Note: Red Hook Summer and Oldboy are available to stream on NetFlix Instant
This year filmmaker Spike Lee and fans celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Do the Right Thing– Monday new DTRT shirts go on sale at the 40 Acres and a Mule Web site. Yet there is reason enough to say that behind the great work is a sad man, as Roger Ebert noted. And more reason to say he is one of the more joyous and fascinating and moral minds cinema has offered in general. And a resilient one for doing it on his own terms, in 1989 and 2014.
In 2008 A New Yorker profile called Lee an “outside man.” The phrase feels true to me today after watching two great Lee films (Do the Right Thing and The 25th Hour) and two new experiments (Red Hook Summer and Oldboy). As a black man he is a minority. As a director who insists on a subjective vision his work is hard to market. And as he gets older, the situation for young black men, as evidenced by Ferguson, is getting harder to navigate and survive. The anger that made a planet full of viewers sympathetic about this anger’s outburst didn’t come from the inside, but from outside of our society.
The making of an auteur film is becoming more difficult — Lee’s most recent eccentric picture ‘Da Sweet Blood of Jesus’ was funded by a Kickstarter campaign where he let go of memorabilia from past movies. In 2012 to make Red Hook Summer, an aggressively low budget look at a spirited Baptist parish he said that he wasn’t going to have a studio tell him about black people in Red Hook, Brooklyn. So he hired his own NYU film students as crew and found actors in the drama class of his old middle school. His critics call him “angry,” “self righteous.” He has sparked arguments with Quentin Tarantino and Clint Eastwood. He made The Miracle at St. Anna in order to offset the lack of black soldiers in Eastwood’s The Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. When Tarantino took the liberty to make the slavery Spaghetti Western Django Unchained, Lee’s response was “there’s something wrong with him.” But away from the contentious publicity, Lee keeps making interesting movies, most of them with a kind of music beating behind their breast.
As the events in Ferguson, Missouri unfolded I watched the 24 hour news with a heart that was unsure and heavy. My brain said things like “surreal” and “circular” and “police state.” I heard a few black interviewees use the phrase, “do the right thing.” It’s a direct phrase. One we can’t always live up to. No one can always do the right thing. But the ideal is always on our minds. The consensus among film buffs is that Lee’s relevance was in effect around 1989 with Do the Right Thing. But that’s judging from media trends, exposure and the amount of good cinema that keeps happening. What was happening in Do the Right Thing is the same thing that was happening in Ferguson, while Lee’s new modestly scaled films continue to exist in a rather intense presence.
The famous moment in Lee’s film is the murder of a young black man named Radio Raheem. Like Michael Brown, he was a physically imposing kid allegedly causing commotion at a store. It initially appeared from a surveillance video that Brown stole cigarillos and later disobeyed a police officer. He was unarmed. Radio Raheem disrupted the social order with his loud boombox, which gets him kicked out of Sal’s Pizzeria, the hangout in predominantly black Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. After a nowhere argument Sal breaks his boombox. A fight ensues outside that attracts the police, the police put Raheem in a choke hold that kills him. They carry the body off quickly. Michael Brown’s body lay on the pavement awaiting detective inspection for 4 hours, during which time a community gathered to mill and worry, including the boy’s uncle. The voices of the young black men on cell phone footage of a second police murder in Ferguson notice a body disposal executed with a bad actor’s twist. ‘Why they puttin’ the cuffs on him? He’s already dead?’
Mookie, an employee of Sal’s, throws a trash can through the window after Raheem is killed, an act that polarized audiences in 1989.
Twenty minutes before the riot, the pizza shop closed and Sal was sharing a tender moment with his employees. Four black people (including a young Martin Lawrence!) bang at the door wanting a slice. Sal lets them in. Their anger, however, is reaching a boiling point. They protest, yell. They want their people represented on the pizzeria walls next to Sinatra and Dimaggio. The Italian American minorities who run Sal’s, say it’s their pizzaria and they can do whatever they want, even if most of their customers are indeed black. Radio Raheem brings in the boom box with the Public Enemy blasting. Sal breaks the boombox. Cops arrive.
Spike Lee’s films are not without love. In Do the Right Thing there are film history evoking flirtations between Ossie Davis (playing a drunk) and Ruby Dee, a woman at her window sill. Sal, played wonderfully by Danny Aiello, has a crush on Mookie’s sister. Not long before the riot, he is giving her a free slice and asking about her life. Mookie, irked as a brother and by the same racial prejudices as the Italians, pulls his sister aside and tells her not to come in anymore.
The film lays out rigorously the ways in which loving feelings are stifled by economic difficulties. No one in Do the Right Thing has much money. And then there are the racial tensions that follow the financial frustrations. There’s a stare-down between some old men in lawn chairs and the cops driving by. The cops call the black men “a waste” and the old men feel the words. Lee doesn’t mince words on this. But he implicates his own race too. Right after they say their bit about the police the men turn their heads across the street to trash talk the Korean grocers.
