Inside Man

Who would you consider to be amongst the top ten directors working today? Do not linger on the question, just jot down the ten that immediately pop into your mind. Looking over your list do names like Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Alfonso Cuarón, and Martin Scorsese appear? How about the likes of Steve McQueen, Christopher Nolan, Abbas Kirarostami or Woody Allen? Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement, but did he sneak in your ten based on the fact that he released two films this year? What about Spike Lee? Did he make your list? Did he even cross your mind as an option?

I am going to make the assumption that, for some, Lee was not even on your shortlist. The question of Lee’s place in the top ten sparked a rather interesting conversation with my cousin recently. His view was that Lee would not make his top ten because he has “fallen off” of late. While Lee is a talented director, the overall body of his work was not on par with directors like Scorsese or Soderbergh. He argued that many of the best directors working today are consistently taking risks and pushing the boundaries of film forward. The peculiar thing about this stance is that it did not quite hold up when we actually started to breakdown Lee’s filmography…at least in the taking risks department.

Scanning Spike Lee’s list of films you will find that he has branched out into several genres and themes. He has tackled films about: race (Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Bamboozled), crime (Summer of Sam, Clockers), World War II (Miracle at St. Anna), political bio-pics (Malcolm X), post-9/11 America (25th Hour), comedies (The Original Kings of Comedy), family-oriented works (Crooklyn), sexuality (She’s Gotta Have it, She Hate Me, Girl 6), and even gripping documentaries (4 Little Girls, When the Levees Broke). While he has yet to tackle a sci-fi or horror film, though upcoming Oldboy might qualify in the latter depending on how he tackles it, who is to say whether they may not come down the pipeline in the next few years. Look how long it took for Scorsese to make his first family friendly film with Hugo…and that was his first venture into 3D no less. Speaking of Scorsese, I would argue that Lee’s diverse choice in films has followed a very Scorsese-like path. Yes, we can argue the level of success in regards to each venture, but the fact is Lee rarely plays in the same sandbox for long.

So why then, despite all this, does it seem that Lee has lost so much love of late?

I think the obvious reason is that, in Lee’s case especially, some people have problems separating the man from the artist. It is no secret that Spike Lee is an opinionated filmmaker who is not afraid to speak his mind. His war of words with beloved directors like Taratino and Clint Eastwood are now legendary. Lee also has not, outside of Inside Man, made a lot of mainstream commercial films. Not for lack of trying mind you, but most studios just do not think he can attract a broad audience. Again, Inside Man proved the exact opposite. However, he is still pigeonholed, in the minds of some, as a director who only makes racially charged films. As a result, his innovation as a director over the years is often overlooked; especially in an age where everyone seems focused on “what have you done for me lately” rather than what have you contributed overall.

Oldboy Poster

This kind of mentality has also helped to fuel much of the backlash he has received of late. The most recent of which came when he started up a Kickstarter campaign for a then unknown project which later became Da Blood of Jesus. Considering Lee’s lengthy career, many questioned why he would ask the average consumer to help to fund his project. The grumbles only died down once director Steven Soderbergh publicly showed support for the project. Despite the rumblings that Da Blood of Jesus Kickstarter caused, it was nothing compared to the uproar that came when it was announced that Lee would be directing the remake of the Korean cult hit, and one of my personal favourites, Oldboy. Outside of the obvious cries about American studios remaking perfectly good foreign films, many could not help but wonder how Lee would handle the controversial ending. Though the success of Lee’s version still has yet to be seen, many were deeming it a failure from the minute it was announce. The interesting thing is that Martin Scorsese did not receive such vitriol when he decided to make The Departed, which was a remake of the beloved Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs.

As we all know, The Departed not only went on to win Best Picture at the 2007 Oscars, but also nabbed Scorsese his only Academy Award for directing. Now I am not suggesting Oldboy will do the same for Lee, frankly the subject matter is too gruesome to even appeal to the average American audience. Yet, it is time that we as film lovers got back to giving Spike Lee the benefit of the doubt on projects rather than dismissing them before they even start. It is time to finally separate the man from the artist. After all, we seem to have no problem doing that for Woody Allen, Lars von Trier, and Roman Polanski to name a few.

Sure Lee may never top Do the Right Thing in regards to cinematic masterpieces, but few directors can exceed their greatest works. Did Orson Wells ever top Citizen Kane? How about Woody Allen with Anne Hall? What about Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? What all these directors have in common is that they still produced quality works after their landmark films were unleashed. For me films like Malcolm X, 25th Hour, 4 Little Girls, When the Levees Broke, Inside Man and the divisive Bamboozled show that Lee is more than a one trick pony. I think Lee’s diversity as a filmmaker should at least warrant his name being thrown back into the discussion of the best directors working today.

