Between Cate Blanchett being appointed to head the largely female jury at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and the much-publicized march of 82 women down the red carpet at the start of the festival (representing the mere 82 women directors in 71 years who’ve competed for the Palme d’Or), many have come to predict that one of the three female filmmakers in competition this year would take the top prize. This article won’t diverge from that prediction, and of the three possibilities, Alice Rohwacher’s Happy As Lazzaro still seems like the safest bet, even with reports coming in that Blanchett teared up at the world premiere of Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum.
Spike Lee (#1–10 of 50)
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.
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).
1. “Jean-Claude Carrière’s Theater of the Absurd.” For Interview, Colleen Kelsey sits down with the famous screenwriter.
“When you write a book you are alone, and you need solitude, concentration, a sort of silence. But when I’m with a director, I love to go on walks, to sit down at the terrace of the café, to observe, to look at people. Everything comes from life, no doubt about it. When I first met Jacques Tati, I received—I don’t know how to translate exactly—des leçons du regard, ’the teaching how to look.’ A filmmaker doesn’t look around like anybody, or a photographer, or a painter. They look in a different way. For example, I am a close friend of Julian Schnabel. He lives in my place in Paris, I live in his place in New York. When we go together to see an exhibit, for instance, we went to see a Van Gogh exhibit in Paris last summer, he looks the way a painter looks at a painting. He teaches me. I’m learning from him things that I would never, never have thought about. For instance, when you pose in front of a painter, the look from the painter to you is not the same as the look from the photographer. He’s looking for something else. That’s extremely interesting. Being motionless in front of a great painter for two hours is a real experience. He finds things inside yourself that you ignore.”
1. “What Was Gay?” In an increasingly accepting world, homosexual men are all too eager to leave their campy, cruising past behind. But the price of equality shouldn’t be conformity.
“Of course, anyone who’s even eavesdropped on the long-running debate over ’gay identity’ among homosexuals will know that this position—that gayness might be located in sensibility or style as well as sex—is currently anathema. We live in the era dominated by a born-this-way, ’it’s-a-small-part-of-me’ ethos that minimizes gay difference to sexual attraction. The current dogma among mainstream LGBTQ advocacy organizations and the majority of gay writers and public figures sees gayness as little more than a hazy accident of biology that shouldn’t be legally or socially disadvantaging. Any notion of some inherent cultural affiliation (’gays love Gaga’) or unique sensibility (’fags get fashion’) has been pretty much disavowed within the community—imagine the uproar if some naive network executive tried rebooting a minstrelsy-driven show like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy in 2015—and many straights have gotten the memo as well.”
1. ”’We’re in Disarray’: An Interview With Spike Lee.” The filmmaker discusses Ferguson, getting tenure at NYU, and the eclecticism of his new movie, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.
“Yeah, but you can’t live your life on Kickstarter. I know I can’t. It’ll give you a pass one time. But I’ll work within the Hollywood system. It just depends upon the budget. I’m not crazy. I knew going in that there’s no way any studio would do this film. I never even sent it out. It was always conceived as a Kickstarter project. So the goal was to raise the money in the time allotted, and we did it. But not getting the necessary funds for a project has happened before. Not just to me. There’s a lot of great stuff out there that has yet to receive financing and the green light. That’s just the nature of the beast in dealing with the Hollywood system. And also, if you have a script that’s ambitious, even with Kickstarter you’re not going to raise $10 million. That’s not going to happen.”
1. “Kenneth Anger Interview.” Harmony Korine chats with the iconic underground filmmaker.
“Well, I had to tailor my dreams to fit my budgets. Except in a few cases, like when Sir Paul Getty was alive and he sponsored my Mickey Mouse film [Mouse Heaven, 2004], I had very limited financial resources. So that has dictated my product. With Rabbit’s Moon [1950-79], I was helped by the Cinémathèque Française. They gave me the 35mm film to make it. It was the same film that [Jean] Cocteau used for Beauty and the Beast—the same 35mm negative. I had plans to do a film based on Les Chants de Maldoror by Lautréamont. I did film part of it with one of the ballet groups in France. I made platforms just below the surface of the water; there were, like, tables, they were held down so they wouldn’t float away. So it appeared that the dancers were actually dancing on the water. It’s not a very special effect, because if you had the money, you could do it with people dancing in the air if you wanted.”
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.
- bill lee
- danny aiello
- do the right thing
- fight the power
- Frankie Faison
- giancarlo esposito
- Jean Luc Godard
- john turturro
- lift every voice and sing
- malcolm x
- martin luther king jr.
- ossie davis
- our town
- paul benjamin
- public enemy
- richard edson
- robin harris
- rosie perez
- Spike Lee
- steve park
- summer of 89
- thornton wilder
1. ”Good, the Bad and the Ugly Star Eli Wallach Dies at 98.” The character actor from Brooklyn was at his best playing banditos in that Clint Eastwood classic as well as in The Magnificent Seven, just two highlights of his six-decade-plus career.
“Eli Wallach, the enduring and artful character actor who starred as Mexican hombres in the 1960s film classics The Magnificent Seven and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, has died. He was 98. Wallach, who won a Tony Award in 1951 for playing Alvaro in Tennessee Williams’ original production of The Rose Tattoo, made his movie debut as a cotton-gin owner trying to seduce a virgin in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956) and worked steadily well into his nineties, died on Tuesday, his daughter Katherine told The New York Times. No other details of his death were immediately available.”
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.”