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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Not Such A Miracle.....

If you have been following this blog for a while, you would know that I was not such a huge fan of Spike Lee's earlier works. I thought them sometimes confounding (Bamboozled), overwhelming (School Daze), underwhelming (Jungle Fever), cliched (Get On The Bus), and recently, just weird (She Hate Me). And I will never, ever, get the attraction of "Do The Right Thing" (please don't bother to recruit me in the comments, it won't work).

But at the very least, he was admirable for the very fact that he was doing what no Black director was doing, and had not really done much up to that point--making films on his on terms. Sure he talked massive amounts of shit (and got away with it) about the Hollywood system, but the bottom line is people gave him money to make movies the way he wanted them made. For better or for worse.

A lot of his frustrations and anger came out in his earlier films, and many accused him of being ham-fisted with his race related subjects, which I tend to agree about. I'm all for speaking out, but I don't want to be clubbed in the head over and over again. At some point folks will stop listening--and somewhere in the 90's people did; folks didn't rush out immediately to see the latest Spike movie, but instead gave it a careful side-eye before deciding, and then usually made the decision to stay away. I believe it pretty much began with "Girl 6", in which Spike's anger and message multi-tasking started to give way to his fantasies and hobby interests (basketball).

I've always believed that in his early years he was much better at marketing and inciting controversy than actually making movies-in fact, he was a genius at it. He knew how to make films about inflammatory subjects, and folks (especially Black folks) were thirsty for something different after the overwrought corniness of the early and mid eighties cinema. He was still developing as a director, but no one could miss that he had the potential to be something greater.

And greater he definitely is today. When veering off outside of his comfort zone, and directing others' projects, I feel he is amazing. "25th Hour" is beauty incarnate as a film (read my review on this blog if you haven't), "3 Little Girls" and "When The Levees Broke" are sober, absorbing and monumental in their social responsiveness. "Sucker Free City", "Miracle's Boys" for kids TV and "A Huey P. Newton Story", while not completely successful, were indeed exercises in expansiveness, and definitely not boring. "Inside Man" was his biggest hit of his career.

But now we come full circle. While watching "Miracle At St. Anna" I was reminded of the Spike I used to know--ambitious, heavy handed, trying to say everything about everything in one film. While the subject matter is important and needs to be shown, the way in which it was said was....let's just say I had a flashback to the early 90's, a place that I don't love in association with Spike.

I wished with all of my heart that he had told just a straightforward story about what actually happened during that battle, with a lot less personal interjections, just as I wished "Bamboozled" were just about racism in Hollywood. I wished that it would be shorter (at almost 3 hours) and better edited, just like I wished School Daze wasn't so messy and doing 5 things at once that could have been edited out. And I wished that I didn't see and hear Spike's personal thoughts so loudly, like I did when I saw "Get On The Bus". And yes, once again, I did completely admire him for doing something different, and on his own terms, but that's not always enough, is it?

That being said, one Black director isn't the savior for the whole race, and he and every other Black director should be allowed their missteps, without everyone jumping on them like pitbulls on a steak. Especially him, as very few Black directors even attempt to say anything in the way of social responsibility, consciousness, and accountability. He does his thing, and he is not afraid, nor boxed in by one train of thought. Which is why, no matter how much I may dislike one of his films, I know he will soon make one that I love. And that is more than I can say for the majority of Black Cinema and it's makers in these present times.


Awkward Black Girl said...

respect :-)

Qadree said...

I've read most of what has been written about Spikes early films and one thing that I found interesting, particularly with Do the Right Thing, was that many people have said that he is heavy handed with his messages, but when they start talking about the messages in the film they all start talking about something different.

Some say he was advocating violence in Do the Right Thing, some say he wasn't. Some say it was contradictory, especially the juxtaposition of the quote from King and Malcolm X at the end, but I don't think there was any consensus as to why he put those quotes there and what they mean with respect to the film, even after Spike talked about it himself. Radio Raheem, Sal, the Asian store owner, etc., everyone has a different take on what those characters represent.

She's Gotta Have It and School Daze had the same issues (feminist vs sexist, etc). I think many people are describing his style more than the actual bluntness of his message because because I don't think you can reduce his films to a single message that people will agree upon for the most part.

I hated 25th Hour though, it seemed like a flagrant attempt at winning an Oscar. If there is one film of his that I would call heavy handed it's that one. It seemed like he was checking off a list of things to do to win an Oscar while he was making that film. There are a few more reasons why I didn't like the film and why I think he didn't win with that film, but there's isn't enough room here to go into that, but I will say that there are quite a few messages in that film and none of them are good.

Inside Man wasn't all that great to me either. It seemed like another calculated attempt to win over people in Hollywood and Bamboozled was a disaster.

In the end I'll always have much love and respect for Spike.

Darkside said...

Spike's movies are either hit or miss for me (he tends to mess up the endings in his movies for my taste.) but I admire & respect that he thinks outside the box and understands cinema.

The main thing is that we need more than the handful of black directors that are out there. We need Very Good black directors. Because what good is having more black directors if they don't do well thought out, well written, & well acted movies. It's like the whole urban lit movement, what good is it that black people, esp young black people are reading more (Not saying that we don't read, but it's a fact that black readership is up because of urban novels), but not learning anything.

