Spike Lee emerged as a premiere director in 1989 with his film “Do the Right Thing.” With that emergence came the reputation of a tough, uncompromising director and visionary. Many in the industry beilieved his style would be emulated by future generations of filmmakers. Over the next 20 years, he left a trail of hits and misses. When I saw Do the Right Thing, I was blown away, and became engrossed with Lee. I wanted to find out everything about him. I went to a student film festival at UCLA just to see a screening of Lee’s NYU student film, Joe’s Bedstuy Barbershop We Cut Heads. Then I went out and rented She’s Gotta Have It. When I saw She’s Gotta Have It, I thought, ‘Jeez Louise," this guy is so damn young and he’s already got a musical in his oeuvre. But Lee, undoubtedly, softened up and somewhat sold out. He ventured into the mainstream with films like 25th Hour, Inside Man and Summer of Sam, yet he still manages to sneak the political race card into his films from time to time, as his most recent film, Miracle at St. Anna, illustrates. So, does he still have it?
more or less, I think the guy’s still got it. The last thing I saw by him was Inside Man and in the context your asking, I don’t think he actually strayed too far away from the time of Do The Right Thing.
His last movies are as good as his first, actually. My favorite: yes, Do the right thing.
How was “She hate me?” It was one of his last films. I didn’t bother, but I still think Spike has got it.
He Got Game and 25th Hour (minus the 9/11 scenes) are excellent. Inside Man is good too.
I haven’t seen She Hate Me yet, but it is said is his worst film.
He still has it, but its impossible for someone to make a cinematic masterpiece every single time. His problem was that his best regarded movie was one of his earlier movies. Many directors do this, but it doesn’t make them less of a director, it just means critics compare a director’s recent movie to the early ones. Has Tarantino’s recent movies touched the greatness of Dogs or Pulp? Wes Anderson’s last two movies have been awful compared to Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and Tennebaums. After Smith’s Clerks, what happened? Lumet’s first movie (not TV stuff) was 12 Angry Men. While he has gone on to do great movies such as Dog Day, Serpico, and recently The Devil Knows your Dead, there are a ton of bad movies in between. I respect any director that pumps out movies like a Lee or Woody more so than the ones that come out with a film every 3 to 5 years. It’s also a testament to their abilities that someone is willing to financially back them year after year.
She Hate Me for me was unfocused, he was making a commentary about the corruption of big business and how it people who do the right thing (pardon the pun) are punished for it. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen it, but what I remember about it is that the main character is convinced by his now lesbian ex girlfriend ends to get lesbian couples pregnant for money as a means of income because his accounts are suspended. Needless to say it’s pretty ridiculous because it focuses more on the main character dealing with the left over emotions from his previous relationship and a number of sex scenes. Again, it was really unfocused but there was some kind of message there, somewhere.
i don’t think directors ever lose “it” (meaning the ability to make great films) having said that i feel that spike lee has fallen into a pattern that many good directors do. do the right thing was such a large, almost all encompassing, statement on what lee feels is important for his work to deal with. a truly original and idiosyncratic work, it has kinda left him in a lurch as it seems he has nowhere else to go because he said it all in that one picture. having done this, he has moved forward doing what many have done before him after creating their magnum opus at an early age and seems to be devoting his time now to further his exploration of genre and technology.
I don’t like Spike Lee.
Not because I don’t think he has talent; not because I dislike the subject matter of his films; and certainly not because I’m racist.
I don’t like Spike Lee because he always feels the need to moralize and preach in his films, regardless of whether or not it fits. Take, for example, Inside Man which could have otherwise been a (for the most part) interesting crime/heist film, but instead that Spike Lee in all of his wisdom saw fit to tell us something that films for the past 60 years have: Nazis are BAD! It’s not that it completely destroyed the film, rather that it’s a testament to the man’s self-righteousness and need to evince that in all of his works.
And above all, I think this clouds what Spike (should) really wants to do: For someone who dislikes prejudice, he calls attention it, and the issue of race so often. The ultimate reason I don’t like Spike Lee is that he’s done more to fan the flames of racial hatred than he really has to ameliorate it, and whether or not it’s intentional, I find it to be hypocritical.
But hey, that could all just be me. Maybe I’m the hypocrite, and (I’m being serious when I say this) it could just be me who’s the man who can’t see past the issue. And maybe Spike really has done more than I give him credit for to help people be more color blind. In either case, approach my post, like you should approach Spike Lee, with a TON of salt.
My favorite Spike Lee is Get on the Bus, an absolutely beautuifully realized film. Like any great director should, he gets out of his own way and tells a simple, beautiful story. But I also like the oddball comedies that no one else seems to like, Bamboozled and She Hate Me, because I feel like with these films he is making us swallow bitter pills about racism and corporate greed and the battle of the sexes. These films are raw and real and uncomfortable, and they show great daring and imagination.
His “white flms” are okay, films like Summer of Sam and 25th Hour, but fairly conventional by his own standards.
Mo’ Better Blues was an interesting early foray into Douglas Sirk 50’s style Hollywoodiana with a cast of black stars. It’s a film that grows on me in my memory.
