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The Films Of Spike Lee: A Retrospective

The Films Of Spike Lee: A Retrospective

If this weekend feels special for movie fans, it’s not because of the trio of big-name blockbusters hitting theaters, it’s because it sees a new dramatic feature — the first in four years — from Spike Lee, one of the most talented, idiosyncratic, maddening and controversial American filmmakers of the last thirty years. It’s a rarity for a director to be instantly, iconically recognizable, but Lee’s one of the exceptions, gaining visibility through starring roles in his early films, a famous appearance in a Nike ad alongside Michael Jordan, and plenty of moments when he’s spoken his mind and caused an uproar.

It’s fortunate then, that to go with the fame and controversy, Lee has, from the beginning, been a fearsomely talented filmmaker who’s moved effortlessly between features and, more recently, documentaries. He’s made politically engaged cinema while still working within the mainstream (and even his most crowd-pleasing films never feel like any other director could have made them), and with “Do The Right Thing,” “Malcolm X” and “25th Hour,” made one of the best films of the 1980s, the 1990s and the 2000s, respectively.

His first feature of the new decade, “Red Hook Summer,” isn’t quite in that company, but there’s an awful lot to like in the film (read our review here), and it’s certainly a sign that the director isn’t mellowing with age. With the film hitting theaters today, and his “Oldboy” remake with Josh Brolin, Sharlto Copley and (possibly) Elizabeth Olsen hoping to go before cameras before the end of the year, it seemed like perfect time to look back over Lee’s filmography. So below you’ll find our (near) complete look at the director’s wide-ranging and fascinating resume. For more on Lee, you can read our extensive interview with the director here.

“She’s Gotta Have It” (1986)
Maybe in retrospect what’s most impressive about Lee’s feature debut is that just three (3!) years after this distinctly studenty, micro-budget black-and-white effort, he would not just throw a metaphorical trashcan through the metaphorical window of the Hollywood establishment with the incandescent “Do The Right Thing,” but that he would do it with such consummate verve and style. Because, with the best will in the world, and enjoyable despite its flaws though it is, “She’s Gotta Have It” looks pretty amateurish these days, and is of most interest to completists and nerds (like ourselves) who want to comb through it for hints of future greatness. And to be fair, the hints do exist: Lee combines documentary stylings, theatrical moments and even a delirious, full-color dance sequence with outrageous assurance for one so inexperienced; his ’80s Brooklyn feels vibrant and authentic even when the performances are stilted; and not least, Lee himself takes an acting role for the first time, creating a charming, motormouth onscreen persona that is one of the film’s chief pleasures. But less successful is the film’s focus on the sexually frank and free Nola (Tracy Camila Johns) as its central character. As accurate as Lee’s eye has proven in many areas, his writing of female characters has proven occasionally problematic, and here that’s already in evidence. We don’t know Nola the way we should, because really it feels like Lee doesn’t know her either — like the men she juggles, it seems he is in awe of her. And so because she’s this frustratingly unknowable creation, the astonishing ambition (for the time, which is not to say it’s a genre that is oversubscribed these days either) to tell a story not just from an urban black perspective, but from an urban black female perspective, somewhat flounders. Still, overlook the film’s weaknesses and there is, all these years later, enough freshness and irreverence and candor on display to make it an engaging watch, if only a fragmentary foreshadowing of the brilliance to come. [B-]

“School Daze” (1988)
Almost the platonic ideal of cinematic second-album syndrome, Lee’s big-studio coming-out party (he was snapped up by Columbia after the success of “She’s Gotta Have It“) is a messy, overstuffed, incredibly uneven film that falls well short of its enormous ambitions. Which is not to say to that it’s not worth watching. Set at the mostly-black Mission College, it follows a number of students, including the politically engaged Dap (Laurence Fishburne, looking like the world’s oldest college student; he was only 27 when the film was made, but still looks older), his cousin Half-Pint (Lee himself), who’s pledging into the Gamma Phi Gamma Fraternity, and Julian (Giancarlo Esposito), the head of the fraternity. And against this canvas, Lee tackles a whole host of issues; the African-American middle-class, sexual politics, the battle against apartheid, the frat system and, most of all, the clash in African-American culture between, as the film puts it, ‘Wannabees’ (those trying to fit in to white culture) and ‘Jiggaboos’ who are prouder of their own heritage. Given that it tries to deal with all of this and more, while essentially using the form of both a college movie and a full-blown musical, it’s not entirely surprising that the film doesn’t quite work: the performances are too inconsistent, the ideas not quite fully developed. But it’s much more interesting to watch an ambitious failure over a unambitious success, and compared to the vast majority of college movies, Lee’s second joint is a feast, even if his filmmaking skills had yet to catch up with his imagination. [C+]

