever made. It easily ranks in the top 100 of any list, and if you do not have it there then you need to readjust your list. No other film to come out since has been able to capture racial tension the way this film does. This is a must see for any cinephile.
Sucker Free City – I saw this film, which was a pilot for a show that was never developed, at TIFF a few years back. I remember listening to Anthony Mackie talk about the film and what a pleasure it was to work with Lee. Besides featuring Mackie and another actor I really like, Ken Leung, Sucker Free City featured a really interesting premise that would have made for a great show. Similar to Martin Scorsese’s pilot for Boardwalk Empire, Lee not only establishes his main characters but sets up a few storylines all in a short running time.
Jungle Fever – While nowhere near Lee’s best works, this is the one film I find myself re-watching the most. The film is uneven at times because Lee has some ideas that are never quite realized. The thing that brings me back to this film the most though is the wonderful performances by Ossie Davis and Samuel L. Jackson as Wesley Snipe’s father and crack head brother respectively. The scene between Davis and Jackson towards the end of the film is just riveting to watch.
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts – I was completely riveted with Lee’s four hour documentary on the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina. It was the last documentary to make me both angry and extremely sad. I still get infuriated when I think of both the film and the events of Katrina. Some will argue that the film did not need to be four hours. I would argue that four hours is not enough.
She’s Gotta Have It – An independent, and sexually liberated, young woman who does not want to be tied down by anyone man? Sounds like a pilot for a Sex in the City spinoff. Yet Spike was already tackling these issues back in the 80’s. What I really liked about the film was how he framed this love triangle. You are never quite sure who Nora will finally choose. I also like that he shows African-American women as both smart and sexual beings, which is a stark contrast to what you see in most urban music videos nowadays.
Bamboozled – Controversial? You bet! Yet once you get past the initial shock of the “black face” debate the smart satire of the film begins to shine through. Lee provides an accurate commentary on television stations, like “B.E.T” and music videos that are causing a whole generation to take a step backwards. Yes the film is flawed, especially towards the end, yet Lee does succeed in generating discussion.
Inside Man – Several folks in the industry claimed that Lee did not know how to make a film that makes money (i.e. a commercial feature). This film is Spike Lee proving them all wrong. The Inside Man may not be a groundbreaking heist film but it is an entertaining one. Lee not only proved that he could get mainstream audiences into the theatre but also that he could direct a high profile cast (i.e. Jodie Foster, Clive Owen, and Lee regular Denzel Washington).
Malcolm X - The fact that this film only received two Academy Award nominations (best actor and best costume design) in 1993 is baffling. I understand that this was back when only five films could be nominated for best picture but was A Few Good Men really better than this? I think this is still Lee’s most ambitious film to date. He made a bio-pic on a figure that still polarizes many people to this day, yet managed to bring a level of humanity to the character that few see. While I think the film runs a little longer, it was still deserving of more praise than it received.
He Got Game – The whole imprisoned father who wants to reconnect with his son is a well worn genre. While the film never reaches the level of other similar stories, South Central for example, Denzel gives a strong performance and Ray Allen does a decent job in his first acting gig. Again, not Lee’s best film but one that I quite enjoy.
4 Little Girls – Lee’s first full length documentary is an example of his masterful storytelling. Focusing on one of the key moments in the Civil Rights movement, Lee skilfully details the events leading up to the bombing of the 16th Street church in Alabama in which four innocent young girls were murdered. The film is not only a reminder of a history that we are not all that far removed from, but it also serves as a warning of the depths to which racism can go.