Thursday, February 7, 2019

Reserved Seating Director Spotlight: Spike Lee

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who are checking off their Spike Lee filmography blind spots.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: In celebration of Spike Lee’s first nomination for Best Director at the Academy Awards (it’s about time), Rob and I decided to pick out six films from his filmography to discuss in this week’s Reserved Seating. The stipulation was they had to be movies of his that either Rob or I or both of us have never seen. The six we picked are 4 Little Girls, Clockers, Crooklyn, Mo’ Better Blues, She Hate Me and She’s Gotta Have It. Being that She’s Gotta Have It was Lee’s feature film debut, that’s where we’ll begin.

She’s Gotta Have It was one of my blind spots. Viewing it in 2019, it worked for me more as a curiosity than as a movie. What I appreciated most was Lee’s technique and filmmaking prowess. Right from the beginning, you could tell that he’s a born filmmaker. I also have an opinion that he’s a very musical director (in that his films often use music and or dancing to forward a story on an emotional level or set a mood), and my favorite scene in She’s Gotta Have It reinforced that. It’s a break in the middle where the black & white film switches to color and we see two dancers performing in a park for two of the lead characters. The direction of the scene (and Ernest Dickerson’s beautiful cinematography) elevated the movie for me for a few minutes.

Overall, I wasn’t disappointed by She’s Gotta Have It, but I’d be lying if I said I liked the movie all that much. It was interesting to see where Spike Lee started, but it was hard to go from the feast that most of his movies are to something less realized. My biggest gripe with She’s Gotta Have It is that his characters have very little inner life or dialogue about anything other than sex. It’s fine that the movie is about sex, but it’s hard for me to care about characters who only talk about sex. Feel free to disagree, but listening to other people talk about their sex lives feels like hearing about someone else’s dreams or fantasy football results. It’s more for them than for me. Sex is a topic Lee has tackled multiple times in his career to varying degrees of success (probably best in Jungle Fever, because it was about the relationships and other people’s reaction to them). She’s Gotta Have It is somewhere in the middle of that pack. It’s not where he’s most interesting for me.
Rob: This was my second viewing of She’s Gotta Have It, and I think I’m a bigger fan of the film than you are. It’s more style than heart, sure, but it’s so much style! It’s bursting at the seams with vitality and creativity, with the voice of a young filmmaker with more syllables than he knows what to do with. He just needs to speak! It’s a nice analog to Clerks — the two would make an excellent double feature — operating on the same DIY stylistic wavelength. Though Lee would refine his technique in subsequent films, She’s Gotta Have It shows us right away that he’s not afraid to be loud, didactic, and uncompromising. A Spike Lee Joint is a Spike Lee Joint. There are no second guesses or equivocations. He slathers messages on billboards for all to see, whether it be in his dialogue, his cinematography, or on the t-shirts and ball caps his characters wear. Is the story mostly twenty-something posturing? Sure, and I don’t disagree that a filmmaker hammering us with one subject — in this case, the characters’ sex lives — gets repetitive and cringe-inducing at times, but again, I’m less critical of it in this context because he’s speaking with such an exciting voice. She’s Gotta Have It is a young person’s movie, but it’s still worth celebrating.