“Do the Right Thing” (1989)
It’s the hottest day of the summer, and all Mookie (Lee) wants to do is get through his work day. Of course, nothing can be that simple in Lee’s memorably fractured, chaotic Brooklyn neighborhood, which provides the backdrop for a bubbling cauldron of class and racial strife. Maybe it’s the hassle from his boss Sal (Danny Aiello), who joylessly serves overpriced pizza slices to young black customers who insist on listening to “jungle music.” Maybe it’s the shared wisdom from local drunk Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), who doles out advice while tightening an iron grip on a brown-bagged beverage. Maybe it’s Mookie’s uneasy relationship with baby mama Tina (Rosie Perez), who berates his lack of upward mobility through her nagging, nasal siren call of a voice. Whatever it is, it’s polluting the air, and it’s easy to see that despite the humor and honesty at the heart of “Do The Right Thing,” the picture is building to an inevitably ugly conclusion. No one, not even Mookie, can be the bigger man in the face of perceived slights, as Lee creates a world where each petty disagreement erases the goodwill coming from Da Mayor’s innocent flirtation with Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), Mookie’s growing bond with Sal’s son Vito (Richard Edson), and the local flair from monosyllabic love-spreader Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn). It’s somewhat unfortunate that “Do The Right Thing” still plays as sharp and incendiary as it did in a Koch-supervised New York City, though Lee’s chronicle of a tragic day absent of heroes still looms large as possibly the last truly great film of the 1980s. [A+]

“Mo’ Better Blues” (1990)  
Amid smoky late night bars, jazz trumpeter Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington) takes the stage with his Bleek Quintet. Once Bleek places his golden lips against the mouthpiece of his trumpet, he makes magic. Of course, this does little to eliminate the drama in his life — the Quintet continues to struggle, playing gig-to-gig as infighting leads to a more flexible hierarchy, with Bleek’s longtime pal Shadow (an excellent Wesley Snipes) attempting to usurp the spotlight. Bleek, who probably has too much misplaced passion, can’t help but humor childhood friend Giant (Lee), despite Giant being a terrible agent for his band, nearly thousands of dollars in debt. And then there’s the women — does Bleek want the stability provided by Indigo (Joie Lee) or the sumptuous lust of aspiring singer Clarke (Cynda Williams)? Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues” cuts narrative corners with some of the laziest generalizations of his career, as the dichotomy between Clarke and Indigo is far too simplistic. And there’s an ugly note in the representation of a pair of Jewish club owners played by John and Nicolas Turturro, penny-pinching stereotypes that seem like they’re out of a broader film. But when the Bleek Quntet takes the stage, the music, from Terence Blanchard and Branford Marsalis, is intoxicating, and musicians and jazz fans will note the authenticity and rawness of the backstage scenes, particularly in the friendly friction between Bleek and Shadow, with both Washington and Snipes at the top of their games. [B]

“Jungle Fever” (1991)
Don’t be fooled by that ridiculous, and ridiculously catchy, Stevie Wonder theme song: “Jungle Fever” goes to very dark places in its upsetting parable about urban interracial dating. With “Jungle Fever,” Lee is attempting to explore the responsibilities felt by the modern middle-to-upper class black male, and his avatar is the noble, dignified Flipper (Wesley Snipes). One of New York City’s most successful architects, Flipper is aware his presence in his mostly-white firm is an anomaly, and he stews when his bosses ignore his request for a black secretary. He’s wracked with guilt, however, when he finds himself attracted to Angie (Annabella Sciorra), feeling, in a confused mixture of social activism and ego, that he’s denying his own blackness, and therefore harming the black community. All the while, Flipper and his elderly parents are struggling with the drug-addled state of Gator (Samuel L. Jackson), Flipper’s crack addict brother, who is both charmingly entertaining and seriously dangerous, dancing a jig in one moment and threatening violence in the next. “Jungle Fever” is like a well-prepared meal of several diverse plates, and Lee intentionally overheats a few in order to better illustrate his point about Flipper being a black man struggling to define the proper contemporary definition of his own status. Also, for completists’ sake, among Samuel L. Jackson’s five thousand film credits, this is likely his best performance. [B+]

