Spike Lee

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: Spike Lee

Film director, Spike Lee.

My first memory of Spike Lee was following the 91st Academy Awards. Upon the announcement that Green Book (2017) had won Best Picture, the acclaimed director reportedly rose from his chair and angrily attempted to leave the Dolby Theater. It wasn’t uncommon for nominees to thinly veil their disappointment, but the idea that he would storm out because his movie didn’t win set me against the acclaimed director. As such, my first ever Spike Lee Joint was only two months ago when I finally got around to seeing the film he had so badly wanted to take home with the Best Picture honor: BlacKkKlansman (2017). Making my way through his filmography has convinced me that there is more to Lee than being a seemingly sore loser. So here is what I’ve learned about the man named Shelton Jackson Lee or (as his mother took to calling him) Spike.

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MOVIE REVIEW: Da 5 Bloods

Spike Lee’s mother was a teacher of arts and Black literature. “She was the one who introduced me to film,” he says of Jacquelyn Shelton Lee. “My mother had the vision to introduce all her children to the arts…. but she never got to see my success” (1). She died during his sophomore year at Morehouse College. He would later continue his education with a Master’s in Film and Television from NYU, where he is currently a tenured professor. He has used his powerful storytelling to change the perspective on historical figures, as in Malcolm X (1992), or to tell criminally untold stories, as in BlacKkKlansman and most recently Da Five Bloods (2020). He cares for these stories as if they were his own, like many of his joints are. His filmography feels at times like a biography, as the experiences and places that formed him permeate his narratives: the innocence of childhood and maternal loss in Crooklyn (1994), the portrayal of social issues within the Black community in School Daze (1988), and the racial tensions and gentrification of Brooklyn in Do the Right Thing (1989). Lee makes his movies even more personal by starring in many of them himself. In fact, every member of his immediate family has participated in at least one of his projects; his father, a jazz musician, recorded the music for Lee’s first four films, including Mo’ Better Blues (1990). Spike Lee co-wrote Crooklyn with his siblings Cinqué and Joie, and his brother David has done the still-photography for almost all of Lee’s films.

Director Spike Lee on location for the filming of Do the Right Thing (1989).

For me, Spike Lee Joints stand out as unsatisfying—not in quality or content, but in terms of the feeling that sits in my gut when the credits roll. He doesn’t shy away from displaying brutality, violence, and overt racism (as a result all but two of Spike Lee’s films have an R-rating). But what sets him apart is his determination to deny any resolution to the discomfort. Lee creates this feeling of unease not only with subject matter and dialogue but also with camera angles and movements. His signatures are a double-dolly shot where characters appear to be floating, and the simple direction of having characters break the fourth wall; but they aren’t looking at the camera—they are looking at you. The implied sense of obligation or responsibility for what is going on, especially when the subject matter is so jarring, isn’t pleasant. It’s impossible to watch Lee’s films and feel that everything is hunky-dory in the world and that there is no need for outcry. It’s why his films have become the standard for education on the social issues at hand.

Common criticisms of Lee include that his work can be heavy-handed and transparently political, and I don’t think he would disagree. In an interview with Piers Morgan, he said, “I know I have a reputation, but I’m always being put in this position [where] I have to speak on race… on behalf of 45 million African Americans” (2). He takes that responsibility seriously. For one, the name of his production company is “40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks”, referring to what was promised by the federal government (but never given) to newly freed slaves following the end of the Civil War; a reminder of what Black Americans have suffered at the hand of systemic injustice. In almost every one of his films a character says, “Wake up!”, sometimes repeatedly and directly to the audience. He’s been openly critical of directors that he believes are misrepresenting Black people, including Clint Eastwood, Tyler Perry, and Quentin Tarantino. He felt that Do the Right Thing was passed over in favor of a more polite and comfortable narrative in Driving Miss Daisy (1989), which was showered with praise, even the Academy’s top prize. When asked about his apparent agitation over Green Book’s similar victory, Lee responded, “Every time somebody’s driving somebody, I lose” (3).

