Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee has been a prolific actor, director, producer and polemicist for some time now. An ultra talented and outspoken cinematic artist, he has directed thirty fiction and documentary films since his debut feature film She’s Gotta Have It (1986). Plus, all manner of promos, commercials, music videos, short films and television series.
To celebrate his work and the fact he finally got recognised for his amazing filmmaking skills by the Oscars this year, I would like to highlight, five of his finest films that are worth watching and rewatching. An energetic firebrand of a director he has made films in many genres and is a risk-taker in subject, theme and style. Whether you agree with what he has to say he is a filmmaker who is always creating situations and characters who must be heard. Here are some great examples of his cinematic work.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
DO THE RIGHT THING (1986)
Spike Lee’s incendiary look at the day in the life of a Brooklyn neighbourhood finds a variety of characters coping with both rising temperatures and simmering racial tension. Lee’s brilliant script is fully of boldly written and brightly sketched characters presented via a succession of hilarious and dramatic vignettes. The formal excellence on show too from Lee is to be applauded as he uses devices from: music video and cinema to tell his rich stories. The day does not end well as the neighbourhood erupts into tragic violence with Lee proving himself adept at balancing humour, politics and tragedy in equal measure.
MALCOLM X (1992)
Arguably, Malcolm X (1992), is Spike Lee’s most significant and impressive film. It charts the life and death of a man born Malcolm Little who would grow to be anything but. After a troubled childhood he became a drug dealer and criminal in order to survive. Having converted to Islam he rejected his slave roots, going on to become one of the most outspoken voices against black oppression the world has ever seen. The project took decades to come to the screen and Lee and Washington both faced objections from many parties for their involvement. However, the finished film a masterful biography capturing the spirit of an intelligent, passionate and outspoken individual trying to right the wrongs within American society and history. Both Lee and Washington should have won Oscars for their work. The film stands ultimately as a fine cinematic tribute to a true spokesperson for a generation.
HE GOT GAME (1998)
From my basic research Spike Lee is revealed to be a New York Knicks fan. It’s no surprise then his love of basketball really shines through in this mix of sport, crime and personal drama. The story follows young hot-shot basketball prospect, Jesus Shuttlesworth, and the decision he has to make in regard to which college he goes to. On paper it’s Jesus’ choice but in reality he has all manner of people attempting to influence him. These include: his girlfriend, his coach, agents, local gangsters and most pressing of all, his jailed father portrayed by Denzel Washington. Ray Allen is excellent as Jesus and Lee invokes an empathetic character study with lashings of verve and style.
INSIDE MAN (2006)
Spike Lee directs in confident style, with Denzel Washington and Clive Owen both excellent as the lead cop and main criminal. Jodie Foster is brilliant too as a venal fixer brought in by Christopher Plummer’s bank owner. What makes Lee’s direction ping here is his deft handling of a complex structure within the heist genre. Moreover, Lee demonstrates he is able to convey a genre story with impeccable skill and deliver fine screen performances to boot. I especially loved the diversity of the supporting characters and the film oozes a pure New York atmosphere throughout.
BlacKKKlansman (2018) is a complex film which expertly mixes many genres, infusing musical, thriller, Blaxploitation, comedy and documentary styles, making it a joy to experience. Spike Lee has never been afraid of experimenting and sometimes his films have not worked because of it. However, with this he succeeded in making one of the best films of 2018. It should have won Best Film Oscar in my view. It is thought-provoking but never preachy for the sake of it and uses humour most often as a weapon to undermine the senseless ideologies of the KKK. Indeed, in ridicule there is hope they may eventually be side-lined to the shadows of history.
Cast: Ricky Gervais, Kerry Godliman, David Earl, Karl Pilkington, Brett Goldstein, Colin Hoult, Holli Dempsey, Ruth Bratt, Arthur Nightingale, Doc Brown, Joe Wilkinson etc.