“Malcolm X” (1992)
Originally slated to be helmed by Norman Jewison, an outraged Spike Lee was given the director’s chair once Jewison bowed out citing script issues. And given the tremendous weight and controversy around the subject — and around Lee himself — the filmmaker had to deliver for what was easily his biggest picture in scope to date. And boy, did he ever. Rewriting the script, directing the film, and even penciling in a small role for himself, “Malcolm X” is a powerful piece of filmmaking. But the film’s sprawling runtime and breadth would never have worked or been as engaging as it is without a committed, commanding lead performance by Denzel Washington. Evoking the Muslim minister and human rights activist in voice, style and mannerism so accurately that it is, at times, downright eerie, his portrayal goes far beyond mere imitation into capturing the spirit, magnetism and intelligence of Malcolm X, in what is easily the defining portrait of the man. Lee’s filmmaking prowess here is among the highlights of his career. He makes a sharp distinction stylistically between Malcolm X’s early life, one full of live jazz music and color, and his post-prison life as a Nation of Islam minister, full of sombre grey tones and an understated score. And his desire to do his best by the film and subject found him battling Warner Bros. to allow him to shoot on location in Mecca. And the result? It’s the first feature film to be allowed to shoot on that sacred ground. A towering achievement that somehow managed only two Oscar nods — for Costume Design and Best Actor (how Washington lost to Al Pacino for “Scent Of A Woman” if beyond us) — Lee’s film is an impressive, must-see biopic of the highest order. [A]

“Crooklyn” (1994)
Charming and warm, the director’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story (co-written by the director’s siblings Joie and Cinque) is sweet but won’t rot your teeth. Set in 1970s Brooklyn and focusing on the cute-as-a-button Troy (Zelda Harris), Lee tours the neighborhood as his adolescent muse deals with sassy neighbors, argumentative parents, rambunctious brothers, and — worst of all — the onset of puberty, with the increased awareness of body and sexuality hitting the wee one like a ton of bricks. The narrative is particularly loose here, mostly being a collection of moments as opposed to a meticulously plotted story, though certain characters have their own individual arcs (the parents, played by Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo, have an especially subtle dynamic that gives generally contrived plot points some legitimacy). That said, the approach works wonders and allows the filmmaker to fully channel the free-spirited nature of being a city kid during the endless summer holiday, forgoing a sprightly, rose-colored trip down memory lane for something more honest: candy is akin to gold, crackpot neighbors are harassed, and harsh words belted on stoops are instantly forgotten the next day. And when the filmmaker finally decides to tug at the heart strings, it’s heartbreaking and more than earned. “Crooklyn” is also a contrarily pleasant depiction of city life; the movie is free of the menacing alleys and gritty streets that generally characterize any urban setting. Save for an occasionally forced score that dabbles in Spielberg bathos (and maybe the ‘70s hits are a little too obvious — at least they’re enjoyable tunes), it’s Lee at his most earnest, and a solid, level-headed love letter to a long-gone Brooklyn. [B+]