The dominant colors and the bristling tone of the film are loud, an argument. It’s the sound of people not letting anger fester inside them. The ruling class will always hear the anger as something other than what the serving class feels. The serving class, carries unknowable rage and frustration, while the ruling class hears loud, gangster, and “looting.” In Hollywood, no one had articulated these basic frustrations inside supposedly free men the way Spike Lee did before Do the Right Thing. The movie remains fresh aesthetically (those Godard shots and jump cuts of Rosie Perez’s body). It is provocative intellectually, with incisive arguments considered from the Italians, white people, black people. In terms of story it has the moral gravity and passion that inspired Lee’s friend Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan when they made On the Waterfront, a film with a few Spike Lee moments (Karl Malden’s priest, standing over a dead body, yelling at the gangsters from the bottom of a loading dock, “This is my Church!”).
The working and slacking people of Bedford Stuy work the anger out by arguing fiercely, with swagger, with melody. The words come out as raps, debates or a soliloquy when Radio Raheem wears gold rings spelling out Love and Hate to the camera, a reference to Charles Laughton’s “Night of the Hunter.’ ( A film whose commercial and critical failure upon initial release, compounded with Laughton’s closeted homosexuality, deepened a depression that wouldn’t allow him to make another film).
“Let me tell you the story of right hand, left hand. It’s a tale of good and evil. Hate: it was with this hand that Cain iced his brother. Love: These five fingers, they go straight to the soul of man. The right hand, the hand of Love. The story of life is this. Static. One hand is always fighting the other hand. The left hand is kicking right’s ass. I mean it looks like the right hand Love is finished. But hold on, stop the presses, the right hand is coming back. Yeah, he got the left hand on the ropes now, that’s right. Yeah, it’s a devastating right, and Hate is hurt. Down, oh oh! Left hand KO’d by Love!”
The immediacy of the material demands Lee use the bold technique of direct address. Raheem tells the story of love and hate, as did Robert Mitchum, to a character (Mookie) and also into the camera (us). It’s apart from the the plot, but encompasses the entire thing, it takes our emotions to the next level where one can step away and see.
In the 25th Hour Lee seamlessly slips into a new social milieu, that of 3 friends who once attended private school together. One’s a teacher, one’s a stock trader, another a drug dealer. The technique is more restrained, he steps back back and lets actors do the work in long, simply set exchanges. The trademark Lee portrait/train track shot waits until a narrative climax. The characters don’t argue through us, the camera, as in Lee’s early ambitious films. The viewer is now a fly on the wall watching the characters talk to each other in private spaces, like the plush apartment of stock trader Frank Slaughtery (Barry Pepper) just above the dust and ash wreckage of the World Trade Center, where we see men in space suits sweeping up the wreckage still. The movie is a post 9-11 portrait of New York, and one of the few that closely reveals the spiritual frequencies of the city’s people the year that followed the attacks.
The leader of the pack Monty Brogan is a clever drug dealer who originally comes from an Irish neighborhood. He is caught and has 24 hours to enjoy life with his girlfriend and friends. What goes through his mind? Who is to blame?. His friends blame everyone before the movie is over. The direct address shot from Do the Right Thing returns 36 minutes in when future convict Monty (Ed Norton) looks into a bathroom mirror where “Fuck You” has been written on it. It’s the last straw and Monty goes off on every minority he can think of. A montage of faces of New York’s nationalities. The Russians sipping their tea, the Korean grocers are back, the Chelsea district gay men, the Arabs of course, the black basketball players who never pass the ball and can’t play D, his dad sipping club soda with his fireman buddies after drinking too much through Monty’s childhood. Monty lets them all have it before finally taking the final look in the mirror at himself. “No, fuck you.” It’s a classic Lee riff that doesn’t withhold real feelings, from people who are running on empty. People sometimes underestimate Lee’s idealism. That Monty comes to hold himself responsible after his tirade provides a way forward for the anguished man, whose city and personal life have been violated and changed.
And in that way there is a lyricism in the ‘25th Hour’ that animates the picture behind the muted gray and blue hues of the post 9/11 lens and swells into full expression in the final minutes. Flashbacks of Monty and his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) meeting play out with great finesse, a simple piano score floating alongside the floating tire she’s swinging on and the dialogue (as the music/dialogue were competitively tracked with Rosario and Ray Allen’s talks in He Got Game). The talk yields conflict, resolution, melody and new possibilities in Lee. Hardly is such stock put in the talk. At the end of the film Monty’s dad (Brian Cox) is still talking, about the America he could show his son. Scenes from this America unfurl with a rousing-melancholy score by Terence Blanchard that concludes with a flourish of traditional sounding Middle Eastern singing (as if hinting at the perpetual war to come). It’s a strange ending that doesn’t belong to the movie almost; it stretches out to the country’s farmland and ghost towns and finds hidden beauty. Places the tormented New Yorkers forgot existed.
