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Spike Lee Wakes Up

Controversial filmmaker goes from iconoclast to smuggler with latest film

Hard to believe, but Spike Lee, the wunderkind, the provocateur, turns 50 next year.

Twenty years ago he burst onto a movie scene devoid not only of African-American filmmakers but (Eddie Murphy notwithstanding) African-American stars as well. Spike helped make both. In the “dog” montage alone — men and their lousy pick-up lines — from his first feature, “She’s Gotta Have It,” Dog  No. 3 is played by Erik Dellums, who would go on to play Bayard Rustin in “Boycott,” Dog No. 4 is Reggie Hudlin who would write and direct “House Party,” and Dog No. 8 is Spike’s cinematographer, Ernest Dickerson, who would film Spike’s most controversial movies before becoming a director on his own (“Juice,” “Surviving the Game”).

Spike gave visibility to a whole generation of acting talent, including Larry Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson, Giancarlo Esposito, Rosie Perez, Halle Berry, Delroy Lindo, and Mekhi Phifer. He is the main director pushing the careers of great supporting players like Roger Guenveur Smith and Thomas Jefferson Byrd.

More, he provided an African-American sensibility in a very white, very powerful medium. No one saw a Spike Lee movie and thought, “Oh, he’s just doing that for cross-over appeal. He’s just trying to get along.” You might think his films were heavy-handed, and that his politics often trumped his artistry to bad effect, and that he cared more about issues than characters. You might think that he didn’t know when to shut up, or when to shut his characters up, or how to end his movies. You might think “Oh crap, Spike’s doing his signature put-the-actor-on-the-dolly shot again.”

You might leave his movies with the melodramatic thought Wesley Snipes enunciates at the end of “Jungle Fever,” “Noooooooooo!,” and certainly after disasters like “Bamboozled” and “She Hate Me” you might urge Spike to do what Spike has always urged us to do — “Wake up, wake, up, wake up!” — but you’d never think: “Spike Lee is selling out.”

What he’s done for us lately

Is he selling out now? His latest picture, “Inside Man,” is a genre picture, a heist picture, rather than the personal films he’s made for most of his career. For the first time he’s wearing only one hat (director), and for the first time he’s not the producer (Brian Grazer is). Much of Spike’s crew is along for the ride — production designer Wynn Thomas, editor Barry Alexander Brown, with original music by Terence Blanchard — but he’s got massive, cross-over star power for a change: not just Denzel, but Jodie Foster and Clive Owen. It’s called a Spike Lee joint but it really isn’t.

And it’s about freakin’ time.

Have you seen a Spike Lee joint lately? Phewwww. Spike’s films have always been heavy-handed, but the best ones (“Do the Right Thing,” “Get on the Bus,” “He Got Game”) are cohesive while the worst ones scatter in all directions. The focus of “Summer of Sam” should’ve stayed on neighborhood Italian kids and not chased after storylines that went nowhere (Ben Gazzara’s mob boss; the two cops; maybe Berkowitz himself).

“Bamboozled’s” main character, Pierre Delacroix, is a cartoonish wannabe figure whose motivations shift from scene to scene, while the movie’s overall theme — that you can’t wake up America by offering offensive, racist crap because America wants offensive, racist crap — is lost as the main characters bicker about unrelated issues.

And don’t even get me started on “She Hate Me.” It combines corporate scandal, improbable lesbianism and mob bosses quoting “Godfather” dialogue. And that’s leaving out the cartoon sperm scenes. You know things are bad when Spike Lee steals (badly) from “Look Who’s Talking.”

At the same time Spike’s career scattered in all directions. In the last six years, instead of sticking to features, he’s made concert films (“The Original Kings of Comedy”) and TV documentaries (“Jim Brown All American”). He filmed episodes of a mini-series (“Miracle’s Boys”) and a one-man play (“Huey P. Newton”). He tried to start a TV series on Showtime (“Sucker Free City”) but it didn’t last past the pilot.

Besides “25th Hour,” a good film that got mostly good reviews and made a few bucks ($13 million), his aforementioned recent features bombed with both critics and audiences. “Bamboozled’s” box office take was $2 million — or $5 million less than “She’s Gotta Have It” made 15 years earlier. It was his lowest take ever. Then “She Hate Me” made $366,000. In the film world, you can’t get more irrelevant than $366,000.

Throwing garbage cans through windows

Remember when Spike was relevant? After “She’s Gotta Have It,” he couldn’t make a move without attracting attention. His alma mater, Morehouse College, objected to the scenes of intraracial strife in “School Daze”; the Jewish community objected to the over-the-top shyster agents of “Mo’ Betta Blues”; and interracial couples objected to his simplistic portrayal of interracial couples in “Jungle Fever.”