“Clockers” (1995)
While African-American films in the early ’90s were often defined by their stories of drugs and gang violence (“Boyz In Da Hood,” “Menace II Society,” “New Jack City,” “Juice”), Lee resisted the urge to go there, going as far to swim upstream against the current with 1994’s sweet and nostalgic “Crooklyn.” When Lee finally relented to the genre, it was largely due to Martin Scorsese, who brought him the screenplay by celebrated author Richard Price (Scorsese was originally going to direct). Even then “Clockers” far from pretties up thug life; it relentlessly deglamorizes the drug trade and hews closer to thriller and police procedural. One of the film’s stars — other than its cast, which included Harvey Keitel, John Turturro, Delroy Lindo and Mekhi Phifer — is the film’s young cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed. Up until this point, the largely untested Sayeed had been an electric on “Crooklyn” and Gregg Araki‘s “The Doom Generation” (he’d later serve as the second unit DoP on Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” and recently reunited with Lee on HBO pilot “Da Brick“). Lee called him up for “Clockers,” and the white hot, sickly and rusty sheen of the picture injects the engrossing urban drama with a sweaty and arresting psychology that elevates each moment of drama, violence, humor and character development (not to mention it might be the finest photography of African-American skin in decades). Set in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill projects where young drug pushers live hard, dangerous lives, trapped between their drug bosses and the detectives out to stop them, “Clockers” is uneven and familiar, featuring some of Lee’s worst tendencies (overstylized sequences and moments of editorializing), but it’s refreshingly unpreachy (relatively speaking), and the urgency with which it’s told is utterly absorbing and bruising. [B+]“Girl 6” (1996)
With 2002 Pulitzer Prize (For Drama) -winner Suzan-Lori Parks and legendary musician Prince tapped for their respective talents, one would estimate that the trio’s end product wouldn’t be so under the radar — surely a Spike Lee joint written by a successful playwright, and set to music from a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, would kick up more enthusiasm. Of course, one would also probably assume that such a project wouldn’t be so bromidic, which is the unfortunate case for “Girl 6.” That’s not to say it doesn’t have its highlights (lead Theresa Randle seizes the central role, the director’s occasional experimental flairs keep things afloat), but the team just can’t seem to find anything terribly interesting about a struggling actress turned phone-sex operator. After being ordered to show her bust at an audition, the unnamed thesp (playfully referred to as Judy by ex Isaiah Washington) grows tired of the male chauvinist industry and takes the aforementioned call-line gig to make ends meet. While the script gets merit for actually being about something (society’s oppression of women, for one), the turns on this narrative road are foreseeably obvious — she falls in love with a caller, gets addicted to the job, etc — and Parks, known for some raw stage plays like “Fucking A” and “Topdog/Underdog,” seems bafflingly content to coast along with a by-the-numbers script. Lee fills the gaps with insistent clunky visual metaphors of a fall down a dark elevator shaft, but it never connects. Cap it off with a severely uncharismatic supporting turn by the director himself and, at the end of the day, you’ve got yourself a more or less mediocre 1990s movie with some scattered bright spots. Then again, no other movies from that era featured cameos by a madcap Quentin Tarantino, an insanely goofy John Turturro, and… Madonna‘s dog. Gotta give credit where credit is due, we suppose. [C-]

“Get On The Bus” (1996)
Sandwiched as it was between the middling curio “Girl 6” and the stirring doc “4 Little Girls,” “Get On The Bus” is every bit a Spike Lee joint, a travelogue that pits the competing ideologies of a dozen black men against one another, en route to the Million Man March. The topics on hand are familiar, and Lee’s passion for them never wavers: racism, lighter-skinned vs. darker-skinned, fathers and sons, lifestyle and economic strata clashes, all adding up to a thesis on living while black in America. The director populates his uniformly strong cast with equal parts veterans and newcomers. The venerable Ossie Davis delivers a moving monologue, while the ever-reliable Andre Braugher gets to indulge in a less sympathetic role. Lee regular Roger Guenveur Smith plays a cop burdened by an itch for vengeance, while Isaiah Washington and Harry J. Lennix portray a gay couple that gives the two talented thespians an opportunity to shine (curiously, Washington’s career was later derailed after he was fired from “Grey’s Anatomy” for allegedly insulting a co-star with a homophobic slur). The rest of the players (including Bernie Mac, Charles S. Dutton, Hill Harper, Steve White, Gabriel Casseus, and Albert Hall) each get their moments, but the biggest impression by far is left by Thomas Jefferson Byrd, a familiar pockmarked face that Lee knowingly casts as a father struggling to keep an eye on his son (De’aundre Bonds) even though the duo are shackled to one another via court-order. Byrd’s performance feels so off-the-cuff natural that it’s easy to forget about the artifice some of the other actors struggle with. While “Get On The Bus” is easy to slip into, the character and plot revelations have an unexpected weight, and the small space allows for unbroken moments of humor intermixed with drama that build the film up and keep it compelling for the full two hours. [B]

