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Fight the Power: Spike Lee’s Films Ranked

Fight the Power: Spike Lee’s Films Ranked

 

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Artists, as opposed to sensationalist technicians, understand violence as a transmission of energy that’s repulsive yet hypnotic. There’s a reason people slow down to watch highway accidents and street brawls, or reliably patronize gory blockbusters and TV series. No contemporary American filmmaker grasps—or channels—this conflict of the rational (moral judgment, or superior pretense thereof) and the irrational (fearful animal urge to get off on annihilation) more vividly than Spike Lee, who’s in the midst of a fertile creative cycle that began with 2012’s Red Hook Summer.

Now working with lower budgets, Lee has refined his aesthetic into a kind of hothouse poetry of compacted excess. His cinema is presently a series of contrasts and frictions: between large and small scale (the latter often symbolizing the former), and reverent and irreverent tones. The chief ambiguity of the filmmaker’s work, though, is his attitude toward violence, and its intermingling with the sexual tension existing between the over-charged men and manipulative women that populate his cinema.

On the occasion of the release of Lee’s volcanic new film, BlacKkKlansman, which is profound for the way that it recognizes the dangerous and romantic simplicity of hatred and the violence it can spark, we look back at the filmmaker’s feature-length theatrical joints. Chuck Bowen
 

Fight the Power: Spike Lee’s Films Ranked

27

She Hate Me (2004)

Spike Lee’s She Hate Me begins with a montage of Dead Presidents that culminates with a shot of a three-dollar bill that links George W. Bush to the Enron scandal. This “All About the Benjamins” sequence sets up what begins as a promising critique of our greed-driven corporate culture. Throughout, Lee contrasts corporate and familial responsibility, and though he doesn’t seem to see a difference between what happens in the workspace and what happens in the bedroom, his barely articulate theories are undermined by his laughable notion of what lesbians want and how they want it. Jack Armstrong (Anthony Mackie), a rich brother working for a firm that’s on the brink of releasing an AIDS vaccine, turns whistle blower after stumbling over evidence of financial malfeasance. His higher-ups then turn on him, and once Jack’s bank account is frozen, the film transforms into a whack-off fantasy in which every lesbian in the world wants to get some of Jack’s “man milk.” Most contracts are negotiated with John Hancocks, but in She Hate Me, deals are sealed with hot lesbian action. Spike, get a clue. Gonzalez

Fight the Power: Spike Lee’s Films Ranked

26

Girl 6 (1996)

Spike Lee is plain out of his element here, and it’s no wonder he falls back on stunt casting (from a post-Erotica Madonna as the boss of an illicit “no rules” phone sex ring, to Quentin Tarantino as, well, his own questionable self) and a ceaseless handpicked playlist of his favorite Prince songs. Girl 6, the story of a girl and her stint in the phone-sex biz, is a sloppy and problematic film, no diggity. But the opening audition scene and its thematic reprise at the film’s end aren’t among its mistakes. Actually, they are among the film’s only signs of cognitively dissonant, Godardian life. Girl 6’s screenplay was written by a woman, Pulitzer-winner Suzan-Lori Parks, and Theresa Randle’s disrobe-under-duress is, in actuality, Parks’s own built-in reminder to everyone who’s actually telling the tale. Tarantino and Lee aren’t so stylistically exclusive that most wouldn’t recognize Tarantino’s obvious function as a stand-in. (Only the racial difference between them confuses the metaphor.) So what Parks demonstrates by forcing Lee to force Randle into the dressing-down room is exactly what Tarantino says: “It’s what the role requires.” Or rather, it’s what every current role for young black women requires. Eric Henderson

Fight the Power: Spike Lee’s Films Ranked

25

Miracle at St. Anna (2008)

A dollop of Saving Private Ryan, a dash of Letters from Iwo Jima, and a sprinkle of Italian neorealism characterize the style and sentiment of Miracle at St. Anna, a generally ludicrous and—at 160 minutes—punishing saga meant to be producer-director Spike Lee’s bid to memorialize the heroism of African-American soldiers during WWII. While Lee’s movies often benefit from excellent performances from first-rate actors and clever visual design, these positives are often overwhelmed by an over-the-top narrative style that works to kill the inherent intelligence and poignancy of the material. The film is strewn with betrayals—sexual, political, familial and otherwise—all the way to the requisite, Saving Private Ryan-like gun-battle climax, in which soldiers try to evacuate the village of Sant’Anna di Stazzema as Germans storm in. Amid the obligatory pell-mell of screaming and gunfire, Lee wedges in a seemingly miraculous intervention—call it deus ex machina or Hollywood contrivance—on which the whole of this Oscar bait of a production hinges. For every decently observed scene, there are a dozen dull, asinine ones to be endured, awash in over-orchestration and silly visual choices. Jay Antani