And of course, Do the Right Thing is his signature work.
She Hate Me is a mess that’s still vibrant and entertaining if you’re a big fan of his style. He crammed too many different storylines into the film and could have made 3 movies out of the different threads of just that one, but it’s exactly the kind of film, bold and brimming with ideas, that makes Lee relevant to me. He’s the definition of an auteur. He has a distinct visual style and a distinct point of view that he brings to just about everything he does. I don’t think he’s lost anything but I think that his methods have worn on people over time. Surely some of his films are better than others but I think you find great ones throughout his career from Do the Right Thing ‘89 to Malcom X ’92, He Got Game ’97, 25th Hour ’02, Inside Man ’06. I think the latter was an example of Spike toning down the social commentary a bit to make a more mainstream movie and thus it was very well received. I think Spike Lee the celebrity has offended some sensibilities and his personal opinions have grown stale for some but as a director I think he’s lost none of his ability and thankfully none of his nerve.
When the Levees Broke is one of the finest documentaries made in the past ten years, possibly the best in terms of acting as a historical document.
I doubt there will ever be a film made (fiction or documentary) that better shows the horror, personal impact and devastation of Katrina than Lee’s ‘requiem’. It’s a film that will not only be shown in film classes, but history classes as well throughout this current century.
interesting discussion, and i agree with a lot of your points. but i’m particularly interested in a question that troy brought up. i think it begs exploration.
i agree that a director that creates his magnum opus early on has a tough time afterwards. as the thought usually goes, once you hit the top, there’s nowhere else to go but down. if a director makes a brilliant, all-encompassing statement early in his career on what he feels is important for a work of art (or his works of art) to deal with, if he makes that statement as a magnum opus, a grand work of art itself, does that director then have anything left to say, or anything left to give?
Spike Lee is a racist political poseur. A nobody, always has been, always will be. Period!
Often a director will put loads and loads of himself into a first feature, because it’s a long-awaited moment that he or she knows might never come again. So you tend to go for broke. When it works, as was the case with Spike Lee with his first two, She’s Gotta Have It and especially Do the Right Thing, it does set the bar very high for future work. However, a career in film — any career as an artist, which is to say a life as an artist — is a marathon, not a sprint. So you settle into a more relaxed pace, making some films that are smaller and more personal, less ambitious and chock full of stuff. That’s how I see it. It’s not really better or worse, just a sign of someone who intends to be around for a while.
I think that he’s progressively gotten more self-indulgent and conceited over the years. His earlier work up till the beginning of the millenium is great. Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, 25th Hour are all great films. She Hate Me was GOD AWFUL, and Miracle at St. Anna was atrocious. There were good aspects to it, but ultimately St. Anna was made for the wrong reasons.
He was racist to me personally as well. He refused to recognize me amongst a crowd of minorities, and I was literally shoulder to shoulder with him trying to get his attention. I liked him at the time, as well, and was honored to be so near to one of the great NY filmmakers, but the incident turned me off from him and I truly began to realize the negativity in his work as it seems that every white character in his films seems to never have any redemption.
i don’t think that was racism. i think that was hollywood snobbery at its finest! believe you me, there’s plenty of folks that have gotten the treatment from him, regardless of their race. but then again, if there was a crowd, maybe there were a lot of people brushing up against his shoulders trying to get his attention.
but enough defending spike. you brought up a good point for analysis and discussion that will tell us a lot more about his work than your incident can. does every white character in his films seem to never have any redemption? can’t say i can answer that question myself, cause i probably still have yet to see 50% of his films. i’m just throwing it out there because i’m curious to learn from those who have seen a majority of his work.
His black characters don’t usually find redemption, either. I don’t think redemption is the issue in his films. His films are about immanence, not transcendence. They take place down in the soup.
so his is a pessimistic cinema? maybe even cynical?
Maybe an angry cinema. Certainly one in which everything is worked out (or not worked out) here on earth. Some characters end up committing acts of frustrated violence, other characters find a certain freedom by dying. They aren’t spiritually preoccupied, they just want to find a way to live and be happy.
his cinema is certainly interesting. i think he’s a subject worthy of study and appreciation. i know i haven’t seen his whole body of films, but i’ve seen a lot, and all of his great ones. he actually might be getting a bit underrated now. when its all said and done, and his time is up, i think he’ll have an incredibly strong body of work left behind with the mark of an auteur.
Definitely an angry cinema. He does a ton of lashing out. Look at Do The Right Thing! Certainly the pizza guy is a racist asshole. But in my opinion, even the most loathsome people in a film or story need to have some sort of human characteristic that makes them more than just a bad guy, but a man with a heart who creates a psychological contradiction and conflict. The blacks in that film have all of the above, and rightfully so, but there’s an inconsistency in said humanity between the two races. That is where my argument stands. St. Anna was similar, though a little better I guess in those terms. But it was still the same issue. Not to mention that soundtrack was God awful. The man has auteur, and definitely final cut. He could realize at any point to cut out at least 90 percent of that music. I do have an inclination that the man has lost it.
