House Logo
Explore categories +

Spike Lee (#110 of 49)

Summer of ’91 Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever

Comments Comments (...)

Summer of ’91: Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever

Universal Pictures

Summer of ’91: Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever

The interracial love story that anchors Jungle Fever is the least interesting element of Spike Lee’s 1991 joint. It’s the dull circle from which more compelling plot tangents offshoot. While the director is game for a surface-level exploration of the trials and tribulations of forbidden love, his once-controversial subject matter is merely a selling point designed to get asses into theater seats. Once Lee hooks his audience with the promise of sin, he pivots his social commentary to a tragic secondary character, just as Douglas Sirk did in Imitation of Life. This is appropriate, because Jungle Fever is the equivalent of a 1950s message picture. Expertly wielding his influences, Lee throws a dash of Delbert Mann and a soupcon of Stanley Kramer into the proceedings. Though the outcome is at times woefully dated, it’s also the origin of several ideas Lee would return to in subsequent films.

Redeeming a House of Fire Ashley Clark’s Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled

Comments Comments (...)

Redeeming a House of Fire: Ashley Clark’s Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled
Redeeming a House of Fire: Ashley Clark’s Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled

Spike Lee’s filmography is littered with films maudits, but perhaps none of his works have been as disrespected, shrugged off, and unjustly neglected as Bamboozled, a ferocious, free-range satire of race, media, and misrepresentation that landed with a thud of confusion and indifference upon its release in the fall of 2000. The film is currently out of print on DVD, has never received a Blu-ray release, and is unavailable to stream on any VOD platform. But in Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, a brief but perspicacious monograph on Lee’s most incendiary “joint,” author Ashley Clark reclaims the reputation of Bamboozled as “a vital work that’s equal parts crystal ball and cannonball: glittering and prophetic, heavy and dangerous.”

Lee’s Network-derived satire tells of Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), a buppie TV executive who, in an attempt to torpedo his own career, creates a sure-fire flop: Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, a “coon show” featuring black performers in blackface shucking and jiving on a watermelon plantation. The show, naturally, is a huge hit. Despite protests from the black elite, white and black audiences alike delight in the show’s retrograde racial stereotyping, as well as in the genuine talent of its lead performers, Mantan (Savion Glover) and Sleep n’ Eat (Tommy Davidson).

Summer of ‘89: Do the Right Thing

Comments Comments (...)

Summer of ’89: Do the Right Thing
Summer of ’89: Do the Right Thing

It’s tempting to watch Do the Right Thing, 25 years after so much ink was spilled over fears that the film would incite black audiences to riots as massive as the one that climaxes the film itself, and, with the benefit of hindsight, ask what all the controversy was all about. Even now, Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece still pulses with incendiary passion, exuding the invigorating feel of a filmmaker trying to put all of his feelings on racism in American society into one film. But seeing Do the Right Thing now, one can’t help but notice all the contradictory ideas and characterizations floating around and wonder how people could miss the film’s clear-eyed thematic complexity.

Though Lee reserves his most potent explication of the film’s multifaceted perspective toward the end (with consecutive on-screen quotations from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X—more on that later), one can already grasp its contradictions in the music that adorns its opening credits: a solemn instrumental solo-saxophone rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”—the song popularly known as the “Negro national anthem”—underscoring the appearance of the film’s title on screen before “Fight the Power” crashes onto the soundtrack, set to the sight of Rosie Perez dancing energetically to the Public Enemy song behind neon-colored backdrops of the Brooklyn block that will be the film’s main setting. From quiet restraint to pent-up anger—that’s the fundamental animating dichotomy of Do the Right Thing, thematically and stylistically, and while many of us may remember the film’s furies the most, that’s not to shortchange the moments of eloquence sprinkled throughout.

Summer of ‘89: For Queen and Country

Comments Comments (...)

Summer of ‘89: <em>For Queen and Country</em>
Summer of ‘89: <em>For Queen and Country</em>

Early in his career, Denzel Washington played characters that often found themselves embedded within an environment of significant political import. In 1986’s Power, his Arnold Billing stood in the way of an ambitious media consultant played by Richard Gere; in 1987’s Cry Freedom, he received an Oscar nomination for portraying political activist Steve Biko; and 1989’s The Mighty Quinn suggested a more multi-faceted Washington, an actor capable of the charisma, humor, energy, and virility he would come to be best known for in the films of Spike Lee and Tony Scott. Thus, it’s unsurprising given such precedence that For Queen and Country found Washington inhabiting a role that requires a quieter, less fiery energy, often in service of a narrative that has little clue as to how such dynamism could be utilized. It would be a year later, in Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, before Washington’s talents would be fully actualized.

Perhaps it’s fortunate for Washington’s career, then, that For Queen and Country was both a commercial and financial failure. Critics generally praised Washington while denigrating the film, which makes sense because director Martin Stellman, perhaps previously best known as a credited screenwriter for 1979’s Quadrophenia, addresses the racism inherent to Britain’s 1981 Nationality Law, which denied citizenship to those born in the West Indies, as fodder for the most banal sort of, what film scholar James Naremore calls, “male melodrama.”

Eminem Makes Up with Mom in Spike Lee-Directed Music Video for "Headlights"

Comments Comments (...)

Eminem Makes Up with Mom in Spike Lee-Directed Music Video for “Headlights”
Eminem Makes Up with Mom in Spike Lee-Directed Music Video for “Headlights”

There comes a time in most people’s lives when they realize their parents did the best they could. For many of us, that realization happens sometime in our 20s, after we’ve moved out on our own and had a taste of adult life. For Eminem, who’s always been a little stunted thanks to his dysfunctional upbringing, that time didn’t come until he hit 40. As our own Ted Scheinman pointed out in his review of last year’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2, Em’s mom has always proven to be a handy villain in the rapper’s music, but he extended an olive branch—or at least a twig—on “Headlights,” a standout track from the album featuring Fun’s Nate Ruess.