The Good, The Bad and the Badass: Spike Lee
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
5. SUMMER OF SAM
4. WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE
3. THE 25TH HOUR
2. MALCOLM X
1. DO THE RIGHT THING
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.
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