We continue our delve into the career of Spike Lee with a look at 4 Little Girls, He Got Game, Summer of Sam, Bamboozled, and 25th Hour. Mid-career and middle-of-the-road, or is he just hitting his stride? Join us and find out!
4 Little Girls
Four of Spike Lee’s films have been selected for inclusion in the United States’ National Film Registry, an honour given to works considered to be culturally, historically or aesthetically significant. The first three films were among those we covered in our first Spike Lee episode, and the fourth is this, 4 Little Girls, Lee’s first attempt at making a documentary.
Things begin with a recounting of the nature and personalities of four girls who died before their time, something which tends to rankle with me because, while no child should die, all dead children are apparently little angels. Presumably most people are holding to the social norm of not speaking ill of the dead, but how is it that no dead child was ever a little bastard? This is a complaint about society in general, of course, and I mention it here more because I don’t care, in the abstract, what the people were like, and I resent when factual works try to overly personalise or humanise the victims of a tragedy. What they were like is irrelevant: they are dead, and they should not be. This is entirely sufficient.
The initial stories about and memories of the four little girls of the title, though, gradually give way to, and are mixed into, the bigger picture of the time: these four girls were murdered by a Ku Klux Klan bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, as a response to the growing strength of the Civil Rights Movement, and in particular the involvement of large numbers of younger people, particularly school children. These girls, whose ages ranged from 11-14, weren’t unlucky victims: they were targets.
Lee’s narrative weaves together the stories of the girls, their families, the Civil Rights Movement and the effect on all of these of the bombing (and others like it). It’s a deeply affecting film – how could a film about children murdered by terrorists be anything other – and, in the trait of the best documentaries, educates and informs. In fact, my only problems with 4 Little Girls are technical ones: there is the ever present, usually unwelcome, underscoring that afflicts Lee’s work, and horribly claustrophobic framing of most of the interview subjects, a real surprise given the accomplishments in other films of Lee’s DP here, the well-regarded Ellen Kuras. This results in a number of sequences in which the camera pushes in for an even tighter close-up of an emotion-filled face, leaving us staring at a full screen of one eye, a nose and half a mouth. It is not an effect that works.
In this tale of hatred and tragedy there is, surprisingly, a moment of wry humour, as the notoriously racist, apartheid-defending former governor of Alabama, George Wallace, tries to claim, with no apparent hint of irony, that he isn’t, and wasn’t, a racist, even going so far as to claim that one of his best friends is black and forcing said man to shake hands with him for the benefit of Lee’s camera. The expression on said “friend’s” face is truly a picture, and likely worth more than a thousand words. His face, and the film, are well worth seeing.
He Got Game
And so we enter the world of the basketballmen, and in particular the world of basketballman prodigy Ray Allen’s Jesus Shuttlesworth, coming to the end of his high school career and heavily courted by universities and professional teams alike. His father, Denzel Washington’s Jake Shuttlesworth, looks on proudly, but from behind bars. He’s approached with an offer from the state governors office – namely to get Jesus to sign up with the guv’s old uni, in return for time off his sentence.
So, Jake is sent off on a work release of sorts, and set up but his watchers in a cheap and sleazy hotel where he’ll meet love interest and hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold archetype, Milla Jovovich’s Dakota, but initially has much less success in meeting with his son. Fair, enough, I suppose, after all, he was put in jail for the accidental death of his wife following some not-at-all accidental domestic violence. Bound to put a strain on the familial bonds.
While Denzel’s the marquee name on the acting side of things, it’s actually yer actual basketballman Ray Allen that’s got all of the decisions to make and souls to search as a rotating smorgasbord of people come to Jesus trying to influence his decision or simply freeload off of him, be that family members, scouts, college reps or his girlfriend, Rosario Dawson’s Lala. Thankfully Allen is up to the task, and having no knowledge of the state of late nineties basketball reality I did not know he was yer actual basketballman, and if Wikipedia hadn’t told me so I doubt I’d have guessed it, although perhaps his undeniable athleticism on the basketball pitch should have clued me in. Top work, fella.
With terrific performances across the board and a killer soundtrack, He Got Game is one of Spike Lee’s most easily enjoyable films, and perhaps the easiest watch of his so far. However, that breeziness does rather come at the expense of any kind of deeper connection with anything in the film, which is unusual for Lee, as he’s not exactly known for his subtlety. He Got Game presents us with an interesting bunch of characters, for sure, and I enjoyed my time with them, but at the end I not sure I’ve really learned all that much about them, or that they’ve learned much about themselves.
There’s some other minor qualms I could list, although pointing out any factual flaws in either the scouting process or the foster arrangements seems a bit silly in a film with an actual teleporting basketball, so the only one I’ll mention is that this is the first of Lee’s films that’s gone over two hours that I’ve felt probably shouldn’t have done, and it’s not going to be the only time in this episode I’ll be saying that.
