Spike Lee is not my favorite filmmaker, but not for the reason that most white people get a little squishy when they’re asked to talk about Spike. I have no problem with the way that he has framed the debate about race, even in films as explosive as ‘Malcolm X,’ ‘Do the Right Thing,’ and ‘Jungle Fever.’ I respect any work of art that makes half of a room apoplectic and delights the other half.
However, I don’t always get carried away by Lee’s storytelling. This is not a minor detail in a discussion about most artists, but Spike’s skill with light, location, characters, and his love of the medium of film almost makes it a lesser consideration. I remember about halfway through ‘Crooklyn’ I thought “This film doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in terms of narrative, but I am glad I saw it just for the ‘waking-up-on-the-first-day-of-summer-in-the-bedroom’ shot.” All of Spike Lee’s films have these moments of sublime cinematography and direction somewhere in them- for example- the run-up the climax of ‘Malcolm X,’ where Malcolm, as portrayed by Denzel Washington, is LITERALLY being propelled forward towards his assassination (while Sam Cooke’s earthshattering “A Change is Gonna Come” is playing as incidental music)- Washington’s work in this scene is pretty amazing, too- he manages to convey Malcolm’s ambivalence (in the wake of Malcolm’s life-changing pilgrimage to Mecca) and steadfastness (which is simply Malcolm’s strength of character) while also very subtly conveying his intuition that something awful was waiting for him at the Audubon Ballroom. I could write for an hour about the power of that shot and that scene, but I won’t because you really should just see it for yourself.
That said, I think that the new Spike Lee joint ‘When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,’ is going to be a Must See. I think that Lee is strongest when he is working from a script that is propelled by historical fact or from a screenplay that possesses enough drive that it overcomes the tendency (in his less successful films) to bog down in the mechanics of the film and to forget the story.
In my favorite Spike Lee films, it’s his anger that drives his storytelling, and I hope he’s as pissed off about Katrina as I am. Here’s my favorite quote from the NY Times story linked above:
“What happened in New Orleans was a criminal act,” he said, a tragic backhanded slap to poor, black or politically insignificant people. “The levees were a Band-Aid here and a Band-Aid there. In the famous statement of Malcolm X, the chickens came home to roost. Somebody needs to go to jail.”
I concur completely.
I am still terribly, terribly angry about the Katrina disaster, and feel that if our country was perhaps geographically smaller (like Spain) or less narcotically involved with American Idol, a popular uprising would have been unavoidable. As it is, we have been taught as a society to disparage the poor, ignore or rebuke the weak, and to pretend that it can’t happen to us, whatever “it” is.
I hope that Spike Lee has made a film that gives New Orleans a voice. I can’t wait to see it.