To sum it up I respect Spike and I can't knock the hustle of Tyler Perry. However with Spike I can always see what he is trying to do with his films even if I end up not caring for them and well , Tyler Perry films are like Kim Kardashain on dancing with the stars, all that a**, and don't know how to shake it. Sorry hope that last part doesn't come across as sexist.

@ IW, I know this is a random question, but do you ever think TV will ever have a brother as smart, cool, and smooth as the late great Ed Bradley was?

sdg1844 said...

IW - Nice post. I like what you had to say and how you said. That is the love/hate I have for Spike in a nutshell.

Invisible Woman said...

@abg: thanks :-)

@qadree: hey there--glad you're still around...

@darkside: i completely agree. can you send me the link to your blog?

that was the biggest problem i had with do the right thing, exactly what you conveyed. i had no idea what he was really trying to do or say--there were too many contridictions in the film for me.

@sdg: see, great minds think alike. that is why you are my blogging sister (PLEASE blog again!)


Once again, Spike needs to get better results out of his editors. At almost 3 hours long, one would expect something of a sprawling epic; unfortunately, we get more of an unstable hodgepodge, and it doesn't work.

After all the hype generated from his squabble (likely more of a publicity stunt) with Clint Eastwood several months back, I expected so much more from this film, and it failed to deliver.

Some of the performances are poorly directed and acted, and his trademark use of ambient music gets old quickly.

But it's not all negative. The film does have some bright moments; just not enough for me to strongly recommend it.

It's already tanked at the B.O., and certainly isn't going to make back its $45 million budget. All that initial flash and it's going out on a fizzle... a quick one too.

He should have kept his mouth shut about the conspiracy to prevent him from winning an Oscar. He won't even be nominated for this mess.

I think it's time that we let Spike off the hook, so to speak. Since he's, one could say, that singular black voice working within the studio system today, (Tyler Perry aside), the expectations are high whenever a film of his is announced and/or released. It may sound somewhat silly, but maybe we shouldn't look to him as the face of black American cinema. Or am I being presumptuous in assuming that this is how we see him.

Qadree said...

I've always looked at Spike Lee as a talented guy who isn't afraid to speak his mind. I never saw him as being some kind of representative.

As far as Do the Right Thing goes, I always looked at it as a more honest representation of, but not necessarily a singular representation of racial tension. Race in and of itself is a contradictory notion and it's been addressed in many conflicting ways over the years, hence the MLK and Malcolm X quotes at the end. Killer of Sheep was similar in not reducing the issues to a straight forward plot where there is a good guy, bad guy, clear cut goals, etc.

Keep in mind that I'm not trying to convince anyone to like this or any other film. If you put the most educated film scholars in a room they are going to disagree about films, but it's the nature of the discussion that's more important.

I really don't care if someone likes the films that I like, what's more important is that we walk away from the discussion with greater perspective than when we went in. You can't do that if all you know about a film is that someone didn't like it and you leave it at that. It would take many pages for me to explain all of the reasons why I believe Do the Right Thing excels cinematically. I've actually already written a detailed piece about this film and it takes a few pages before I even get to Sam Jackson's loud mouthed intro.

I have to say that at this point I don't really understand what you're saying IW. Are you agreeing with me about his style being the issue? If not, how can you feel like he's going overboard in conveying his messages while at the same time not knowing what he's trying to say?

bklyn6 said...

I was on the bandwagon after the success of "She Gotta Have It." His 40 Acres and a Mule office was located in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. I used to go there when I wanted a t-shirt promoting his latest movie. (I still have my "School Daze" tee.)

I've never thought that he was a GREAT director, but hey, I wanted to support his efforts. I haven't seen a Spike Lee Joint in ages, though. And the ones I have seen, I've never watched more than once. "Crooklyn" is the exception. I've never liked the title, but loved the nostalgia of the movie. It reminded me of growing up in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.

It just always seemed that he was trying to say so much in one movie. I remember thinking how the end of "Mo' Better Blues" felt like he had just five minutes of film left but five hours worth of story to tell. The ending felt so thrown together. It's stuff like that that made me lose interest.

He was filming performances of Stew's Broadway play "Passing Strange" for feature film release or cable. I would see that.

Anyway, thanks for a very insightful post, IW!

Invisible Woman said...

"5 minutes of film, and 5 hours of story to tell"

That is EXACTLY what I meant! That was a hilarious way of putting it :-)

bklyn6 said...

I watched "Bamboozled" the other day. I wanted to like it but.... It was a tad longish; and it seemed so didactic.

And I wished that I didn't see and hear Spike's personal thoughts so loudly, like I did when I saw "Get On The Bus".

Yeah, that exactly, 300%! Isn't there a better way for Spike to convey his personal thoughts?

In "Bamboozled" there's a spoof on Tommy Hilfiger that riffs on a urban legend surrounding Liz Clairborne's clothing line. Hilfiger was rumored to have made similar racists statements regarding his African American clientele.

Does Spike ever visit