Great Director Profile – Spike Lee

By D.G. McCabe

Spike Lee, the director of Do the Right Thing (1989) and Malcolm X (1992) along with dozens of other movies ranging for traditional Hollywood thrillers (Summer of Sam (1999), Inside Man (2006)) to Fellini-esque independent films (Do the Right Thing, She’s Gotta Have it (1986)) would probably be famous in some respect if he wasn’t one of America’s finest living directors.  After all, his confrontations with Indiana Pacers star Reggie Miller from his courtside Knicks seats are the stuff of legend.  He is also not a man to keep his opinions or ideas to himself, which of course could be said about most talented artists.

I don’t make the above comparison to Federico Fellini lightly.  After all, Lee’s “double dolly” floating technique could have fit in Fellini’s masterpiece 8 1/2 (1963).  Like Fellini, Lee’s films are grounded in realism but use fantastic techniques to emphasize theme and important, over-story concepts. For example, Radio Rahim’s (Bill Nunn) cutaway scene in Do the Right Thing and the endings of Malcolm X and Bamboozled (2000) stand as examples of Lee breaking conventional storytelling realism to address the audience directly.

Sometimes Lee gets a bit heavy handed in his conveying of themes to his audience, and I once thought that this was a weakness in his films.  After getting to know his work a bit better, I have come to realize that this “heavy handedness” is by design.  Lee wants to be provocative in the literal sense, and if he has to sacrifice traditional elements of film storytelling to initiate a dialogue among his audience, so be it.

It is in Do the Right Thing where Lee best achieves a balance between his desire to tell a compelling story and his desire to make the audience think about and discuss issues in modern society. Much criticism has been written about whether Mookie (played by Lee) “does the right thing” at the end of the movie when he trashes Sal’s (Danny Aiello) pizzeria. Lee himself has pointed out that this is immaterial – the destruction of the pizzeria is a spontaneous reaction to the outrage felt by the community towards the death of Radio Rahim at the hands of the police.  If anything, Mookie’s actions re-direct the focal point of the angry mob away from Sal and towards a piece of property (which, as Mookie points out at the end of the film, Sal has insurance on).

The ending of Do the Right Thing is not, therefore, about an individual choice that Mookie makes in the heat of the moment, but rather the difficulty of rational reactions in the face of communal outrage (as once again emphasized by the Martin Luther King and Malcolm X quotes at the very end of the film).  Still, the characters and story are so well developed that the audience can’t help but discuss the motivations and decisions of the individual characters.

Spike Lee’s next film is going to be a horror movie/thriller about “people who aren’t vampires but are addicted to blood.”  To fund his new project, Lee has asked for help from the public on his Kickstarter page.  Since film, nearly alone among art-forms, takes a boatload of money to properly produce, this is a good concept in my opinion – raising funds for a movie without having to listen to the concept critiqued to death by a hundred studio executives.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe