And so we conclude our foray into the world of all things Lee. Over the course of the past few weeks I’ve been lucky enough to watch a lot of great films from a great director. From dramas tackling issues of racism or poverty, to light comedies and more mainstream thrillers, Spike Lee has a lot to offer. Here are a few of my observations.
As the most successful black film maker ever, the way Lee deals with race is one of the most interesting and important aspects of his movies. It’s a theme that’s prevalent throughout his work, and most of his films make some reference to race even if it’s not their central theme. 25th Hour, for example, includes a long scene where Edward Norton’s character Monty rants against the society that he sees as having caused him to go to prison, including a number of minority groups. At the other end of the spectrum we have films like Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever, which have race at their forefront. For me Jungle Fever pushes this too far. Even for a film about interracial relationships, the constant discussion of race becomes tiring.
Get on the Bus is a great example of doing this right. The men on the bus are travelling to attend a black rights march, so their discussion of racial issues feels incidental. This is one of Lee’s cleverest films, as its self-contained, road movie set-up manages to pack a lot in and be a very enjoyable ride too. Here Lee tackles a wide range of issues and prejudices, all within a group of demographically similar black men. It’s also a great example of Lee’s boldness as a director in not being afraid to highlight prejudice within the black community. This is something that comes out across his work, from the prejudice of people of all colours in Jungle Fever, to Do the Right Thing, where the black Brooklyn community is whipped up into a violent mob. This even-handedness shows an honesty in his depiction of problems in society.
His films also remind us just how few black characters there are in Hollywood. In the likes of Crooklyn, Do The Right Thing, Get on the Bus and Clockers there are very few white characters, something you almost never see in mainstream cinema. Considering there are parts of America which are predominantly black, as shown in Lee’s films, it’s incredible how rare a film with a large number of black characters is. Once you have Lee’s films as a point of comparison, it’s shocking that black people can so often be reduced to tokenism, if any appear in a film at all.
The use of the word “nigger” is another interesting aspect of this. Lee has had a very public spat with Quentin Tarantino over the use of the word in films, a spat which is explicitly referenced in Bamboozled as a racist TV exec takes Tarantino’s side: that it’s just a word and there’s nothing wrong with saying it. Yet it’s used in almost all of Lee’s films. Context is important, but even so it seems strange that Lee would take offence at Tarantino’s use of the word in Django Unchained, a film about slavery which seems to be the right context, if any. Bamboozled, on the other hand, is a film about a TV show where people black up and do racist skits. This seems to be a far more controversial setting for the word.
But Lee’s films have a lot more going for them than just racial issues. Crooklyn, for example, is a coming of age story with a rare focus on a female character. The confusing She Hate Me takes a very modern look at sex and relationships, and Inside Man is just a great thriller.
So what are the best and worst of the Lee films I’ve examined here? Well the best are probably Crooklyn, He Got Game, Get on the Bus and Do the Right Thing. Get on the Bus is both clever and immensely enjoyable, Crooklyn is heart warming and devastating at the same time, Do the Right Thing packs quite a punch and He Got Game is the most solid all round.
Uneven mess Bamboozled is by far the worst, with School Daze coming in second. She Hate Me is also not up to Lee’s usual standards. One thing that’s remarkable about his filmography is the rate at which he seems to make films, especially considering that in most cases he writes, directs, produces and stars in them. This being so, it’s hardly surprising the quality of his films varies. Many of his films feel admirably experimental and original. Being boring and run-of-the-mill is one of the worst sins a film can commit, and the fact that this is rarely true of Lee’s films is impressive. I would rather sit through the occasional dud than predictable, bland genre fare.
There are a number of actors who are seen again and again across Lee’s films including Ossie Davis, Thomas Jefferson Byrd and John Turturro. Denzel Washington does an excellent job taking on lead roles in He Got Game and Mo’ Better Blues. Lee himself is in most of his own films, with parts ranging from a short cameo in Clockers to the lead character in Do the Right Thing. He has considerable talent as an actor, and is able to play a massive age range.
But the acrting highlight is, unsurprisingly, Samuel L Jackson. It’s strange to think of a time when Jackson could play small bit parts in films, particularly as at the time of his earliest appearances in Lee’s films he was already in his 40s but had yet to achieve mainstream success. In spite of never having a leading role in a Lee film, his incredible charisma shines through in even the smallest part. He monopolises one of the most memorable scenes in School Daze, plays a vibrant radio DJ “Mr Senor Love Daddy” in Do the Right Thing and steals the show as drug-addled Gator in Jungle Fever. I’ve heard people say that Samuel L Jackson is the same in all his roles, something which is completely untrue, and nowhere more visibly false than in his work with Spike Lee.
Lee’s visual flair is one of the most standout features of his films, as he presents serious drama in an overtly stylised way. The themes and ideas he often deals with could feel more like a This is England or Precious type of film, but with the bright colours, funky music and camera trickery he keeps things feeling light. Sometimes it makes it hard to forget you’re watching a film – this is certainly the case in red filtered Do the Right Thing – but is also used effectively such as to show two youngsters’ on a drug-induced high by filming them upside down in Crooklyn. He Got Game stands out as being particularly well shot, as it manages to be stylish without the style taking you out of the film.
He also has a fine ear for music, with his soundtracks comprised of scored music by his father, Bill Lee, and pop hits for setting the scene and era. Ironically, musical School Daze has one of the worst sountracks, with Mo’ Better Blues having one of the best with its jazz theme allowing for a number of very enjoyable musical interludes.
Lee also has a habit of giving his films very stupid names. Some are ok: Jungle Fever seems apt, given the substance of the film, and Get on the Bus at least tells you something about the film. But then we’ve got Mo’ Better Blues, She Hate Me, Crooklyn, He Got Game and Clockers, most of which are just confusing.
So that’s it. Thanks for reading, and look out for our Oldboy review coming soon.