Original Network: Channel 4
**MAY CONTAINS SPOILERS**
So, let’s address the elephant in the room with my review of ALL 4/Netflix bittersweet comedy, Derek. Is it acceptable for a person to seemingly inhabit the character of someone who could be perceived to be mentally challenged or disabled? Not forgetting, the person is a successful TV writer/actor, Ricky Gervais. After all we’re in a progressive age where it is right to be sensitive of perceptions and reactions to the representations of people of colour, religion, race, heritage and mental capacity. Is it in poor taste for Ricky Gervais to ultimately, get seemingly cheap laughs out of a gurning, simple man?
Well, on the surface and initial watch Derek, could be deemed offensive for reasons of poor taste. However, having watched series one, two and the final hour-long special for the third time, I have decided that, while it may have puerile and childish humour, Gervais has created a positive, and in some cases, heroic role model who promotes kindness to the elderly, animals, friends and basically everyone, whether they are horrible or not. The comedy and pathos derive not simply from cheap shots, but, organically from a set of outsiders and forgotten people inhabiting a care home. Lastly, Gervais is a talented actor and while he’s no Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot (1989), his character of Derek Noakes is a genuinely fine human being worth spending time with.
Moving past the controversial issues of taste the most important question remains: is Derek funny? Well, it is both funny and very moving, encompassing themes relating to life, death, grief, romance, love, redemption, depression and memory. Set in a care called Broad Hill it features a collection of disparate ensemble of characters who are existentially trapped within their day-to-day lives. These include hard-working Hannah (Kerry Godliman), gruff handyman, Dougie (Karl Pilkington), alcoholic wastrel, Kev (David Earl), and the titular, Derek. Furthermore, the care home becomes a haven for characters doing community service such as Vicky (Holli Dempsey) and of course the elderly residents who are cared for at Broad Hill.
Shot in Gervais’ often used mockumentary style, each episode unfolds in a gentle slice-of-life style as the Broad Hill employees go about their business. A common theme running through the series is the pressure the staff, notably Hannah, find themselves under looking after old people who have been dumped by their family and society at large. Moreover, the children or grandchildren of the residents are mostly represented as greedy, callous or self-absorbed. Gervais has commented that the show is a tribute to family members who worked in care homes and Derek succeeds in that context.
In representing the working classes and societal outsiders, Derek also works very well. I’ll be honest there is some easy humour to be had from the sexual perversity and drunken antics of Kev, portrayed with greasy acumen by David Earl. However, in Season 2, Kevin’s sad decline comes into focus as his alcoholism causes his health to fail and the friends he has alienated have tough choices to make. Nonetheless, the comedic interactions between Pilkington, Gervais, Earl and Kerry Godliman are priceless. These, plus Brett Goldstein as Hannah’s boyfriend, Tom, are all gifted performers and they shine throughout the episodes.
Gervais faced much critical controversy when Derek was first released. But having watched it again I actually think this was undeserved. Derek is not a figure of fun but rather a complex human being and richly empathetic character. If you find it offensive or do not enjoy Gervais’ performance then I understand that. Ultimately though, the series has some childish humour such as characters writing obscenities on crabs at the seaside, Dougie’s stupid hair, and Kev crapping himself at a staff meeting. However, it also has some fine comedic set-pieces as occurs when Derek, Dougie and Kevin put on a play about Duran Duran at a talent night. Plus, the scene where Kev and Derek try and sell their autographs of “famous” people is pure comedy gold.
Overall, Derek is a life-affirming comedy full of eccentric characters on the fringe of society. Somehow, they all band together to create this weird dysfunctional but very caring family. It’s a show about life, death, gain, loss and the human spirit. Moreover, through Derek’s homespun philosophical musings we get a lot of simple, yet effective life lessons. Yes, it’s full of toilet and school-playground humour, and at times is really mawkish and sentimental, but it is also full of heart and poignancy all performed by a fantastic ensemble cast.
