Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, March 29, 2006
In a career that now stretches over two decades, director Spike Lee has established himself as one of America’s premier filmmakers. From his NYU film school days to “Inside Man,” Lee has explored various controversial topics with skill and grace. Though he has well over a dozen films to his credit, there are a few in his oeuvre that stand out.
She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
A brief (85 minutes), busy film about a woman who can’t decide between three men, Lee’s feature debut helped usher in a new wave of American independent cinema. Shot in fifteen days on a budget of less than $200,000, “She’s Gotta Have It” introduced the world to the 29-yeard-old director’s considerable talent. Though the film was not as sharp, insightful and polished as Lee’s later works, “She’s Gotta Have It” has a quirky charm and energetic style that the director would never again quite capture.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
By 1989, Spike Lee had established himself as one America’s premier directors, and he fulfilled his promise with the masterpiece “Do the Right Thing.” A pre-“Crash” examination of racism, “Do the Right Thing” bristles with gusto and righteous anger. Praised and criticized in almost equal measure for its passionately incendiary content, the film was nonetheless a box office success and helped pave the way for black directors like John Singleton (“Boyz n the Hood”).
At once invigorating, difficult and groundbreaking, “Do the Right Thing” remains Lee’s masterpiece and one of the best films of the 1980s. There are those who still feel that the film was robbed at the Oscars, where the uplifting and relatively uncontroversial “Driving Miss Daisy” took top honors.
Malcolm X (1992)
Lee’s 1992 biography of the assassinated civil rights leader is as epic as they come, following Malcolm X’s entire life over the course of 205 minutes. Anchored by an astounding performance by Denzel Washington, Lee’s film manages to capture the civil rights icon as a difficult, complex and ultimately realistic man – the director neither makes him a larger-than-life figure nor demonizes him for his flaws. “Malcolm X” solidified Lee as a director of great talent and considerable vision, though the overall quality of his work dipped slightly in the decade following its release.
Summer of Sam (1999)
Noted critically as Lee’s first film without a primarily black cast, “Summer of Sam” is more problematic because of its unfocused sprawl. Touting such acting talent as John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody and Mira Sorvino, the plot never quite gels. Though this multi-faceted narrative tableau is a trademark of Lee’s style, “Summer of Sam” is one of his few films that never becomes quite engaging enough to sustain momentum over its considerable length. The atmosphere of paranoia and fear is suitably oppressive, but becomes wearing as the film surpasses the two-hour mark. Still, the director’s ambition and conviction shine through (as usual), and his commitment to detail prevent “Summer of Sam” from being a complete failure.
25th Hour (2002)
A complex, difficult film starring Edward Norton and Philip Seymour Hoffman, “25th Hour” was the first Hollywood film to address post-9/11 New York City. Following a drug dealer’s final day before he is to go to prison, Lee’s film is a desperate search for hope, redemption and resolution in an uncertain world. Though anchored by the unerring performance of Edward Norton in the lead, “25th Hour” still did not live up to the director’s (admittedly high) standards. Its manically aggressive style and visual overload was problematic for many, who saw the film as an example of the director allowing style to overshadow substance. One of Lee’s last forays into didactic cinema, it helped pave the way for 2006’s “Inside Man.”