Wednesday, February 29, 2012

RACE IN CINEMA MONTH: IN PRAISE OF SPIKE LEE


I always knew, embarking on this Race In Cinema Month project, that in order to do the job right, Spike Lee was going to have to be part of it, because no filmmaker in American cinema has contributed more to the national discourse on race and racism as Spike. His movies are bold, and more often than not brilliant, examinations of particular facets or persons of importance in the history of race in America. This, of course, has led to Spike pissing lots and lots of people off; one can argue that his command over the medium of pissing people off is the equivalent to that over the medium of cinema. And that's what I so dearly and passionately love about Spike: the man does not give a fuck about pissing people off.

What I hadn't realized before going back and revisiting his movies, though, is how aesthetically central that is to his work. Starting with his first feature, She's Gotta Have It (1986), Spike's style was one that simultaneously employed the kind of Brechtian alienation effect that Jean-Luc Godard introduced to mainstream cinema in the 1960s, reminding the audience that they're watching a movie, while employing as many meticulously precise details that the experience is of a recognizable reality. In She's Gotta Have It, the characters spend as much time talking to the camera as they do to each other, with the entire movie shot in grainy black-and-white with the exception of one dance sequence (which in terms of strict film grammar, felt kind of Bollywood, speaking of non-naturalistic cinematic traditions). This style, distinctly and defiantly in contrast to the smooth, soothing, naturalistic techniques employed by many mainstream Hollywood movies, forces audiences to watch the movie more actively, and promotes more thought about what they're watching. Which, considering that She's Gotta Have It is challenging conventionally held positions on race, gender, and the interplay between the two, makes it an extremely effective way to tell the story.

Of course, if not for the fact that it's a wildly entertaining, funny, and charming movie, She's Gotta Have It would just be a lecture, which would make it less effective as that thing, much in the same way that Tracy Camilla Johns' Nola Darling is a compelling character for her sweetness and sincerity rather than because she's beautiful and voraciously sexual. Spike himself, as Mars, is an amiable Everynerd, charmingly relentless, and given to impassioned monologues about the supremacy of Bernard King, which certainly sounds familiar, even if nowadays you need to substitute Jeremy Lin for Bernard. But the point is, he's relatable and real in a way that Nola's other two boyfriends are only to lesser degrees. There are moments, as in every Spike Lee joint, that are simply breathtaking reminders of how fucking good cinema can be, just as there are a couple things here and there that don't work. Such is the life of a director who swings for the fences.

She's Gotta Have It both established a lot of what would come in Spike's career, but remains apart from the rest of it, kind of like a prologue that sets the scene for what's yet to come. The career it preceded has had its ups and downs, but a certain degree of inconsistency is inevitable with that level of ambition. Spike's career, at this point, falls into a few discrete strata: there are the ones where it's like, “that's a good idea, but it all falls apart at a certain point,” the ones that are pretty much awesome but there are a couple (occasionally really glaring) things that didn't work, the absolutely sublime works of transcendent genius, and then a subcategory that's a slightly separate discussion: the mainstream commercial work-for-hire pictures. All are linked by their Spikeness: often great, always interesting, never boring. (Note: I never made it all the way through Summer of Sam or Miracle At St. Anna, though I'm given to understand that, in their entirety, they fall under the first category as listed below.)


“Good idea, but falls apart”: Examples—She Hate Me, Girl 6, Mo' Better Blues

None of which are entirely bad, mind you. She Hate Me, in particular, provoked an interesting conversation this one night when I was in grad school, where the consensus was that the stuff Spike was trying to say with Anthony Mackie's character getting fucked over by the system and how he's a symbol of the problems black professionals in general face in corporate America being almost completely overwhelmed by the fact that the most memorable thing about the movie is that he fucks a bunch of lesbians. Now, there is a movie in there about capitalism, blackness, and sex. And it's not like Spike completely fucks it up, but he does kind of shoot himself in the foot by setting things up so all anyone remembers is “Anthony Mackie shtupping lesbians,” leaving himself open to accusations that he's making a jerkoff fantasy. It's especially disappointing because Spike proved in his first feature that he was empathetic and understanding toward gay women, and here he is twenty years later apparently fapping about femmes craving dick, which he wasn't, but he also could have used a couple more drafts on the script; most of Spike's pictures that don't quite work can eventually be traced back to this as even at his best he's a better director than he is a writer. Girl 6, also about sexuality and sex work, doesn't quite have the same fantastical bullshit problem, but's still a little rickety on tone and pacing and doesn't quite work, though it has its moments.

Mo' Better Blues is an entirely different kind of picture, and is an example of Spike's admirable willingness to try new things, but it's a little too preoccupied with being cool, and it suffers from a weird, and uncharacteristic, slowness. But Denzel's great in it (when is Denzel not great?), as is a young Wesley Snipes, and the music's fucking killer. It's important to remember, even slightly-off-his-usual-standard Spike is still awesome.


Pretty much awesome but for one or two things here and there: Examples—School Daze, Jungle Fever, Crooklyn, He Got Game, Bamboozled.