WRITERS: Park Chan-Wook, Chung Seo-kyung (from the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters)
CAST: Kim Min-hee, Kim Tae-ri, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
You may be too young to know or too old to remember but Channel 4 in the 1980s used to have an eclectic choice of arty independent and World Cinema films. Now you get a few on Film Four but Channel 4 was a main outlet for interesting cinema not shown on the BBC or ITV channels. Channel 4 also used to, for a short period between 1986 and 1987 have a ‘Red Triangle’ on certain films to advise of sexual scenes and material that may be considered controversial. Not surprisingly the films with a ‘Red Triangle’ guaranteed nudity and erotic scenes causing audience figures to actually rise. After some moaning from the likes of Mary Whitehouse – a right-wing puritanical harpy who was a self-appointed anti-everything woman – the ‘Red Triangle’ was vanquished by Channel 4, but not before gaining notoriety and publicity.
As a teenager I used to look forward to the more risqué content on Channel 4 as the Internet was at the virgin stage and yet to be invented; so titillation was often confined to late night films on a Friday night. Flash forward thirty years and because I’m more mature and it’s very easy to access pornography online I’m not a big fan of overtly sexual material in mainstream or independent features. Not sure why but I prefer subtlety and suggestion over all-out copulation. In Park Chan-Wook’s majestic erotic con-artist thriller there are some wonderfully subtle erotic scenes which raise the blood pressure and enhance the characterisation. There is also some serious scissoring between the two female leads going on too which in my view pushes the boundaries between eroticism, controversy and exploitation. However, this is the line Chan-Wook has always skipped along in classic films such as: Old Boy (2003), Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002), and Thirst (2009).
The Handmaiden is set in 1930’s Korea amidst the backdrop of the Japanese occupation and the cultural differences between the two nations are expertly drawn and examined in the story. Class differences are also highlighted in a rich text which finds Sook-hee seconded to look after the neurotic Lady Izumi Hideko, who is a ward and being groomed for marriage by her controlling Uncle Kouzuki. I will not give any further of the plot away but safe to say it is an incredibly complex narrative structured into three parts which overlap different perspectives within flashbacks and contrasting character voiceovers and angles. Did I enjoy it? Absolutely, this is a beautifully shot period masterpiece which I took great pleasure in viewing. In my view the running time was arguably over-long and a couple of the more overt sex scenes could have been trimmed. Nonetheless, the film had me gripped throughout.
Park Chan-Wook directed a gem of a noir thriller called Stoker (2013) for his first Hollywood film, but here is a bigger-budgeted and thematically richer cinema affair. It takes a complex con-artist-twisting-plot and imbues it with an erotically charged and explicit feminist love story which finds sharp-witted female characters overcoming the dominant and deviant patriarchal beast. Moreover, Chan Wook’s screenplay is a masterful adaptation of the original novel, the wonderfully titled Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters. Like the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorcese, Christopher Nolan, Jacques Audiard, Michael Haneke to name a few, Chan-Wook’s work is always a must-see-at-the-cinema-event and you don’t need a ‘Red Triangle’ to ensure you watch it.
I thought I would make an effort to watch more documentaries over the last few months. Personally, I love nothing more than to immerse myself in fictional worlds created by writers, show-runners and filmmakers etc. but sometimes it’s important to face the “truth”.
Having said that are documentaries actually reflecting reality or the truth? Because the documentary genre over the years has become ultra-sophisticated and many “true” stories are not just simply filmed documents or events or interviews. Now, documentaries are often carefully constructed narratives with as much if not more drama and turns in their tales than fictional works.
I wasn’t the only one who was gripped by Netflix’s Making a Murderer (2015) or HBO’s exceptional The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. Moreover, I’ve always been an avid viewer of the work of dogged filmmaker Nick Broomfield, the disarming talent of Louie Theroux, and at his best the polemical Michael Moore. However, you always have to be aware that what one is watching has been manipulated and finessed to tell a story or a certain agenda; thus truth is not always absolute and should always be questioned.
Nonetheless, the documentary film or programme remains an important tool to confront existential, sociological, historical and political events and issues. It also tends to be a lower budgeted medium – compared to fictional works – with which to illuminate and entertain an audience. So, here are some documentaries I have been watching of late.
