By John H. Foote
Is it not extraordinary that Spike Lee, one of the definitive directors of his time has not ever been nominated for an Academy Award as Best Director? He has been nominated for his screenplay, his documentaries, and was awarded an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, but not for his direction of a feature film despite making some of the greatest films of our time. He joins some impressive company, Chaplin, Hawks, Hitchcock, Kubrick, but Lee is different, for obvious reasons. The sting of unspoken racism goes along with every snub he has ever received.
Lee was the first major director to explore the black experience in mainstream American film, providing black audiences with films about their way of way of life, their troubles, successes, how they lived in America in both the past and present. For the first time they could look at the screen and claim, I know that man, I am that man! Initially it was believed he was racist, but nothing could be further than the truth, he is an honest director, presenting the truth on screen. I first interviewed Lee in 1997, expecting a hot headed, angry man but he was nothing of the sort, instead he was remarkably intelligent, soft spoken, just a pleasure to speak with.
His career has been a roller coaster of ups and downs, starting off strong, dipping through the nineties, coming back strong at the beginning of the 2000’s, dropping off again with the terrible WWII film Miracle at St. Anna (2006), and is about to explode again with his new film BlackkKlansman (2018).
Looking back at his career, his films is to look at an artist constantly growing, always evolving. Like Martin Scorsese, he moves off into documentary from time to time, and for me his greatest work is the massive film he made for HBO, a searing documentary entitled When the Levees Broke (2004) about the devastation in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina swept through. Lee pulls no punches in what he thought about the non-reaction of President George W. Bush, who seemed blind to the suffering to the people of Louisiana. Corpses are visible throughout the film, many interviews display the despair of the people who were left homeless, suffered death in their family and were forgotten by their President. It is a masterpiece of anger filled, truthful filmmaking.
Did Hollywood fear Spike Lee?
Possibly. They certainly feared his fearlessness. His brilliant study of racism, all racism, Do the Right Thing (1989) topped many critics ten best lists in 1989 and was the most incendiary of the three films in that year to deal with racism. Glory (1989) was a superb epic about the black soldiers who fought for the North in the Civil War at great personal peril, Driving Miss Daisy (1989) was a gentle story about a twenty five year friendship between a rich southern lady and her black driver, the most conservative of the three, while Do the Right Thing (1989) was an angry film, simmering with rage just below the surface and like a time bomb, bound to blow. Of the three, Driving Miss Daisy (1989) was the only one nominated for Best Picture, which it won, while Glory (1989) was nominated for five, winning three, and Do the Right Thing (1989) received just two nominations, for Lee’s screenplay and supporting actor, for Danny Aiello. After winning the LA Film Critics Awards for Best Picture, it was thought, rightly so that Do the Right Thing (1989) had a a shot at Best Picture. When the nominations were announced I felt a chill, racism was alive and well in Hollywood. Three years later, again I felt the ugly chill of racism when Malcolm X (1992) a brilliant, honest biography of the black rights leader, was met with excellent reviews, and a New York Film Critics Best Actor award for Denzel Washington. One of the years best films, I felt finally Lee would be recognized. Instead, the film received just two nominations, for Best Actor, richly deserved and costume design. And then, Washington lost Best Actor to Al Pacino’s ranting and hoo hawing in Scent of a Woman (1992)!! Could the Academy be any more clear of their feelings about Lee?? Like Scorsese, he knew at once he was an outsider who might never break into their world.
He did not gripe aside from a few of bitchy comments, he went to work.
His new film BlackkKlansman is an exciting work based on a true story, as good as anything he has ever made but undone by a weak, almost indifferent lead performance. In what should should be a star making role, the young actor sleepwalks through the movie. More on that later.
Set in the seventies, and feeling like a seventies film, the film breezes through its exciting story with unbridled confidence, the sort that Lee Displayed early in his career. Ron Stallworth (John David Washinton) is a black cop in Colorado Springs who answers a recruitment ad for the Ku Klux Klan and pretends to be white. He is stunned by how easy it is, letting loose with a tirade of hate against blacks and Jews that sells the Klan member on the other end of the line, Walter (Ryan Eggold) who invites Stallworth down to visit some of the boys. Obviously that cannot happen but Stallworth convinces a fellow cop, ZImmerman (Adam Driver) to go along with his plan and impersonate him to the Klan.
Stallworth knows no boundaries, going as so far as to manage to get David Duke on the phone the National Director of the organization quietly known as the Klan.
The film is a penetrating study of how hate is created and passed on through the group, escalating when they are together. Though they will not say they are the Klan, they are perfectly at home with the burning crosses and white robes.
Is it an accident that this film is being released close to a year after the racial nightmare that took place in Charlottesville….what do you think. Of course not, no more than it is accident that an image of the young woman killed in the nightmare appears in the film. Spike Lee does not include anything in his films other than what he believes needs to be there. Like The Post (2017) last year, which was set in the seventies but spoke to the Trump government, so does Black kKlansman, its study of racial hatred and how it is spread fiercely important. It is the film we need right at this moment.
Adam Driver continues to impress me with his work, proving time and time again he is among the finest actors of his generation. There is so much more to him than a Star Wars bad guy, though he does that very well. He commands the screen when on it, he has the sort of presence Brando and Sean Penn had, you are looking only at him.
Topher Grace is astonishing as David Duke, his eyes blazing with purpose but with hatred. Grace, a gifted actor, brings to the part a reptillian presence, even in how he moves, and could land an Oscar nomination for supporting actor.
How the role of Stallworth cries out for a great actor. A Will Smith, Jamie Foxx or Terence Howard. Washington just does not have the intensity to play the part, making his casting in the part a flaw. He seems barely awake, uninterested, indifferent. The film cries out for a strong actor in the lead role. That said the film is good enough around him for it to be overlooked, but it will prevent it from being considered a great film.
Thus far, among the years best.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.