The Films of Spike Lee Archives - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
21Nov/180

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

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Confident and determined, Ron Stallworth is ready to prove his mettle as the first black officer of the Colorado Springs police department. His opportunity comes when a casual inquiry into an advertisement from the Ku Klux Klan pulls him into a web of connections he didn't imagine. Spike Lee directs BlacKkKlansman, with the screenplay written by Spike Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott, and stars John David Washington, Adam Driver, and Laura Harrier.

Why should we trust anything we see in Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman? The narrative comes from a memoir penned by Ron Stallworth, revealed decades after the events of both film and memoir, and is poised to comment directly on our slide into white fascism. Spike addresses any suspicion with a pair of parallel stories told by Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) and pseudoscience peddled by the vile David Duke (an excellent Topher Grace). On the side of Mr. Turner we listen and watch a crowd of black humans coming into themselves over oral tradition, settling on twin philosophies of never again and power to all people. Duke begs credibility in the form of a Nobel Peace Prize winner's eugenic research that conclusively proves white humans are better than black.

The oral tradition is backed by historical fact and bolstered through community uplift. Spike's closing scenes, which shocked me even with advance warning to emotionally guard myself, reinforce that oral tradition as the warning constantly echoed but rarely heeded. Black stories have warned us of the evil behind phrenology and eugenics which roll right into today's incel community embrace of skull size as a determination of what your standing will be in life.

What is it going to take to get us to listen?

4Jul/160

Spike Lee: Chi-Raq (2015)

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What to do in a city where gangs are caught in a perpetual cycle of violence?  Dolemides watches and narrates with bemused interest, noticing the strong-willed Lysistrata who's tired of her man Chi-Raq trading blood for blood.  Taking a cue from her comrades in Liberia, Lysistrata leads the women of Chicago on a sex strike until the men are willing to put down their pistols and talk peace.  Spike Lee directs Chi-Raq from a screenplay co-written by Spike and Kevin Wilmott, and stars Nick Cannon, Teyonah Parris, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, and John Cusack.

It's making me insaneThe first 10 minutes or so of Chi-Raq had me thinking back to Red Hook Summer. That was another film where Spike Lee seemed suddenly reinvigorated, not necessarily mimicking the rhythm and editing of earlier classic efforts like Do the Right Thing, but echoing their energy. As one of the the long takes opening that film followed the central characters through Red Hook, Lee had again found a way to tap into a complex, living, breathing community in his fiction the way then-recent documentary entries had shifted to. I had the same sense during the opening of Chi-Raq, where Spike drops us into a club moments before a shooting, transposing various voices from social media and texts with some rapid cutting that embodies the strong connection between the musicians and the crowd.

The reason I keep going back to that opening sequence (among some others) is that I can't think of too many ways to discuss Chi-Raq that aren't anchored in the aesthetic dimensions of the movie. Like so many of Spike's later films, the majority of the discussions here seem culled from an article or two and massaged into the dialogue. He hasn't been unsuccessful in this, but he's failed to use the dramatic situation and characters to build up much additional insight around these basic well-known talking points and statistics. Awhile after the movie was over, I was left with the impression I'd spent two hours letting Spike read a well-researched New York Times article to me that I'd already read myself.

That's a shame considering that, as usual, he demonstrates such a unique command over every aspect of the film. The craft is so clearly on display here that it's hard to imagine this isn't exactly the film he wanted to make (the production itself seems to confirm that as well), which makes the scattershot inconsistency and general lack of depth confusing. There are a handful of scenes that have some real, lasting power—which I'm sure we'll get to—but so much of the movie is all over the place that those sequences didn't connect and build into anything significant for me. Even when the tone shifts to near-Abrahams & Zucker levels of goofy satire (a soldier being carted away in a straight jacket comically shaking his head and repeating "big booty big booty"), it can sometimes be really funny and effective—the problem is we're recalibrating in nearly every scene to the movie we're supposed to be watching.No peace no pussyIn a few ways, I'm right there with you in your response to Chi-Raq.  But in the most important ways I'm diametrically opposed.  If Chi-Raq dropped today, with none of Spike's previous films to reference, I'd feel a bit more like you do.  Since Chi-Raq follows a period of restless creativity when the same social and economic ills plague black Americans, I have to think of it as the energetic, optimistic, and pointed follow-up to Do the Right Thing.  In 1989, Spike saw a simmering pot of tensions ready to explode in any direction with black Americans needing to take over their economic lives.  In 2015 there's no such economic push, there are already rappers and gangsters living on the shadow economy, and without government stepping in and bringing widespread employment things aren't going to get better.

That's where I don't think you're too far off comparing Red Hook Summer, especially with Chi-Raq's spectacular opening.  Where Red Hook Summer, and Do the Right Thing, got knee-deep into the rhythm of daily life, Chi-Raq goes straight into a verse from the chorus, then a character beat, and right back into the chorus.  Spike always said he wanted to make a full musical and here he manages to do that without including many musical numbers thanks to the chorus / character structure.  With Chi-Raq everyone lives to the rhythm of the music in some way, be it from Angela Bassett's firm and self-assured rhymes, to Samuel L. Jackson's insightful MC work, and, in the most surprising development, John Cusack tearing up a sermon with more fire than I've ever seen from him.

