Wonderful profile of a filmmaker who’s had an undeniable impact on filmmaking and culture, by Thomas Chatterton Williams in The New York Times.
In 31 years, Lee has achieved a rate of productivity that is rivaled in America only by Woody Allen. His body of work is prodigious: 22 feature movies, of which at least three are absolutely first-rate; a half-dozen more are flawed classics, and all of them are at least sporadically brilliant, artistically daring and always intellectually ambitious. There are also many documentaries, which cover a wide range of black American topics, including two on Michael Jackson and one on Kobe Bryant. Of these, “4 Little Girls” (1997), about the Birmingham church bombing, and “When the Levees Broke” (2006), about Hurricane Katrina, are two of the best documentaries ever made about black life — or perhaps just life — in the South.
I assume “Do the Right Thing” is one of the three that “are absolutely first-rate”. It’s one of the great movies in cinema history, and remains surprisingly relevant and topical, nearly 30 years later. Williams writes:
I told him that I recently rewatched “Do the Right Thing” and was astounded by the degree to which it felt au courant and even prescient. The scene late in the film when an N.Y.P.D. officer places Radio Raheem in an illegal chokehold, killing him, was shattering to watch, melding in my mind with phone-camera footage of Eric Garner, who was killed in 2014 on Staten Island in similar fashion. And the question at the heart of the drama — just whose vision of black life can (or should) prevail, anyway, Malcolm’s or Martin’s — was trenchant. Lee’s own views on that question remain satisfyingly ambiguous. While the film seems to imply that it is Malcolm who personifies genuine integrity, Lee has also observed that Radio Raheem could have behaved differently and avoided his violent fate.
The movie also brought us Samuel L. Jackson, Rosie Perez, Giancarlo Esposito, and Martin Lawrence.
I’ll be watching the Netflix reboot of “She’s Gotta Have It”. It’s been a long time since I saw the movie, but I vividly remember reading “Spike Lee’s Gotta Have It: inside Guerrilla Filmmaking” as an aspiring 18-year-old actor and filmmaker. The book is Lee’s journal of his struggles to make the movie. It’s a great look at how a burning desire to create will never be stopped by such mundane things like “lack of money or equipment”.1
Finally, I loved this bit (Lee has a massive Yankee’s flag over his house in Martha’s Vineyard that backs a golf course):
It is fun, I learned, to stroll around with Spike Lee and to gauge other people’s reactions. Everyone recognizes him. No sooner had we set foot on the fairway than a Boston Brahmin kind of white woman called out: “Spike, what’s with your flag? We’re Red Sox fans around here!”
“Twenty-seven world championships! Thank you!” Lee shot back without missing a beat or betraying the least bit of surprise to be addressed so familiarly by a perfect stranger.
A shame he’s a Yankee’s fan.
- Curiously, the book is only available at a reasonable price on Amazon in “used” condition. A “new” copy will set you back $900! ↩