Fight the Power: Spike Lee’s Films Ranked

24

Oldboy (2013)

It’s difficult to see any real precedent for this kind of pulpy material in Spike Lee’s previous work, and it’s perhaps as a result that the former wunderkind is at his most anonymized and restrained here, plugging along in hired-gun mode. The pacing is well measured, and there’s professional skill in every frame but none of the ebullient verve of Red Hook Summer; Josh Brolin floating along atop the dolly for a few short seconds acts as one of the few instances of self-reference, which is odd for a director who usually packs his movies with as many signature touches as possible. Working off Mark Protosevich’s script, Lee does push up one interesting angle, flirting with a post-9/11 parable in the style of Steven Spielberg’s Munich, but the metaphorical implications of a man whipped into a frenzy by his thirst for revenge are undercut by the restorative properties of a too-neat conclusion. Where Park Chan-wook’s original imagined the wronged sibling taking revenge on the protagonist as a buttoned-down maniac mogul, the villain here takes the form of an obscenely wealthy, mustache-twirling British blue-blood (played tediously by Sharlto Copley), a choice that, combined with some other absurd touches, pushes the last act into full-tilt farce. In this and other instances, Oldboy seems to be responding to the sillier qualities of its source material by ramping up the ridiculousness, adding heightened violence to spice up the broth. Jesse Cataldo

Fight the Power: Spike Lee’s Films Ranked

23

Pass Over (2018)

Where many filmed plays attempt to “open up” their source material, Pass Over doubles down on its theatricality. The film was shot at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, and filmmaker Spike Lee worked in close collaboration with stage director Danya Taymor, sporadically wedding theatrical restrictions with cinematic compositions. With a few notable exceptions, the film is set on the Steppenwolf’s stage, which has been abstractly dressed to resemble an austere Chicago city block. Audiences may wish, however, that the mediums of theater and cinema had been more playfully merged, as Pass Over can use all the variety it can muster. Based on a play by Antoinette Nwandu, the film is concerned with restriction, which Lee and Taymor embrace with a purity of intent that’s remarkable and actively stifling. Bowen

Fight the Power: Spike Lee’s Films Ranked

22

Inside Man (2006)

Inside Man is so thoroughly crammed with symbolic undertones that virtually everything contains allegorical culture-clash potential. For instance, is there some hidden meaning behind Dalton Russell’s (Clive Owen) thieves entering the Wall Street bank in white painter’s outfits, but then changing into gray jumpsuits later on? And what does it say about Denzel Washington’s persecuted detective Frazier Keith that he ultimately, triumphantly, dons a dapper cream-colored suit? In Dalton’s forcing his prisoners to wear matching, identity-negating outfits, Lee seems to be critiquing racial profiling by challenging Washington’s hero to distinguish criminals from innocents without the benefit of knowing his suspects’ skin color. Yet despite its leads enthusiastically breathing life into their sub-Sidney Lumet characters, the languid Inside Man offers few insights into modern societal discord and provides only scant cops-and-robbers kicks. Perhaps not Lee’s dullest joint, it’s nonetheless one of his most sloppily rolled. Nick Schager

Fight the Power: Spike Lee’s Films Ranked

21

Mo’ Better Blues (1990)

Spike Lee’s tribute to jazz may not stand shoulder to padded shoulder with Do the Right Thing, but it represents cinematographer Ernest Dickerson’s masterpiece. The visuals give you life through a jazzman’s night-owl eyes, starting with an opening credits sequence that bathes a solitary trumpet in a sumptuous, shiny metallic blue light. Dickerson’s vibrant reds also dominate his canvas and are synonymous with sin: It’s in the bright red light that bursts forth from the open door of the jazz club as a man is dragged out to be beaten in the street, and in the same red dress that both of Bleek Gilliam’s (Denzel Washington) women wear to a meeting at which they weren’t supposed to simultaneously appear. Dickerson treats those cool blues and hot reds like the proverbial angel and devil on the characters’ shoulders. If only Lee had trusted these images more, instead of bogging them down with clunky dialogue and exposition. Because when he lets his directorial visions speak for themselves, the film’s flaws are temporarily forgiven. Odie Henderson