Next on our list is Mo’ Better Blues, Lee’s 1990 follow-up to Do the Right Thing. The film stars Denzel Washington as Bleek Gilliam, a jazz trumpeter whose playboy antics complicate his professional career. Wesley Snipes and Cynda Williams join Lee regulars Bill Nunn, Giancarlo Esposito, Joie Lee, John Turturro, and Robin Harris in supporting roles, and the jazz soundtrack is composed and performed by Terence Blanchard and the Branford Marsalis Quartet. This was my first viewing of Mo’ Better Blues, and I found it to be one of the stronger films we’ll be covering this week. Washington shines as the cocksure Gilliam. The dude’s a movie star! Though the battles with bandmates (including the director himself as Gilliam’s gambling-addicted manager) and juggling of love interests Indigo and Clarke echo familiar Musician Biopic tropes, Spike tackles male egotism (“it’s a d-i-c-k thing”) and de-romanticizes the artistic temperament in a way that keeps things fresh. Still, it’s not perfect, and there are certainly times when that same energy and spontaneity that served him so well in She’s Gotta Have It complicate the narrative and thematic throughlines he’s trying to create.
Adam: This was also my first viewing of Mo’ Better Blues, which is embarrassing because I’m a giant Denzel Washington fan. Of the six movies we’re covering this week, this was my fourth favorite. I liked most of it and I’m positive on the movie overall, but it’s also one I was editing in my head as I was watching it. As you mention, the narrative is all over the place and streamlining some of it might be to the film’s benefit. I kept wanting the movie to be more about Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes’ relationship instead of Denzel and Spike Lee’s. The gambling addict manager character that Lee plays isn’t particularly interesting to me, so I would be fine if that were jettisoned. I thought the best parts of the movie were, as you said, when it takes the piss out of the romantic myth of the tortured jazz musician, the Cynda Williams performance (she’s pretty striking here and also very good in Carl Franklin’s One False Move, which came out a couple of years later), and especially the music by Blanchard and the Marsalis Quartet. Whether it’s his father Bill Lee (who this movie was in part inspired by), Blanchard, or, later, Bruce Hornsby, Lee consistently gets incredible scores from his composers. The ending of Mo’ Better Blues made the movie work for me. I like how it tied together the thread that the Washington character was “Mo’ Bettering” the women in his lives and his own career as a musician, by which I mean he was basically f’ing them but didn’t love any of it and only by choosing to nurture those things would he not be miserable. It’s a weird ending because it’s so positive compared to the pessimistic tone of the majority of the movie, but it’s pretty refreshing, too, because it’s so unexpected.

Next up is Crooklyn, the semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story about Spike Lee’s childhood growing up in Brooklyn, NY during the summer of 1973. This was a rewatch for me and my favorite of the bunch from these viewings. I always liked Crooklyn, but this is the watch where I began to love the movie. It’s incredible how well Lee is able to put you in that house and make you feel like you live there with this family. It’s an amazing feat of ensemble acting. You and I were texting yesterday about how much we loved Delroy Lindo in both this and Clockers, and my goodness are he, Alfre Woodard, and Zelda Harris exceptional in Crooklyn. Not that it’s always a mark of quality with movies, but I was genuinely moved to tears by the end of Crooklyn this time. It’s a movie I want to give a hug and take care of forever. The Spike Lee movies that get the most attention are the ones where their greatness can’t be denied (Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, 25th Hour), but I have just as much love for his bench players (like Crooklyn, Jungle Fever, Summer of Sam) that you need to remind people sometimes are great in their own right.
Rob: This was my first viewing of Crooklyn, and like you, I really adored it. I agree that the performances are outstanding (for real, though: Delroy Lindo. For real), but one of the great things about the film is that siblings Spike, Joie, and Cinqué Lee all share screenplay credit. It’s hard to get more authentic than that! Crooklyn is one of the best examples of Spike’s vignette style really working; I wouldn’t describe his stories as episodic, necessarily, but he’s a lot like Martin Scorsese in that he often seems to care more about the mood and rhythm of a particular scene than he is about whether or not those stylistic choices cohere with or complement the rest of the film. He’s not afraid to mix it up when it feels right. I didn’t love every choice — I even asked you if that odd anamorphic stretch effect was intentional or just my Amazon video player acting up — but I saw the rationale behind each one and really appreciated Spike’s consistent effort to try new things and leave his mark. At this point in the marathon, I was just so at home in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood I first met in Do the Right Thing that any opportunity to spend time there felt like going home.