Crime documentaries are big business and along with historical Nazi dramas fill up the TV screens and online. Netflix has some well-presented and often controversial documentaries, one such is AMANDA KNOX (2016), which interviewed many of those involved in the despicable murder case of Meredith Kercher a few years back. This intriguing documentary lifts the lid on a case where the media and Italian legal system are on trial as much as Knox herself.
With the Nazis in mind, the BBC documentary AUSCHWITZ: THE NAZIS AND THE FINAL SOLUTION (2005) is a horrific examination of wartime atrocities which probes the means with which the Nazis tried to wipe out all the Jews. This is a challenging yet incredible mix of interviews, dramatic re-enactment and detailed research on the evil death camp Auschwitz. While not an easy watch it is a brilliantly devised series which illustrates the blackest stain of one of humanity’s darkest periods in history.
From World War II to a very contemporary conflict Netflix presents THE WHITE HELMETS (2016), which over a hard-hitting forty minutes profiles the heroism of the eponymous rescue workers striving to save civilians from conflicted Aleppo and Syria on the whole. The short film won an Oscar but having done some research online the other side of the argument suggests this is a propaganda piece and does not represent the real work of this group. All I can say is someone somewhere is blowing the hell out of Syria and it is a bloody tragedy because people are dying! Indeed, whichever side the White Helmets are on the filmmakers show the insane destruction of war and suffering occurring for reasons that are beyond my understanding.
For something far more heart-warming I recommend the majestic film THE EAGLE HUNTRESS (2016). It documents the story of Aisholpan, a 13-year-old girl from Mongolia, as she attempts to become the first female eagle hunter in her country. Beautiful vistas and soaring eagles amidst the snow are to the fore in a very sweet tale of a young lady facing up against years of cultural chauvinism and prejudice, for something she loves doing.
More harrowing though is the well-constructed Killer Whale documentary BLACKFISH (2013) which highlights the cruelty to these beautiful creatures in captivity and the alleged corporate greed of SeaWorld following the deaths of trainers at the park. It also illustrates, in my opinion, the idiotic folly of human beings who think it is wise to get in the water with gigantic aquatic hunters. We are imprisoning animals for our own apparent entertainment and killing ourselves because of it. Idiots!
More human lunacy can be found in the harrowing film VIRUNGA (2014) set in the Congo where director Orlando von Einsiedel stabs at the heart of darkness and finds Soco International and civil war damaging the natural beauty of Virunga National Park. It’s another sad indictment on humanity as the people who live there and the animals, notably the Gorillas, find their habitat is surely being destroyed in the name of greed and insane mercenary bloodlust.
Taking the nature documentary in the direction of horror is Morgan Spurlock’s brutal film RATS (2016). This sickeningly impressive doc takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the globe with gruesome scenes of rat-catching, scientific experimentation, baiting and butchering of rats. Most disgustingly the eating of rodents in Vietnam is considered a delicacy. Gross!
Arguably the most powerful of the documentaries I watched was Ava DuVernay’s polemical and politically charged 13th (2016), a film which slams years of Government policies in regard to incarceration. Indeed, the evidence presented shows systematic lobbying from big business to turn the prison system into a means of enslaving the less socially advantaged. The mass rise of inmates in jail from the 1970s to now bares out this fact and the harsh stories within the documentary too are shocking. 13th is a savage indictment against the United States Government treatment, over the years, of black and Hispanic communities, and while it’s very one-sided, the points it is well researched and makes are incredibly powerful.
An altogether less incendiary and academic approach comes via Noam Chomsky’s interviews represented in REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM (2015) where the ultra-intellectual argues lucidly that a half-century of policies have been designed to favour the most wealthy at the expense of the majority. It’s thought-provoking and makes you wonder if this real life “They Live” style of social domination by the rich is truly real or just a dreamt up socio-liberal political conspiracy. To me, and I am not particularly bright when it comes to such matters, believe it is capitalist Darwinism at its worst and the wealthy and powerful are simply protecting what they have to the detriment or the less socially advantageous. Bastards!