“4 Little Girls” (1997)
Not many filmmakers earn an Oscar nomination for their first documentary feature, but that’s exactly what happened with Lee on “4 Little Girls,” focusing on the death of the titular youth in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham AL, 1963. A passion project of sorts, the filmmaker first read about the incident as a NYU student, but couldn’t secure the family members’ participation until he was a well-established, world famous director. The passage of time not only gave them more time to be comfortable with the prospect, but it also saw Lee grow in recognition, hone his skill, and ultimately morph the project from a narrative, as originally intended to documentary. Around the time segregation was coming to a close, there was increased retaliation from those disgusted by the mere prospect, a sentiment which culminated in the bombing of an African-American church. Many were injured, four were killed: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair. The director interviews the family members with a sensitive touch, allowing them to focus on the lives of their departed children, while others provide the context of the social climate at the time. Along with stills of the victims (including the highly unsettling autopsy photos) is footage from the time, rendered in blue and white, a curious stylistic choice that likely emphasized the extreme racism in Lee’s own way. Most notable are the reels that display a large white tank roaming the street (owned by Bull Connor, ironically the Commissioner of Public Safety) and passionate speeches by segregationist governor George Wallace. The director manages to nab Wallace, now considerably aged and speaking incomprehensibly (Lee subtitles him) for interview; he defends his ways, and not once but twice introduces his “best friend” (read: employee) to the camera, an African-American man who doesn’t say anything, but manages to convey volumes with his uncomfortable expression. Informative and riveting, “4 Little Girls” is an indelible piece of work, showing the horrors of pre-Civil Rights America and the humanity of those who endured it despite their losses. The Academy, rightfully impressed with Lee’s work, gave the film a nod for Best Documentary but ultimately gave the award to Rabbi Marvin Hier and Richard Trank’s “The Long Way Home.” It’s his second snub next to “Do The Right Thing,” and the last time to date he was nominated for an Oscar. [A]

“He Got Game” (1998)
Shuffling things down South to Coney Island, “He Got Game” marks Denzel Washington and Spike Lee’s third collaboration (there’s been four to date). And while basketball has always been at the forefront of the the Knicks-obsessed filmmaker’s life, this soulful contemporary father-son melodrama is one of Lee’s most accessible films, dialing back any of his militant tendencies to reveal something ultimately graceful and dignified. The set-up is a little jejune — a convicted killer is let out on temporary parole with the promise of a commuted sentence by the warden if he can convince his gifted son, the top-ranked high-school basketball player in the country, into signing with the governor’s alma mater. Nevertheless, the picture makes the most of its unlikely premise and Washington has never been better as the disgraced and beleaguered father who has to trade on his dignity and scrounge for redemption while trying to make amends with his estranged daughter and son. He carries the emotional gravitas of the film and takes it with him throughout every scene that is humorous, playful, painful or heartbreaking. Lee also coerces a convincing performance out of first-time actor NBA star Ray Allen as the promising athlete Jesus Shuttlesworth; no small feat. Featuring a score composed of numerous solemn and joyous orchestral pieces by Aaron Copland (iconic works like “Fanfare for the Common Man” and vibrant cinematography by both Ellen Kuras and Malik Hassan Sayeed, “He Got Game” is not flawless (some of the slick brothers trying to hitch their ride to Jesus become a little much at times), but overall it remains one of the watershed triumphs in Lee’s oeuvre.  [B+]

