On Sunday, a special 25th anniversary screening of Spike Lee‘s Do the Right Thing will simultaneously close out this year’s BAMcinemaFest and open By Any Means Necessary: A Spike Lee Joints Retrospective, which’ll run through July 10—and mark the 15th anniversary of BAMcinématek, which launched in 1999 with a survey of Lee’s work. “The timing is apt, because Lee has, in a way, come full circle, too,” notes the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody.
Lee broke through right off with She’s Gotta Have It, shot over twelve days in the summer of 1985 for a mere $175K. Taking in over $7 million and nabbing an award at Cannes, She’s Gotta Have It is seen as one of the foundational films of the American independent film wave that rolled from the mid-80s to the mid-90s. A couple of dozen features and nearly thirty years later, he’s funded his “Newest Hottest Spike Lee Joint,” Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, at least in part via Kickstarter campaign that was controversial enough to spark this declaration:
I’m an Indie Filmmaker and I will always be an Indie Filmmaker. Indie Filmmakers are always in search of financing because their work, their vision sometimes does not coincide with Studio Pictures. But I do put my own money in my films. I self-financed RED HOOK SUMMER. My fee for MALCOLM X was put back into the budget. The truth is I’ve been doing KICKSTARTER before there was KICKSTARTER, there was no Internet. Social Media was writing letters, making phone calls, beating the bushes. I’m now using TECHNOLOGY with what I’ve been doing.
Back to Richard Brody: “Lee is a very busy filmmaker these days, directing TV specials featuring Pharrell Williams and Jerrod Carmichael, a music video for Eminem (it currently has more than 21 million views on YouTube), a short tribute to the World Cup (sponsored by Pepsi), and a documentary about the history of Brazil in anticipation of the 2016 Olympics; he’s also preparing to adapt She’s Gotta Have It as a series for Showtime. But none of these works seems likely to add to the legacy of his grand-scale, big-screen dramatic frescoes—the films that are being celebrated in the bam retrospective. I asked him whether he missed making movies with the range of his 1992 film, Malcolm X. ‘Yeah, but it takes epic money to do an epic,’ he said.”
Clip from Do the Right Thing
Before moving on to Sweet Blood, which has premiered at the American Black Film Festival, A.O. Scott asks in the New York Times, “has it really been 25 years since Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, set on the hottest day of a Brooklyn summer, started so many arguments? Many of the arguments are still raging—about power and culture and, of course, about race—and the movie… has lost very little of its heat and urgency. But to watch it now is also to appreciate its warmth. Mr. Lee’s affection for his hometown and its people is boundless, and this screening offers audiences a bittersweet chance to remember Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.” Speaking of whom. On Sunday afternoon, Lee will be co-presenting a free special tribute at BAM.
“Spike Lee has entered his Mannerist period, which, in movie terms, can be defined as making a film on the basis of images rather than experience,” writes Richard Brody in a separate entry on Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, “a remake of the late Bill Gunn’s 1973 hectic symbolist classic Ganja and Hess, about an addiction to blood that’s passed along to a modern black intellectual by means of an ancient African weapon. It’s Lee’s second feature-film remake in a row, preceded by his unduly maligned version of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, which—despite studio recutting—is very much a Lee film in its concerns and its tone…. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus throws together many more ideas than it resolves, and it’s roiled by the power of its contradictions. It indulges in the sexual display that it shows to be predatory. It celebrates the beauty of bodies, of black bodies, even as it shows them torn and bleeding. It exalts the vitality and wonder of the traditional African-American Baptist church while hinting at its powers of constraint. The movie is distortedly expressive, almost hermetic in its subjective intensity, as flagrantly symbolic as Gunn’s, with an extra strain of self-doubt and even despair. For all its loose ends and unanswered practicalities, its wild urgency is thrilling.”
“Four decades on, Ganja still packs a primal punch, whereas Lee’s version serves as a gory yet oddly bloodless affair that’s been made with a lot of craft and energy but ultimately little sense of purpose,” finds Variety‘s Scott Foundas.
