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


Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) & Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Author’s Note:  This Article is for people who have seen Star Trek Into Darkness and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  In other words, this article contains spoilers.  If you plan to see either of these films and don’t want major plot points revealed, you should skip this article and read something else.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

-D.G. McCabe

Star Trek Into Darkness 

Directed by J.J. Abrams, 2013, U.S.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Directed by Nicholas Meyer, 1982, U.S.

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” Spock (Leonard Nimoy/Zachary Quinto) says in both Star Trek movies where the antagonist is Khan Noonien Singh, the thawed out, murderous super soldier from a long ago “Eugenics War” which, thankfully, never happened. For those of you wondering, in the Star Trek universe this war took place in the 1990’s. According to the Original Series episode “Space Seed,” featuring the first appearance of Khan, Khan controlled 25% of the Earth at one point during this time period. He and his followers were frozen in cryogenic tubes and sent out to drift through space for all eternity, or so his captors thought.

The character of Khan is played by the late Ricardo Montalbon in the Original Series and in The Wrath of Khan, and by Benedict Cumberbatch in Into Darkness.  They both do a great job of portraying a character that is manipulative, cunning, loyal to his followers, and merciless to his enemies.  In the Original Series episode, it was not clear that Khan is evil until well into the episode, where the movies start out by showing Khan’s dark side.

Looking back I’m not sure who’s performance I prefer.  Cumberbatch is far more terrifying than Montalbon, who gives a more subtle performance.  There is more depth to Montalbon’s Khan, but more menace in Cumberbatch’s.

The two movies compliment each other in ways beyond their shared villain.  At the end of Wrath of Khan, Spock dies in a radiation chamber while saving the Enterprise (only to be revived in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)).  In Into Darkness, Kirk (William Shatner/Chris Pine) dies in a radiation chamber while saving the Enterprise (only to be revived later in the film).

The mirror image scenes are interesting due to the different reactions from the characters. In Wrath of Khan, Kirk’s response is melancholy, but he keeps it together for the scene and the funeral (at least until his famous last line).  Spock’s response to Kirk’s “death” on the other hand, is barely restrained rage.  In fact, he gets the same line that Kirk gets in Wrath of Khan when Khan has stolen the Enterprise and marooned Kirk and his crew on an isolated world.

Overall, I like how Into Darkness compliments and juxtaposes Wrath of Khan.  It is also a notably better film than Abrams’ previous “Star Trek” (2009).  Abrams demonstrates skill in directing special effects and demonstrates an understanding of the source material, particularly in the interactions between Kirk and Spock.  I can honestly say that after watching Into Darkness, I am much more confident of Abrams’ ability to handle the intense scrutiny he will face when he directs “Star Wars: Episode VII” two summers from now.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe