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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Spike Lee—By Any Means Necessary

by Michael Koresky

Rosie Perez and Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing. Photo: Universal/Photofest

There are many ways critics, journalists, and other kinds of commentators have tended to categorize Spike Lee. He has been called the most important African-American filmmaker of our time. Or perhaps he’s the most controversial American filmmaker. Or the most political. Or, most suspiciously, the most angry. The “most” business is a most tiresome one, isn’t it? A wildly formidable, inspiringly versatile director such as Spike Lee deserves more consideration—and intense focus—than the mere hyperbole his blistering films appear to invite. By Any Means Necessary: A Spike Lee Joints Retrospective, co-presented by BAMcinématek and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, will take place at BAM Rose Cinemas from June 29 to July 10.

Media discussion of Lee as a controversial figure has long distracted from considerations of his aesthetics. If one looks back over his career, without the pre- and mis-conceptions that have dogged him, the idea of Spike Lee as a provocateur first seems specious. From the first, he was a director with the vibrancy and gameness of a French New Waver. Nearly 30 years of increasingly prepackaged American indies have only made his black-and-white feature debut, She’s Gotta Have It (1986) seem that much more pleasurably shocking. The NYU film school graduate had already begun to make a name for himself with his hour-long Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983)—the first student film ever selected for Lincoln Center’s prestigious New Directors/New Films festival—but She’s Gotta Have It introduced him to the world, making a splash at festivals from Cannes to San Francisco (where, legendarily, premiere audiences were so blissed out by the film’s first half-hour that they didn’t budge when a neighborhood-wide blackout interrupted the film for 30 excruciating minutes).

Even amid a movie renaissance that helped make independent icons of Jim Jarmusch, Gus Van Sant, and more, Spike Lee stood out. Shot in 12 days for $175,000, She’s Gotta Have It, about an artist romantically juggling three men of differing classes and personalities, exploded with radical technique and emotional candor, and all but confirmed Lee as a poet of Brooklyn. Kicking off with a series of gorgeous monochrome photographs taken around the borough by his brother, David, the film features direct camera address, lovingly askew compositions, and expressionistic flourishes, including a memorable dance sequence shot in color—a wonderfully left-field homage to The Wizard of Oz.

This scene speaks to the sense of constant visual discovery in Lee’s films: he’s not merely telling you something important, but finding exciting ways of showing you his ideas. The studio-financed Do the Right Thing (1989), about racial conflict hitting a boiling point on a hot summer day on one Bed-Stuy block, contains the kind of seismic power most filmmakers only dream of. He was using cinema to rip the gauze off of black America’s barely concealed wounds. At the time, it incited debate—about racial reconciliation, about the efficacy of violent versus nonviolent aggression—but to today’s generation of critics and filmmakers there seems to be little need for discussion: this is one of the major works of popular art of the 20th century.

Denzel Washington in Malcolm X. Photo: Warner Bros./Photofest

Lee moved into the ’90s and beyond with force, at times taking up the mantle of importance with issue-driven dramas (Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Clockers, Get on the Bus—all excellent), at other times confounding expectations with idiosyncratic, sensual character studies (Mo’ Better Blues, Girl 6), and occasionally turning to documentary with tremendous results (4 Little Girls, When the Levees Broke). With his galvanizing Bamboozled (2000), he entered the digital age with confidence and robust skepticism; his scathing, disturbing satire on media minstrelsy was among the first major American films shot on early-millennium, low-grade video. Brilliantly, Lee decided to shoot the film’s ugliest scenes (the contemporary minstrel show that becomes a hit) on beautiful eye-catching 16mm.

Such images—seductive and repellent at once, showing us things we might not want to see, and in a way we never thought we’d see them—are key to Lee’s importance and singularity as an American auteur. Lee has managed a specific style and artistic perspective across a variety of films with the help of recurring collaborators like cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, editor Sam Pollard, musicians Bill Lee (his father) and later Terence Blanchard, but they have always remained distinctly, ineluctably his. At this point, he’s directed big-budget historical epics, cockeyed comedies, and even a cops-and-robbers hit, but as his recent, low-budget Red Hook Summer shows, cinema is not for him merely a medium for expression—it continues to be a way to wrestle with the power of image-making itself.

Michael Koresky is the staff writer of the Criterion Collection and the co-editor-in-chief of Reverse Shot. His writings have appeared in Film Comment, Cinema Scope, Sight & Sound, and the Village Voice. His book Terence Davies will be published September 15 by University of Illinois Press.

Reprinted from the BAMbill.

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