Next up is Clockers, Lee’s 1995 crime drama based on the novel of the same name by Richard Price. Mekhi Phifer is Strike Dunham, a low-level dealer for Rodney Little (Del! Roy! Lindo!) whose life is turned upside-down when he agrees to carry out a hit on a fellow dealer. When homicide detectives Klein and Mazilli (Harvey Keitel and John Turturro) dig into Little’s operation in search of clues, they discover Strike’s complicated web of alliances and dogged determination to preserve his family and community. This was my first viewing of Clockers, and while I appreciate Spike’s interest in exploring the darker side of life in that aforementioned neighborhood, I felt that his moralistic need to teach a lesson interfered with his ability to tell a story. This one just doesn’t feel confidently made, especially when compared with something like Crooklyn. The performances are good, of course, but it feels like Spike is standing at a remove from these characters, even judging them. They felt one-dimensional. They lacked the usual dynamism and ambiguity that defines so many of his other creations. The street-level drama was dry and predictable, and though I hate to bring up The Wire twice in three weeks, I have to admit that I found myself making a few unfavorable comparisons.
Adam: I totally see where you’re coming from, but being a person who never watched The Wire, I liked Clockers (this was a re-watch) because it reminds me of a multi-episode arc of my beloved NYPD Blue. I think the second hour of the movie works better than the first, which has weird asides like chocolate milk tummy aches, a pre-Grand Theft Auto VR game called “Gangsta,” and train sets. What I did like was all the police procedural strategy and the performances by Harvey Keitel, Mekhi Phifer, and especially DEL! ROY! LINDO!!! who somehow manages to play a crime lord with the same calmness as his supportive dad character in Crooklyn and yet change on a dime into a really chilling figure. I think Clockers is good Spike Lee, but not one of my favorites from his filmography. It feels like a movie a lot of other directors could have, made which is not something you’d usually say about a Spike Lee Joint.

Next we switched gears to Lee’s 1997 documentary 4 Little Girls, recounting the horrific tragedy in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963, where four young African-American girls (Addie May Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Rosamond Robertson) were murdered in a bombing while they attended church for Sunday School. The event shook the nation and advanced the Civil Rights Movement, but Lee wisely doesn’t use that as the focal point and instead mostly stays with the parents, family, and friends of the four girls over thirty years later to hear from them in their own words. This movie is expectedly heartbreaking and unforgettable, particularly when you see the eyes of the mothers and fathers of these girls as they are being interviewed by Lee. I also applaud Spike Lee for shining a light on the hate-mongering assholes responsible for this act of violence, including former Governor George Wallace, who at the time in 1997, was very old and trying to spin his involvement working up the most evil members of the white community in Birmingham during the early '60s. I’ll never forget how fucking pathetic he is when he tries to gain favor with Lee by introducing his best friend during the interview multiple times. The “best friend” is a black man who works for Wallace and you can see in the man’s body language that the sentiment is far from mutual. Documentaries and features like 4 Little Girls and Ava DuVernay’s Selma are essential viewing for everyone because you need to feel these events for yourself in small measure on a direct level to keep you alert and make sure you do your part so that they don’t happen again.
Rob: This was also my first viewing of 4 Little Girls, and I agree with everything you said. You and I were talking a little before about how impossible it must have been for these parents to go on after this horrible tragedy (I doubt very much that I’d have that strength), and what little consolation it must be to know your child’s death helped fuel a permanent social revolution. It’s great, sure, but it doesn’t bring your child back. Lee takes the right approach here, stepping back to hear their stories without editorializing too much. And boy, is that George Wallace stuff disgusting. I fell down a Wikipedia rabbit hole after watching this and, while I thought I knew a reasonable amount about him, I was just horrified to learn what a monster he truly was. That shot of him posing with his “best friend” goes on for so long that it becomes sickening. Yikes. 4 Little Girls is a powerful film that speaks for itself, really, so I’ll just end by saying that I hope Spike Lee makes more documentaries in the future.

