When I originally began this review, Ferguson, Missouri was, for most Americans, an unknown city. It didn’t break into our consciousness. Director/writer Spike Lee has spoken out about the events in Ferguson and in doing so, makes this a good time to examine his movies. The “Spike Lee Joint Collection” brings together four of his films. Volume 1 includes “25th Hour” and “He Got Game.” Volume 2 includes “Summer of Sam” and “Miracle at St. Anna.”
The events in Ferguson are about the disregard for black men and in these collections, Lee looks at how the opportunities for the poor creates an underclass whose exploits in history are often forgotten (“He Got Game” and “Miracle of St. Anna”). And yet, when it comes to athletics, black men are valued for a while more as a commodity than as individuals (“He Got Game”). The differences of race challenge us to look beyond skin color just as a different way of dressing does (“Summer of Sam”) and sometimes whether a person is good or bad is hard to define just by looking at them or considering their occupation, particularly when a man sacrifices for his father (“25th Hour”) or a father for his son (“He Got Game”).
You could probably watch all of these movies online, but the reason to buy this collection is the extras: the commentary which has Spike Lee talking with one of the cast members. The movie “Miracle at St. Anna” in particular provides a fascinating look at history. One hopes we’ll see more stories about the segregated troops during World War II and other wars.
SPIKE LEE JOINT COLLECTION VOLUME 1
The 25th Hour
David Benioff wrote the 2001 debut novel “The 25th Hour” and the screenplay for this 2002 American drama. The title refers to the impending seven-year prison term that will begin after this protagonist’s last 24 hours of freedom.
The movie begins before then when Monty (Norton) is feeling fine, driving a bright yellow Super Bee in New York City. It’s NYC. Having a car is luxury enough. Monty is with his friend Kostya (Tony Siragusa) when they find a badly mauled dog. Monty at first wants to put the dog out of its misery by shooting it, but decides to take the dog to a clinic.
Suddenly, we’re in late 2002 and Monty has named the dog Doyle. Doyle may be doing better, but Monty is about to begin the seven-year sentence for dealing drugs. He’s enjoying a day in the park with Doyle. He going to meet his childhood friends–Frank (Barry Pepper), a Wall Street Trader and Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an awkward high school teacher with an inappropriate attraction to one of his young female students (Anna Paquin).
Monty didn’t just use his drug money to live high, with a spacious apartment and a cool car, he also helped save his father’s bar. His father, James (Brian Cox), is a recovering alcoholic, but this isn’t the TV show “Cheers.” James will drive Monty to prison in the morning, but he feels guilty and takes a drink. Will he backslide into a drunken stupor during the next seven years?
Yet James doesn’t know that Monty could have gotten out earlier, but he was greedy. And now he must make a decision. Although he refused to turn in the guy he worked for, Russian mobster Uncle Nikolai (Levan Uchaneishvili) , he doesn’t want to remain in his debt, but also isn’t sure how Nikolai will treat him on this last day. And what about his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson). Monty wonders if she turned him into the police.
At times, moments seem to be put on pause as if we were taking a mental snapshot. Although everyone on the surface attempts to be positive, what do we know? Will Naturelle wait for Monty? Will Monty come out a broken man? He fears rape and he won’t have the Russian mob’s protection. While Frank and Monty joke about opening a bar, Frank feels Monty’s life is over. And certainly in seven years, Doyle will be dead, but perhaps Jacob won’t.
He Got Game
While there’s a feeling of authenticity and of fully developed characters in “25th Hour,” the same can’t be said for 1998 “He Got Game.” The performances are all top notch in both films, but the plot feels a bit contrived and the ending has nothing to do with reality (It’s a metaphor.).
At the center is a disgraced man, Jake (Denzel Washington), who is in the slammer for manslaughter of his wife although for most of the characters the difference between manslaughter and murder is a minor quibble. By the time we learn about the actual incident, it comes as a bit of a surprise, tweaking our understanding of Jake.
Jake is given an offer by the state governor: If during a week of special furlough Jake can get his son Jesus (Ray Allen) to sign a letter of intent to attend Big State University (is that vague enough to make it universal), the governor’s alma mater, then the governor will reduce Jake’s sentence. That might not be too easy. His son is bitter and hasn’t forgiven his father while his sister Mary (Zelda Harris) has forgiven Jake.
Everyone wants something from Jesus who was named for a basketball player. Even though that Jesus and Mary match up makes it seems so biblical, the character is named after Earl Monroe, the “Black Jesus” and also “Black Magic, ” “Thomas Edison” and “The Pearl,” who played for the Knicks. Jesus is the number one basketball prospect in the nation. He’s a good boy, but he’s not above temptation. Jesus is being pressured by the aunt (Lonette McKee) and uncle (Bill Nunn) who took the siblings in after his father went to prison, his coach and his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson).
Jake returns each night to a cheap hotel where he befriends the hooker (Milla Jovovich) next door. He pities her; her pimp beats her. He tries to help, but he’s being pressured by the two guys assigned to watch him. Jake’s not a bad guy; he’s not violent; he’s not selfish, but he’s lost his chance.
The cast includes Rick Fox as well as NBA players Shaquille O’Neal, Reggie Miller, Bill Walton, Scottie Pipper, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley and NBA coaches Rick Pitino and George Karl in cameo appearances. Lee was taken to task by ESPN over sports regulations and Jesus’ living arrangements, so reality didn’t limit Lee.
Allen, who was playing for the Milwaukee Bucks (He’s currently with the Miami Heat), joins Spike Lee on the commentary track.
One of the reasons to get this DVD set is the extras. I’ve heard Spike Lee speak in person about his film “Do the Right Thing.” He wasn’t very interesting then, but I think it was the company. Paired together with Ed Norton, the conversation is easy and revealing. These are two men, respected in their association with movies and equals. With Ray Allen, the circumstances are much different. Allen is a professional basketball player and perhaps Spike Lee might have wanted to be an NBA star, but for the movie, Allen was a newbie, an innocent who is put in uncomfortable situations. He’s has a sex scene. He has to hold the screen against the powerful charisma of Denzel Washington. While it might have been a greater coup for have Washington as a commentator, this pairing is more informative. We have Allen who knows about the reality of basketball and recruiting and two people who can comment on Washington, including his basketball skills.
SPIKE LEE JOINT COLLECTION VOLUME 2
In this collection–“Spike Lee’s Joint Collection 2,” Spike Lee asks us to look at how prison and men with money influence the lives of two characters. There are no happy endings in either of these movies but in both cases the men who are prison-bound aren’t the bad guys. They are just pawns and not the kings of their destinies.
The Spike Lee Joint Collection Vol. 2 brings together two disparate subjects: The summer a real serial killer brought hysteria into a neighborhood and a war that brought racism to the forefront. “Miracle At St. Anna” is the more sentimental and fanciful of the two while “Summer of Sam” is a thoughtful look back at poisonous suspicions.
Summer of Sam
Instead of examining the psychology of the serial killer Son of Sam (David Berkowitz), Spike Lee with co-writers Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli, look into the psychological breakdown of a neighborhood and a group of friends as suspicion turns them against each other.
To set up the situation, Lee shows a broadcast news segment and we hear a dog barking. A man, whose face we don’t see, is holding his ears and while clad only in white boxers made semi-transparent by sweat, is plunging his face into the mattress on the floor. The man is not a minor character in the lives of the main characters.
Like the inescapable heat of the summer, this man is part of the environment, the atmosphere. The soundtrack takes us back to “Boogie Nights” and a time when disco was still cool and not retro and there really was “something in the air that night.” Fear.
Taking place during the summer of 1977, the serial killer Son of Sam has already shot several women in parked cars. Vinny (John Leguizamo) is a hairdresser who seduces women. Married to a waitress named Dionna, he’s fooling around with other women including Dionna’s cousin. While returning from a date, Vinny and Dionna pass a crime scene and Vinny realizes that he was very close to the victims earlier. He can’t tell Dionna because he was at that spot having sex with Dionna’s cousin at the time.
One of Vinny’s old friends, Ritchie, has become a punk rocker and his dress and spikey hair. Vinny’s half-sister, Ruby, is the only one sympathetic to Ritchie’s punk rock ways and questionable lifestyle.
As the Son of Sam killings continue, suspicion falls upon Ritchie. Ruby has joined Ritchie’s band and although Ruby and Ritchie invite Vinny and Dionne to see them perform at CBGB, Vinny and Dionne decide the don’t like the crowd, and first attempt to get into the famed Studio 54, and on failing there, the couple goes to the newly opened swingers club Plato’s Retreat (1977-1985) where they engage in an orgy.
Driving home, Vinny angrily confronts Dionna over her participation, but Dionna fires back. She knows about his infidelities and she leaves him to stay at her parents’ house.
Lee takes us to the experience of the common man, the person who wasn’t singled out for murder but was possibly suspected of the same. In doing so, we get a look at mass hysteria, not in a small town, but in a segment of a large city. We see how easily suspicion leads to violence and wrongful vigilante action.
Miracle of St. Anna
“Miracle of St. Anna” seeks to correct the kind of mass racial hysteria that had almost erased all the accomplishments of black Americans by introducing a sentimental story about men at war and survivor guilt.
This being Spike Lee, we not only get the viewpoint of the African American soldiers, we also get racism, the kind of racism that denied the intelligence of black soldiers and put them in danger.
The story begins in 1983 with an elderly postal worker who goes postal. The man, Hector Negron, recognizes a customer and shoots him. Negron is a World War II vet and at his apartment the investigating officers discover the head of an old Italian statue that has been missing since the war.
From here, the story is told in flashback and we meet Negron as a young corporal in the 92nd Infantry Division in 1944 Italy. Their division advances farther than their commanding officer is willing to believe and the officer, Captain Nokes, orders bombing to their position as a result.
After many of their men are killed Negron ends up on the wrong side of the river with three other soldiers: Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps, Sergeant Bishop Cummings, and Private Sam Train. As they move on, Train finds a little Italian boy, Angelo as the head of the statue. Train believes the head has magical powers and takes the head and the boy along.
When the soldiers then befriend people in a small Italian village, it becomes hard to tell who is the enemy–the German soldiers, the Italian villagers or the white American soldiers.
The title suggests there is a miracle and you should wait for it to happen. Unlike “Son of Sam,” this movie has a happy ending of sorts. Justice is served in a way that makes this a fairytale for adults.
Even if you feel this plot is contrived, it is one of the first movies that considers the position of the Buffalo soldiers and shows them fighting in Europe against the Axis nations as well as the American brand of prejudice. This alone makes it worth seeing, but there is more, much more in the DVD extras. Like the documentaries that I’ve been reviewing by German-born Michael Kloft, this fictional account and the DVD extras help give us a fuller understanding of the history of World War II. You can hear the passion in Lee’s voice and the earnest enthusiasm in author/screenwriter James McBride’s voice during the commentary.
Now, in the aftermath of a heated exchanges of Ferguson and before the heat sends emotions into hyperdrive next summer is the perfect time to view these two Spike Lee movies. There’s no doubt that Lee is an important American director and writer and he gives us a different view of our times and times past.