Friday, March 24, 2006

In Praise of Lee

The following paragraph
concludes Manohla Dargis's
New York Times review of
Spike Lee's Inside Man.

Mr. Lee, meanwhile, most
likely wants the respect that
has always been his due.
Consistently underrated and
underappreciated, this film-
maker is an erratic talent,
if no more so than many
ensconced in Hollywood, and his insistence that race matters
has cost him dearly with the mainstream (i.e., white) audience. He's right, of course, that race matters, which is why, in between
plot points and star turns, he gently and, at times, rather hilar-
iously, insists on reminding us that it does. He may have sublet
this "Spike Lee Joint" to out-of-towners, but it's good to see
that he hasn't left the neighborhood.

Man, this is exactly what I've been saying for years. I am so tired
of people badmouthing Lee all the time. More often than not, his
harshest critics tend to be those least familiar with his work, and
that ticks me off even more. I mean, really folks, there's a lot out
there, and it covers the gamut—wrenching docs (Four Little Girls),
powerful bio-pics (Malcolm X), scrappy indies (She's Gotta Have
It). Please give it a fair shot before you write the guy off.

Do I think Lee is targeted because he's black? No. Do I think it's
because he's black, inconsistent, and outspoken? God, yes. And
I certainly haven't agreed with everything he's ever said or done—
who has?—but there's no doubt the guy has passion, and that
his work means more to him than just another paycheck.

Spike Lee makes the movies he wants to make on his own terms.
As with other modern day mavericks, like Robert Altman and
Terence Malick, this means he can also be his own worst enemy,
but when you sit down to watch "A Spike Lee Joint," that's exact-
ly what you're going to get. In other words: truth in advertising.
Which brings me to a couple of other reasons he's become such an
easy target. He acts and spends time on Madison Avenue. This
makes him immediately suspect to some comers, although they're
just as quick to give David Lynch a free pass on the latter account.

Arguably, Lee has stuck to his guns in a way such independent-
minded directors as Martin Scorsese and Terry Gilliam haven't
been able to, i.e. by working with the Disney-owned Miramax,
for instance, they haven't always had complete control over cer-
tain decisions. (Read Gilliam on Gilliam for the story behind
the casting of Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys
or Dreams and Nightmares regarding The Brothers Grimm.)

I don't just admire Lee's passion, I love it. Let's face it, a lot of
directors—especially Hollywood directors, which the Knicks-
loving Lee is not—lose their fire once they hit middle age. Lee
(born 1957) will never lose his fire. Also, from day one, each of
his films has been about something, has had something to say.
That sort of approach to filmmaking has been declassé since
the 1980s—you know, just when he was getting his start.

So, do I think his movies are entertaining? Again: God, yes. They
also look good, sound good (thank Terence Blanchard and Public
Enemy, among other artists), and frequently feature strong per-
formances from strong actors. Increasingly, they're becoming
more integrated, as well as more genre-oriented, but he con-
tinues to work with the best, regardless as to race.

This transition began with Clockers (1995) and Son of Sam (1999),
both of which feature a number of prominent white/non-black
actors (Harvey Keitel, John Leguizamo). And not just white, but
mostly Italian, as in two of his best known "black" films: Do the
Right Thing (Danny Aiello, John Turturro) and Jungle Fever
(Annabella Sciorra). He did grow up in Bed-Stuy after all.

Lee is also a canny spotter of talent. Jungle Fever (1991) featur-
es Samuel L. Jackson, four years prior to the Oscar nom, and Hal-
le Berry, eleven years prior to the Oscar win (both convincingly
portray drug addicts). Jackson and Lee, with Quentin Tarantino
as the other point in the triangle, have since had a public falling
out over the "N word"—the former utters it numerous times in
Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, and Lee's no fan—so it's doubt-
ful they'll collaborate again soon, but I'd love to see him re-team
with Berry. (And it's worth noting that Jackson once said, in
regards to Get Rich or Die Tryin, that he would never work
with 50 Cent, and now they're starring in a film together.)

