Spike Lee capped the 80s with culturally seminal Do the Right Thing (1989) and secured a place amongst film legends with Malcolm X (1992), perhaps the best civil rights biopic ever made. This month, Kino Lorber releases four excellent Blu-rays of films he’d make around those touchstones: Mo’ Better Blues (1990, R), Jungle Fever (1991, R), Crooklyn (1994, PG-13), and Clockers (1995, R). Small-scale and personal, these films feel like mini-classics in their own right, yet they sometimes failed to garner due praise at the time of release, none more so than Mo’ Better Blues.
In Blues Denzel Washington plays self absorbed trumpet player Bleek Gilliam, leader of a successful jazz quartet. The control he exerts over his career and bandmates, particularly tenor saxophonist Shadow (Snipes), stands in contrast to the carelessness with which he carries out his relationships to gambling-addict manager Giant (Spike Lee), long-time girlfriend Indigo (Joie Lee), and sordid flame Clark (Cynda Williams). Alongside the film’s examination of artistic ego and fidelity is a truly reverent celebration of black music. Spike Lee’s father, Bill Lee, wrote the film’s lush and sweeping score, combining notes of longing, melancholy, and verve reminiscent of the Harlem Renaissance, a period referenced also by the timeless and evocative production and costume design.
Contemporary reviews were mixed. To be sure, Blues sheds some of the tight scripting exemplified by Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, regularly digressing into episodic, Altmanesque group dialogue scenes that don’t progress the narrative so much as they authenticate the rapport between characters. Blues is just as much an aural experience as a visual and narrative one, from dialogue to soundtrack. A spiritual successor might be the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, which embodies a musical genre through a prickly, solitary, troubled practitioner of said music. Much like the sometimes cruel and aloof Llewyn Davis, Bleek as a protagonist is an admittedly hard sell. Luckily, Washington can bring humanity to flawed characters without even looking like he’s trying, thereby molding the standoffish and selfish Bleek seen on paper into a pitifully repressed man whose projection of confidence conceals an aversion to the unknown and an elusive sense of self.
In addition to great music and sound design, Mo’ Better Blues offers up some of the best photography by Spike Lee’s highly underappreciated DP, Ernest Dickerson, and the quality of his work has never looked better than on this release. Although Lee’s scripts may sometimes be off-kilter or alienating, the filmmaking itself never fails to astound, partially because of Lee’s vibrant and lyrical vision, but also due to his excellent collaborative tendencies. Any critique about Mo’ Better Blues that focuses solely on content and not form is unjustifiable.
Jungle Fever received better reception than Mo’ Better Blues despite its controversiality and occasional lack of cohesion. This is due in great part to the performances. Wesley Snipes as adulterous architect and family man Flipper Purify and Anabella Sciorra as his white, Italian-American secretary, Angie, are strong leads with great chemistry, but Samuel L. Jackson runs away with the film. Flipper (a cheekily on-the-nose name) conducts an interracial affair with Angie, disappointing his friend Cyrus (Spike Lee) and humiliating his lighter-skinned wife, Drew (Lonette McKee), who questions whether he wanted a white partner all along. Adjacent to this, Flipper’s crack-addict brother, Gator (Jackson), grows increasingly broke and desperate as the film progresses, falling into a downward spiral that culminates in a gut-wrenching climax. Jackson had just recently abandoned a cocaine habit before filming, and so the staggering authenticity he brings to the character comes from life experience. Audiences were so moved by his performance that the Cannes Film Festival, that year, created a special Supporting Actor Award just for him.
Jungle Fever attempts to weave colorism, infidelity, drug addiction and poverty into the central drama of an interracial relationship, and the parts don’t always meld. Taken separately, however, these themes successfully present themselves within compelling individual scenes. One of the film’s many highlights takes a detour from Flipper and Angie’s relationship to show Drew and her friends discussing their experiences as black women dating black men, and the impact skin tone has had on their lives. Likewise, a great side plot featuring Angie’s former boyfriend, Paulie (John Turturro), looks at a gender-flipped version of Flipper and Angie’s relationship, and examines the pressure and ultimate castigation he receives in his community for engaging in the race-mixing taboo.
Both Mo’Better Blues and Jungle Fever deserve modern reassessments for the compelling ideas in them, alone. But as with the former, watching Jungle Fever on Blu-ray is worth it just for that Ernest Dickerson photography. Additionally, Stevie Wonder wrote a soundtrack album for the film and the title song will not leave your head for days.