However, it’s not too big of an issue, and I’d be perfectly well entertained by Denzel Washington reading a phone book for two hours, so, again, a very watchable and enjoyable film, but ultimately doesn’t have quite the impact of some of his prior work.
Summer of Sam
Summer of Sam takes us back to 1977, and a New York City experiencing a heatwave that is causing tensions to rise. Unlike in Do the Right Thing, though, there is another element at play: fear. During this particular summer residents of New York were frightened by a number of murders committed by the “.44 Calibre Killer”, a serial killer more commonly known today as the “Son of Sam”.
For most of the film, though, this is a background to the lives of the inhabitants of a fictional area of the city, where are to be found serial-cheating, raging hypocrite, hairdresser and general git, Vinny (John Leguizamo), his wife, Dionna (Mira Sorvino), and Ritchie (Adrien Brody), Vinny’s best friend and avowed punk, though it’s not clear if it’s the character or the actor who thinks British punk culture comes via Melbourne. Egad, that accent!
Surrounding them are a number of other characters, the most notable of whom are Michael Rispoli’s Joey T, a low-level drug dealer, his attendant, and very stereotypical, sportswear-wearing Italian-American, friends, and Ben Gazzarra’s Luigi, who is a plumber. A plumber, as he makes it quite clear to the police, and not any sort of mafia don at all. Capisce?
As the killings continue and Vinny’s neighbourhood becomes more tense, the inhabitants take it upon themselves to discover the identity of the Son of Sam and bring some good old-fashioned mob justice down upon him, based on good old-fashioned mob detective work, like someone having a car, or that “it stands to reason”, “he’s got funny eyes” and “he’s a bit weird, right enough”. Ritchie, in particular, is not going to fare well as he has dared to be different and, infamy of infamies!, he may be gay, too. The prosecution rests, m’lud.
I found Summer of Sam kind of a frustrating film. It reads, at least, as quite an authentic portrait of late-1970s New York, even if the less important characters do seem a little broad and stereotypical, and there are certainly interesting themes and stories in there, including repressed homosexuality, perverted morality and male double standards, and the evergreen fear of “the other”. Less strong themes include that of swearing, as Summer of Sam still finds itself at number 5 in Wikipedia’s list of “List of films that most frequently use the word ‘fuck’” (whatever would we do without such a valuable resource?), racking up 435 uses of the f-word in its 2 hour 22 minute running time. It’s not the most scintillating dialogue I’ve ever heard, though you do stop noticing it quite quickly.
But the big frustration is the fact that Summer of Sam is about the Son of Sam, while absolutely not being about the Son of Sam. Take that out, and it still works, and would perhaps work better, simply as a drama about the lives of the people in this time and place. But, and while I still found John Leguizamo… likeable’s certainly not the word, but engaging? …, despite being his character being a douchecanoe, I’d far rather have watched more about David Berkowitz and the investigation that finally caught him.
Director Lee himself appears in a minor role that still manages to be one of his worst performances, in a whole subplot that could easily have been excised, and naturally the double dolly shot is here. And I really am sorry to harp on about it, but it is almost always (almost, we’ll get to the one film where it at least fits the scene soon) entirely out of place, and typically jarring. The upside of watching a lot of the work of one filmmaker over a short period of time is that you can appreciate any progression in skill and craft, and you become more aware of style and recurring themes. The downside is that you become acutely aware of the things that niggle. Acutely.
And I would finish by saying that I also learned, except that I was never in the slightest doubt, that if you are going to have a character be told by a dog to kill people, DO NOT, WHATEVER YOU DO, SHOW THE DOG TELLING HIM THIS. It’s a bad, bad time.
With a title that pretty much accurately encapsulates my feelings towards it, and of most people, it would seem, Bamboozled drops us into the lap of Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), a TV executive working under station boss and all-round jackass Thomas Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport) who dismisses his show ideas as Cosby clones, pushing for something a bit more… I believe “urban” would be the euphemism, were this a record store.
Exasperated, Pierre enlists two street entertainers, Savion Glover’s Manray and Tommy Davidson’s Womack, to star in a radical new pilot that will show Dunwitty his error by taking his request to the illogical extreme, and resurrecting the minstrel shows of, actually, not all that long ago, but this time with African Americans in blackface.
So far, so Producers, particularly when it becomes, in defiance of all logic and reason, successful, with any intended satire going roundly unnoticed by the general public, but Pierre soon gets over his disgust and learns to enjoy the glory, much to the disgust of his PA, Jada Pinkett Smith’s Sloan Hopkins.
The back half of the film deals with Womack and Manray’s increasing misgivings about their line of work, and the balance of their self respect and bank balance, before everything comes to an entirely out of place end courtesy of Mos Def’s militant hip hop collective, and I guarantee you’ll be left wondering why it was decided to move from a comedy to melodrama midway through production.
