Thursday, March 17, 2011

Who Spiked My Lee?

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.


  1. Excellent post, I haven't seen many of Lee's films, just Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X and Inside Man, but I thought they were all great.
    I'll definitely be seeing more of his work in the future.

    Do The Right Thing really is an unforgettable film, one of the best ever made.

  2. I agree with your intro, I think his public sentiment does overshadow his work, which is a pity as he sounds like a talented filmmaker. I'm not too familiar with his work, having only seen Inside Man which I thought was excellent.

  3. Right there with ya' on Do the Right Thing. Showed that to the kids I work with at a high school in the Bronx, we sure had one hell of conversation about Radio Raheem by the time it was over. Definitely one of the all-time greats, Crash ain't got shit on that movie.

    And When the Levees Broke is nothing short of required viewing. Awesome that you got to see it, what an absolutely travesty and tragedy that was. Fuckin' Bush era, man...

  4. I'm particularly fond of 25th Hour. The opening credits sucked me in.

  5. @Jack – You have seen a few of his major films already, so I would highly recommend that you catch When the Levees Broke and 4 Little Girls next. Both are fantastic films.

    @RTM – Do the Right Thing is a must see in my opinion, if you are going to see any other Spike Lee film it should be that one.

    @Aiden – I think it is great that you were allowed to show Do the Right Thing to you class. I agree with you about it being a far better look at racial tension than Crash. The more I watch Crash the more I realize that the film is pure fluff.

    @MovieNut – Oddly enough, I am not a fan of 25th Hour. I thought I would love it based on the cast, but I remember not enjoying the pacing of the film and a few of the plot points.

  6. I've seen most, but not all of Lee's films. I like the guy a lot, and have done since DTRT. I'm not sure he's ever come close to repeating that film's brilliance, though. I quite liked Summer of Sam, I quite liked Jungle Fever (at the time, at least, but that may have been because of my undying love for Annabella Sciorra), but he lost me at Bamboozled, a movie I paid top dollar for on import and then made a great display of breaking it into a million pieces and dumping it in the bin.

  7. Great post here man! Lee is a perfect example of a director with ambition and pulling no stops to get what he wants to show. Do The Right Thing is his master-piece, but Clockers and 25th Hour are two gems of his that come really close to working on that level too. I still need to see some movies, but I can easily say, I can't wait!

  8. Fantastic work. I'm still convinced that Do the Right Thing remains his best film. I also enjoyed Mo' Better Blues and 4 Little Girls.

    BTW, have you seen the sequel to When the Levees Broke called If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise?

    It's a great follow-up that reveals what happened since and the progress that was made along with broken promises and other problems. Notably the oil spill at the Gulf.

    I haven't seen all of Spike's work though I like most of what I saw. Though I don't agree with some of his politics or statements he's made. At least I can be able to separate his thoughts from his work unlike some people.

  9. @Colin – I liked Summer of Sam as well, that one came very close to making the list. As for Jungle Fever, whatever happened to Annabella Sciorra? The last thing I remember seeing her in was The Sopranos. Lastly, Bamboozled is definitely a film that divides audiences. I could see how you would have that reaction.

    @Dan O – While I was not a fan of 25th Hour, I did quite enjoy Clockers. That is one film that often gets forgotten when analyzing Lee’s work. I think people unjustly consider it a Scorsese rip-off.

    @thevoid – His politics can be misguided at time but, as a movie fan, being able to separate Lee’s public persona from his onscreen works is crucial. I found Mo’ Better Blues to be rather slow, I have not been able to sit through it since the first time I saw it. I have not seen If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise but I would be interested in seeing what has happened since Levees was made.

  10. I've never felt too strongly either way about the guy as a filmmaker - he's clearly talented. That said, I think I've let his personality overshadow his filmmaking over the years, and as such, there are many more of his flicks that I've not seen than seen. I'm ashamed to say that I've only seen two of the ones on your list (you can probably guess which two), though I've seen a few others not mentioned here.

    Of those unseen here, I'd really like to see his higher profile works, He Got Game and Malcolm X.

    Sucker Free City looks sweet, as I dig Mackie and Leung as well.

  11. @Fletch – I am really surprised Sucker Free City was not picked up by HBO or Showtime. It had shades of, though not as, the show The Wire but with more mainstream appeal.


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