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Spike Lee Sure Was Different Back Then

When I tried to watch my newly acquired Criterion Collection edition of Spike Lee's masterpiece Do the Right Thing last year, the weekend before I was scheduled to screen it for my Film Studies class, it stalled in the opening credits. After numerous failed attempts at getting it to work, I realized I would have to find another new copy somewhere in the Twin Cities. I searched every big box store, every used DVD store and every Suncoast Video (yes, they still exist!) until I finally found a Spike Lee 3-disc collection featuring four other films, including another gem - Clockers (based on a novel by Richard Price, a cohort of David Simon of The Wire!). However, the other three I wasn't too sure about, but I got it anyway to get my hands on DTRT and at least I would get to watch three more from Lee's filmography. Well, this summer I finally found the time to watch the three in question and they range from the usual caustic brilliance that 90s Spike Lee films emanated to the usual caustic confusion that 90s Spike Lee films emanated.

Crooklyn (1994): Supposedly semi-autobiographical, this was the best of the three by far. Delroy Lindo totally kills it as the father struggling to support his family of seven as a jazz pianist in the 1970s, reminding me how much I wish he didn't whore himself out as the angry military/government agent in basically every action movie in the late 90s. The child actors here are phenomenal as well, and a brief appearance by veteran 80s character actor David Patrick Kelly as the annoying synth-playing neighbor make this a must-see on its own. At first, it's frustrating watching a film with so many lively characters and basically no plot except a dynamic family trying to not get evicted, but as it sprawls out, more conflicts arise and characters fall out of the woodwork, and it becomes enthralling.

Jungle Fever (1991): This was the most infuriating of the three. I had always had a lingering desire to see this movie since I heard so much about it being "controversial" when I was younger. Finally doing so made me simultaneously respect and abhor what was Lee was trying to do with this, probably one of his most famous movies. The term "jungle fever" in and of itself can be construed as racist, inferring a link between savagery and interracial romance, but here Lee attempts to turn the phrase on its head, wanting desperately to point out that Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra's characters are more skin color driven and "exotically" motivated by lust, rather than by true love. This is all fine and interesting, but by making Snipes' character married and with a kid, he makes it way too easy for the love affair to fail. Luckily there's some amazing supporting actor work from a pre-Jules Samuel L. Jackson (although his subplot is curiously never intrinsically connected to the main topic at hand, also confusing) and John Turturro playing something other than a nutbag, which actually shows him to be even more talented than I had thought.

Mo' Better Blues (1990): The least explosive and worst film in the collection, one of all-time's most overrated leading men (Denzel Washington) stars as a romantically handicapped egotistical jazz trumpeter. Juggling two ladies at once while his band mates revolt against his handling of band affairs, the movie has incredible promise with some fascinating characters (Snipes proves to be talented in the supporting role of scheming but loyal saxophonist Shadow Henderson), but it never goes anywhere. Denzel's good at playing the confidently self-absorbed (every role he's ever played ever), but the character never goes deeper than that and all Lee can do to write/direct his way out of the character's neverending downward spiral is a surprisingly simple-minded denouement that tries to give warmth to a depressing situation, but only comes off as forced and fake.

Nowadays, Lee's quietly building himself back up with his unmistakable blazing camera work and whip-cracking character tension in genre work like the crime caper Inside Man (who knew life could be breathed back into this tired song?) and hopefully the war genre as well later this year with Miracle at St. Anna. I'm glad to see him expand from the style and subject matter that often unfairly relegated him as the "African-American Hollywood director," but I hope he goes back to Brooklyn with a movie someday, because while these movies are not perfect (save for Do the Right Thing of course), they're incredibly incendiary and unforgettable - even those that are most flawed.

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  1. Blogger nicole | 9:28 AM |  

    I watched "Bamboozled" a few years ago and was infuriated by its lack of subtlety about racism. I guess that was probably the point, to make me, and people like me, mad and leave us reviewing plot points and dialogue for days afterwards. But making Savion Glover play a character on a modern-day mistral show? Disheartening and depressing, and while I realize the depth of his message, it's somewhat obscured by my anger at the past.

  2. Blogger qualler | 9:38 AM |  

    I watched "Bamboozled" for an Urban Studies class I took in college and loved it -- I think the point of the movie was that modern-day media and entertainment isn't all that far removed from a minstrel show. The closing montage was devastating. Chris, I haven't seen any of those Spike Lee movies but I'm definitely interested in borrowing them from you! Of course, Do The Right Thing is da bomb (semi-spoiler pun intended!)

  3. Blogger qualler | 9:45 AM |  

    Oh yeah, John Tuturro! Love him! What movies is he a nutcase in? I can only remember him being the nervous guy or the depressed guy in movies. Also, Spike Lee's gotta include Tommy Davidson in his cast more often like he did in "Bamboozled" -- he's gotta help everybody in the cast of "In Living Color" become a serious actor, like Jamie Foxx.

  4. Blogger chris | 9:57 AM |  

    I don't think I've seen Bamboozled all the way through, only like a half-hour chunk they showed us in Theater 1001 for some reason. I should definitely get on that.

    Turturro's often nervous and depressed too, but always nutso: Barton Fink, Big Lebowski, Quiz Show, even Transformers.

  5. Blogger Lady Amy | 12:58 PM |  

    I also have not seen Bamboozled all the way through, but what I saw I thought was brilliant.

    Do the Right Thing might be one of my favorite movies of all time. I just saw it for the first time this summer and it was amazing.

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