But our man, in 25th hour, hasn’t exactly been violated. Monty, the product of a private school education, has violated the law. As his friend Frank tells Naturelle, other people’s addictions bought your dress. Monty was in the drug game, the same game that, sure, gave us Jay Z but will also lay claim to the life of the movie’s master supporting actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman as Jacob the English teacher). Marty represents an educational opportunity that has shifted to a faster game with more gain. He tells people they don’t want to know how much his apartment costs. He fakes it until he makes it in this America.
The skinny, bookish Norton acts with swagger and bravado throughout the movie. The filmmakers take Monty all the way up to the moment before prison when his constructed manhood finally falls apart. As real consequences approach, he decides to have his friends beat the shit out of him so he looks tougher on prison day. Jacob (Hoffman) is deeply troubled and Frank (who is quick to anger) does the beating, and instantly feels ashamed that Marty has exploited his weakness for anger. In this scenario, all three friends are emotionally bankrupt. This uncomfortable and bloody unraveling of Monty’s hustled success story premiered in 2002. It uncannily anticipates the 2008 recession, when the bluster blew away like monopoly money.
Lee takes the 25th Hour’s theme of privilege abused to a new imaginative plane with Oldboy, a remake of the 2003 film by South Korea’s Chan-wook Park. Josh Brolin plays Joe Doucett, a man who would commonly be called a douchebag. As an advertising exec he closes a deal with a man and then hits on his wife right after. The deal is botched. He’s missed his three year old’s birthday party. She won’t remember it anyway. After an all night bender, told with humorous over the shoulder woozy cam, Joe Doucett finds himself in a hotel jail cell. He’s kept there for the next 20 years. Time passes in quick cinematic progression, we see footage of the World Trade Center attack, Bush’s election, etc. There is a wide smiling Nation of Islam-looking bellman in a painting on his wall. He’s only fed vodka and dumplings through a slot in the door. At one point he has an epiphany that he won’t drink the alcohol anymore and he’ll write to his daughter. He’s eventually released.
The rest is a crash course revenge and Brooklyn-martial arts movie. Joe Doucett is perfectly arrogant, and Brolin plays him as a formidable neanderthal in a suit. In his new life as he finds a female partner (Elizabeth Olsen) where an intelligence awakens as the movie turns into a procedural. The fight scenes are brutal and well choreographed. People are killed with hammers. The Stranger, Adrian, who’s still trying to torture him is played by District 9’s genius Sharlto Copley. The cut of his suits and the rarefied feng shui of his house signals he is in the 1 percent.
The third act reveals that in addition to keeping a hotel full of random sufferers in service he is also perverted by a dark family secret that Joe Doucett has the key to. Adrian comes from an incestual family and Joe digs into his past to remember he witnessed the sister in a greenhouse with the father. Joe being Joe, also spread the label “whore” all around the school. One of Adrian’s talking points still, is that his father was a great man–a sad plea for the American ruling class’s moral authority in Lee’s point of view. Lee hides this darkness in the heart of Western luxury. The film is never boring and Lee’s pet points have to be searched for. Oldboy is rich in intimation but can also be enjoyed as an action-revenge exercise.
Oldboy, if not the 25th hour, marks the beginning of what Richard Brody calls Spike Lee’s “late period.” He defines the concept by Woody Allen’s experience. After the traumatic media firestorm that followed his marriage to Soon Yi, Allen started making movies that were more hermetic, delved into art and literary history, that were essentially quieter. The elements that made Spike Lee’s earlier movies attention grabbing have been subdued. Not as much direct address and rolling cameras. He can work with any type of actor, tell a script from any country and he can sneak in his point of view better. It’s not an accident that the man whom Joe Doucett offends with his hubris is a black car salesman, perhaps self made and new to money. There’s no “race hustling” in 25th Hour, but there are three curious black dudes in the background of the day trader firm who watch Frank Slaughtery’s cowboy trading with curiosity and a sense of humor. You blink and you miss them, but they are there, watching us hustle and scram, as Spike Lee takes his craft to new territory.
Lee, who once directed music videos for Michael Jackson and launched Public Enemy, sees the club music scene in 25th Hour as an Aldous Huxley-ian pleasure dome. He holds it at a distance. The characters are dancing, sweaty, sensual, and robotic. They’re not full of curves, life, and purpose like Rosie Perez’s shadowboxing at the opening credits of Do the Right Thing. The editing is right inside the music, but apart from it, cooly noticing the dancing as an unfeeling ritual, when juxtaposed with the weighty dilemmas of the three friends. Lee is content to put his old struggles in a changing New York. As Norman Mailer said, when an artist realizes he can’t change the world, he can still do the work the best way he knows how. Maybe he deepens human consciousness in some small way with it and the difference is made there.