Stephen Tyrone Williams plays Dr. Hess Greene, “a blueblood scholar of African art and artefacts.” Jordan Hoffman for the Guardian: “He comes into possession of a cursed Ashanti blade that, after a run-in with his suicidal project assistant, ends up piercing him. Thus he is made invincible, but with this comes the thirst for human blood. So far, fairly standard, but the opening 45 minutes play out in an energetic, disorienting swirl of remarkable production design, wall-to-wall music and mannered line delivery. There’s a theatricality to the performances that may seem off-putting, but this is an artistic choice that has been evident in Lee’s films since the beginning. Not until now, however, has he gone so all-in on rhythm and tone over a traditional plot.”
Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn: “It’s only once Zaraah Abrahams surfaces as the British Ganja that Da Sweet Blood of Jesus manages to generate some heat from its performances, as the singleminded Ganja gradually figures out Hess’s bloodsucking tendencies and develops a peculiar romance with him. Mostly, the movie suffers from flat line-reading and on-the-nose dialogue throughout, but these same attributes allow a handful of utterly fantastic moments to shine in contrast.”
“Though Lee doesn’t like to call his protagonists vampires,” notes John DeFore in the Hollywood Reporter, “they are undead, crucifix-averse creatures addicted to drinking human blood. Their story, which mostly unfolds on a luxe, windswept Martha’s Vineyard estate, hews to genre conventions even less than Only Lovers Left Alive, the recent vampire tale by Lee’s contemporary Jim Jarmusch, and the picture can expect almost zero support from horror buffs. Yet it is gory enough to alienate more mainstream audiences as well, and its sexualized take on the material elicited some snickers even from this highly sympathetic festival crowd.”
“Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is, without question, bold, distinct, and idiosyncratic filmmaking with its own voice,” writes Rodrigo Perez at the Playlist. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good or in any kind of reasoned key.”
Spike Lee as Mars Blackmon in She’s Gotta Have It
Yesterday, Criticwire‘s Sam Adams began collection tweeted first impressions of Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, noting that they were “wildly disparate… [C]ritics’ reactions on Twitter forecast a movie that’s either wildly inspired or simply a mess.”
Updates, 6/26: “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is actually going for something beyond scares: churchiness, drugginess, eroticism, and social commentary.” That said, it’s not doing it for Grantland‘s Wesley Morris. “No one makes a mess like Spike Lee. He’s at his best when he has something to say, when he doesn’t think anyone’s looking—or when he doesn’t care that anyone is. His recent fictional work, starting with 2008’s Miracle at St. Anna, through to Red Hook Summer and Oldboy, has been defensive. The success of Inside Man didn’t free him creatively. It seemed to apply a new kind of pressure. He keeps trying to prove that he matters, as if we’d forgotten how much he does.”
In the Voice, Michelle Orange surveys BAM’s retrospective: “More than half of the 16 selections are set within the five boroughs, with one clear favorite and a dominant theme. A director who deals in heat, clamor, music, movement, sex, violence, and survival: In the Brooklyn of Spike Lee’s soul, it is always 95 degrees.”
For Slate‘s Forrest Wickman, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is “Spike Lee at his absolute weirdest, with a mix of (apparently fictionalized) Ashanti mythology, an overbearing crowd-sourced score, frequent vomiting, and a set of main characters whose scene-to-scene motivations remain mostly opaque.” Still: “I’d much rather see a Spike Lee with the resources to fail on his own terms than a Spike Lee limited to making sequels and unnecessary remakes.”
“Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is Spike Lee’s freest-feeling endeavor in a spell, the full-forced reminder that, after years divided by safe hits (Inside Man and, yes, Oldboy) and personal duds (Miracle at St. Anna, the aforementioned Red Hook Summer), he’s yet to lose sight of how both the personal and the lively might flow together.” Nick Newman at the Film Stage: “Weighed with regard to a place amongst the Lee canon, it stands as a work equally divided by divergences and conformities nevertheless united, forcefully, by a genuine, dyed-in-the-wool insanity.”