I have to say that I admire the bravery of many documentary filmmakers, especially the ones who get right into the nitty gritty of the action. One such filmmaker Matthew Heinemann and his film CARTEL LAND (2015) has a lot of bottle going to Mexico and the US border to film events relating to the drug trade, criminality and nefarious Cartel factions and Government groups. Heinemann and his crew deserve praise for bringing these incredible events concerning an ongoing bloody civil war which seems to have no end in sight.
America is a continual goldmine for fascinating documentaries and Louis Theroux has proved time and time again he is a dab hand at gently poking a stick into some of the darker areas of humanity. Two such BBC documentaries he made are LA STORIES (2014) and THE CITY ADDICTED TO CRYSTAL METH (2009) where Theroux’s unassuming style examines the lives of people and animals affected by drugs, paedophilia, death and social decay. I like Louis Theroux as he isn’t afraid to ask important questions and his work gets into your psyche, without ever smashing you over the head with a definite agenda or tunnel-vision polemics.
The comedian Russell Brand presented a more vigorous approach when challenging the UK government’s ‘war on drugs’ policy by finding out how other countries are tackling their problems of drug abuse. RUSSELL BRAND – END THE DRUGS WAR (2014) was an passionate crusade by Brand to treat drug addiction as a disease and not a crime and he made some excellent points in carrying his case to legal and Government figures.
For some lighter viewing I also watched an informative documentary about filmmaker, actor and theatre genius called: MAGICIAN: THE ASTONISHING WORK OF ORSON WELLES (2014), which entertainingly ran through the career highs and lows of Orson Welles. Meanwhile, I AM YOUR FATHER (2015) was a likeable tribute to the man who WAS Darth Vader in the original Star Wars franchise – David Prowse. However, the film was ruined by the Spanish director crow-barring himself into the film and also trying to create some drama out of Prowse being gazumped by George Lucas for the shooting of Vader’s death scene. Prowse had a great career and I found the attempts at controversy were unnecessary and the film should’ve concentrated on the man in the suit himself.
Last but not least if you love filmmaking docs you must watchLOST SOUL: RICHARD STANLEY’S ISLAND OF DR MOREAU (2014). This documentary charts the journey of director Richard Stanley and his attempts to bring classic novel The Island of Dr Moreau to the silver screen. With a massive budget and filming taking place in Australia it all starts to go wrong for Stanley as tropical storms hit the set and the money men at the studio lose confidence. Add the crazy Marlon Brando, difficult Val Kilmer and hedonistic extras to the mix and you get a box office turkey burning in front of your eyes. Both funny and tragic it reveals the folly of filmmaking yet sadly also seemed to finish Stanley’s promising directorial career.
2016 – LONDON FILM FESTIVAL – THE BIRTH OF A NATION (2016)
SPOILER FREE REVIEW
TITLE: THE BIRTH OF A NATION (2016)
DIRECTOR/PRODUCER/WRITER: Nate Parker
CAST: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Colman Domingo, Aja Noomi King
STORY: At the turn of the 1800s a charismatic preacher must decide between a life of slavery or to stand up and fight against his brutal captors.
This drama, written, produced, directed and starring by Nate Parker has, since its release at the Sundance Festival, created a whole host of controversies. There is a historical rape prosecution of which Nate Parker was found innocent of in 1999; there are accusations of historical inaccuracies in the story; plus the passivity of female characters within the narrative has been criticized too. Not surprising though because any film about slavery, rape, abuse and murder is bound to set the cultural world, internet, film industry, social media, historians etc. alight with debate.
Personally, when I watch a film I prefer to judge it purely on whether it has entertained, informed, provoked thought and created emotion. The filmmakers’ personal history or whether a film meets certain quotas on political correctness or even whether the history has been altered to suit a narrative are important factors but not my main viewing considerations. Of course, if it is an exploitative piece of crap then I would call it; but mainly I ask myself: did the film entertain me and is it a good story done well?
