By Sherrie Li
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By Sherrie Li
|Photo by Kathleen Clark|
No, it's not to make a biopic about Martin Luther King Jr., though that sounds perfectly logical (no one's done it yet) and pretty Spike-like, a companion piece to his career-defining Malcolm X. People of all colors and ideological persuasions would doubtless groan at his sacrilege, line up their fire before a single camera rolled -- controversy from moment one. That was the Spike Lee of old. The newer version has a fairly modest dream . . . of running a radio station. It would be dedicated to a kind of musical egalitarianism in which black and white, rock and R&B and their various precedents and permutations would share equal groove time. Certainly it would be a station King would approve of.
"Man, I'd play Steely Dan, Bruce Hornsby, Stevie Wonder, a little bit of Frank Sinatra," says Lee. "And I like The Who. I've always liked The Who, that album Who's Next. When I was coming up I couldn't play that stuff loud, though. If I had, people would have been like, 'TURN THAT BAD MUSIC OFF!'" He shouts for effect, between laughs, taps his ears. "Headphones. Got to do it with headphones."
Lee has mellowed since that summer in Cannes when She's Gotta Have Itwon the Prix de Jeunesse and he complained that it was nothing better than a booby prize, but the large, doleful eyes, bemused smile and laconic Brooklyn accent are still his signifiers. Infinitely more cautious in interviews, he is still prone to pick up a notion and run with it downcourt. "Do black stations now play people like Lenny Kravitz? Jimi Hendrix?" he continues heatedly. "Hell, no! It's sad. When I was growing up in New York, DJs played what they wanted to play. Now, everybody has the same play list -- you don't need a DJ at all."
Spike has to do the spinning or he doesn't play. That's still true. America's most famous (and occasionally infamous) black filmmaker may be more moderately spoken these days, but he is still best known for his self-determination, for doing the projects he wants to do. His latest feature, Summer of Sam, opening in theaters Friday, is a radical departure from everything else in his 15-film canon, mainly because it's the first Spike Lee Joint that is not a putative black film. The stories told against the backdrop of the grisly Son of Sam serial murders of the late '70s are those of white characters, living in decidedly white neighborhoods, which begs the question: Has Spike Lee gone soft? Has he caught the multicultural bug?
Well, let's see. The motley crew of friends and lovers in Summer of Samare barely-working-class Italian-Americans -- a Spike Lee hallmark since Do the Right Thing, in which Italians provided white counterparts to the emotionally raw and recalcitrant black characters. Racial tensions bubble on the story's surface throughout; at one point, a black neighborhood cop and a Mafia don pick at an open sore as they argue through clenched teeth about who was the better ballplayer, Willie Mays or Mickey ã Mantle. Other details are not strictly racial but are vintage Lee: a close family of running buddies that breeds love and contempt in equal measure; a tight time frame, and the fact that it takes place during one of the hottest summers in New York history, the one that spawned the worst blackout in its history; tempers and paranoia that soar dangerously high; a wrongheaded vigilante mob that gusts up from normally hospitable streets like a waterspout, bent on retribution . . . Hey, it's Do the Right Thing10 years later, down to the moral ambiguity, though minus the hyperrealism.
That's simplistic, but the comparison is inescapable, and in any case there is no doubt that this is a Spike Lee film, white characters notwithstanding. Face it: If this were a white-directed film, would Mira Sorvino stand at the side of the road screaming at her philanderer husband that she's going to get back at him by enlisting the services of a black man with a prodigious dick? Even Tarantino wouldn't go there.
Lee maintains that he's only doing what he's always been doing, telling a story, singing music in a universal key. The music in Sam, by the way, is his radio dream -- everything from disco to soul to hard rock to punk.
"I DON'T WANT TO SOUND LIKE A BROKEN RECORD, but a good director is a storyteller," Lee says. "I know that people have accused me of not telling a good story, but let me qualify that -- they accuse me of not telling a traditional story with a beginning, middle and end, one in which everything gets tied up in a neat little bow. I try not to do that. Not having a resolution is the way of the world. I mean, how could you possibly get a resolution out of Do the Right Thing?"
Those bent on resolution have been arguing about that movie since its release in 1989, asking with wounded, bewildered, unanswerable anger, "Why did Mookie throw the trash can through the window?" That moment has been debated ad nauseam by the burgeoning ranks of cultural critics, and appropriated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in a montage of great film moments of the century. Whatever one thinks of Spike Lee, one must credit him with bringing to the screen what it had never previously illuminated: black people of postmodern sensibilities who are neither saints nor demons, who are unsure of each other in ways that have nothing to do with drugs or gangs or overweening social forces like poverty or buppification. Black people referencing nothing and no one but themselves, still steeped in uncertainty about identity and purpose at millennium's end. Which is not to say there's no humor in any of this -- there's plenty -- because Lee shows that without the urgent, solemnizing presence of gangs and drugs and other variants of urban pathology, there's a lot to laugh at. The suffering he depicts is more existential, subtle and of a qualitatively different nature than the suffering in, say, John Singleton's seminal thug-life film Boyz N the Hood.
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