Spike Lee: right on time

January 13 2003

Spike Lee

Spike Lee: the only black film maker who gets recognised in Tokyo, London and Sydney.

Once known for making films with brash and controversial subjects, director Spike Lee hasn't made headlines for years. Now, with his new film 25th Hour, he is attempting to become relevant again, writes Vanessa E. Jones.

Used to be the release of a Spike Lee movie was an event.

When 1991's Jungle Fever hit theatres, the entire country chattered about interracial relationships. The release of Malcolm X a year later inspired fans to don baseball caps and T-shirts bearing the single letter of the slain civil rights leader's surname. Think New York film makers, and Lee looms alongside giants Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. He's the only black film maker who gets recognised in Tokyo, London and Sydney.

Then the P.T. Barnum of movie promotion, whose brash words and controversial subjects made headlines, lost his game. None of the eight films he's released since 1992 has even approached the box-office heights of Malcolm X.

"Ten years ago, (Bamboozled) would have been all the rage," says Todd Boyd, an associate professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California, referring to Lee's provocative 2000 film about a televised minstrel show. "People would have been defending it or harshly critiquing it, (but) nobody really paid attention to it. And that's because he's like that guy yelling 'fire!' in a crowded theatre. He's done it so much that nobody pays attention no more."

Pop culture writer Nelson George explains Lee's changing fortunes this way: "He was so visible and so ubiquitous that a certain kind of exhaustion set in. People just got tired of him."

Fine, but Lee unapologetically views himself as an uncompromising maverick.

"I'm not going to just do what's the latest craze," he says. "If I had gone with that thinking, I would have never made Do the Right Thing. I know it's hard to do, but I don't really go by what the winds are or the audience's tastes. It's not really my job to predict what the audience is going to like a year ahead."

In a way, Lee is the victim of an industry he helped transform. In 1986, he single-handedly led a black film-making renaissance with his debut, She's Gotta Have It. Now Hollywood is all about the bottom line, producing blockbusters and sequels galore, while black drama and message films have become the territory of HBO and Showtime.

Although he won't say it, 25th Hour is Lee's attempt to become relevant again.

Set in New York, the film traces the last day of freedom of Monty Brogan, a convicted drug dealer headed for prison. Haunting the movie is a subject primed to generate buzz: Lee pointedly explores New York City after September 11. Add a predominantly white cast led by Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper, and you get a film that's begging for crossover appeal.

"Spike needed to do a film that had more mainstream potential," says George, an investor in She's Gotta Have It and co-author with Lee of Spike Lee's Gotta Have It: Inside Guerrilla Film-making.

"Black drama in Hollywood has been in retreat for a number of years. Bamboozled had a very small budget, while this film has a fairly big-name cast, a good budget, and has been marketed in a mainstream way. (From) a career point of view, it's a very good move for Spike."

And it's a move being made by a number of black directors these days. In the last few years, Hollywood has developed a limited, small-budgeted vision of black film. They're lowbrow comedies, romantic comedies, or what Lee calls "the hip-hop, drugs, shoot 'em up gangsta films". He adds: "Those are really the three ghettos we're confined to. If you want to do something outside of that, it's going to be very hard."

To avoid those ghettos, African-American film makers are following Wesley Snipes, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry into the mainstream. Carl Franklin helmed the Ashley Judd suspense flick High Crimes, while Reginald Hudlin directed the Matthew Perry comedy Serving Sara.

"If you're going to have a career, if you want to have access to bigger marketing budgets and have a chance to have a hit, you have to do more than just films about black people," George says. "That's been pretty clear."

Lee still paints a portrait of himself as a powerful black film maker.

"With the exception of the Joe Louis script and the Jackie Robinson film, I've made every film I've wanted to make," he boasts. "I'm the exception. I'm one of the few to be able to slide through the door."

Just barely, it seems. A recent New York Times article quoted Lee as saying of 25th Hour: "This movie wasn't getting made unless Ed was doing it." Now Lee disowns those words.

"Well, that's not really true," he says. "The (New York Times) writer had his own agenda that Spike Lee is desperate and he needs a hit . . . I mean, he totally misrepresented the situation. This was an easy film to make; Disney wanted to make this film . . . and it came together really quick."

Still, Lee's directing a predominantly white cast raises tough questions. Two years ago, when Michael Mann got the nod to direct Will Smith in Ali, an unnamed source whispered to the New York Daily News that Lee - who was also being considered for the project - hated the decision: "Spike felt that only a black man could do justice to the story."

When asked about it now, Lee responds: "No. I never said that about Michael Mann."

Is it fair, he is asked, to criticise white directors of black films yet remain silent on African-Americans directing mainstream films with white actors? Yes, says Lee. "If you're a black person in America, from the time you could think, you were bombarded with images of white people, bombarded with white culture," he says. "Turn that around and it's not the same. I would say I do know more about white culture than Michael Mann knows about black culture, and I will say Ali was indicative of that."

Race is certainly a subtext of 25th Hour. In a sequence from the novel that echoes a signature scene in Do the Right Thing, Norton's Brogan spews racial slurs into a mirror, blaming everyone but himself for his troubles.

"I don't think this is a radical departure from what (Lee's) been doing," and that's the problem, George says.

"I think his biggest issue is still the issue of story. His film-making technique is excellent, but people still don't feel like they're getting a tightly constructed story," George says. "That's something that's dogged his entire career." Reviews of Lee's films are filled with recurring themes: Lee's endings don't satisfy; his films are didactic.

With Girl 6, Clockers and Crooklyn, all released in the mid-1990s to mixed reviews, the director ran into a mid-career crisis that George believes cost Lee his audience. Now Lee is a celebrity who gets more attention for trash-talking at Knicks basketball games than he does for his recent films.

"It's like a basketball player," says Boyd. "You can talk about how great you are for hours at a time, but the determination as to how great you are comes on the basketball court. Spike did a lot of talking, but when it came down to it, his films were not up to the level of his conversation.

"His movies are the same as they were in the beginning. But when 10, 12, 15 years later you're making the same kind of movies, there's no progress, there's no growth." Still, Lee's changing cinematic fortunes won't curtail his ability to make films. "There are people who've made more bad movies than Spike still making movies in Hollywood," says Boyd. "(Studios) would much rather spend their money on some tried and true commodity than take a chance."

"The question is, at what levels will he be able to work without having a hit?" George says. "He wants to do epic dramas, and those cost money. That's a bit of a conundrum for him. Everyone knows he's a historic film maker, a very innovative film maker. I'm just not sure in the current climate where that puts him in terms of getting financing."

The answer may come in the box office generated by 25th Hour.

- New York Times

reprinted from the Age 13th January 2003