Given the current state of big-studio dramas targeted at adults, it’s strange to think that an uncompromising provocateur like Spike Lee once put out big-studio movies with regularly. Though Lee’s biggest hit ever, Inside Man, was released in the last decade, his most recent films have languished in semi-obscurity: Red Hook Summer took a while to find even a tiny distributor; his remake of Oldboy was dumped into semi-wide release in what didn’t sound like Lee’s preferred version; and his upcoming Da Sweet Blood of Jesus was financed in part by Kickstarter, and still awaits a distribution deal. A lower profile affords Lee substantial independence, but it wasn’t always this way for this great American filmmaker.
As it happens, the recently released two-volume Spike Lee Joint Collection doesn’t even reach all the way back through his catalog. Put together, it’s a four-disc Blu-ray set of the movies Lee made for Disney—Disney!—from 1998 through 2008. The first volume has He Got Game (1998) and 25th Hour (2002), while the second has Summer of Sam (1999) and Miracle at St. Anna (2008). In addition to past DVD extras, each film includes a newly recorded commentary with Lee talking to the film’s leading man (except Miracle at St. Anna, where the new track features Lee with novelist/screenwriter James McBride, perhaps because the movie is so ensemble-driven).
He Got Game (1998)
The first volume boasts some unfair advantages: He Got Game is one of Lee’s very best films, and 25th Hour is even better. He Got Game came first, and it’s fascinating to see Lee, a confirmed hardcore front-row basketball fan, make a movie about the sport as an escape, not an athletic competition. As much basketball footage as there is in the movie, the story about Jesus Shuttlesworth (actual player Ray Allen), a high school phenom deciding where to go to college, asks what the sport means beyond winning and losing a game.
Indeed, the only sorta-game played in the entire movie is a one-on-one match between Jesus and his father Jake (Denzel Washington). In a faintly absurd ticking-clock premise the movie smartly rushes through, Jake has been furloughed from prison for a few days, tasked with convincing Jesus to attend Big State University (the governor’s alma mater). Jesus has understandably little interest in his father’s opinions based on a terrible incident in their past.
But Jesus comes to feel equally suspicious of figures in his present, like his girlfriend Lala (Rosario Dawson), who has a terrific scene where she lays out what she wants and why. Allen does remarkably well for an inexperienced actor, holding his own opposite Washington, giving one of his best performances as a guy using utmost care to keep himself out of trouble, tiptoeing around his past mistakes. Lee uses music from both Aaron Copland and Public Enemy to evoke basketball as a uniquely American experience (though in Lee’s American experience, white women, never a strong suit of his characterizations, remain sex objects at best). It’s hard to imagine what Disney, the studio happy to replicate inspirational sports story after inspirational sports story, felt about the film; He Got Game‘s elegiac, thoughtful treatment of sports feels like some kind of miracle.
The new commentary often features Lee cackling in the face of Allen’s more subdued recollections. Lee is also prone to summarizing the story as the movie plays in front of him, but giving him a commentary partner keeps him more focused; in He Got Game, for example, he eventually reveals that Kobe Bryant wouldn’t do the movie because Lee insisted on an audition (his older tracks, also included on this set, tend to be more subdued, especially when he’s on his own). Lee’s excitable comments also maintain an odd continuity among the films.
When Dawson reappears in 25th Hour, Lee exclaims “THE ORIGINAL LALA,” referring (without much other context) to her character from He Got Game. It draws a connection between Lala and Naturelle, girlfriend of Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), the drug dealer about to go off to prison in 25th Hour—both women are placed in a position where they may have to protect themselves at the expense of their respective boyfriends (Monty suspects, though less vocally than others, that Naturelle may have turned him in to the cops to save her own skin).
25th Hour (2002)
If He Got Game mixes the promise of a talented teenager with the regrets of his father, 25th Hour turns its attention fully to regret, as Monty takes stock of his life as it approaches a major change. The production itself hit a major change when New York was devastated by the 9/11 before shooting started, and the revisions performed by Lee and screenwriter David Benioff (adapting his own novel) elevate the movie from very good to great.
Many of Lee’s later-period films are overlong, but in 25th Hour the length feels right: the movie takes its time, absorbing the New York City environment and introducing its characters. In an early sequence, Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing childhood friends of Norton, discuss his fate before his goodbye party. The camera fixes on Pepper and Hoffman, having a conversation but avoiding each other’s eyes as World Trade Center site looms in the background, a fresh wound on the city. It’s a simple shot, but a devastatingly effective one.