Director Spike Lee, actors Topher Grace and Adam Driver on the set of BlacKkKlansman, a Focus Features release. Credit: David Lee / Focus Features

Despite losing Best Picture and Best Director, Spike Lee did not go home empty-handed. He won his first non-honorary Oscar for BlacKkKlansman’s adapted screenplay. The announcement was made by Samuel L. Jackson, who got his start in Lee’s films and has starred in six of them to date. At the news, Lee bounded onto the stage in a bright purple suit and leapt into Jackson’s arms, wrapping all four limbs around his old friend’s frame for a good few seconds before finally making his way to the microphone. The speech was characteristic of Lee: reminding those present that their country was built on the enslavement of an entire race and the genocide of the Native American people. As a fully committed people-pleaser, it’s hard for me to relate to someone so trenchant and passionate in their viewpoint. Like his films, Lee’s voice abandons subtlety and favors outrightness and unflinching sophistication. It may not be easy to hear, but without such a bold and unrelenting voice, would we see things the way we do now?

Citations:

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18ZPB_SvsKk
  2. The Atlantic: Spike Lee Interview
  3. Washington Post: Spike Lee’s Reaction to ‘Green Book’ Win

REVIEW: Da 5 Bloods

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 154 minutes
Director: Spike Lee

Da 5 Bloods is a war drama film directed and produced by Spike Lee. The film stars Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Jean Reno, and Chadwick Boseman. The film follows a group of aging Vietnam War veterans who return to Vietnam in search of treasure they buried while stationed there. Otis (Peters), Paul (Lindo), Melvin (Whitlock) and Eddie (Lewis) journey through Vietnam to retrieve their squad commander’s (Boseman) remains for a proper military burial.

Spike Lee is known as one of Hollywood’s best storytellers and his films are typically referred to as “Spike Lee Joints.” Lee received a Master of Fine Arts degree from New York University in 1983, and his first feature-film, She’s Gotta Have It was released three years later. Over the course of his career Lee has directed 23 films and only 6 of them were not written by him. He has also starred in ten of them. His most famous works are She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing (1989), Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), He Got Game (1998), 25th Hour (2002), Inside Man (2006), Chi-Raq (2015), and BlacKkKlansman (2018). In addition to his filmography, Lee has directed a number of music videos by artists such as Prince, Michael Jackson, and Eminem. His work has won him numerous awards including an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, a Student Academy Award, a BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, two Emmy Awards, two Peabody Awards, and the Cannes Grand Prix. Also interestingly, prior to Da 5 Bloods, Inside Man is his biggest box office hit, and BlacKkKlansman is the only film for which he has won an Academy Award. His films have explored race relations, colorism in the black community, the role of media in contemporary life, urban crime and poverty, and other social and political issues.

(From left to right) Director Spike Lee, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters and Norm Lewis of Da 5 Bloods | NETFLIX. Photo credit: David Lee.

The Story & Direction

As with many “Spike Lee Joints,” Lee is able to explore his themes and messages in a very compelling way. In Da 5 Bloods he is able to mix a fictional story with real-life imagery flawlessly. One of the most obvious allegories is how this film shows the duality of how war in general deals with the Black community. These men go fight for the United States against an enemy that did nothing directly to them. Then when they return to their home country, they are treated as secondary citizens. This idea can be applied to almost all veterans in general, but it is especially evident toward the Black community. The Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964 and American intervention in the war started only a year later. The country had just started to recognize that discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was wrong. Even now, there are still problems in our country involving civil rights—not just people of color, but also women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, different religious groups, and people from different countries.

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DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: Spike Lee

The current social climate adds to Lee’s (mostly) engaging and thought-provoking film. The film highlights the disproportionate nature of the African American sacrifice in Vietnam; African Americans suffered disproportionately high casualty rates in Vietnam. In 1965 alone, they comprised 14.1% of total combat deaths when they were 11% of the total U.S. population at the time (1). Furthermore in 1966, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara initiated ‘Project 100,000’ which further lowered military standards which he said would provide valuable training, skills, and opportunity to America’s poor. This allowed many Black men who had previously been ineligible to be drafted along with many poor and racially intolerant white men from the US South. This led to increased racial tension in the military (2). Out of all of the newly eligible draftees, 41% were black. Blacks often made up a disproportionate 25% or more of combat units, while constituting only 12% of the military. 20% of black males were combat soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. At the end of the war, black casualties averaged 12.5% of US combat deaths (1).

The film also feeds into issues of Black patriotism, inequality, and justice. In one flashback, in the Vietnamese jungle, the five comrades learn of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They also learn of the rioting back home in response to MLK’s death and the brutal government response to the riots. The broadcaster then asks, “Why you fight against us so far away from where you are needed?” to which Lee overplays footage of the 1968 riots that look unfortunately similar to the past few weeks. The film is partially an attempt to reclaim the Vietnam War historical narrative, but it’s also a terrific heist drama. As the story reaches the completion of getting the gold, the film is only halfway. This makes the second half almost uncertain. Along the journey, there is some great cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel and the audience gets to know “Da 5 Bloods.”

Cast members in a scene of Da 5 Bloods | NETFLIX.

The Characters

This film has some amazing performances by the cast: the typical jester in Otis; grounded medic, Eddie; and the character, Paul, who is still haunted by his experience. They are also joined by Paul’s son, David. Lee is able to show this squad having a camaraderie that only occurs between brothers. The film starts off very similar to films like The Best Man (1999), Bridesmaids (2011), Last Vegas (2013), Going in Style (2017), and Girls Trip (2017)—this genre of films that have a bunch of friends getting back together to do one last big event. Whether you like that genre of film or not, one thing that they always have is chemistry between the stars. This adds an authentic feeling to them, and this film is no different in that aspect. All of the actors have chemistry with each other which makes each scene enjoyable. The standout is Lindo’s character who deals with guilt, greed, and PTSD. Lindo provides one of the best performances of the year so far, and his anti-hero never becomes cliche.

Lindo’s character, Paul, represents how so many veterans suffer from mental health issues after returning home from war. The film says people need counseling which some veterans can get and some cannot. It is said early on in the film that Paul doesn’t have a lot of money, so it is possible he cannot afford it. He is shown to be very proud, so even if he had money, he probably wouldn’t admit that he needed it. Plus, the older generation as a whole do not embrace therapy, especially minority populations (3). Lindo gives this character a very special performance. It’s very touching to see his friends rally around him when he is struggling. When his PTSD panic attack hits he thinks he’s all alone and that none of his friends will understand. This isn’t the case; they all have the same struggles and are in this together, adding to the realism of their brotherhood. The other actors are good, but Lindo definitely outshines them. The notion of Black servicemen fighting overseas for a country that disenfranchised them isn’t new but the way this film approaches it feels fresh. Boseman is not in the film too much but his charisma still finds a way to show itself.  His last scene in the film is very emotional and powerful. There’s also a small subplot dealing with one of the men and a local Vietnamese woman that touches on the many Amerasian children left behind in Vietnam after the war.

The Flaws

Unfortunately, some of the characters do feel awkward as not much is given to their backstory aside from a few one-liners here and there. Boseman isn’t in the film that much even though he has been shown to be a really good actor, e.g. 42 (2013), Get On Up (2014), and Marshall (2017). This is not to say his acting is poor in any way; in fact, it is really good, but his ability sadly feels wasted. He has proven to be a starring actor. Additionally, Lee’s writing has a lot going on in this film that does not use it’s 2.5 hour run time efficiently. He could have cut a few scenes here and there to make the story feel more fluid. The film’s pacing has some problems at the beginning that can feel rushed; the film switches that up and then slows down. The editing is also choppy at times and is very noticeable. There also appears to be no age disparity between the flashbacks and “present” day. Some of the actors look the exact same and also the “camera” footage that one of the characters was filming seemed very dated in comparison to the time period the film takes place in. (Maybe that’s the only working tech they have?) It’s never explained, though it is a cool aesthetic. One potential flaw for people could be how obvious Lee’s political views are in this film, which makes sense as he has always been outspoken on that matter.

Overall

Even with the odd pacing and not always efficient storytelling, this film has a good message that it is trying to get across. Spike Lee is one of the few directors that is able to tackle messages in both good and bad ways. In films like Da 5 Bloods, he is able do it with a great amount of brilliance. This film is extremely thrilling at times, and uses genre cliches in unique ways to reclaim a historical narrative. It works on pretty much every level. It will work as a conversation piece, an action movie, and a comedy. It gives the audience superb performances, especially by Lindo, and is able to bring back Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” as one of the best anti-war songs of all time. Spike Lee has made a movie that not only speaks about the past but also feel very relevant for today. Even if the obvious political opinions are taken out, Da 5 Bloods is one of the best movies of the year and is definitely recommendable to anyone.

Citations:

  1. Westheider, James E. Fighting on Two Fronts: African Americans and the Vietnam War; New York University Press; 1997; pp. 11–16
  2. Appy, Christian. Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers & Vietnam. University of North Carolina Press; 2003; pp. 31–33.
  3. Murry, V.M., Heflinger, C.A., Suiter, S.V. et al. Examining Perceptions About Mental Health Care and Help-Seeking Among Rural African American Families of Adolescents. J Youth Adolescence 40, 1118–1131 (2011).

Recommendation: STREAM IT

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