Mailbag: The Inimitable Spike Lee
It's Spike Lee spotlight month at Rough Cut, and we're jumping in headfirst with a staff mailbag.
1. For the most part, consensus suggests that Spike’s top 3 is Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, and 25th Hour, not necessarily in that order. Outside of those three films, what is Spike Lee’s best movie?
Zach D’Amico: Chi-Raq. It’s Spike, distilled. Sprawling, ambitious, aggressive, merciless, honest. All of that stuffed into a formally inventive, narratively propulsive package.
Carson Cook: Girl 6. A critical and commercial failure that seems to remain shrugged off and brushed aside by most evaluators of Lee’s canon, the film is much more nuanced and complex than it’s given credit for. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks pens a smart, funny, and melancholy script Theresa Randle is dazzling in the lead role of an aspiring actress who takes a job as a phone sex worker, and Lee digs deep into his stylistic bag of tricks to craft a charmingly moving character study. Give it a chance.
Jonny Diaz: For me, it’s the woefully under-appreciated Chi-Raq, which has all the hallmarks of a great Spike film—electric performances, stirring social commentary, and in-your-face energy—but with the added thrill of seeing Spike’s style mashed up against ancient Greek theatre. It rules.
Sara D'Amico: BlacKkKlansman, his most recent film that follows two police officers (one Black, one Jewish) who go undercover to infiltrate the KKK. It’s a biting but entertaining commentary on race relations, both back in the 1970’s and today.
2. Spike Lee tells stories that few filmmakers put on the screen before he came around. So which Spike movie would you show someone who knows nothing about America?
ZD: It’s difficult to say anything other than my favorite movie of all-time, the perpetually relevant Do the Right Thing. But I also think Jungle Fever would shock and teach a lot of non-Americans who aren’t familiar with our specific history around interracial relationships.
CC: Malcolm X doubles as an incisive look at one of America’s great civil rights leaders as well as an unflinching portrait of the country as a whole. A staggering achievement, one that should be shown in every history class in the country.
JD: Sometimes the obvious answer is the correct one. There may not ever be a film that has as much to say about America as Do The Right Thing.
SD: 4 Little Girls. Anyone coming to live in America should have at least some knowledge about our country’s terrible and complicated history of slavery, the post-Reconstruction oppression of Black and minority citizens, and the dangerous white nationalist backlash. As recent events have highlighted, Americans have not universally embraced the concept of racial equality in reality (though it is enshrined in law). 4 Little Girls is a heart-wrenching but important reminder of the tragedies that have befallen our black communities at the hands of white nationalists.
3. With the upcoming Da 5 Bloods, Spike takes on the Vietnam War, a popular cinematic topic throughout the years. What subject or genre would you most like to see him tackle next?
ZD: I’d love to see him tackle an original noir. I think he could do some really cool things with a historic and somewhat-on-life-support genre. Plus, he can make up for 2013’s Oldboy. As for subject, this is a cop-out, but Spike has a way of making people care about whatever he cares about – so I hope he focuses on whatever is keeping him up at night.
CC: Lee’s first two features make it abundantly clear that he has it in him to make a big Hollywood musical — he may have dabbled in the style a bit more with Chi-Raq, but I’d love to see him really go for broke and reinvigorate the genre.
JD: SPIKE, MAKE A MUSICAL PLEASE. So many of Spike’s films feature sequences heavily reliant on music and dance, and he’s got a sense of rhythmic camera movement that most musical directors can only dream of, yet he’s never made a full-fledged, traditional musical (though you could argue that some of his movies are pretty close!). We as a moviegoing public were cruelly denied a Spike Lee-helmed film adaptation of Rent, and we are poorer for it as a society.
4. In 2017, Lee adapted his feature debut She's Gotta Have it into a Netflix series -- if he did it again, which film from him would you most like to see get the expanded treatment? Bonus: who would you cast?
ZD: School Daze! There are so many characters that got so little screen-time, I’d love to see that fleshed out. Give Keke Palmer literally any / every role.
CC: The college world built out in School Daze has a lot of potential given the range of characters, stories, and tones presented. Gender swap it and cast Zendaya as the devious greek life leader and Taylor Russell as the stubborn activist.
JD: I would watch infinity episodes of a police procedural where the characters from BlacKkKlansman use racial subterfuge to infiltrate and dismantle hate groups from the inside—but only if John David Washington and Adam Driver are still in it. CSI: Colorado Springs will be a huge hit. Spike and I will expect our checks in the mail, Mr. Bruckheimer.
5.Let’s turn to the Spike’s history of directing actors. What’s the greatest performance in a Spike Lee film?
ZD: Denzel as Malcolm, no contest.
CC: Denzel Washington is simply undeniable in Malcolm X. Listen, I adore Al Pacino, but how hard would it have been to just give him the Supporting Actor trophy for Glengarry and reward Lee and Washington for their accomplishment? I’m sure Gene Hackman would have survived only winning once.
JD: In a career of incredible performances and iconic characters, I don’t know if Denzel Washington has ever been better than he is in Malcolm X. It’s not just the best performance in a Spike Lee film, it’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen, period.
6. Who is Spike’s greatest acting discovery?
ZD: This depends so much on definition of “discovery.” Larry Fishburne and Samuel L. Jackson had small roles before their Spike debut, so are they disqualified? What about behind the camera like Ruth Carter? Ultimately, I’d go with either Halle Barry, whose film debut was Jungle Fever, or Rosario Dawson, who had only been in a mega-indie Harmony Korine movie before He Got Game.
CC: Bill Nunn, best known for Do the Right Thing, made his debut in Lee’s previous feature School Daze, and has made a career of perfectly pitched supporting roles in everything from Sister Act to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films. While he may never top Radio Raheem, he’s been nothing but a rock-solid character actor ever since.
JD: Spike had the foresight to grab hold of a lot of iconic actors early in their careers and help propel them on their paths to stardom. One in particular that stands out for me is John Turturro, who had been around for a bit but didn’t break through until Do The Right Thing. Without Spike giving him that showcase role, we may never have gotten Barton Fink or Quiz Show.
7. Spike is a repeat player when it comes to actors – he rarely works with someone only once (there’s even a handy chart here). But which actor is the quintessential Spike partner?
ZD: Denzel obviously feels like the obvious choice, but is he limited by a paltry four roles? He certainly made them all count. I think I’ll go with John Turturro – the two have a similar in-your-face energy, and their partnership has defined Spike’s ambition to tell stories you might not expect.
CC: Appearing in four of Lee’s first six films, Giancarlo Esposito nails the perfect combination of tone and energy that makes Spike Lee Joints so compulsively and necessarily watchable. A shame they haven’t collaborated since.
JD: Spike doesn’t get as much attention for being a student of cinema as fellow NYU alum Martin Scorsese, but like Marty, his work is in constant dialogue with his cinematic forebears. There’s no better reflection of Spike’s commitment to and appreciation for the legacy of African-American cinema than his long-running partnership with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, legendary icons of both African-American film and the civil rights movement.
8. Let’s wrap this up with a Rough Cut staple. Spike’s getting a Lifetime Achievement award – what clip do you play?
ZD/JD: Spike the director + Spike the actor, the perfect final clip for his eventual lifetime reel:
“Always do the right thing.”
“I got it, I’m gone.”