Well, inaccuracies and controversies aside I was thoroughly moved and taken with emotion by The Birth of a Nation. It is ambitious, independent filmmaking which takes a figure from history that stood up against oppressors and fought back against the injustices that befell him and his people. In little over two hours we get a microcosmic view of the character of Nat Turner and the horrific period he lived in and get a short, sharp and shocking drama. Turner is shown to be an intelligent, proud and spiritual force who inspires those around him to fight against the brutality all around.
You cannot underestimate Parker’s vision and determination to bring Nat Turner’s ‘story’ to the screen. On such a relatively low budget (reported to be £10 million) it is an admirable and risky project to pursue and deliver. Not as startlingly stylistic as the big-budget-spaghetti-slave-Western Django Unchained (2012), The Birth of a Nation is a heart-breaking narrative which posits the power of the scriptures and damns the beast of humanity which allowed free people to be stolen from their country and made to serve others.
Overall, the film works as a lower-budget epic in the vein of Braveheart (1995) and Spartacus (1960), while covering similar ground thematically as Oscar winner 12 Years A Slave (2013). It may not have the artistry of Steve McQueen’s directed epic, but it is still an important film about a fascinating historical figure. Whether it is accurate or not the film still made compelling viewing and Parker deserves all the praise he gets for such an assured debut.
I’d never seen this film before and am so glad I did because it now in my top twenty best films I have EVER witnessed. It is a tour-de-force of writing, directing, acting, design, narration, humour, drama, sound and imagination. Based on Gunter Grass’ exceptional novel The Tin Drum – directed by Volker Schlondorff – it is set in the realistic backdrop of post-World War 1 Germany, and during World War 2, before veering into magical realism and surrealism to present a giddy allegorical tale of some wonder.
The comical opening contains a prologue which sets the ambiguous tone of humour and darkness. It establishes the ancestry of our leading character Oskar Matzerath (amazing David Bennent) and clearly echoes and influences current filmmakers such as Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coens and Wes Anderson with its’ curious oddity. From there on Oskar himself enters the world and while initially reluctant he is forced into life and what a life that is!
Born with the mind of an adult, at the age of three, Oskar decides that he will NOT grow up for as long as he chooses. Anyone who crosses him is subject to a visceral scream which is loud enough to shatter glass. In addition, Oskar also smashes a tin drum incessantly revealing a psychotic pathology which disregards the pain and suffering of those around him. My reading is that Oskar is representative of the rise of fascism and Hitler in these difficult socio-political times for Germany. This idea is further supported by the fact his mother has two men chasing her affection; a gruff German grocer, Alfred, and gentler Polish man, Jan; and either could be Oskar’s father. These are divisive and confusing times for Germany, and a child, especially one who is as precocious, strange and violent as Oskar.
The meat of the film is continual conflict, death and dark situations. The scenes on the beach with eels being captured using a dead horse’s head is full of symbolism and a black humour I will never forget. More conflict for Oskar ensues as he rejects all authority including religion. When his mother dies, seemingly from overwhelming guilt, and his friend, a Jewish toymaker, commits suicide following Nazi oppression, Oskar’s life is further stained by death. Latterly, the film enters a stage where – while he is still physically a three-year-old – he hits puberty and become sexually active. The explicit sex scenes involving Maria, a sixteen year old shop girl, are disturbing and unforgettable and this leads to further conflict with Oskar’s father who eventually marries Maria. Anger and jealousy provokes Oskar so much he literally runs off with the circus and becomes part of a troupe that entertains German soldiers during the war. It is not long though before further tragedy strikes and his strange romance with dwarf singer Roswitha, ends suddenly with her demise.
The Tin Drum is intense, visceral and brave filmmaking. While it uses history as a backbone, its’ muscle, skin and clothes are eccentricity, allegory and insanity. It was one of the most financially successful German films of the era and won the 1979 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. I guess I missed it because it is rarely shown on television, no doubt due to the controversial sex scenes involving 11 year-old Bennent. Overall, it is one of the most original stories I have seen on screen and the child actor who played Oskar was a revelation. I have rarely been so horrified, moved and made to laugh as much as I have by a recent cinema visit. I would heartily recommend this film to anyone serious about making films and those who demand intensity in their cinema viewing.