Inside Man

Inside Man (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Spike Lee
viewed: 09/29/06

I’d been reading some somewhat positive reviews of this film, Spike Lee’s latest, a hostage drama, a genre film.  To my mind, Lee is an inconsistent but overall interesting director, and in some ways I think it’s interesting to view his genre films because, like the more traditional auteurist theory, the director as film author comes through even in some standardized formats.

The opening shots show promise, these city streets and building details of New York, Lee’s home and site of the bulk of his films, a strange, utterly incongruous parelleling with Woody Allen (hometown New York, idiosynchratic but diverse genre work, pumping out a film a year pretty much).  It has moments.

In the end, the film is a mediocre sampling of its genre.  And aside from political and race-conscious details that imbue all of Lee’s work, it’s not particularly or pointed political, any more than any other standard fare.  Denzel Washington always seems like the same guy in every movie he plays, though I did not see Training Day (2001), in which he played against type.  The cast is pretty good: Jodie Foster, Clive Owen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Willem Dafoe.  It’s not as strong as 25th Hour (2002) or Summer of Sam (1999).  It’s really not all that much to talk about, really.

That’s not to say it’s bad or anything.  It’s decent work for what it is.  It just doesn’t particularly add much to my interest in Lee.

25th Hour

25th Hour (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Spike Lee
viewed: 08/18/03

The narrative of Spike Lee’s drama, 25th Hour, is a about a man’s last night of freedom before heading to prison for a drug charge. But, as many people have noted, Lee takes this story of reflection and casts it onto the image of New York City as a whole, not simply as setting and background, but with as much a significant role as a primary character (a best friend, perhaps), which is not altogether hard to see or inorganic necessarily.

What seems much more significant about such a meditation is the timing of it. Much has been noted about the fact that Lee went ahead with the already-planned filming of this movie in New York City, not long after the World Trade Center attacks in September of 2001. And this event is duly signified in the film: in an opening sequence in which the nighttime NY skyline is seen with two powerful rays of light rising in the space that the World Trade Center towers once stood, in a scene shot in which “Ground Zero” is clearly seen as a backdrop (even noted by one of the characters quite explicitly), and also in a direct-address diatribe that the star Edward Norton delivers on New Yorkers, stereotypes, and more.

It’s interesting to see because the subject still seems so fresh, as this film was in production probably less than a year after the event. It’s not the speed of light, of course, but for a major Hollywood production, the film seems to have a social awareness of the present, at least, that seemed more timely and poignant than most. It will, of course, be interesting to see how history treats the events of September 11th, 2001, and how this film’s commentary is read would skew as well, one would think.

All this said, this stuff doesn’t necessarily dominate the film, which is probably a good thing. The film is otherwise a fairly solid mainstream Hollywood drama. It features a cast of Hollywood’s stronger mainstream actors, including Norton, Brian Cox, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Anna Paquin, and it’s a pretty good film.

When Spike Lee directed Summer of Sam back in 1999, much was made of the fact that it was his first film to not have a primarily African-American cast and narrative focus. This film is similarly atypical of Lee’s other films. Maybe no one made much of this because there isn’t much to say. Maybe it’s not a notable fact.

Bamboozled

Bamboozled (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Spike Lee
viewed: 07/20/02

Spike Lee’s Bamboozled is a frustrating film.

The premise is brilliant. A frustrated African-American television writer, who is accused of being too “white” and lacking in edge, responds by creating a subversive-minded modern day minstrel show for his network. In his attempt to show the network that what it is asking for is essentially a throwback to classic stereotypes, his show ends up touching a different nerve than he was intending and winds up being a smash hit.

The idea is a harsh criticism of the corporate machine of Hollywood, as well as of the products that it creates. Lee names a number of shows in particular, so as to make sure that the viewer understands exactly who he is railing against.

Lee is nothing if not strong-handed in his delivery, execution, and message. Lee conceived of Bamboozled in the mode of classic satire, and he delivers his message right off the bat in no uncertain terms. Facing the camera and addressing the viewer, Damon Wayans’ character, Pierre Delacroix, offers a textbook definition of satire. Lee let’s the audience know, unequivocally, what he is aiming at.

Pierre Delacroix is the axis of the irony of the film. His affected speech and intellectualism poses him as a man who is criticized as being “black-on-the-outside, white-on-the-inside,” and who is seeking to work within the structures of the white media machine. His character is sympathetic though he concocts the horribly racist retro-styled entertainment. It is his intellectual background and awareness of the history of the black entertainment experience that allows him access to the ideas that spawn the show. And he creates it as an ironic statement, one that he hopes will embarrass the network and shame them. The show’s success is his downfall, as he laps up the adulation and popularity of his creation, despite its content.

Characters are archetypes in the film, representing “types” and generalities. Michael Rapaport’s corporate bad guy character, Thomas Dunwitty, represents the white American Entertainment industry, as prejudiced under the guise of understanding, and brash, myopic, and self-assured in its innate racism. Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson represent the raw talent of African-American artists that has been exploited by the machine. Dying to get a shot at using their talent, they submit to work that is demeaning. In doing so, they find employment and wealth, but have no control over how they are represented and utilized.

The film strives toward a complex portrait, representing varied African-American perspectives on the nature of the American entertainment business and the legacy of its relationship with African-Americans. At the same time, it attempts to act as history lesson for the viewer, offering context and imagery from films and genuine artifacts of past racial stereotype representation. Wayans’ character is increasingly shown surrounded by these caricatures that he has invoked.

Much of the film’s conception and rhetoric are potent. So, why did I find this film so thought-provoking, yet unsatisfying? I am not sure.

The film is pure Spike Lee, full of his strengths and short-comings as a film-maker (including more than one self-referential nod and even quoting directly from his previous work — the title Bamboozled is culled from a speech from Malcolm X (1992), with Denzel Washington delivering the line — it’s both poetic and a little ego-maniacal). In this case, I think that a couple of the problems might have been in the tone and in some of the execution of his ideas. Lee envisions the film as satire, but Bamboozled lacks the punishing wit that often characterizes great satire. Any humor the film offers lurks beneath a very serious intent, and often the seriousness outweighs the strengths of many of the films’ more striking qualities.

It just wasn’t as much fun to watch as it should have been…for whatever reason. And I think that is a shame. It is a conceptually rich film, articulate and perverse. It could have been stunning.