Lee also discovered ER star Mekhi Phifer while casting Clockers. Phifer has been working steadily ever since (and if you haven't seen Tim Blake Nelson's prep school-set Othello, O, by all means, please do). Then Lee worked with a tall drink of water named Adrian Brody (Son of Sam again), who didn't just go on to win the Oscar--but got to soul kiss Halle Berry in the process. It's tempting to say Lee made all this possible. A gross exaggeration, perhaps, but he was definitely part of the process!

Now, of course, Lee is moving on to actors of British descent. Again, regardless as to race. And if that means such charismatic talents as the Oscar-nominated Clive Owen (Closer) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, Serenity, Four Brothers), who can blame him? While I'm at it, I'd love to see him work with Eamonn Walker (Oz) and Idris Elba (The Wire). Many people probably think they're American. They're not, but they can do pretty much anything, if films like Buffalo Soldiers, Lord of War, Duma, and Sometimes in April are anything to go by.

Speaking of great actors, black or otherwise, how can I not mention Denzel Washington? Neither of his two Oscars (Glory, Training Day) stem from Spike Lee Joints--he was robbed for X--but this star keeps coming back for more. He doesn't have to. Washington can work with whomever he wants, and he has, but he's been with Lee ever since Mo' Better Blues (1990) and continues to do some of his best work for the guy.

Scorsese, on the other hand, hasn't worked with Harvey Keitel or Robert De Niro for ages and I think his work has suffered for it. (I like Leonardo DiCaprio, I really do, but I just don't think he's in the same weight class, either literally or figuratively.)

Speaking of Scorsese, Inside Man marks the first time Jodie Foster (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Taxi Driver), another two-time Oscar winner, has worked with Lee (first time for Christopher Plummer, too). Like Tarantino, Lee has long claimed Scorsese as an influence, so it makes perfect sense that both men would want to work with members of Marty's old repertory company.

But back to Lee's films. They're never just "mere" entertainments. Even his worst have something to recommend them, and are worth checking out. Take She Hate Me, for instance. The latter is possibly his most misguided effort yet, but it's still eminently watchable--faint praise, to be sure, but praise nonetheless.

In this 2004 film, Lee sends up the way wealthy urban professionals add babies to their lives as if they were designer handbags. (The idea of kids as accessories makes my blood boil.) He also gives Anthony Mackie (Million Dollar Baby) one of his few leading roles--and the guy runs with it. Why don't more directors give him that chance? Then again, this is one of the most naïve films you could ever hope to see about the "lesbian lifestyle," i.e. give a gay woman a hot stud like Mackie, who impregnates them for a fee, and they'll turn straight--at least for an hour. Lee, my friend, you've been watching too many pornos!

If you're reading this, no doubt you've seen 1989's Do the Right Thing. I've watched it at least three times now, and it never fails to move me. That Ruby Dee, especially: A career high point.

There's a good chance you've also seen She's Gotta Have It and Malcolm X. If you found anything of value in those films, I would also recommend School Daze (easily his most underrated), Crooklyn (the blueprint for Chris Rock's Bed-Stuy-set Everybody Hates Chris), Get on the Bus, He Got Game, Bamboozled, The Original Kings of Comedy, and 25th Hour. There are still a few I haven't seen, like Girl 6--featuring Quentin Tarantino, no less!--but I intend to fill every gap. To quote Lee hisself, "Sho nuf!"

Postscript: Inside Man is a Universal production, so doesn't qualify as an indie, but it's definitely a Spike Lee Joint. Although his films haven't always done well at the box office, I predict this'll be one of his biggest hits. It's a smart, funny, surprisingly non-violent thriller. Washington and Foster are rarely allowed to have this much fun on screen--and they take full advantage. The movie's a little over-long, perhaps, but that's a small price to pay for quality entertainment. [03/26: According to the AP, Inside Man "debuted as the No. 1 weekend film with $29 million--the best opening ever for both the filmmaker and his star."]

Note: Images from The New York Times.

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