Our last film is 2004’s She Hate Me, the controversial “comedy” starring Anthony Mackie as a corporate executive falsely charged with fraud and fired after reporting the shady practices of his boss (Woody Harrelson) and the technology firm he manages. Now out on his ass, Jack (Mackie) is approached by his ex-girlfriend, Fatima (Kerry Washington) with a deal: $10,000 in cash to impregnate her and her girlfriend, Alex (Dania Ramirez), the woman for whom Fatima left him years ago. Jack accepts the deal (which inexplicably involves not just his seed, but actual sexual intercourse), soon finding himself moonlighting as a sperm donor for Fatima’s other wealthy lesbian friends. A few Red Bull and Viagra-charged sexual marathons later, Jack becomes a national sensation when he impregnates more than a dozen women. Jim Brown also stars as Jack’s diabetic father, and John Turturro plays a mafia boss who corners Jack when his daughter (Monica Bellucci — Go ahead and do the math on those ages, if you like) enlists his services. There’s also a subplot involving Frank Willis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the real-life security guard who first reported the Watergate break-ins, and a big trial scene in which Jack gives an impassioned speech about democracy. No, I’m serious.

Adam, I’m sorry, but I’m speechless and I need your help. I’ve just got nothing. What exactly is She Hate Me?

Adam: Besides bad? Annoying. I will defend almost any Spike Lee movie, but She Hate Me is one of the few I have very little tolerance for. It’s amazing that I get so little out of it considering Lee is one of my favorite directors and the cast has actors like Anthony Mackie, Kerry Washington, and Woody Harrelson, whose movies I seek out just because they’re in them. As your plot description (bless you) details, She Hate Me is four or five different movies that change out on a scene by scene basis. I described it to you as I was watching it as a Choose Your Own Adventure story. The last act in particular is so ludicrous that I’m convinced this is meant to be satire, but of what exactly? Lee is focusing on too many things to skewer them all, so instead it’s just the thing that’s bad instead of commenting on the thing that’s bad (e.g. corporate greed, stereotypes about male and female sexuality, etc.). I was ok with the movie, even interested, for the first 30 minutes and was ready to give the movie a fair shake because of Roger Ebert’s empathetic 3-star review, but as I told Patrick, I couldn’t go along with Mr. Ebert’s take because if I did I would no longer have meaning to associate with the phrase “I liked that movie.” Much of Spike Lee’s output in the past 10-15 years has been largely ignored or forgotten as he’s become very experimental to lesser success. She Hate Me’s lack of footprint in the discussion of his work is probably for the best. It’s a frustrating failure and not an interesting one to me at least.
To close out, what’s the next Spike Lee movie you think you’ll watch, and which one of his movies (that we didn’t write about here) do you want more people to see?

Rob: I’ll be watching Do the Right Thing with my film class soon, so it’ll likely be that, but I’ve also got a real urge to revisit 25th Hour. I haven’t seen that since I rented it through Netflix some years back. Other than that, I’m not sure I have a pet favorite that I’d really advocate for as underseen. In fact, a lot of my Spike Lee experience has been through friends like you recommending favorites of your own. I know I have a column on Inside Man in me somewhere, and I’ve still never seen Girl 6, which we tried to find for this column but were unsuccessful.

Adam: Girl 6 is my Moby Dick. That’s the last of his features I’ve yet to see. I think the next one I’ll watch is a revisit of BlacKkKlansman before the Oscars and the one I’ll advocate for is Get On The Bus, which is terrific and hardly ever talked about. It’s a really interesting idea for a movie as it was filmed in real-time during the Million Man March with an ensemble of actors most of whom are from Lee’s rep company of regulars.

What do we have planned for next week?

Rob: All Pacino returns with 1991’s Frankie and Johnny!

Adam: It’s how we’ll celebrate Al-entine’s Day! Hoo-ah! Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.


  1. Love this. And I am so happy to see CROOKLYN getting such affection as it is a long-time favorite of mine that people don't always seem as familiar with! I skipped your (probably beautiful and perfect) words about 4 LITTLE GIRLS for now though... #somethingsomethinggreatminds

  2. Great article. Thanks guys.

    I once tried to defend "She Hate Me" as some sort of subversive comedic/political masterpiece and then my friend smacked me and told me I was wrong, and now I know I was abolutely dead-ass don't-know-shit-from-shinola wrong. But the cast is good (God help me).

    "Clockers" has turned into an annual watch for me. I think it moves incredibly well and it breaks my heart everytime.

    Keep up the lord's work, fellas.

  3. WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE is an all-timer.