Summer of Sam” (1999)
In what might be one of his most ambitious features, Spike Lee dramatizes the events surrounding the Son of Sam killings, when David Berkowitz terrorized New York City, killing six people and wounding seven more. The results are something of a mixed bag but are frequently galvanizing and always totally nuts. Since Lee is interested in the marginalia surrounding the murders, he chooses to focus on a group of Italian Americans who live in the Bronx neighborhood that Berkowitz frequented. John Leguizamo is an unfaithful hairdresser driven to madness after having a close encounter with the killer, Mira Sorvino is his doting wife, Adrien Brody is the troubled artist, and Jennifer Esposito (whatever happened to her?) is a neighborhood floozy. What could have been a tight character study, though, expands outwardly, with Lee citing just about every cultural, political, and civil issue of the summer – everything from the burgeoning punk rock scene to the 1977 blackout is given screen time. Sometimes this tips into the absurdity, like a single sequence that somehow manages to reference CBGB, Studio 54 and Plato’s Retreat. It kind of feels like a rough draft for something like David Fincher‘s brilliant “Zodiac” (with its tagline “There’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer”), except that Lee is hardly interested in the particulars of the murders. When “Summer of Sam” is “on,” it’s pretty much unstoppable – like a radio baseball play that plays over one of the killer’s attempted murders, or a wordless sequence set to The Who‘s “Baba O’Riley” (Lee uses music brilliantly, including a climax staged to Thelma Houston‘s “Don’t Leave Me This Way”). The problem is, pound for pound, there’s as much unnecessary bullshit as there is absolute genius in “Summer of Sam,” and extraneous plot threads like Adrien Brody’s career as a gay S&M dancer or Ben Gazzara’s mob boss going on a renegade hunt for the killer, bloat an already ungainly narrative. Still, for pure chutzpah, it’s hard not to love “Summer of Sam,” even when you hate it. [B] “Bamboozled” (2000)
Just last month Entertainment Weekly film critic Owen Gleiberman, who initially (and favorably) compared the film to Oliver Stone‘s splatter-satire “Natural Born Killers,” was calling “Bamboozled” (which was largely panned upon its initial release), “Spike Lee’s most misunderstood film.” And while there are a thousand interesting ideas in the film – about a straight-laced TV executive (Damon Wayans) who creates a new minstrel show that ends up becoming a sensation – few of them actually gel. Instead, what we get is a gritty-looking experiment (it was shot on crummy digital video and slightly less crummy super 16 mm), loaded with a fine supporting cast (including Tommy Davidson, Savion Glover, Jada Pinkett Smith, Michael Rapaport, Mos Def, and Paul Mooney), and a message that often becomes unbearably heavy handed, especially when the movie becomes painfully overwrought (and violent) in the last act, culminating in an epic montage of racist imagery from various sources – everything from “Gone with the Wind” to “Our Gang” shorts. (Yes, this is actually how Lee chooses to end the film.) At 135 minutes, it’s way too long, and what could have been a lively, spritely satire for the new media age, instead gets bogged down with grim violence and repetitive symbolism. For a supposed comedy, it takes itself awfully seriously. [C]

25th Hour” (2002)
Overlooked during its day, and buried by Touchstone Pictures after it failed to earn any Golden Globes nominations (they figured Oscars had no chance either), if there is a Spike Lee film that demands reconsideration it is certainly “The 25th Hour,” a mature, angry, melancholic and soulful near-masterpiece. Starring Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Anna Paquin and Brian Cox, and set during the last 24 hours of freedom before its protagonist (Norton) goes away to prison for dealing drugs, “The 25th Hour” may be one of the greatest post-9/11 pictures because the drama rarely touches upon the tragedy specifically. Instead, a doleful and subtle polish of pain, anguish and suffering covers the film like scattered ashes. Sober, mournful and meditative, the film also centers on regret and redemption while effortlessly weaving in themes of trust, paranoia, friendship, love, anger (see the brilliant “Fuck You, New York” monologue) and reconciliation. To boot, composer Terence Blanchard (Lee’s go-to composer and ace in the hole) delivers a deeply moving and elegiac score that is his finest work outside of the equally lugubrious ‘Levees Broke’ requiem while Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto gives the picture some of that hot, popping, almost over-exposed attention that Lee loves so much. Aside from the righteous indignation and sorrow of “When the Levees Broke” and the sweaty confused rage of “Do The Right Thing,” “The 25th Hour” is easily Lee’s most emotionally rich and textured film.  Additionally, this powerful drama is not only a great American picture, it’s one of the great films about New York City, and ultimately is conflicted, but a powerful loveletter to the noisy, dirty, frustrating and exhilarating place many of us call home. [A]