Lee also recalls his own past with a sequence where Norton, staring in the bathroom mirror, proceeds to insult every type of New Yorker imaginable. At first this seems like a rhyme to Lee’s Do the Right Thing, but that comparison fades when the it’s called back, stylistically, during movie’s stunning final sequence narrated by Brian Cox (playing Norton’s father).
Summer of Sam (1999)
Summer of Sam also plays tribute to Lee’s city, although in a different borough than his usual Brooklyn: much of the movie takes place in the Bronx, where Vinny (John Leguizamo), his wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino), his punk buddy Ritchie (Adrien Brody), and assorted others from the neighborhood are living in fear of the Son of Sam during his killing spree in the sweltering summer of 1977. Summer of Sam is, along with 25th Hour, one of Lee’s only films with a predominantly white cast (another, the Oldboy redo, feels less personal), and it toggles between empathy and caricature.
Specifically, the movie’s explication of Vinny’s virgin-whore complex—he can’t stop cheating on his wife, in part because he sees her as too pure for many of his sexual desires—seems observant, then rudimentary as it repeats itself. Similarly, the paranoia that sends neighborhood mooks in search of Son of Sam, casting suspicious eyes on anyone who gets out of line, is darkly funny, then unsettling, and then, well, there’s still over half an hour of the movie left to go. That final section hammers away at its themes with operatic intensity, but it reaches a boiling point more naturally with an incendiary, electric montage set to “Baba O’Riley,” revolving around Brody’s performance at a male strip joint, and the neighborhood’s escalating violence.
It’s that sense of neighborhood that makes Summer of Sam worthwhile despite the occasional repetition. Lee often uses long unbroken shots to take in New York surroundings, like the 360-degree pan as Jesus runs to a bus stop to meet Lala in He Got Game, or a tracking shot following Leguizamo and Sorvino from their car to the inside of a dance club, followed by a beautiful break from reality that shows the two of them dancing in the suddenly-empty room, alone together.
For a while, it seemed as if Lee was going every-other: he’d make something excellent, then something messy and overreaching. Summer of Sam was followed by the ambitious and fascinating but sometimes inert Bamboozled, which was followed by the masterful 25th Hour, which was followed by the insane She Hate Me, which was followed by the polished and entertaining Inside Man. That film’s follow-up, Miracle at St. Anna (Lee’s last undiluted big-studio project to date), isn’t the same kind of mess as She Hate Me, but it’s one of his least successful recent films.
Miracle at St. Anna (2008)
Intended as a corrective to the shameful lack of movies dealing with black men who fought in World War II, the movie follows a small group of infantrymen, separated from the segregated unit and stranded in a Tuscany village where they meet a young boy named Angelo (Matteo Sciabordi). Lee has so much he wants to say and show that the movie meanders its way through it all, taking the better part of an hour to get going. It opens on an unnecessary eighties-set prologue where Joseph Gordon-Levitt has to say lines like: “This is my first day on the job as a reporter!” The whole section is slangy and cornball, likes a forties melodrama, and that carries over as the movie flashes back into WWII battle scenes. These sequences are well-shot but have plenty of variations on “this one’s for Hitler!” as a bomb shoots into the air, as if Lee could only right past war-movie wrongs by speaking their stunted language.
Other individual scenes, like a flashback to the soldiers getting refused service at an ice cream shop while German prisoners of war sit nearby, or the sequence revealing how little Angelo survived the initial attack on his family, are powerful. But the movie is ultimately lugubrious, especially for Lee. It actually plays better with the new commentary track, because the added perspectives of the filmmakers are at least as interesting as what’s on screen.
Taken together, Lee’s on-and-off career at Disney provides an impressive historical chronicle, from the World War II story of Miracle at St. Anna to Summer of Sam‘s ‘70s paranoia to the then-contemporary He Got Game and 25th Hour, which now look more like snapshots of a particular time. Lee is every bit the observer of American history as his contemporary Oliver Stone—and his characters often have more room to live and breathe than Stone’s. Even with some dips in quality, these four movies represent part of a remarkable run; you can feel all of them strive for masterpiece status with vibrant ambition, whether it results a perfect portrayal of post-9/11 New York or a semi-boring WWII fable. Disney should take a look at their own Blu-rays and realize that Lee is a worthwhile long-term investment.