9 Comments

  1. Spike Lee on the short list? Maybe. In the top ten, probably not. And you’ve made a good argument as to why. Perhaps I haven’t been entirely fair in my expectations for his recent projects. 😉

    1. I knew his recent works would be a big hurdle for some to overcome. Still, I think it is an interesting discussion to be had. In many ways, his current situation reminds me of Woody Allen prior to films like Match Point and Midnight in Paris rejuvenating his career. Lee probably needs one or two of those types of surprise hits to make others rethink his value.

  2. I think Spike Lee might be in my top five directors working today. Top ten is a no brainer for him. I’m intrigued to see what he does with Oldboy. Along with his most well-known films like Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, and The 25th Hour, I think Lee doesn’t get enough credit for some of his other movies like Clockers. His documentaries are also really top-notch. I totally agree that his reputation away from movies hasn’t helped his cause. He’s a smart, daring filmmaker, and even his misses are never dull.

    1. Top five! That is a bold statement indeed. I agree that some of his other titles, like Clockers, Sucker Free City and Summer of Sam for example, get unfairly overlooked. I will be the first to admit that not every film is a gem but, like you mentioned, his misses are still interesting on some level.

  3. I was reading an interesting discussion on Reverend Jeremiah Wright yesterday. The conclusion that the participants reached was that white preachers who say that America is going to hell because of *insert immoral behavior here* will never be headline news. But the fact that a black preacher did the same, and rightly critiqued America’s overseas imperialist aggression, offends people on the left and right. Both are guilty of bigotry, and while the right’s may be more open, the left’s is almost as destructively insidious when in effect because they are the only ones who can be the teachers.

    Each Spike Lee film contains multiple teachable moments that sometimes flow effortlessly into the narrative structure (as in Do the Right Thing or When the Levees Broke), and sometimes not (She Hate Me and Bamboozled – though in Bamboozled’s case that’s actually to its advantage). If there’s anything white Americans hate it’s feeling like they are being taught a lesson in morality by a black filmmaker. I’ve never heard Lee yell, and his comments rarely cause me to even do a single take (let alone a double), yet he’s got this image of an angry black man because he dared suggest that people could be angry about racism in America.

    Do the Right Thing is one of two movies that I find absolutely perfect (for the record, The Sweet Hereafter is the other). Then, as you rightly point out, the rest of his career is just as diverse as Stanley Kubrick or Steven Soderbergh’s. I love that you use Scorsese as an example because many of his films are easily lumped together and when he tries to do something different, as is the case with After Hours or Shutter Island, the results are brilliant. The vast majority of cinemagoers, and cineastes if we’re being honest, don’t like to be challenged and mistake that challenge with aggression. Lee’s films are rarely aggressive, but they are always challenging in some way (even She Hate Me, which is as baffling an experience as I’ve had watching a film).

    The same year he did Inside Man, he did When the Levees Broke. The same year he did Miracle at St. Anna, he directed my absolute favorite musical Passing Strange. This is not a filmmaker who has been content to rest on his laurels. That even applies to his production work, giving a lift to the careers of Gina Prince-Bythewood (the sweet Love & Basketball) and Dee Rees (the freaking brilliant Pariah).

    He’s easily in my top 10 but, to be frank, that list varies depending on my mood of the day. But for people who have only seen him criticize Clint Eastwood and the kind of crowd he draws (see: his 2012 RNC speech), or the same for Quentin Tarantino (self-described film buffs who don’t realize his visual roots in Hong Kong classics or the brilliant early films of blaxploitation) miss the forest completely and settle on the one tree they can hang their own misgivings on. It may be a harsh view, but I’ve grown tired of being patient with people who say that Lee should shut up and stop making movies about race.

    Excellent piece and discussion Courtney, and I hope that this helped contribute in some way.

    1. You raised several good points, especially in regards to both Lee’s versatility and his producing work as well. He definitely gave Gina Prince-Bythewood and Dee Rees that extra little bump needed for others to take notice of their talents. I particularly like your examples regarding Scorsese’s After Hours. That is a film, along with Kundun and The King of Comedy, which is often forgotten in discussions of Scorese’s canon of work.

      In regards to The Sweet Hereafter, it has been years since I last watched that film. I think it might be time to revisit it, especially since Egoyan’s latest film just played TIFF a few months back.

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