Red Hook Summer proves that the late period mode allows the artist to be a little crazier. The soundtrack makes itself known sometimes with enthusiastically bad music, there’s random cutaways to the people main character Bishop Enoch Rouse loves, Sister Sweet in her wheelchair, or Deacon Zee who gets drunk alone and begs the ceiling for the White God’s money. At times this movie has the freewheeling quality of a home movie made by high schoolers. A lot of critics did not want to let Lee get away with the movie.
The movie follows summer days in the life of a Red Hook preacher man and his sour nephew who goes to a private school in Atlanta and doesn’t want to be there. There’s a summer love subplot for the boy, Flik Royale (Jules Brown) and Chazz Morningstar (Toni Lysaith), both untrained actors from Spike Lee’s old middle school. The scenes in the hot parish are exciting to behold, with powerful sermons, electric organ, Stephen Henderson’s rolly-polly dancing. Lee kicks it back to basics, neighborhood living in Brooklyn, lots of wild edits and personalities given a place to speak their minds. In moments of joyful indulgence there might be an animated rainbow.
But the last thirty minutes hit the viewers with a shock. The priest was actually kicked out of Atlanta for molesting a boy years ago. The victim, now an adult, comes to disrupt a session in Red Hook, which leads to lots of crying and a fight.
The screenwriters (Lee and National Book Award Winner James McBride) struggled with that subplot, they say. Audiences at Sundance walked out. But it’s important that they put the scandal in there because it accounts for a stinging critique of the clergy in a space in Brooklyn, impoverished, forgotten, full of life, that Lee does love. But it’s a space that is not without the possibility of being corrupted. Lee is saying despite how true and forceful the oratories are (most of them persuasively railing against concentrated wealth, poverty of the masses, the meek: defrauded and insulted, technology) a man who sees these ails can still be corrupted. Even as he sees all the pretty things within it.. We see the man in his shame in front of his nephew.
“I came here to hide. But there was so much beauty it didn’t seem like a punishment.”
The twist also saves Lee from a dogmatic polemic against the i-Pad and private school products like Flik, our future. It suggests our problems will be harder to figure out and not one institution, Black church, Black president, White money can do it alone. Even The Bloods gang fellows are not exactly villainous in this depiction, but boys in Red trying to be rappers. Lee’s Red Hook is a slice of ordinary life, like any neighborhood, but one generally forgotten on the national scene. And one in fact that might warrant our witnessing of it.
“I want to stop feeling numb” Chaz tells Flik. “I want to feel pretty. Nobody says, ‘We don’t want you.’ They just ignore you. You’re invisible. You don’t belong. You ever get that feeling?”
Mr. Mookie (Lee) from Do the Right Thing makes a cameo in Red Hook Summer . With all of its raggedy edges the film does return Lee to his constant concern: the aggravating difficulty of doing or seeing the right thing. An important dialogue on faith and works follows young Chaz’s complaint. It finds the screenwriters traveling with real wings, and a Bruce Hornsby “Hymn in C. ” The actors, Clarke Peters and Heather Simms, ease into their talk. The man has God. But the woman sees what he cannot.
Sister Sharon Morningstar: You’re a good man, Enoch Rouse. You’re suffering and lonely because the world has changed and passed you by.
Bishop Enoch Rouse: But God hasn’t.
Sharon: We prayed for a black President to deliver us. And we got our wish. I see our young people the same as they was before, only they can say I too can be President. Naw. I’m done with that dream. Not much has changed, that’s the God’s truth. The rich keep getting super rich. The poor get super poor. Don’t matter what color they are. Poor is on the bottom rung the world over.
Enoch: God. God is on the highest rung.
Sharon: Wake up, your grandson needs you.
Enoch: I’m giving him God. And that’s everything.
Sharon: I prayed for my angel till my knees wore out. Took her to Lil Piece of Heaven every Sunday. But the Hook got her and she died. So this time I ain’t just praying for my Chaz. I’m watching her school, her teachers, her friends, her Facebook, her twitter. Ain’t nothin gonna slip past me. I ain’t pawning off my responsibility….
Sharon: When a good man teaches, the Bible will preach itself.
Enoch: The Bible worked for my father
Sharon: The world has changed.
In Lee, the talk yields new possibilties. The listed films here, in their generosity, ask the audience what the next chapter will be. History repeats itself in ways that shake the things we want to believe, and confuse the soul. In art and culture the artist writes the argument, and spins the wheel of possibility into the air. Away from his hand stands the violence. The understanding within him yields to an output longer and ever more rich than we thought before.
Who knows what Spike’s next crazy not so crazy movie has in store.