Artist of the Year 2023: Spike Lee

Summer of Sam 1999

He Got Game 1998

Uncharacteristically high concept for Spike Lee films I’ve seen. And I have to admit, the concept is quite compelling.

There’s a bunch of stuff that doesn’t work: Ray Allen can’t act, Mila Jovovich’s character doesn’t really go anywhere. But then, there’s the absolutely riveting climactic 1 on 1, and I forgive almost everything else.

4 Little Girls 1997

I was shocked at the actual usage/depiction of the girls’ bodies. It’s handled respectfully, and very briefly, but still.

Continues some of the effectiveness with the archive that I mentioned in Malcolm X, and given the different crews, I have to imagine that that’s Spike.

Girl 6 1996

Wild that Tarantino is in this in this way. Especially knowing Rapaport’s character in Bamboozled.

Along with Crooklyn, a strong contrast of Lee’s handling of female characters when he’s not the writer.

Seems at its most alive when transplanting the protagonist into historical roles/films, which permits a formal playfulness. There’s also some nice use of digital video when we see the callers, a nice prelude to Bamboozled.

Get on the Bus 1996

I was excited for this, because of the way it embodied a “black polyvocality” I’ve been thinking about lately. And on a surface level it does, but unfortunately so many of the worldviews expressed by these characters remain surface level.

As an example: a passenger, raised by his white mother in a white milieu, has his blackness questioned; a cousin of a question I’ve grappled with my whole life. Rather than engaging with it, the question is posed by a fool who gets details of slavery wrong, and so his provocation is dismissed. There is a stronger version of this debate that’s hidden, like so many of the other conflicts on the bus.

Clockers 1995

Challenging to watch this after Strapped. While Clockers has almost all the artistry, the story itself, of a man caught between the hood and the cops, I find far superior in Strapped.

It’s also interesting that both films began as works (Clockers the book, Strapped’s original screenplay) that centered the cop, and the director actively re-centered the narrative. Strike just has a lot less stuff going on than Diquan. He’s an object in the actions of other subjects, rarely a subject himself.

Crooklyn 1994

A rewatch. I just loved spending time with this family. As one of four children, with one sister among us, there’s so much in the kids’ dynamic that stirs up memories of summer of the four of us at home.

Malcolm X 1992

I’m not fond of biopics. So this was already at a disadvantage.

Lee’s characters often operate primarily on a symbolic level, so seeing Malcolm so developed, constantly evolving, is a nice change. It helps, of course, that he was a real man. But no man’s life can be compressed into the length of a feature film without omission, abbreviation, and untruth.

The most powerful image comes at the end, the glimpse of Malcolm, in color, behind a video camera, smiling, filming himself. In that moment, it becomes easy to forgive the previous myth-making, and recognize that he was just (in all the complexity that entails) a man.

Jungle Fever 1991

The movie ultimately doesn’t care about interracial relationships. This shouldn’t surprise, given Lee’s lack of experience, and noted opposition at the time (and maybe still?). Instead, the film cares far more about how the existence of these relationships provokes anxieties and insecurities in others.

Flipper and, especially, Angie don’t share what they really think about their relationship. Flipper says things (Angie isn’t afforded even that), but those statements aren’t really backed up or reinforced in any other way. Because Lee has nothing to say here.

Mo' Better Blues 1990

Rewatched with commentary by K. Austin Collins

Something interesting in here about the way black middle-class professionals remain tethered to not-so-professional past or family that produces vulnerability. In Jungle Fever, too.

Also, just some gorgeous shots. The rotating dolly is inspired, but the double dolly shots are wack.

Mo' Better Blues 1990

I didn’t enjoy it, but setting that aside, it’s still a delightfully rich text.

Particularly, I read this through the lens of Spike Lee’s relationship to Black Capitalism. There’s been plenty written that Lee is a shitty boss like other studio bosses, but Black. Bleek embodies a lot of that, stifling the careers of his employees, being capricious.

But Bleek is also framed as a put-upon worker, not getting his due from the club owners. Lee’s always remarkably even-handed in the treatment of his characters, so it can be hard to glean personal positions.

Spike Lee & Company: Do It a Cappella 1990

Do the Right Thing 1989

Rewatched with the 1995 commentary from by Spike & Joie Lee, Ernest Dickerson, and Wynn Thomas.

Two surprises: Smiley wasn’t included until late drafts, despite being a really crucial character, in my view. The best scene (Sal & Pino chatting) was largely improvised once Smiley appears.

Both more fuel for my cinema as art of contingency and coincidence platform.

Do the Right Thing 1989

Struck by the opening. Visually exuberant. Also gratuitous in length and objectifying of Rosie Perez. Spike is a phenomenal visual artist with some obvious bad tendencies.

On rewatch, so much easier to pay attention to and appreciate the density of named characters in the background of scenes where they’re not the focus. Really sells the one-block, one-day setting.

Much warmer colors than I remember than the 35mm print I saw.

School Daze 1988

Just so full of stuff, so much so that everything gets rather thin. In doing so, becomes a document of all the forms of Blackness Spike can make fit in two hours. Which then makes the absences (e.g. homosexuality) particularly interesting.

She's Gotta Have It 1986

While used to quite different effect, the still photography (by Spike’s brother David) has echoes of the still sequences in Gordon Parks Jr.‘s work.

Exciting in its visual confidence, via conspicous lighting, framing, and lens selection. Structurally too, with the faux-documentary confessionals. Politically there is something weird about Spike Lee’s stated interest in the defense of black men with this film simultaneous with the flattened portrayal of black women.