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"Look, if you're a black filmmaker and your film is not successful, it gets that much harder to make another one," Lee says. "Black filmmakers are held to higher fiscal standards than white filmmakers. As black films are being made, black people have to go out and support them, because that stuff is not happening. If you don't go out and see Eve's Bayou, studios take note. They look at the bottom line, money. Hollywood's vision is so narrow in terms of what they think a black audience will see . . . It just makes it that much harder for a black filmmaker to keep going, to put together a body of work."
SUMMER OF SAMIS AN INTRIGUING addition to Lee's corpulent body of work, for more reasons than usual. The most obvious is that it's not about black people, and the idea of the aggressively black director doing a non-black project seems inherently conflicted. It isn't: Samis in fact a "white" movie with a black sensibility that is fully Lee's, down to the rolling dolly shots, loopy camera angles and cameo appearance by Lee himself as phlegmatic television reporter John Jeffries. Armond White says, without apparent irony, that the film will be Lee's biggest hit in a long time, "because it seems to be about white people, and the only memorable character in his films was Sal the pizzeria man from Do the Right Thing."
"I consider myself a New York director, and this is a New York story," says Lee, shrugging off questions of propriety as he has grown so used to doing. "I was there in New York that summer. I know what it was like."
In true Spike Lee form, the project sparked controversy well before its release date. Survivors of the Son of Sam killing spree, including families of victims and David Berkowitz, the imprisoned murderer himself, have protested what they call the cinematic exploitation of the most harrowing time in their lives. Folks have raised the specter of Lee as a cold, hard capitalist, a self-proclaimed visionary whose real vision is the ongoing agglomeration of fame and wealth. "The madness, the ugliness of the past is resurfacing again -- all because some people want to make some money," the born-again Berkowitz told The New York Times. "I am just so sorry this movie is coming out. I am disappointed in Hollywood and the Walt Disney company."
Lee knows dangerous waters when he sees them; he maintains, as he has since it premiered in Cannes, that the movie is far less about the murders than about the convergent lives of its fictional characters. "We never thought the film should be about the Son of Sam," he says measuredly. "It's not about a serial killer. That's something we tried to say from the get-go. It's more about the effect this crazy guy had on people, or, as Jimmy Breslin called him in the movie, 'this sick fuck.'" He laughs out loud in spite of the gravity of it all, or at the gross absurdity of it all; it is suddenly easy to see where his movies get their peculiar humor, their casual off-centeredness and, even in their sunniest moments, edges of darkness.
Sam is full of couples, of people orbiting each other -- is it essentially a love story? "What? Who? Between Vinnie and Richie?" Lee exclaims, referring to Adrien Brody's character of indeterminate sexual orientation. He chuckles; he's not telling. "Yeah, well, it's a twisted love story, all the way around. Nobody gets off the hook, with the exception of Mira Sorvino. But it's about relationships. The cross-dresser of the neighborhood, everybody calls him a faggot, but he's theirfaggot -- he's family."
The soundtrack's eclectic survey of '70s songs -- ABBA's "Dancing Queen," the Emotions' "Best of My Love," Sinatra's gaily bombastic "New York, New York" -- moves the story along as briskly and purposefully as dialogue, connecting feeling to action in ways that words simply can't. The supersaturated colors of the film, which almost bleed into each other at points, serve a similarly visceral purpose: "I wanted to convey the madness," Lee says, "visually and musically."
LEE HAS LONG BEEN ON A FIRST-NAME basis with the rest of the world (to the suggestion that his recognition quotient is up there with Jesse's or Duke's, he half snorts, half laughs), but he has always found time amid the business of being Spike to do the mentor thing. As an executive producer he has aided the careers of such promising young directors as Rusty Cundieff (Tales From the 'Hood), David Johnson (Drop Squad) and two first-timers, his cousin Malcolm Lee and Gina Prince, whose feature debuts are both due out this year. Nor has Lee limited his filmic scope to features: He directed the Oscar-nominated documentary Four Little Girls,which chronicles the fatal Birmingham church bombing that helped catalyze the civil rights movement, and since the '80s he has made dozens of music videos and commercials, the most famous being his Nike spots featuring Michael Jordan and Lee himself doing Mars Blackmon, the memorable bike-messenger Romeo from She's Gotta Have It.
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