Now, I’m a little puzzled, as it says here that this was shot on MiniDV, but I would swear that this was actually recorded on a potato, with sound recorded on a smaller potato and mixed on, at best, a chip, or “freedom fry”, as I believe they are called in the USA. Perhaps the recent Criterion release cleans this up, but this film is to my recollection the only film I’ve ever had to radically tweak the EQ on just to have a slight chance of hearing what people are saying. We’ve mentioned Lee’s tendency to go overboard on the underscoring, and this is so far the absolute nadir of it.
While Damon Wayans has been scientifically proven to be the least objectionable Wayans family member, using the scientific process of science, he’s not a magician, and there’s not enough material to work with, especially when dragged out over one hundred and thirty five minutes, and using a delivery that gets irritating after about ten of those minutes.
There’s a message in here, for sure, but even accounting for Lee’s typical straightforward delivery of that message this is a bludgeoning, such that what I take as the actual point, the lack of a varied and complete range of opportunities for African Americans in the studio system, is almost buried under the deluge of minstrel and related artefacts that show up in the closing reels, or potato peels, or whatever the equivalent should be in my theoretical tuber-based production pipeline.
I didn’t hate Bamboozled, and as with a lot of Lee’s work the central arguments it’s making are depressingly just as valid now as they were then, but between the haphazard presentation, confused tone and just-way-too-long-icity of the piece, I’d not be recommending this to anyone.
Our last film today comes from a book, and screenplay, from Game of Thrones showrunner, David Benioff. The action opens with gunshots, and Edward Norton’s Monty Brogan driving along a New York freeway, stopping to rescue a beaten and abused dog. This is one of a few flashbacks that help to fill us in on how Monty got to where we see him next: sitting with the rescued dog beside the river, contemplating his future and his final 24 hours of freedom. The next, the 25th, will see him begin a seven-year prison sentence for drug dealing.
Rescuing wounded animals is probably not typical of people in Monty’s line of work, but there’s a lot not typical about Monty, an eloquent, intelligent young man who wasted his private school scholarship by selling weed to the rich kids there and ended up a drug dealer, working for the Russian Mafia. We never find out quite why he ended up there, though his firefighter father, James (Brian Cox), blames himself and his alcoholism after the death of Monty’s mother when he was 11. Monty doesn’t apportion the blame in this way, and takes responsibility for how his life turned out. Responsibility, but probably not remorse: he harbours regret for not getting out when he could, rather than getting in.
Seeing his father is one of a number of tasks Monty must attend to during his final hours, the others concerning saying goodbye to his friends, Frank (Barry Pepper) and Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), finding a home for the dog and leaving his partner, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson). Complicating this final matter is the fact that suspicion lies heavy on Monty, or at least on his friends, that it was Naturelle who tipped off the DEA about his activities.
Things end with a voiceover from Brian Cox as he drives his son to the prison, suggesting he just disappear out west, instead of facing the rape and brutality in prison that has been Monty’s principal fear throughout the film. It may be a fantasy, it may even be an America that no longer exists, and it may be, and almost certainly is, that Monty doesn’t deserve it, but Cox’s monologue is fantastic, and the romantic notion of disappearing into the centre of the country and doing things right is powerful.
A couple of housekeeping matters before I continue: there is considerably less underscoring than usual in 25th Hour, and even several scenes in which the actors talk and we can hear them! And, yes, there are double dolly shots (three that I counted), but since the two principal ones are of characters in a nightclub either drunk or high, it for once fits (while still adding little, natch).
Spike Lee is associated with Brooklyn, but 25th Hour shows him as a New York filmmaker, and someone clearly in turns, and probably equal amounts, in love with and frustrated and infuriated by the city. This is best observed through a pair of scenes, the first incredibly reminiscent of Do the Right Thing (but, in fact, in Benioff’s book), as an angry Monty rages at his reflection in a bathroom mirror, calling out everyone in New York (and beyond), of all colours and creeds, including himself: an equal opportunity hater. The second is placed at the end, as James drives Monty to prison, and Monty observes many of the people he railed against, this time observing them with warmth and, perhaps, tenderness.
Released a little over a year over after the terrorist attacks of the 11th of September 2001, the film begins with the searchlights that for a time marked the location of the twin towers, and it might seem that it threatens to be about that, but it isn’t. You could make some parallels between the characters and the psyche of the city post-9/11, but the truth is that the film was in production before that event, and the references (some of which are, admittedly, huge: i.e. the gaping scar of World Trade Centre ground zero) are there more as mood and texture for the city.
Accompanied by a great score by Terence Blanchard, which, like the film, is unhurried, 25th Hour is a contemplative and thoughtful film, more elegiac than melancholy, and more concerned with character and atmosphere than narrative. It continues to be a rewarding watch.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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