In New York City meteorology there is hot, desperately hot, and Do the Right Thing hot, the temperature at which long-simmering tensions threaten to boil over into madness. Twenty-five years after Spike Lee’s trenchant depiction of race relations on a sweltering Bed-Stuy block gave us new language to describe an old kind of weather, the film forms the solar core of “By Any Means Necessary: A Spike Lee Joints Retrospective,” a BAMcinématek and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences co-presentation of films limited to roughly the first 15 years of Lee’s iconoclastic career. More than half of the 16 selections are set within the five boroughs, with one clear favorite and a dominant theme. A director who deals in heat, clamor, music, movement, sex, violence, and survival: In the Brooklyn of Spike Lee’s soul, it is always 95 degrees.
HOT. It’s hot in Crooklyn, Lee’s 1994 tender, noisy homage to growing up on the block in 1970s Bed-Stuy. A sexual heat wave connects Harlem to Bensonhurst in Jungle Fever (1991), in which the well-off, well-married architect Wesley Snipes falls for the office temp, an Italian (Annabella Sciorra) stuck tending to her retrograde dad and brothers. Here, as in Do the Right Thing, Brooklyn Italians lend themselves to the type of caricature Lee favors in his urban fables, appearing native to a world in which all is expression and expression is all.
For his African-American characters, self-expression is shown to be not just paramount but political, where in the freedoms of dance, dress, food, sexuality, community, hair (especially hair), music, and the strength of one’s own voice inhere the tools and imperatives of identity. To express is to identify, which is to resist the counter-imperatives of oppression, of racism, of oblivion. The term “ghetto blaster” feels consonant with this view of Lee’s Brooklyn: an expressive weapon of gloriously loud but limited range — too limited, for instance, to save Radio Rahim.
It is hot, of course, in Summer of Sam (1999), which opens with an anonymous figure going mad, in his sweatbox apartment, from the relentless barking of a dog below. It’s a moment known to any city dweller, one paraphrased in the first episode of the recent season of Louie, when the comedian envisions the routine cacophony of Manhattan garbage collection as a kind of home invasion. In Summer of Sam, the common wretch turns out to be a serial killer. The fate of the film’s central, ostensibly less homicidal characters (notably a magnetic John Leguizamo) reinforce the sense that if New York City living is a form of insanity, it’s our insanity, a frenzied, petri concentration of the greater American experiment, a freedom rife with limits, boundaries, and divisions as easily crossed as they are inevitably upheld.
The tribal territorialism that animates Lee’s New York pictures to such specific effect translates only too well across the country. In 4 Little Girls, his 1996 documentary about the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama, church, during what several interviewees point out was an unbearably hot summer, bigotry crossed with evil claimed four young lives and ultimately helped mobilize the fight against segregation. The divide between the civil rights generation and its descendants, among other frustrations and disappointments, is effectively dramatized in Get on the Bus (also 1996), in which a group of men travel from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., for Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March.
Here, as elsewhere, notably the equally fascinating but exuberantly messy School Daze (1988), the frankness of a dialogue centered on problems and questions of black identity finds an unlikely complement in Lee’s heightened aesthetic, a formal blend of the pointed and the playful encapsulated when his choral rhythms and compositions erupt into a full-blown musical number (about good and bad hair). Like his characters, Lee is an expressionist, enthralled by and given to performative impulses. As often as they rupture into violence, his films (especially the early ones) explode with joy, shimmer with wit and tenderness, and above all advertise a director so irrepressible he can’t keep his own sloe eyes off the screen.
In some ways, Lee is his own best performer. “Please baby, please baby, please baby, baby baby baby please,” his refrain from She’s Gotta Have It (shot when else but the summer — of 1985), is a kind of deadpan masterpiece, its vague referential quality transformed by the force of Lee’s personality. Many of Lee’s characters are more referent than human, finding completion in his casting of actors with a natural excess of personal charisma. The resulting balance furthers the sense of a world both real and uncanny, a blend tailored, by some unforeseen feat of creative instinct, for safe delivery of the most unwilling truths. Across this fresh landscape, however, roams a persistent failure of that instinct, those figures — inevitably female — not afforded the flights of character that add dimension where little might otherwise be found.
In a recent interview, Lee said he regrets the rape scene at the climax of She’s Gotta Have It, billed as a comedy and lauded for its risqué take on female sexual agency. “It was immature,” Lee said of the scene, “It made light of rape and that’s the one thing I would take back.” But a similar immaturity surfaces in films like School Daze, Jungle Fever, and 1996’s Girl 6, in which Lee fails to accord the same measure of clarity to the themes and concerns of his female characters that he does to the men’s. Trapped in stereotype and stereotypical thinking, too often Lee’s women lack the directorial empathy that brings his male characters to life, an absence no amount of charisma can overcome.
More basic clarities can elude Lee, whose films tend to bulge with plotlines and indulgences. He’s a man who likes a piled-up plate, like the massive dinners Crooklyn‘s kids don’t even attempt to finish. As often as Lee has worked with devastating precision (Do the Right Thing, the sublime 2002 25th Hour, the documentaries) he has also displayed a lack of mastery over his ambitions (School Daze, Summer of Sam, Bamboozled). That he has done both, sometimes in the same film, without engendering a lasting bad faith, and despite unfriendly filmmaking times, is a prerogative in which Lee seems to revel: for once, a freedom without limits.
PQ: His films explode with joy, and shimmer with wit and tenderness.
credit: Images courtesy bam.org
cutline: 1. Do the Right Thing 2. Crooklyn 3. She’s Gotta Have It 4. Jungle Fever