A Spike Lee Joint: The Director’s Most Captivating, Most Underrated, And Most Side-Eye Worthy Films Yet
In many ways, Spike Lee is a cinematic genius. He’s covered a wide range of topics that many folks in Hollywood wouldn’t touch with a five-foot pole. And in the process, he’s made some iconic films, some very underrated ones, and a few movies that just didn’t make any damn sense once the credits started rolling. But in the end, where would black films and black filmmakers be without the man? So here are a few of our favorites, a few that deserve more love, and a few that he maybe should have kept under wraps…
She’s Gotta Have It
To me, Spike Lee was one of the first, if not the first, directors to proudly tell the story of black women (and ladies in general) doing what men have been doing for years, but getting negatively labeled for–having a healthy sex life with no want or need for a relationship. Nola Darling was that character with that story, and with the smooth black and white way the film was shot, the vintage shots of Brooklyn, the style and the dialogue, it was one of those movies that could suck you in and keep you watching. Darling was a very unconventional heroine, and probably because she was so unapologetic about her lifestyle (“I am not a one man woman.”), and I for one, loved that. Even if I wouldn’t dare live the same way…
Do The Right Thing
But of course! It’s the film that garnered Lee an Academy Award nomination for his writing, and one of many that proved that Lee wasn’t afraid to talk about topics and problems that most folks wanted to brush under the rug. This time around, he focused on bubbling racial tensions on the hottest day of the summer in Bed-Stuy. And you know a movie is good when it gets you feeling something very strong, including anger (at dumb a** Buggin’ Out, the very racist Pino, or the very unjust death of Radio Raheem) and sadness, just a few of the many emotions we watched the characters go through in a seemingly calm day that went straight to hell very fast.
In the beginning, when this movie was just in the production stages, there was a lot of push AGAINST having Spike Lee be the one to direct the film, especially since he took over the script (he was a co-writer in the end though). But after watching such a well done movie with such wonderful performances, could anyone honestly have done it better than Lee? I mean really? The film successfully covered everything from Malcolm’s early years of crime and incarceration, converting to Islam, his marriage, separating himself from the Nation of Islam, and of course, his assassination, and was both a critical and box-office success. And who could forget Denzel Washington’s Oscar-nominated and awe-inspiring performance???
HONORABLE MENTIONS: 25th Hour, When The Levees Broke, 4 Little Girls
Mo’ Better Blues
Another movie with Denzel at the forefront, Mo’ Better Blues had everything you needed: great music, great looking lead actor (and a pretty good looking Wesley Snipes), beautiful leading ladies, intricate plot, and a whole lot of color. It was the ’90s at its finest in the style, in the prominent jazz clubs, in the arguments over returning people’s records–in every way. And what I appreciated was the lesson that a man could be saved by a woman, emotionally, after he’s damn near lost it all. Gotta love black love! Reminds us that our jobs and our talents aren’t everything…and they definitely can’t keep a playa warm at night!
In all honesty, I wasn’t blow away by the story, but I definitely was impressed by the way Spike tackled the animosity that’s thrown in the direction of those who fall in love (or just become infatuated with) those of another race. Especially at a time when people were still especially ugly about these relationships, even out in public (and not in just blog comment sections), about it. But at the same time, the side story about drug addiction that brought us Gator Purify (Samuel Jackson) and a young Halle Berry was what always makes me pick up that movie on a Saturday night when I’m not sure I want to. He was exceptional in his panic, in his dubiousness, in his mannerisms, and in just the way he embodied that character to the fullest. Of course, we would all find out later that Jackson was recovering from his own drug addiction at the time he filmed the movie.
It’s another topic so many are afraid to discuss in film form, and as a young director, Lee brought us such an ugly topic in a colorful way by making the film’s setting a black college, and making it almost a musical at times (“Good and Bad Hair” anyone?). It was extremely entertaining watching the drama between Dap (Laurence Fishburne) and Dean, Big Brother Almighty (Giancarlo Esposito), as well as Jane (Tisha Campbell-Martin) and Rachel. The homecoming performances, the step shows, and of course, the story of young black folks confronting one another over the complex issue of colorism (which we know is still a big problem) make this one a must-see still.
If you’ve ever been a child in a big family, especially one where you were the only girl or boy, how can you not love this movie? In a heartwarming way, it follows the struggles of the Carmichael family living in Bed-Stuy during the ’70s, but mostly, it follows the lessons and every day happenings of the only girl out of all the children–Troy Carmichael. We got to peek in to the problems many children of large families witness at one time or another, including strife between parents, money troubles, and of course, sibling drama. And the unexpected death still makes me feel some kind of way. The beloved movie is said to be inspired by Spike and Joie Lee’s childhood, as they both co-wrote the script.
HONORABLE MENTION: Clockers, Get On The Bus, Summer Of Sam
Red Hook Summer
If the acting wasn’t terrible (maybe it was on purpose by the kids and I just didn’t realize??), the story ended unrealistically and abruptly. There were so many struggle moments in this movie (including Spike trying to bring back Mookie as a middle-aged man still pushing pizza) that my colleague and I walked out without a real idea of how we felt about it (“Uh, I guess it was okay…?”). There were even some moments that were so cringe-worthy, and for no reason, folks in the theater let out gasps and moans of discontent. This movie could have done some really great things, but in all honesty, I absolutely, positively, in the end, could have done without it.
So an actress with a lack of talent needs to pay the bills, and after taking on some odd jobs, she becomes sucked into the seedy world of being a phone sex worker. A young and very talented Isaiah Washington did a great job in the movie, but he, along with cameos by Naomi Campbell, Madonna, Quentin Tarantino (ironic, right?) and Spike Lee, himself, couldn’t save this tepid story. And in the end, the main character goes through hell in high water only to seemingly end up in the same place she started, but just able to say she doesn’t have to take her clothes off to get film work. Thanks, but no thanks.
She Hate Me
A successful executive (Anthony Mackie) loses his job after becoming something of a whistle-blower to the shadiness at his company, and gets turned on and painted as the one participating in securities fraud. In order to pay his bills and eat, he sells his sp*erm to lesbians. Many, many lesbians. Kerry Washington is his ex-fiancée who convinces Mackie’s character to impregnate her and her girlfriend so that they can have the children he wants, and he will be well compensated in the process. When he succeeds, he decides to spread his seed all over New York and becomes something of a celebrity, receiving positive and negative love from the people of NYC in the process. In the end, he tries to have a relationship with his ex-fiancée and her girlfriend (polyamorous), and remains close to the 18 women he impregnates so that he can be involved in the lives of the children.
If that whole plot doesn’t make you give the side-eye, I don’t know what will…
HONORABLE MENTION: Bamboozled