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The Good, The Bad and the Badass: Spike Lee

Nov. 25, 2013by: Chris Bumbray

Last week, we took a look at the career of master director Michael Mann, a guy whose style helped define the modern urban action film. This week, we look at another prolific filmmaker who's had his share of controversy but whose talent cannot be denied...

Spike Lee

A couple of months ago, while preparing a Good/Bad/Badass column on Denzel Washington, it occurred to me that I had never seen one of his most acclaimed performances, in Spike Lee's MALCOLM X, a film many say he should have won an Oscar for. Before writing the column, I knew that this was something I had to remedy, and after watching it, I agreed with the general consensus among his fans that it was probably his best performance, and an all-out incredible biopic.

It also made me realize that my knowledge of director Spike Lee's body of work was terribly limited, and since then, I've been steadily working my way through much of his filmography. Obviously Lee's a controversial guy, thanks to his very public feuds with Quentin Tarantino (over his use of the n-word), Tyler Perry (his clownish stereotyping), and Clint Eastwood. The thing is, Lee's a passionate guy, and that's probably what makes (many) of his Spike Lee Joint's so remarkable. While I'd never say Lee's filmography is perfect, his films are always interesting, and often amazing. He's also an incredibly accomplished documentarian with movies like 4 LITTLE GIRLS, and WHEN THE LEEVES BROKE, ranking among his very best work. With his latest- the remake of OLDBOY- primed to hit theaters this week, I figured it was high-time he be featured in this column.

His Best Film

To me, Lee's masterpiece is DO THE RIGHT THING. Revolving around the simmering racial tension in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, when it came out in 1989, it was considered downright revolutionary. Lee himself plays Mookie, a pizza delivery man working for the paternalistic (almost condescendingly so) Italian-American pizzeria owner Sal. Sal's refusal to put up any photos of notable African-American heroes on his wall of fame triggers a series of events that lead to a deadly riot. The film is an absolute masterpiece, and a must-see for anyone serious about film. The fact that in 1989 DO THE RIGHT THING wasn't even nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and that the all-but-forgotten milquetoast DRIVING MISS DAISY won is a travesty.

His Most Overrated Film

I'm cheating a bit with MIRACLE AT ST.ANNA. As a talkbacker below pointed out, it wasn't well received at all, even if it did have its fans, including the late Roger Ebert. While I don't hate MIRACLE AT ST.ANNA, I still find it a rather disappointing addition to Lee's body of work. For years, he'd been trying to get a film made about the role African-American soldiers played in World War II (when the armed forces were still segregated). The final film had flashes of brilliance, and a great performance by star Laz Alonso, along with some great set-pieces. However, it feels like Lee got too caught up in the films he was paying homage to, especially the work of director Roberto Rossellini, whose PAISAN seemed to be a major influence. The focus too often wandered from the platoon of black soldiers at the film's heart, and the finished film didn't quite work. I'd love to see Lee get another crack at World War II.

His Most Underrated Film

SUMMER OF SAM strikes me as one of Lee's most underrated films. In '99, it was dismissed by critics and audiences alike, but I always liked it. Re-watching it a few months ago, it played even better than it did in '99, with Lee's multi-character drama surrounding 1977's summer-long rampage of the son of Sam comparing favourably to a movie like David Fincher's ZODIAC. What's interesting here is how the hysteria surrounding the killings is peripheral to the day-to-day drama of the largely Italian NYC community he profiles. John Leguizamo, and Adrien Brody- as a local wannabe punk rocker- are both brilliant. Truly, this is one of Lee's best films.

His Most Memorable Scene

My favourite Spike Lee moment comes from THE 25TH HOUR, another great Lee joint, which stars Edward Norton (in one of his best performances) as a drug-dealer enjoying his last day of freedom before serving a seven-year prison stretch. His moment of rage, where he goes off on everything from himself to the 9/11 hijackers (this came out only a year after Sept 11th and was one of the first Hollywood films to address it) is a tour-de-force for both Norton and Lee.

His Top-Five Films

5. SUMMER OF SAM
4. WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE
3. THE 25TH HOUR
2. MALCOLM X
1. DO THE RIGHT THING

Up Next

Following OLD BOY, Lee's got his Kickstarter film DA BLOOD OF JESUS coming out in 2014, along with a Neil Bogart biopic SPINNING GOLD, starring Justin Timberlake, which sounds like a cool project. His Michael Jackson documentary, BAD 25, also just hit iTunes and is well worth checking out.

Source: JoBlo.com

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-1
9:01PM on 11/25/2013
Do the Right Thing is one of my favorites, but pretty much anything else of his is just crap (non documentaries). His movies are getting progressively worse, I hope he doesn't butcher Oldboy - the original is awesome.
Do the Right Thing is one of my favorites, but pretty much anything else of his is just crap (non documentaries). His movies are getting progressively worse, I hope he doesn't butcher Oldboy - the original is awesome.
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3:33PM on 11/25/2013

