Welcome to Fuds on Film, and the third part of our look at Spike Lee’s joints. In this episode we’ll be talking about a powerful documentary; a remake of a Korean film based on a Japanese Manga about hammers; an adaptation of a 2,400-year-old play; a scarcely believable, yet mostly true, tale of improbable undercover police work; and a latter day Kelly’s Heroes, though with more scruples. So, quite a mixed bag, all in all. I will also be trying not to say “sheeeeiiitttt” a lot, something I’ve not managed too well so far this last week, but I’ll do my best. I’m less hopeful on the whole double dolly thing, though.
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When the Levees Broke
We’re fudging things a little here by straying outside of film into what is, technically, a miniseries, shown in two parts on HBO in the USA and BBC Four (I think) in the UK, but it’s worth tweaking the entrance criteria for such an outstanding piece of documentary filmmaking.
Filmed from the middle of 2005, right after Hurricane Katrina had laid waste to the city of New Orleans, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts is both a heart-breaking look at the devastation caused to the community of one of the most artistically and culturally vibrant and influential cities in the United States, and an excoriating investigation of the failures of planning, management and response that caused the disaster and brutally exacerbated its consequences.
The interviewees, which include engineers, volunteers, residents, families of victims, journalists and broadcasters and the New Orleans mayor and Louisiana governor, together tell the tale of what happened. Starting with a population unwilling to heed storm warnings they had heard before that had come to nothing or, more commonly, were financially unable to respond to, even in the face of the mandatory evacuation order given by the mayor, we follow events through the category 5 hurricane and then the storm surge that overwhelmed the levees and inundated large parts of the city.
Things move on from the initial destruction to the extra death and chaos caused by FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and their underwhelming, slow, inappropriate, inadequate, scattershot and, in the early days, entirely absent response, and the return to city of some of the residents, and the scenes of utter devastation that awaited them.
The latter portion of Levees deals with what may be the greatest tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, at least in the longer term: the gutting of the city’s population. Families were distributed (and separated) all around the US, endangering the culture of one of the country’s most unique cities, something the USA can ill afford.
It’s a very even-handed documentary: for example, some of the earlier interviews talk about a theory that the levees had been intentionally dynamited to intentionally flood the city, either to affect property prices or save richer neighbourhoods, and these are presented in a non-judgemental way, and are balanced by further interviews that suggest the truth (the explosions many people reported were likely sections of flood defences giving way under the weight of water, or the impact of the large, unmoored barge that caused significant damage). But this is no “jet fuel doesn’t melt steel beams” nonsense: these two threads are followed by a brief history lesson explaining how not far-fetched the deliberate destruction theory is.
The interviewees are from all classes and creeds, rich and poor alike, the documentary taking care to show that this was a tragedy that affected a whole city (though while not denying the obvious facts that some people had it worse).
Aside from the tragedy at the heart of it, there are a few moments of wry amusement to be had in looking back now, like the quaint notion that George W. Bush was the worst president in US history, likewise his administration, and Kanye West criticising a US president for hating black people, rather than donning one of his hats and supporting him. What the hell happened there?
It runs to 4 and a quarter hours (and as its TV broadcast would suggest, wasn’t intended to be seen in one sitting, so don’t let the length put you off), but even still I still found it captivating and informative (and enraging, of course), and watched it again in one sitting without ever noticing the running time. It’s excellent.
After his latest bender, obnoxious alcoholic executive Joe Doucett (Josh Brolin) awakes to find himself imprisoned in what appears to be a hotel room, with no idea why. His only companion is a TV that informs him he’s wanted for the murder of his wife. Who is behind all of this? That will be something that he’ll try to figure out over the twenty years he ultimately spends there, a purpose that eventually gives him drive to prepare himself, physically and mentally, for the storm that will follow.
