Why We Should All Be Revisiting Spike Lee's Movies Right Now
On Wednesday, September 13, the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment will offer a free screening of Spike Lee's "Crooklyn" in a park in every New York City borough, and in 10 theaters scattered around the city. The event, called "One City One Film," is intended to create a shared experience around a single work of art.
A.O. Scott and Manhola Dargis, chief film critics of the New York Times, chose five great films showcasing the sounds and spirit of New York City that could be viewed by the whole family (sorry, "Taxi Driver"), and then asked citizens to vote on which they would watch. The films were Ang Lee's "The Wedding Banquet," Martin Scorsese's "New York, New York," Susan Seidelman's "Desperately Seeking Susan," Gene Kelly and Stanley Donan's "On the Town," and Spike Lee's 1994 "Crooklyn."
In light of all the bad news lately, I thought I would invite the rest of the country to join us New Yorkers, although it will cost you a few bucks on Amazon Prime. It also seems like a good moment to encourage readers to revisit the work of Spike Lee.
"Crooklyn," which he both wrote and directed, tells the story of a nine-year-old girl in Bedford-Styvesant, Brooklyn, where Lee grew up. It's a slice-of-life story set in the 1970s, with a soundtrack of classic soul and R&B that demands to be downloaded. "Crooklyn" was described by the New York Times at the time of its release as "messy," a common complaint about Lee's directorial style. But even his minor works are fun, smart and refreshingly adventurous.
Most remember Kanye West snatching Taylor Swift's microphone after Beyonce was snubbed at the Grammys. But if any artist should feel snubbed, it's probably Spike Lee. "Malcolm X," his powerful biopic starring Denzel Washington, was not nominated for Best Picture in 1993, losing out to "A Few Good Men" and "Scent of a Woman." Ouch. "Do The Right Thing" wasn't nominated for Best Picture in 1989, although he did receive an original screenwriting nomination. The winner in 1989 was a decidely more demure look at racism, "Driving Miss Daisy."
I recently caught "She Hates Me" on cable, and couldn't help thinking Spike Lee has been underappreciated in his exploration of sexual politics; the film has a 19% rating at the home of conventional wisdom, Rotten Tomatoes. Its story centers around Kerry Washington, who is pimping out Anthony Mackie to wealthy lesbians looking to get pregnant, and features a twist ending challenging all manner of sexual mores.
Lee's first big hit was "She's Gotta Have It" in 1986, about a woman comically dealing with three man-children (one of them Spike). He's also given us "Jungle Fever," a portrait of interacial love, and the sex comedy "Girl 6," about a phone-sex operator, featuring cameous by Madonna and Quentin Tarrantino. All are fun, edgy and worth a second look.
Lee has faired better with his documentary work. There's no better time to catch his Emmy-winning look at Katrina, "When the Levees Broke: A Requium in Four Acts," than right now, as our government and country begin to deal with a post-hurricane world. Then there's his 1999 feature-length documentary, "4 Little Girls," about America's most infamous racial terrorist bombing—necessary viewing in the aftermath of Charlotteville. Lee has also produced two solid documentaries on Michael Jackson in "Bad 25" and Michael Jackson's "Journey From Motown to Off the Wall," shifting the focus away from his troubled personal life and onto his musical genius.
I could go on. Before HBO's "The Deuce," there was the much-maligned "Summer of Sam," which captures the city in all of its '70s madness. Spike and I share a city, and a masochistic love for a certain New York sports team, so maybe I have a soft spot. We need Spike Lee now, more than ever.
Join New York City and celebrate "Crooklyn."