Bamboozled

i need to see 25th hour.
What are the thoughts on bamboozled? I've seen it and never really got to talk about it w/ fellow enthusiasts. i felt it was a good movie but just taken too far satirically.
i need to see 25th hour.
What are the thoughts on bamboozled? I've seen it and never really got to talk about it w/ fellow enthusiasts. i felt it was a good movie but just taken too far satirically.
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1:33PM on 11/25/2013
Do The Right Thing is still one of his best films, hands down. I just feel Spike Lee is too caught up in the politics in filmmaking and not focused on quality. I liked Summer of Sam and 25th Hour..(i also liked Jungle Fever...Halle Berry and Samuel L Jackson as junkies: pretty funny casting). The Inside Man was good for the first few minutes but i lost interest. Miracle at St Anna was alright but it had so much potential to be more than average. The new oldboy looks like it could be a hit or
Do The Right Thing is still one of his best films, hands down. I just feel Spike Lee is too caught up in the politics in filmmaking and not focused on quality. I liked Summer of Sam and 25th Hour..(i also liked Jungle Fever...Halle Berry and Samuel L Jackson as junkies: pretty funny casting). The Inside Man was good for the first few minutes but i lost interest. Miracle at St Anna was alright but it had so much potential to be more than average. The new oldboy looks like it could be a hit or miss though. The trailer makes it look sick but i'll wait til i see the final product.
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11:36AM on 11/25/2013
Though not the most obvious contender for this column, I heartily welcome Spike Lee on here. His public persona is controversial, but it's also a part of what makes his best movies work so well. Like you said, he's a passionate guy, and I think courting controversy is in his blood.
Though not the most obvious contender for this column, I heartily welcome Spike Lee on here. His public persona is controversial, but it's also a part of what makes his best movies work so well. Like you said, he's a passionate guy, and I think courting controversy is in his blood.
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9:23AM on 11/25/2013
Inside Man is my favorite film of his
Inside Man is my favorite film of his
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+0
8:48AM on 11/25/2013
Oddly enough...that Edward Norton scene is actually in the book.
Oddly enough...that Edward Norton scene is actually in the book.
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8:52AM on 11/25/2013
Ya...and I'd say inside man is his over rated film. It's a fun heist movie with a little something extra, but it doesn't have the social commentary that makes some of his films great.
Ya...and I'd say inside man is his over rated film. It's a fun heist movie with a little something extra, but it doesn't have the social commentary that makes some of his films great.
8:55AM on 11/25/2013
Again, it's a good film, but over rated in the sense it was his highest box office film ever (at least at that point...and I doubt it has changed), when he has REALLY great movies ab smthn like do the right thing.
Again, it's a good film, but over rated in the sense it was his highest box office film ever (at least at that point...and I doubt it has changed), when he has REALLY great movies ab smthn like do the right thing.
6:58AM on 11/25/2013

Not who I think of when I hear the word badass.

OK, I'm not trolling or looking for the most thumbs down ever, but I think his movies are pure crap. However, I think his documentaries are truly amazing. Let it rain.
OK, I'm not trolling or looking for the most thumbs down ever, but I think his movies are pure crap. However, I think his documentaries are truly amazing. Let it rain.
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+10
6:46AM on 11/25/2013

o:

Before I read the comments, I think Spike Lee is a brilliant director. I love watching his movies, and i think he's very talented as a film maker. That being said, he doesn't seem like like a nice person.
Before I read the comments, I think Spike Lee is a brilliant director. I love watching his movies, and i think he's very talented as a film maker. That being said, he doesn't seem like like a nice person.
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6:13AM on 11/25/2013
Do The Right Thing is a classic and my first ever Spike Lee flick. His other underrated piece of work IMO has to be Clockers which was what Dangerous Minds wanted to be but was scared to go there.
Loved Harvey Keitel's performance.
Do The Right Thing is a classic and my first ever Spike Lee flick. His other underrated piece of work IMO has to be Clockers which was what Dangerous Minds wanted to be but was scared to go there.
Loved Harvey Keitel's performance.
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2:54AM on 11/25/2013
25th Hour is one of my favorite films of all time and the whole 'fuck you' rant is my favorite scene from any film of anything of all time. Such an underrated gem with powerhouse performances from Norton, Barry Pepper, and Brian Cox. Truly a fantastic film.
25th Hour is one of my favorite films of all time and the whole 'fuck you' rant is my favorite scene from any film of anything of all time. Such an underrated gem with powerhouse performances from Norton, Barry Pepper, and Brian Cox. Truly a fantastic film.
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4:45AM on 11/25/2013
Hell yeah!!!
Hell yeah!!!
+16
2:26AM on 11/25/2013

Miracle at St. Anna?

Whoever writes these things doesn't know the definition of "overrated." Overrated means the movie was highly praised and you believe it was undeserved. Miracle at St. Anna is one of Lee's worst reviewed films and was a flop at the box office. Perhaps that makes it a contender for Lee's "worst movie," but not his most overrated.

I don't think Lee has any "overrated" films. All of his great ones are truly great and regarded as such, and vice versa.
Whoever writes these things doesn't know the definition of "overrated." Overrated means the movie was highly praised and you believe it was undeserved. Miracle at St. Anna is one of Lee's worst reviewed films and was a flop at the box office. Perhaps that makes it a contender for Lee's "worst movie," but not his most overrated.

I don't think Lee has any "overrated" films. All of his great ones are truly great and regarded as such, and vice versa.
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2:12AM on 11/25/2013
He's a badass alright. Do the Right Thing is best work and Inside Man is his most underrated movie. You just never know how the movie is going to end.
He's a badass alright. Do the Right Thing is best work and Inside Man is his most underrated movie. You just never know how the movie is going to end.
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+10
1:57AM on 11/25/2013
I think Inside Man is his most underrated movie, I really loved that movie
I think Inside Man is his most underrated movie, I really loved that movie
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