All of these are just straight up fuck yeah. Lumping them all together feels a little reductive because while you can always tell a Spike Lee joint a mile away, no two are ever exactly alike, and all contain multitudes. Bamboozled is a magnificent bit of provocation, about which I wrote a bit here (scroll down til you see the relevant story). He Got Game is really quite excellent, and of course Spike makes sure all the basketball is perfect—in particular, the look the camera captures on Ray Allen's face when Denzel, as his father, tells him that he was named not for Jesus Christ, but for someone much greater, basketball legend Earl Monroe, says everything the movie needs to say about how special basketball is—although at times the music seems to undermine the action onscreen in a way that doesn't seem intentional, unlike Spike's customary alienation techniques, as there's no apparent purpose to it. Still, it's a terrific movie; the music thing only pops up like twice.

Jungle Fever handles the relationship between Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra compassionately and well (the fact that Spike makes her such a sympathetic character without making her implausibly perfect is the clincher), if pessimistically, and the way everyone goes apeshit over their relationship absolutely fucking nails the way interracial couples were perceived in the early 90s (my dad and his girlfriend frequently had people openly stare at them, and me, in public). Ditto the less progressive elements among Bensonhurst Italians, collectively my bete noire when I was in high school (to wit: “Hey, faggot, why the fuck you readin' books all the time, eh? Smattawitchoo, I'll show you a fuckin book, I gotcher book right here, arright?” etc etc). The only thing keeping that movie from being perfect is the Samuel L. Jackson digression. Spike was a bit of an early adopter in that regard, realizing that more Samuel L. is better years before civilians did, but the movie gets swallowed up a bit by the Samuel L. crackhead subplot. Not like it's not still good, but that third act does get a little wobbly.

Crooklyn and School Daze I haven't seen in much longer, though I remember liking the former, and come on, the latter's a musical. That's just fucking awesome.


“Knicks courtside season tickets don't pay for themselves.”: Examples—Clockers, 25th Hour, Inside Man

You gotta hand it to Spike. When he goes and makes a movie at a studio, he makes really fucking good ones. For these, Spike dials down the overt artifice to the point where it registers as normal run of the mill flash, for the most part. All three of these are fucking great, especially Edward Norton's mirror image to that one part in Do The Right Thing with that brilliant montage in 25th Hour where he tells everyone in New York to go fuck themselves, and the guy in Inside Man with his New York accent telling the cops to give him his fucking turban back. That's the thing about Spike: being from New York, there's at least one moment in every one of his movies where anyone who's from here fucking stands up and salutes. More than anyone else, including Marty and Woody, Spike makes me fucking proud to be from New York. This comes out a lot more in pictures like 25th Hour and Inside Man, where the more commercial cinematic vernacular (reactive viewing experiences as opposed to proactive) means the audience has more time to chill out and enjoy shit, like how vividly and passionately Spike clearly loves New York even when he's not literally saying it.


He Got Game (i.e. Spike operating at the peak of his powers): Examples—Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, Get On The Bus, all his documentaries

There's a limit to what I'm able to actually say about Get On The Bus and his documentaries (4 Little Girls, When The Levees Broke, If God Is Willing And Da Creek Don't Rise) other than just watch and listen. The technique employed by Spike in each case is intended entirely to impart information, and what he's saying is important. So watch and listen.

Do The Right Thing is a huge, ambitious, stylized, righteously angry masterpiece. It's a little beyond my abilities to describe it succinctly and still do it justice. But holy shit is it good. It's also aged extremely well for a picture that was so heavy on references to current events of the time it was in production. And, if anything, Danny Aiello and John Turturro seem more realistic and less like cardboard villains now. Ah, Do The Right Thing. If anyone ever questions Spike's genius, plunk them down in front of this and tell them to shut the fuck up.

Still, it's a toss-up whether Do The Right Thing or Malcolm X is my favorite picture of Spike's. Malcolm X might be the best biopic ever made, and I say that knowing full well that its competition is stuff like Lawrence of Arabia and Raging Bull. What it has in common with the former is the sense of truly being epic (a word that gets tossed around a little casually these days, including by me, I can't lie), and with the latter a fierce and passionate personal connection between director and subject. One of the most brilliant choices Spike could have made was casting Denzel as Malcolm; Denzel doesn't look anything like Malcolm at all, but Denzel is Denzel, and Spike was smart enough to know that gravitas is a universal language in film acting, and something that can't be taught, and something Denzel has coming out of his pores. His losing to Al Pacino that year at the Oscars was the final lesson I needed about the Oscars not really having anything to do with justice. Also, coincidentally, one of my favorite dance scenes in cinema is in this: toward the end (right before Malcolm gets shot, actually) there's a dance where Junior Walker's “Shotgun” is playing that's just fucking stunning. Like the movie itself (whose epilogue, by the way, is something that it's perfectly acceptable to pretend doesn't exist; it only works in certain moods).


Spike Lee, author of some of the most vividly alive cinema the medium has ever known. Genius. Shit-starter. Overgrown kid. Fierce advocate for justice. New Yorker. Auteur. Here's to you, you unique and wonderful artist.