She Hate Me” (2004)
Understanding the title of Lee’s largely insane epic of 2004 goes a long way towards understanding where Lee exists as a filmmaker. It’s a play on the name “He Hate Me,” last seen on the back of a football jersey for the XFL, the failed football league shepherded by wrestling impresario Vince McMahon to primetime television in the early aughts. Because players were allowed to select self-created handles instead of birth names to place on the back of their jerseys, one black player decided to crystallize his entire career in badly-spoken English, proudly displaying it in the XFL’s first, highly-rated primetime game for millions to see the perceived victim complex of a professional athlete. Of course, no one remembers He Hate Me’s actual name (Rod Smart), and the XFL was a failed experiment that crashed into oblivion within a year, so pointed are Lee’s politics in this film. With suddenly unemployed John Henry Armstrong (Anthony Mackie), Lee is tackling the world of corporate whistleblowers, mirrored by cutaway flashbacks to Frank Wills (a silent Chiwetel Ejiofor), the security guard who discovered the Watergate break-in. In John Henry’s new profession, providing sperm for a string of cartoonishly seductive lesbians eager to procreate, Lee’s making a point about the inherent bias towards an unemployed black man. And in the sullying of his name during the ensuing investigation, Lee is making a point about class conflict ensuring minorities will always get steamrolled in courts by their rich white overlords. It’s a mess of classic Lee: passionately angry, slyly satirical, a tad misogynistic, completely ridiculous and never, at any moment, dull. [B-]

Sucker Free City” (2004)
Spike Lee has traveled out to Saudi Arabia for parts of “Malcolm X,” and Tuscany and Rome for the Italy-set war film “Miracle at St. Ann,” even centered all of “School Daze” in Atlanta, but generally, Lee does not stray far from his beloved Brooklyn. So it’s a rare treat to see Lee venture outside the five boroughs (and his comfort zone) to the unlikely location of San Francisco for the underseen “Sucker Free City.” What was supposed to be the pilot episode for a Showtimes series, “Sucker Free City” (like Lee’s recent would-be series “Da Brick” for HBO) wasn’t picked up by the cable network. And like most pilots, was set to die a quiet death. But Lee decided to submit the episode as a film to the Toronto International Film Festival where the telepilot was accepted and premiered. And while it’s open-ended conclusion does make it clear that there was more to come, “Sucker Free City” does work fairly well as a self-contained entity. Set in the culturally diverse melting pot of San Francisco, the drama looks at three young, low-level criminals who begin to overlap into each other’s territory while the late ‘90s gentrification boom begins to squeeze everyone. Ben Crowley plays a white mailroom worker in a corporate office who steals credit card numbers while his family is priced out of SF’s Mission (his tolerant father is played by John Savage); K-Luv (Anthony Mackie) is a gangster with a growing conscience, and Lincoln (Ken Leung) is a stooge for the Chinese mafia. And while with only one ep to its name it cannot be “The Wire,” its three-pronged look at San Francisco is an engaging tease of what might have come, presciently anticipating how gentrification, class, race and the city’s infrastructure begin to affect all cultures and colors. [B]

Inside Man” (2006)
Perhaps there is no better year to look at, if you want to sum up the zigzaggery of Lee’s later career, than 2006. ‘Levees’ sees him at his most socially engaged, his most soulful, his most, we guess, archetypally Lee. And yet that same year he turned in “Inside Man,” an inventive heist movie that is the kind of glossy entertainment we might hope for from a mainstream Hollywood stalwart, rather than from this outspoken champion of the independent movement. So in the context of the director’s back catalogue, perhaps this film is most notable for what it’s not — not particularly concerned with race, not polemical, not political, not personal — though his trademark ear for accurately observed New York exchanges is wholly in evidence and lends authenticity and wit to the proceedings (we love, for example, the tiny detail of the woman who, even with a gun in her face, simply refuses to undress for her captors). But if there is something of the artist on autopilot here, it just goes to show how much storytelling talent the guy has to burn, as he gets a clutch of delicious performances from supporting players (Jodie Foster in particular stands out for her arch, self-aware turn as a morally repugnant “fixer”), navigates a tricksy, twisty-turny plot with razor sharp intelligence and quietly forefronts a dynamic between the the good-guy protagonists that is almost subversive in how little mention or consideration is given to their skin color (Denzel Washington and Chiwetel Ejiofor both in charismatic, winning form). So he lets nothing slip, but it still seems like he’s doing what he maybe hadn’t really done for a decade: he’s having fun. It feels like the real ‘inside man’ is Lee himself, in disguise and hidden within the Hollywood establishment, effortlessly beating the big guys at their own game and giggling to himself all the while. We wouldn’t trade this lighthearted trickster for the political, stir-shit-up Lee we know and are provoked by, but if “Inside Man” is an anomaly in his catalogue, it’s the kind of outrageously entertaining anomaly that we can totally live with. Oh, and his final credit in 2006? Directing the pilot for the James Woods show “Shark.” Which, well, huh. [B+] “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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