Chi-Raq pivots on an act of violence too, much like Red Hook Summer with the priest confessing after he is attacked, and in Do the Right Thing with the murder of Radio Raheem.  Unlike those films, Chi-Raq is more concerned with the aftermath of the violence instead of the build up followed by the community reaction.  This is why the musical structure is beautifully employed even if it results in few musical numbers.  The violence of daily life is built right in with the dialogue, and expressed through the gunfire texts and the militia wardrobe Lysistrata clothes herself in.  It's a fable that acknowledges it's a fable, a happy ending that's probably not possible, as violence is so deep in their lives that it takes a miracle and the involvement of wealthy companies to solve all the problems.  Spike is more optimistic than normal here, celebrating Chicago in all its darkly colorful glory, and I was able to jump from scene to scene when I thought of the music of the dialogue as an extension of the violence.

6Sep/150

Spike Lee Podcast: 2006 – 2015

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Raise it up

Concluding after parts one and two, Andrew and Kyle work through their final thoughts on Spike Lee's career to-date with 2006's Inside Man through 2015's Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.

The films:

Music comes from Passing Strange (links to purchase the movie or album)

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Spike Film Selection

30Aug/150

Spike Lee: Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth (2013)

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Spike Lee teams up with Mike Tyson to present a filmed version of Tyson's one-man show, Undisputed Truth.

There was a boyI can think of few subjects more worthy of Spike Lee's attention than Mike Tyson.  Tyson has always fascinated me, as his early life and brutal treatment still led to reading Maya Angelou and philosophy to talk about shifting economic conditions in America.  But this same upbringing and intelligence nonetheless produced a man who was convicted of the rape of Desiree Washington and bit off part of the ear of Evander Holyfield.  No matter the sensitivity or humor of the way Tyson presents himself in Undisputed Truth, to say nothing of the apparent reconciliation between him and Holyfield, I could not forget that the Tyson speaking onstage trying to crack jokes with the audience contains violent multitudes.

My observation Tyson "trying to crack jokes" is intentional, because I didn't laugh once during Undisputed Truth.  What I saw was a shifting portrait of a man uncomfortable in the spotlight, trained to behave and perform in a specific way be it in the ring or up there in the corner of Undisputed Truth.  The first shot of the show has Tyson in silhouette, sitting quietly as Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy" plays and when the lights come on we see Tyson trapped in the corner with a single bar stool and he tries to put on a chipper voice when he thanks everyone for coming out and welcomes them to his "living room."  It screams loneliness and desperation, not intimacy and humor.

The loneliness is what struck me the most about the next eighty minutes, as Tyson tells the audience stories of how he was abused, ignored, spat on, and taken advantage of.  I was almost horrified the first time I heard the audience laugh when Tyson was telling the story of the bully who killed one of his pet pigeons.  It's in that story we get a microcosm of Tyson, capable of nurturing but because of his environment and the evil he was subjected to he becomes a reflection of that evil and expressed it in violence.  This tension between Tyson's story is presented in the way Spike frames Tyson.  Unlike in Freak and A Huey P. Newton Story there's a noticeable distance between Tyson and the crowd, and even when we get a reverse-shot looking out into the crowd their faces are indistinct and reactions unclear aside from the sound of laughter.

Spike picks up on this tension, and the reaction shots from the crowd tend to pain a different story than the laughter on the soundtrack.  But before we get into that, how did you feel coming out of Undisputed Truth?With my mammaMy immediate reaction is that yes, that initial scene felt like a bizarre SNL parody in which Tyson takes over for Mr. Rogers, and he never quite recovers from that in terms of general presentation. We differ a little when it comes to the humor—I didn’t really laugh much, but I did think Tyson brought a nervous comic energy to certain sequences. The rhythm of the show ebs and flows, with these increasingly hard to follow, quickly spun stories reaching a manic high point, followed by a more emotional anecdote or shift in chronology.

One of my thoughts frequently was, “Tyson would be a great one-man performer if he had a little more control over his delivery.” This was usually followed by the question of responsibility in giving Tyson more of a voice, empowering someone who was convicted of rape to tell their side of the story and spend an hour prior painting themselves in a complex, somewhat nuanced light at least in part in order to contextualize the later crime. We talked about it a little with Kobe Doin’ Work, but it’s tough for me to make a case for actively seeking to give accused (and in this case convicted) rapists more exposure and cultural agency just because of the other details of their lives—it’s something victims almost never get in those cases. (*And significant to note that this was of course a show running on its own, independent of Spike—what I’m referring to is Spike’s decision to give it wider viewership by filming it.)