But people were listening. He had our attention. He was like Mookie in “Do The Right Thing,” throwing a garbage can through white America’s window, but soon white America bricked that sucker up and left Spike outside shouting in the breeze. He got into a dust-up with Quentin Tarantino over use of the “n” word. He objected to Mel Gibson’s already forgotten Revolutionary War film “The Patriot” because it didn’t show slaves. He trashed Ving Rhames and Cuba Gooding, Jr. He lost focus.

Let’s face it, even in his heyday Spike’s films always went on too long. “Do The Right Thing” should’ve ended with Smiley pinning the photo of Malcolm and Martin onto the charred wall of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria; instead Spike gives us a resurrection scene the following morning.

“Mo’ Betta” didn’t need its bookending scenes of Bleek as child and Bleek as father. If it had ended with Spike’s character, Giant, shouting after Bleek in the rain, “You’ll play again! You’ll play again!” it would’ve been a small, smart, almost noir-ish tale of a man who could only hear his own music, but who lost his ability to play after trying to help somebody. Instead Spike had to create a nice, middle-class life for him, because there aren’t enough nice, middle-class African-Americans in films. The choice reeked of politics not aesthetics.

Too many of Spike’s choices are political, not aesthetic. In a way Spike isn’t enough like Bleek. Bleek’s loyalty was always to the music but Spike’s loyalty isn’t always to the story. If he can get in a little speechifying, he will. Witness Charles Dutton at the end of “Get on the Bus.” Is he telling us anything we don’t know? Is he telling the other characters anything they don’t know? Would Andre Braugher’s character really sit still for that crap?

A curious dynamic

From the start Spike has wanted to present as many African-American voices as possible in his films. At the same time he seems to want to dissolve them into one voice. It’s a curious dynamic. In “School Daze,” the politically motivated black students battle the following groups: the cartoonish “wannabes,” the school’s administrators, and, in the film’s best scene, the showercap-wearing townies in the KFC parking lot. So many different voices; so many different perspectives. But all are apparently united in the end by Dap’s call to “Wake up!” We are many but we are one.

This dynamic is handled to better effect in “Do The Right Thing,” which begins where “School Daze” ended: with the call to wake up. Here the characters are less cartoonish. Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out may be one-note but they are not cartoons. Sadly, Buggin’ Out’s attempt to unite this diverse community against Sal only works when his one acolyte, Radio Raheem, is killed by the cops. Then the neighborhood becomes united in rage. It’s a dynamic familiar to minority communities around the world : We know we are many but they see us as one — witness: Malcolm X’s joke about the black man with a Ph.D. — and so we’d better present a united front. It’s us vs. them; we’ll agree to be an “us” as long as there is a “them.” But we know better.

Does Spike know better? I know the escalation of violence at the end of “Do the Right Thing” has been talked to death, but I’ve always admired its horrific balance: 1) How the destruction of property (Sal breaking Raheem’s radio) leads to 2) a physical attack (Raheem choking Sal), which 3) leads to a physical attack (the cops choking then killing Raheem), which 4) leads to the destruction of property (the mob burning Sal’s to the ground).

There’s balance to it but no justice. Radio Raheem didn’t deserve to be killed for attacking Sal, while burning Sal’s Pizzeria to the ground only makes sense if you remove Sal’s humanity and see him as a symbol of his race, a representative of the white establishment. Yet, according to Spike, that’s how Mookie sees him. In the director’s commentary, Spike explains it this way: “Sal’s Famous Pizzeria represents everything that oppressed [Mookie] and black people.” The irony with this kind of racial myopia, the reduction of Sal from man to symbol, is that, along with Troy from “Crooklyn” and Jake Shuttlesworth in “He Got Game,” Sal is probably the fullest character Spike Lee has ever created.

The smuggler

So after all the metaphoric garbage cans tossed through all the metaphoric windows, will Spike Lee wind up as just another studio director toeing the studio line?

Here’s an answer. In the BBC documentary “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies,” Scorsese divides Hollywood directors into four basic categories: storytellers, illusionists, iconoclasts and smugglers. Within this framework Spike has always been an iconoclast, attacking studio perceptions head on, and like many iconoclasts (Eric von Stronheim, Orson Welles), he’s come away bruised and defeated.

With “Inside Man,” Spike merely (and probably temporarily) switches categories. He becomes a smuggler. Of course, since he’s Spike Lee, he’s not the best smuggler in the world. He’s a little obvious. His pockets bulge. The film includes slams against racial epithets and video game violence and other social ills. And there are other, typical Spike problems. The film is too long, and a few of the revelations are obvious and Spike’s signature shot (actor on the dolly as the dolly moves) is once again unnecessary.

But it’s a fun movie. When was the last time you could say that of a Spike Lee joint?

—Yes, Erik Lundegaard still hates “Crash.” This piece was originally published 4/6/2006 on MSNBC.com.