Awaking in a box in the middle of a field, just as mysterious as his kidnapping, Joe follows some breadcrumbs and hunches, aided by his old friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli) and a new acquaintance, a kindly but damaged nurse, Marie (Elizabeth Olsen), with the man responsible for Joe’s troubles, The Stranger (Sharlto Copley) soon giving Joe an ultimatum – determine his identity in 46 hours and be rewarded, with evidence to clear his name, money and the continued life of his kidnapped daughter. Should he fail, he gets one of that.
And so it goes, with an investigation in the mould of classic private investigator Mike Hammer. Sorry, I mis-read that, an investigation that remoulds people with a hammer. Yes, there’s a fair amount of violence as the plot is unveiled, the details of which I shall gloss over in case you have, against all logic and reason, not watched this, or more correctly, Park Chan-wook’s 2003 film that this is a remake of. Or reinterpretation, as Lee would have it, but, well, it’s a remake.
Not a shot for shot remake, but the bones of it are much the same between the two. And, well, the biggest problem when talking about this Oldboy is not to just talk about the original Oldboy, which, as is often the case with these things, better, and did it first, making it harder to build much of a case for Lee’s version.
Let’s attempt it, anyway. It’s hard for me to judge what any impact of Lee’s small narrative modifications, would have to the first time viewer, but the original was highly compelling, and I would assume this will be too. I’ve seen the original at least three times and this version once before, so I’m perhaps past the diminishing returns point of rewatching, but even so this still held up for me.
Josh Brolin, also is excellent, Elizabeth Olsen is pretty good, and Sharlto Copley is Sharlto Copley. The actions sequences are as kinetic and crunchy as the original, and Lee’s produced as slick a big studio outing as Inside Man. Albeit one that cratered at the box office.
Which it didn’t really deserve, but I suppose the nature of a film like this is likely to appeal mainly to people who’d been watching the original for a decade, so the audience value proposition, as it tends to be for remakes, was questionable. I still rather enjoyed revisiting it, but, crucially, I’d still rather have revisited the original and, in the context of these episodes, there’s not an awful lot of Spike Lee manifested in the studio’s final cut.
From a “Spike Lee film” context, the most interesting thing about it is simply that it exists – making it seems a choice a bit out of character for him, and the results do not show the same character as his other work. An enjoyable enough footnote in his output, but perhaps one that raises more questions than it answers.
I assume you’re all familiar with Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, yes? No? Oh. Well, I admit there are gaps in my 5th century BCE Greek theatre knowledge, too. I lament our education system…
Anyway, Aristophanes’ comic play was about the women of Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian War who, led by Lysistrata, denied their husbands and lovers sex, the only thing they desired more than bloodshed and warfare, in order to force an end to the hostilities and the attendant death and destruction.
Chi-Raq_, Amazon Studio’s first production, from a script by Spike Lee and Kevin Wilmott, sees the action updated to contemporary Chicago, particularly the Englewood neighbourhood of the city’s Southside, and gang violence between the Trojans, led by Wesley Snipes’ Cyclops, and the Spartans, led by Nick Cannon’s Demetrius Dupree, better known as “Chi-Raq”.
After a number of violent incidents, including the death of a child, Chi-Raq’s girlfriend Lysistrata (played by Teyonha Parris) leaves him, seeking refuge in the home of Angela Bassett’s Helen Worthy, a non-violence advocate and victim of gang violence, who urges her to investigate the actions of Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace protestor who helped to end the Second Liberian Civil War by, amongst other methods, threatening a sex strike.
Recruiting the, initially unwilling, help of the girlfriends, wives and partners of the enemy Trojans, Lysistrata begins the sex boycott, managing to enlist the support of even the city’s sex workers, before taking over the local National Guard Armoury, after which her protest of “No Peace, No Pussy” goes global. After a many-months siege of the armoury, in which the male-led police force’s best tactic to remove them is “Operation Hot and Bothered”: playing slow jams certain to get the women in the mood to move up and down rapidly in that curious way that humans find so agreeable.