Following up the epic, pressure-cooker biopic of Malcolm X, Lee considerably loosened the narrative bolts. Crooklyn acts as a relief valve to its predecessor, telling the story of a slightly dysfunctional Brooklyn family in the early 70s. Although it contains drama and touches on social issues, Crooklyn exudes far more warmth than any of Spike Lee’s other films. Alfre Woodard plays Carolyn Carmichael, a music teacher at the end of her rope trying to raise five kids and stave off bad influences while her musician husband, Woody (Delroy Lindo), fails to back her up. Zelda Harris has a breakout role as the youngest Carmichael, Troy, and the events of the film are told primarily through her point of view.
Taking note from her disciplinarian mother, Troy displays the strongest backbone of the Carmichael brood, and shows a toughness that far exceeds her four bickering older brothers. For a portion of the film, she spends time with affluent extended family in the South, seeing the luxury that others live in while never feeling comfortable there, preferring her rough-around-the-edges brownstone home and eclectic neighborhood. An undercurrent that bemoans the social ills plaguing Bed-Stuy runs beneath the story at nearly all times, but Lee’s highly nostalgic, autobiographical sentimentality takes precedence.
Lee had to depart from Ernest Dickerson for Crooklyn after the latter embarked on a directorial career. Here he’s replaced by Daughters of the Dust cinematographer Arthur Jafa. His work stands out for two reasons: one, it beautifully matches Dickerson’s visual sense to the point that you’d be surprised there was a change at all, and two, it incorporates surrealism more so than Lee’s previous films. One decision I dislike is the choice to film the southern scenes in anamorphic format in order to compress the image. Technically, the altered scope evokes the sense of alienation Lee desired, but it’s an extreme choice that pulls you out of scenes. Small sets or tight framing would have been subtler and better. Otherwise, this is the kind of movie you want to see on as big a screen as possible to revel in the Basquiatish scenery.
Clockers easily constitutes the weakest of the bunch, but it’s still worth seeing for any Spike Lee fan. Its inclusion in this release of Blu-rays is supported, at any rate, because the grainy film stock used for filming comes to life with the increase in image clarity. The opening credit sequence moves through a series of grisly crime scene images as Marc Dorsey’s hopeful R&B tune, “People in Search of a Life”, plays, hinting at both the issues present in the film as well as their central irony. As oppressed people skirt the law to escape their circumstances, they’re making a better life for themselves while ending the lives of others through warfare and drug epidemics. Clockers sees one such social climber, Ronald “Strike” Dunham (Mekhi Phifer), slowly self-destruct as he progresses to higher levels of criminal behavior, spurred on by the violent overlord of his neighborhood drug trade, Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo, in a complete reversal from his role in Crooklyn). When a promotion means an initiation killing of Little’s competitor, Strike scrambles to find someone to do the job for him, including his upstanding-citizen brother, Victor (Isaiah Washington).
The dealer ends up dead, but Lee refrains from clueing us too far in. The murder itself occurred offscreen, and while Strike seems at first to have carried out the job himself, the facts of the crime sew doubt into the minds of the viewer and two detectives played by Harvey Keitel and John Tuturro. As their collective heat gets close to turning Strike’s own associates against him, the community-oriented beat cop, André (Keith David), lays on extra weight with incessant attempts to connect with Strike while at the same time threatening consequences for corrupting the local youth. A wonderful metaphor recurs throughout in the form on an unexplained stomach ailment similar to an ulcer that Strike suffers from, suggesting that his situation is literally tearing him up inside.
Lee again changes cinematographers, this time working with newcomer Malik Hassan Sayeed. The imagery differs greatly from Lee’s previous work, turning to a more social realist aesthetic with the occasional surreal flourish. One sequence wherein Isaiah Washington becomes further and further illuminated by light during an interrogation was particularly striking, constituting one of the few audaciously stylized shots Lee is renowned for. Otherwise, Clockers mimics the street-crime thriller look popular at the time. Regardless, it exceeds within the visual concept thus established, and if it’s a simple genre piece, then it’s the best example of one.
Spike Lee has continued to be an enduring and prolific talent over the course of the last two decades, but he’s not done such consistently good work since his early period. Considering the diversity problem in Hollywood, the fact that a young, opinionated, black director could make ten films in one decade speaks to his zeal and popularity. Watching these films together has several interesting effects. Of course, getting reacquainted with Lee’s work will always impress us with how well-rounded he is, with his touch blatantly present in photography, sound design, music, costumes, editing, and more. But even more striking is the realization that the issues of race he brings to cinema are so multidimensional that they needed ten films in a decade just to get all of his points across. | Nic Champion
Each of these films are being released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, in addition to Spike Lee’s 1999 film, Summer of Sam. Mo’ Better Blues and Clockers both contain commentaries by Kameron Austin Collins, and they are of exceptional quality.