Updates, 6/27: Michael Koresky for BAM: “Lee moved into the ’90s and beyond with force, at times taking up the mantle of importance with issue-driven dramas (Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Clockers, Get on the Bus—all excellent), at other times confounding expectations with idiosyncratic, sensual character studies (Mo’ Better Blues, Girl 6), and occasionally turning to documentary with tremendous results (4 Little Girls, When the Levees Broke). With his galvanizing Bamboozled (2000), he entered the digital age with confidence and robust skepticism; his scathing, disturbing satire on media minstrelsy was among the first major American films shot on early-millennium, low-grade video. Brilliantly, Lee decided to shoot the film’s ugliest scenes (the contemporary minstrel show that becomes a hit) on beautiful eye-catching 16mm.”
“Do the Right Thing is eternally, rightly memorialized as a galvanizing, challenging landmark in film history,” writes Jessica Kiang at the Playlist, “but, especially with the benefit of hindsight we can see also as a celebration of a neighborhood way of life that is on the cusp of disappearance, if not already entirely gone.”
“It would be fair to say that Da Sweet Blood of Jesus is a remake, but it would be more accurate to say that it’s a resurrection, Lee taking Gunn’s premise and giddily pumping it full of new life like he’s the Frankenstein of Fort Greene,” writes David Ehrlich at Little White Lies. “Perhaps it might have been cheaper to just restore Gunn’s butchered classic and let Drafthouse Films or some such outfit birth it back into the zeitgeist, but it wouldn’t have been nearly this much fun.”
Brandon Harris talks with Lee for Indiewire.
Update, 6/28: For Kenji Fujishima, writing at the House Next Door, “seeing Do the Right Thing now, one can’t help but notice all the contradictory ideas and characterizations floating around and wonder how people could miss the film’s clear-eyed thematic complexity.”
Update, 6/29: There was a surprise at the special screening of Do the Right Thing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Friday:
Updates, 6/30: At Vulture, Will Leitch and Tim Grierson rank Lee’s films.
Flavorwire‘s Jason Bailey reports on Lee’s Q&A following BAM’s screening of Do the Right Thing: “‘John Savage’s character, that Larry Bird jersey, Boston Celtics shit, steppin’ on Buggin’ Out’s Air Jordans, we predicted gentrification,’ Lee mused. ‘And it’s not just Fort Greene, it’s not just Harlem. When I was growing up, D.C. used to be called Chocolate City. Now it’s Vanilla Swirl!'”
Also: “In considering a later Woody Allen effort, Roger Ebert once wrote, ‘I cannot escape the suspicion that if Woody had never made a previous film, if each new one was Woody’s Sundance debut, it would get a better reception.’ One can’t help but wonder, when it comes to Mr. Lee, if the reverse is true: If Spike Lee weren’t Spike Lee, would a disaster like Da Sweet Blood of Jesus even have played ABFF, much less closed it?”
Update, 7/2: “Do the Right Thing is harrowing, sad, painful and often hard to watch, and its final act is tragic, and yet the word ‘fun’ definitely applies to it,” writes Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com. “The movie is not ‘fun’ as in light or trivial, but ‘fun’ as in ‘exciting’ or ‘stimulating.'” Lee’s “statements about this particular film—specifically that he sided more with Malcolm X than Martin Luther King in the battle of the final quote crawls—have been confused with the message of Do the Right Thing itself. Audiences are notoriously bad about separating art from artists; when the artists are themselves pundits of a sort, they have even more difficulty doing this. But the fact remains that there is nothing in Do the Right Thing to suggest that anybody anywhere in it did the Right Thing, or the Wrong Thing. They just do things. They act. They react. They lose their tempers. They grow resentful and paranoid.”
Update, 7/3: For Indiewire, Brandon Latham asks Lee “how, over his thirty year career, he feels his works respond to and create the culture surrounding them.”
Update, 7/5: “Brooklyn loves to watch Rosie Perez dance.” For the New Yorker, Sarah Larson reports on the BAM screening, the Qs and the As.
Update, 7/7: “Over his nearly three decade career in features, Spike Lee has brought us more great opening credits sequences than perhaps any other contemporary director,” suggests Slate‘s Forrest Wickman, and he’s got ten examples.
Update, 8/1: Grantland’s Chris Connelly and Wesley Morris discuss Do the Right Thing at 25: