Spike Lee loves to talk. He talks to Reggie Miller at NBA basketball games. He talks to the press. He talks about films he doesn’t like. He talks about a society which, for the most part, pisses him off. But Lee has always backed up his talk with assured filmmaking bravado. The tumultuous soul has the kind of writing and directing skill that comes along only once in a generation.
I suppose one could compare Lee to New York neighbor Martin Scorsese. Both men come from minority backgrounds, their films taking place in the unique land of the Big Apple. Like Scorsese, Lee has never made a completely poor film. Like Scorsese, Lee’s films are noted by fierce vision and angst. And like Scorsese, Lee has never been truly acknowledged with an Academy Award. When such inferior film directors as Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone and even Kevin Costner are awarded multiple times, it causes film lovers to scratch their collective heads.
Hollywood is about money, thus it’s easier to award financial success rather than artistic merit. And perhaps, there are other factors as well. Scorsese’s Raging Bull is generally considered one of the greatest films in history. It is furious, bloody, thought-provoking and poetic. Lee’s greatest film, Do the Right Thing will eventually withstand the test of time. It too is filled with rage and unforgettable moments of groundbreaking intensity. Both films leave blood on the cement, and viewers exit the theater having witnessed levels of tragedy as ugly as anything seen in that Rodney King video. New York has a way of spawning such artistic unpleasantness.
Most of Lee’s work, well hell, all of it, has dealt with the lives of black men and women in America. So it came as a surprise when he decided to make 25th Hour a couple of years ago. While taking place in New York, it involved Caucasian men and women with a few Russian gangsters thrown in for good measure. It must have been a great challenge for Lee to step outside of his own personal experience – though I suspect he would be the first to admit that’s just a load of shit. The argument of cultural appropriation could begin here I suppose. Write what you know, create what you know, sculpt what you’ve seen with thine own eyes.
I loved Spike Lee’s 25th Hour and consider it to be one of his finest films. It will never be considered his greatest achievement, as it is just a few notches below the rollercoaster couplet of Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X. I’m not sure if Lee can ever really top the youthful rebellion of those two classic works (though if I had to bet, I would say he would). But 25th Hour is still a brilliant, at times innovative, work blessed with superb portrayals, an electric eye for New York locale and heartbreaking regret.
This film will always serve as an example of Lee’s filmmaking prowess. He stepped outside of his own cultural neighborhood and just made a movie. Undoubtedly the themes appealed to him, and I’m sure he’s bumped into these characters a few times along the blood-soaked cement. But he should be applauded for taking on this subject matter. In the wake of 9-11, I think we are all taking on new subject matter.
I doubt Spike Lee will ever make a true box office hit – he’s just not in to postcards or happy endings. There’s always a slight hint of rage beneath the rippling surface, explosive in nature, waiting to break out. Vent, baby vent, fuck John Wayne.
Edward Norton’s rap during the bathroom scene in 25th Hour has been seen in previous Lee films, but in the dark shadow of 9-11, it’s perhaps more relevant than ever before. The multiple scenes of improvisation also ring a familiar chord. I think moviegoers used to the kind of filmmaking formula common in today’s packages are befuddled by such moments. But as a viewer we are witnessing the creative process on screen. It’s life, as awkward and uncomfortable and messy as it always has been and will be. These scenes develop personality the hard way, providing clues to the ultimate rage these tortured characters suffer from. Lee had an exceptional cast at his fingertips. To his credit, he allowed this talented crew to discover its spirit.
Edward Norton, in a largely passive role, has 24 hours of freedom remaining before taking the long trip to prison for dope dealing. He gathers his circle of childhood chums, among them a Wall Street trader (Barry Pepper) and a sexually frustrated school teacher (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). They awkwardly experience one final night of camaraderie at a New York nightclub. During the evening, each character will reveal their frustrations, their lives defined by lost dreams and disappointments. Shell shocked, they reside within the missing shadows of the World Trade Center (Lee’s opening credit sequence is stunning), their angst rooted in opportunities now forever lost. These moments ring with emotional truth, haunting and heartbreaking, born of wisdom attained through pain.
I found the moments with the Russian Mafia to be far too cliched, where moody criminals spout passages of pseudo street wisdom to cheer up Norton’s character. I expected Marlon Brando to make an appearance with a mouth full of Kleenex. The scenes are too conventional, though provide a sense of foreboding for Norton’s uncertain future.
25th Hour has so much to do with regret and loss. In some way, each character has exploited freedoms which exist in our unique American society. They have abused the ideal. Following the terrorist bombings of New York, there are now emotional debts which must be paid. Like Edward Norton’s character at film’s end, we are battered and bruised, our crimes perhaps rooted in having taken our credulous utopia for granted.
Spike Lee left his own blood-covered sidewalk to create this film. He boldly attempted to examine the American dream from a different perspective. In doing so, perhaps he’s matured as an artist. Certainly, it was a challenge for this confident and cocky man to take on this subject matter. That he succeeded so well is a testament to his exceptional skill. Still, it was an odd experience to watch 25th Hour. There’s just not many black filmmakers working today, and of the very few, they are not making films about the lost dreams of Caucasian characters.
Steven Spielberg made The Color Purple in 1986, and it wasn’t particularly good. All of his weaknesses as a filmmaker were uncomfortably exposed. I would have loved to have seen Lee make a film version of Alice Walker’s classic novel. I don’t think it would have been as manipulative. There probably would have been less syrup and apple blossoms and more whiskey and fingernail dirt. The film The Color Purple has always insulted me in many ways, it’s narrative technique predictable and obvious. I suppose cultural appropriation could be applied here as well. I think we all know Spielberg’s most personal, if not fierce, drama was Schindler’s List. Spielberg, of Jewish heritage, took the reins in his teeth and told John Wayne to go fuck himself in his own timid manner. He was born to make that film, whether he would like to admit it or not.
25th Hour never offended me. It was a uniquely inspirational experience, striking chords of truth Spielberg never really touched in The Color Purple. How much of it was due to Lee’s terrific cast and how much of it was him is open to interpretation. The truth perhaps, is somewhere between.
Like Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, 25th Hour causes us to squirm in our seats. Lee has a vision, and it crosses boundaries no matter the stained sidewalk.