The (heterosexual) male-dominated world is now at a standstill, and the president of the USA empowers (and blames) the mayor of Chicago to end the crisis, resulting in agreements to build much-needed hospitals and trauma centres in Englewood, and much-needed truth and reflection.
Chi-Raq’s definitely not going to be for everyone, as the direct-to-camera exposition and narration by Samuel L. Jackson’s Dolemedes and, in particular, the rhyming dialogue of the bulk of the film, stand a good chance of being found irritating, but I quite enjoyed it: it’s colourful, inventive, often funny, political and truthful, without really feeling preachy, despite much of the more serious dialogue being delivered by John Cusack’s actual preacher. It’s very uneven in its aesthetic, though, sometimes feeling like film, sometimes like filmed theatre, and sometimes feeling like filmed protest or even art installation, but it’s an interesting experiment from a filmmaker still willing to take chances, and I will always welcome that.
We join John David Washington’s Ron Stallworth in Colorado Springs, 1972, as the first black policeman in the CSPD, hoping to make a mark but running into some headwinds due to prejudice, and to be fair, because he’s just walked in the door. However, he’s allowed to transfer to the undercover department when the local black student union, headed by Laura Harrier as Patrice Dumas, organises a speech by ex Black Panther Kwame Ture.
What’s supposed to be a simple observe and report turns into a relationship with Patrice, who’s kept unappraised of Ron’s day job due to her stance that all cops are bastards. At any rate, Ron’s moved on to investigating a resurgent Ku Klux Klan, apparently brazen enough to advertise for members in the newspapers. Ron dials up and Ryan Eggold’s chapter leader Walter Breachway is eager to meet, which would perhaps present logistical issues for Ron.
So, a white copper is drafted in to play a physical counterpart to phone Ron, namely Adam Driver’s Flip Zimmerman – a lapsed Jew, so still a fairly spicy choice for the operation. In short, the two work together to gain the confidence of the Klan in an effort to spoil their plans, be that burning crosses or, as Jasper Pääkkönen’s particularly nutty nutter Felix Kendrickson pushes for, more explosive actions.
Despite the subject matter, or in parts because of it, BlacKkKlansman is very funny – particularly the phone relationship between Ron and head Klan jackass Topher Grace’s David Duke, with likable performances from Washington, Driver and Harrier, and roundly hateable, pantomime performances on the jackass side of the aisle.
It is not, of course, subtle, in line with Lee’s usual modus operandi, however to be fair it’s not the sort of subject that brooks a lot of subtlety. There are not, in fact, good people on both sides, although even with that in mind the point where the characters essentially harangue the audience for Donald Trump’s existence perhaps seems a bit much. More successful is the reminder at the conclusion of the film that these knuckledragging bigots are knocking around in Space Year Now. Even if that does harsh out the mellow of the perhaps the film’s funniest moment. No justice, no enjoying the laughs in peace.
All told, this is great stuff – the most commercially successful of Lee’s recent works which for once I’d argue actually reflects the quality of the work. Highly recommended.
Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee’s latest, Da 5 Bloods (a mere month old as we record), was originally set to be an Oliver Stone-directed film, though seemingly he decided that he’d probably made enough Vietnam films, and so the original script was extensively re-written by Lee and Chi-Raq and BlacKkKlansman writer Kevin Wilmott. This, I think, turned out to be a good thing as Da 5 Bloods delivers a take on the Vietnam genre that is rare, if not entirely non-existent, and therefore utterly necessary: the black perspective. Racial issues have often featured, certainly, and there is often an undercurrent of tension in the disproportionate ethnic make-up of the US Army, but there’s also usually a Martin Sheen or a Charlie Sheen or a Matthew Modine or a Robin Williams or a Tommy Lee Jones around to sort things out and take the starring role. Da 5 Bloods entirely concerns the members of a black squad, with the only white soldiers being a soon-to-be-demised door gunner and helicopter pilot.