Fight the Power: Spike Lee’s Films Ranked

20

He Got Game (1998)

Considering Spike Lee’s fanatical courtside reactions at Knicks games, it’s entirely believable that He Got Game would regard basketball with a Pentecostal pastor’s fervor. The film even has a savior named Jesus (former Milwaukee Buck Ray Allen), whose high school athletic prowess practically guarantees ascension into the holy ranks of the NBA. Lee’s parable demands unshakable faith in the plotline that a warden (Ned Beatty) would spring Jesus’s estranged father, Jake (Denzel Washington), from jail so that he may convince Jesus to sign with the governor’s alma mater rather than turn pro straight out of high school. Jake has a week to make this happen while trying to re-establish a parental bond with his son. This plays out against a frantic quest by coaches and colleges for Jesus’s b-ball miracles, and Lee pulls no punches in showing the ruthlessness that accompanies billion-dollar sports organizations’ seduction of poor black kids with athletic promise, but that strength is undermined by the script’s reductive depiction of women: Jesus’s girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) is a manipulative, calculating gold digger and Milla Jovovich’s hooker with a heart of gold exists solely to provide Jake with some forbidden nookie. Washington gives Jake a hint of the meanness that would later fuel Training Day. His performance, along with Mayik Hassan Sayeed’s cinematography, help the film achieve a small form of grace. Odie Henderson

Fight the Power: Spike Lee’s Films Ranked

19

Passing Strange (2009)

Every now and then, Spike Lee puts his talent and production team to work in the service of someone else’s vision, creating a film that’s more document than documentary. Passing Strange was conceived and written by Stew (a musician whose full name is Mark Stewart) and his musical partner, Heidi Rodewald, both of whom also appear in the play and the film. Loosely based on Stew’s adolescence, it’s the story of a middle-class black kid (Daniel Breaker) who leaves Los Angeles for Europe to search for “the real.” A big part of that search involves breaking free of the stereotypes and expectations he chafed under back home—though, in one funny sequence, he winds up acting “ghetto” to win acceptance from the vaguely anarchic young artists he takes up with in Berlin. Lee’s cameras are able to take us briefly backstage with the jazzed-up cast during intermission, and he encouraged the actors to do an ecstatic reprise of “It’s All Right Now,” a song sung earlier in the play, at the finale. Watching the cast members bounce off of and embrace one another in those unscripted intervals adds another layer to the performance, letting us see something of what it meant to the actors themselves. But sometimes the camera feels intrusive, showcasing exaggerated, often bug-eyed expressions that look like mugging on camera but didn’t bother me at a distance. Elsewhere, the film is prone to cutting from one actor to another during high-energy group scenes rather than showing the group as a whole, chopping a portrait of widespread chaos or abandon into a series of individual shots. Still, Lee and his collaborators did the play proud, honoring its structure and rhythms. Elise Nakhnikian

Fight the Power: Spike Lee’s Films Ranked

18

Summer of Sam (1999)

Nineteen seventy-seven was a formative year for then-20-year-old Spike Lee. During the New York City blackout of that year, he shot footage that would become his student film Last Hustle in Brooklyn. Summer of Sam is set during that same year, but you won’t catch a whiff of Lee’s nostalgia throughout the film’s running time. Lee inherently understands the gulf between black and white urban experience in 1977’s New York. Indeed, as the filmmaker snarkily states on screen, David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz wasn’t shooting people of color during his killing spree, so blacks at the time felt that they had nothing to worry about. As such, Summer of Sam focuses on an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx where people cuss, fight, and screw while taking in the skeevier elements of a still-bankrupt New York. The characters’ panic roils through all of their vibrant personal interactions, which are haphazardly rendered in the wildly tone-shifting vignettes of the script by Lee, Victor Collicchio, and Michael Imperioli. With Brody’s punk character, Lee cannily taps into his familiar theme of the fear of the other and its repercussions. The director also milks a ’70s-movie vibe here, which greatly contributes to his gritty and dark mise-en-scène. Gaudy and imperfect, with scenes of graphic violence uneasily existing alongside broad ethnic comedy, Summer of Sam is one of Lee’s biggest, and most interesting, hot messes. Odie Henderson

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