That said, you bring up an interesting theme that I don’t think gets fully realized in Undisputed Truth—the tension between Tyson’s inner violence (both suffered and inflicted on others) and his projected humor and reflectiveness. He’s sharply self-aware, and there are moments—like the story you mentioned about the bully killing his pet pigeon—where it almost seems like his own humor, feeding into the audience’s uncomfortably cued laughter, is directed at the absurd contradiction of his character. For being known as, among many other things, one of the most fearsome, brutal boxers of his time, I can see how such a sensitive and horrific story would be dealt with using dark humor—it’s as if both projected versions of his personality are meeting in a memory.

23Aug/150

Spike Lee: Oldboy (2013)

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Whatever Joe Doucett feels the world owes him, it's clear he's not getting it.  Mistreating his coworkers, hitting on his client's girlfriend, getting blackout drunk and yelling at his friends - nothing satisfies.  But one night he's snatched from the street and placed in solitary confinement for over a decade.  Now free, he's challenged by his captor to discover why Joe was imprisoned for so long, and who would do this to him.  Spike Lee's 2013 film is a remake of the acclaimed 2003 original directed by Park Chan-wook.

This fuckin' worldSo we have come to it—Spike Lee's remake of one of my favorite movies of all time. It would be easy (and possibly more fun) to just pick apart Oldboy, but the real sin here is that Spike hasn't made an especially bad movie, just a dull and unmemorable one. The fashionable response to Hollywood's continuously remaking classics and even recent foreign films is to decry each effort as unnecessary and lacking in originality—which they often are—before they even hit theaters. I'm not totally sold on that response. The stream of remakes and reboots isn't going to stop, so why not at least give those spearheaded by interesting directors and writers a chance to spin a story in a new way?

Before the Oldboy remake was released in 2013, I wondered what Spike's attraction to the material would have been—would he add sociopolitical resonance that wasn't part of the original, or relate the slow discovery of both the protagonist's and antagonist's crimes to the way we repress national history? Maybe stylistically we'd get a radical departure from Park Chan-wook's film that would necessitate a U.S. updating. Instead we got a few interesting new touches (mostly coming from Josh Brolin), a few unnecessary/bad ones, and Michael Imperioli's hair.

The main points of discussion for me with this version of Oldboy revolve around the various contexts Spike establishes for the characters—both Joe Doucett (Brolin) before he's imprisoned, and the mysterious antagonist played (bafflingly, hilariously badly) by Sharlto Copley. We should look at this version as its own film than holding it up unfairly against the near-perfect original—but there are a few points where comparing it to the original, and the changes Spike made to the story, helps me understand why this version is so underwhelming in the end.

Without just jumping into everything all at once, what were your initial thoughts?How may we make your stay betterMy first impression was covered in my original Like review, where I first shared many of the same concerns you bring up here.  But that was almost two years ago now, and this project has given me a greater appreciation for the texture and theming of Spike's films, and repeat viewings of Chan-wook's Oldboy have lessened my appreciation for the original.  I don't think either film is a masterpiece, in Spike's case because the start of the second act halts the momentum generated by his excellent extension of the imprisonment sequence, and in Chan-wook's case because the other parts of the "Vengeance trilogy", Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance, have more interesting moral implications than the carefully constructed revenge plot of Chan-wook's Oldboy.

Comparisons are almost unavoidable so I will do my best not to compare the two as they're radically different movies in the grand scheme.  What grips me most about Spike's Oldboy is just how much of a casually racist bastard Joe Doucett is.  It's not enough that he talks over and down to his black receptionist, but that he has the gall to assume sexual dominance over the girlfriend of a potential black business partner.  The specter of past and present racial injustice is all over the opening act of Oldboy with the overt in Doucett's reactions to the black people he comes across and in the bell boy which watches Doucett during his many years in the prison.  Spike makes a good visual connection between the false "happy to serve" image of the black bellhop and the wardrobe and facial similarities with Doucett's captor (Samuel Jackson).  The plot makes literal the oft-repeated notion that the only way black people could only be racist against whites is if blacks enslaved and robbed whites of hundreds of years of social and cultural development.  Only in this case it's twenty years, and despite the setbacks there 's still a white benefactor, no matter how sadistic, ready to support Doucett when he is set free.

Spike's Oldboy suffers when this angle disappears so that we can go through the mechanisms of the plot.  But when it returns it does so in spades.  Jackson wears a red zoot suit reminiscent of Denzel Washington's "I'm black and I'm proud" wardrobe from early Malcolm X.  The dialogue dances around this too, with Jackson saying, "Reparations must be made" of this racist white man who hurt him and his business.  What's interesting here is how diverse Jackson's crew is, and how obsessed with racial purity Adrian Pryce's (Copley) family is.  That's one key change from Chan-wook's Oldboy I liked a lot, as the somewhat innocuous rumor accidentally started by Oh Dae-su in the original becomes a twisted moral landscape of the racist and sexist Joe Doucett accidentally betraying the white racial purity of Pryce's family.

It's avenues like this where Spike's Oldboy is rich for reading, and I'm curious if this helps sway your opinion at all or if it's still too little too late.