In characteristically subtle Spike Lee-style, the film opens with archive footage of Muhammad Ali elaborating his opposition to the war, and other footage of notable black figures from the time, as well as some clips of President Fake Bone Spurs, lest you be in any doubt about Lee’s feelings about that particular waste of skin and oxygen. Whether this is scene-setting or a brief history lesson for a non-white audience, it seems to set up the politics of Da 5 Bloods in no uncertain terms, which is a bit weird, in the end, as the film largely becomes The Treasure of the Saigon Madre. OK, that’s a little unfair, but only a little: Lee, noted film student that he is, lets his enthusiasm for the medium shine through so much in his references that at times Da 5 Bloods feels like he couldn’t decide exactly which film he wanted to make, so made all of them.
Da 5 Bloods of the title are 5 Vietnam veterans (Delroy Lindo’s Paul, Clarke Peters’ Otis, Norm Lewis’ Eddie and Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s Melvin), who we meet in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), having returned to the country to find and repatriate the remains of the fifth blood, Chadwick Boseman’s Stormin’ Norman. That he was buried by the squad close to where they also buried several million dollars of gold bullion (intended as payment to the Lahu people and aboard a downed US plane) is purely coincidence.
While the former squadmates haven’t seen much of each other in years, they have a clear chemistry based on mutual experience and affection, sold absolutely by the excellent central cast, but from the earliest moments we see that Paul has issues. He is afflicted by PTSD, and a gnawing guilt, but he’s also a racist, immigrant-decrying, Fake Bone Spurs-voting, MAGA hat-wearing dick (that’s a literal MAGA hat, by the way). He’s also the most interesting character in the film, and it’s impressive work by Lee and Wilmott to make him so sympathetic and yet so resisting of sympathy or affection: Spike Lee really does like his protagonists to be complex. That’s aided by a stellar performance by Delroy Lindo, the film’s standout.
As the Bloods head into the Vietnamese jungle we occasionally slip into flashbacks, shot on 16mm film (something that Netflix required a lot of persuasion to allow) and in a 4:3 aspect ratio, that show the squad through various experiences in the war, gradually fleshing out their beliefs, and the impact of Stormin’ Norman’s philosophies for the betterment of their people, including one very charged scene when Hanoi Hannah delivers to them news of the assassination of Martin Luther King.
We also slip into some less competent storytelling as the group (which also includes, though could easily not do, Paul’s son, David) meets Mélanie Thierry’s “Chekhov’s Landmine Charity”, LAMB (which I assume stands for “Lantern-hanging for Attention to Mines Blowing”), though to be fair there is quite a lot of tension to be felt as the squad dig at every positive bleep of their metal detector as they search for the gold. Pity that it leads towards Spike Lee’s own The Butterfly Effect moment, though I could be persuaded this one was intentionally funny. Of course, the most dangerous unexploded mine around is probably the fast-unravelling Paul.
Da 5 Bloods is a bit too messy to be a great film, though it’s certainly solid and enjoyable, but it is important given it may be the only US Vietnam film with black soldiers at the centre (scandalous if it’s true, but I couldn’t bring to mind any other examples by the time we recorded this). There’s a lot to appreciate, though, and I can’t imagine the flashbacks being done any more effectively: in an anti-The Irishman approach, even if Lee does jokingly attribute this to lack of budget, the actors play themselves in flashback as they are in the present day, and the square, grainy footage recalls perfectly newscasts and home footage of the time. There’s also, though I would have liked more, humanisation of the Vietnamese, including one notable scene when the audience is allowed to know what the Vietnamese soldiers are saying, rather than just being unintelligible voices, and it’s really not that different from what their opponents might have said on any given day.
On the downside, there are of course, the double-takes and double-dolly shots, which I now fully believe are just in there because they always have been, and unnecessarily gory effects shots of Vietnamese soldiers’ skulls exploding in firefights with da Bloods, which feel crass and out of place in a Spike Lee film. It’s more of a Tarantino thing, really.
Finally, while there is The Ride of the Valkyries, there’s no Credence, which may be a war crime, or at least a war-film crime. I applaud Lee’s audacity.
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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