Regarding my incident Bobby, he did lock eyes with me and neglected my presence. I was the only white boy standing there, and he took note of anybody else that was there. I’ve also heard a lot of stories about his trials and tribulations working with PSH and Ed Norton. He’s a real douche in general. Best story I’ve heard so far:
He was shooting Mo’ Better Blues up in either the Bronx or Harlem in NY. There was a PA making sure that the residents of the homes were staying in doors and not approaching the set or the shot about to occur. A guy tried to come out of his house and the PA stopped him. “Why can’t I leave my house?” “We’re shooting a film.” “FUCK YOU. Who’s directing it?” “Spike Lee.”
“SPIKE LEE?!!!! THAT FUCKER?!!”
The man got back into his house, and with his family, in congregation went to the window, found Spike walking on set, yelled his name, and started assaulting him from the window with glass bottles.
If I was black, I’d have done the same.
what about sal’s youngest son in “do the right thing”? he’s got more heart than anyone in the film.
Get on the Bus, When the Levees Broke and Four Little Girls show us that Lee is the Barbet Schroeder of his race in documentary filmmaking. While he still remains a robust talent in the world of feature filmmaking, he could make nothing but documentaries for the remainder of his career and I think I would be satisfied. He chooses great subject matter of historical significance that you can’t find in history books.
so his is a pessimistic cinema? maybe even cynical?
I think so. I find him interesting at times, great occasionally. There are things like She Hate Me (which I haven’t seen) and Jungle Fever (which is a disaster IMO) which aren’t exactly well-liked.
In his films, I think there is a certain arrogance – Crooklyn is a great film in many ways, I think, but the long detour into the suburbs during the latter half of that film reveals his anti-suburban bias, and he shares this with many other filmmakers, and I think it’s a little snotty. In this particular film, it goes after the black middle class, and there’s the argument that a lot of the kinds of declines seen in inner-cities were accelerated by the black flight to the suburbs that followed hard and fast on the white flight of a few years before. This is a very legitimate argument to explore, but it does disrespect individuals whose attempt at what Curtis Mayfield described as moving on up was – in their opinion – an expression of optimism, seizing new opportunities, and attempting the better the lives of their families. This is something that Lee doesn’t seem to have much respect for, and it is a sociological irony the resolution of which is far beyond the scope of any film, and he’s also far from alone in his antisuburbanism (American Beauty or Ice Storm anyone?), but he’s smart enough that I do expect more thought, especially in a film that is pitch-perfect in every other way.
Likewise, I think Bamboozled is a stunning film in many ways, foremost among them in how aggressively it is willing to attempt to upend stereotypes and racial expectations among viewers of any ethnicity, no matter how disorienting that might be to whoever might be watching. I don’t know how completely successful the film is in realizing this, but the attempt is being made, and it’s a great thing. But the film does express a general sentiment that most people in media – creators, viewers – of any and all ethnicities, are dumb as cinderblocks, and expressing a point by insulting everyone is a strange way to try to get a point across.
I think his view of people in general is fascinating, and quite detailed in its’ own way, which is why it makes for great films on occasion. But it’s also an intensely harsh worldview – a picture of a world filled with people whose points of difference only serves as a mechanism to make them meaner. This does cause me to wonder how deeply he actually appreciated Malcom X’s pilgrimmage-to-Mecca ideological transformation – a genuinely complex and profound bit of interrogating your own ideologies and blind spots, and coming through it to arrive at some far broader insights.
I tend to enjoy Spike’s film regardless of how over the top, ridiculous or short-out bad they are. Something about his style usually keeps me watching, attentive and entertained. Though I might just have a bias, simple because I like a certain amount of his other films. Though I did not care whatsoever for School Daze.
I’m glad someone else likes Bamboozled too. I think it’s a bold vision. I feel like Spike doesn’t always want white people to be totally comfortable with his films, and that’s okay. He’s not obliged to. We each have to decide how far we’re going to go. It’s like when Richard Belzer, the only white guy in Get on the Bus, decides he’s not going to drive to the Million Man March. That’s like a symbolic moment of Spike saying, “Okay, we’re done now with white culture, from here on out (for the rest of this film) it’s going to be black culture.” But I never feel like he’s pandering to white guilt, either — I mean, I don’t feel whipped by his films so much as rewarded for going all the way with him. Part of you has to surrender, though, and be willing to be preached to a little. But who else do we have to really do this?
i just think you hit it on the head. who else is making the films that spike lee is making? therefore, who else is engaging in the kind of critical commentary in cinema that he’s doing? forget about only race issues for a moment. there’s not enough directors tackling any sort of critical commentary in general! so there’s the first level of worth for spike lee.
The last 4 comments, agreed. If there’s anything you can appreciate Spike for, it’s a point of view. Perhaps one that I don’t personally agree with, but he at least has a standpoint and perspective.
I kinda’ wish he directed Jarhead. It was a fairly well done film, but it just didn’t end up going anywhere. If he had done it, it would’ve at least had some sort of opinion.