Yo Spike start the movie G!

By Vivaan Shah

Spike Lee's movies are explosions of the id, it is speech unfiltered, voice uncared for; hence it does not care in return. There's nothing so sacred that Spike can't plumb it. He'd rather excavate it with the brute strength of a coal miner, hacking away at things with a pick axe and shovel things people wouldn't dare touch with a yard stick. And that's what makes him one of the bravest and most brilliant of directors. He's not afraid to examine the monster and bring him out in front of the lab lights to tickle his horns and poke at his nose. You could always sniff a strain of mongrel snouted misanthropy in his more biting scenes, and it was always a thing of immense beauty and could often be quite glorious because of how true and brutally, almost expressionistically, honest it was.

He'd talk about things like noses and mouths and write about skin and flesh and bone and blood with the blatancy of a bulletproof bulldozer. There was always something Mantoesque about his works, even Chugthaian in their understanding of the 'muhalla'. His vernacular writings, the haircuts and sports clothing, his characters who had monikers like Radio Raheem, Flipper, Mookie, Gator, Mars Blackmon, Buggin' Out, and Bleek. When these men and women burst out onto each other all hell breaks loose and the entire heavens tumble from the sky, but Spike still stays firmly in command of the frame. There's a violent poetry to conflict, and fighting is probably one of the most primal of human activities, kind of like sports, which is probably why he is as interested in the New York Nicks as he is in action. 
Spike Lee's Malcolm X, Denzel Washington
A Still from Spike Lee's Malcolm X
There's a scene in Malcolm X where a well intentioned white lady approaches him with all the caring and compassion of a mummified Mother Teresa. 'I'm white, I'm not racist, I am sorry for what my ancestors did, what can I do to help your cause?' 'Nothing!' Malcolm curtly replies and walks off. Now, one could interpret this as a meanness of sensibility but for Spike it is a matter of survival. If you're in the jungle you gotta be an animal sometimes, especially if you wanna take on the carnivorous capitalists. 

His fury is almost biblical, cathartic, verging on the hysterical. It's actually a study of hysteria the same way Goya's paintings were a cross section of demonology. People tend to shout in his films louder even than the hellish din of Coen Brothers' raving madmen. There are certain artists that like to rip open the flesh in order to heal wounds that are in some cases ancient.
Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, Riot Scene
A Still from Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing
His films, especially his ‘90s output was distinctive for his anger, his rage, what Brecht in Galileo called a 'divine wrath'. He was the angry young man of directors. No other director shot human confrontations like him. The scenes of conflict in his films escalate into dimensions of hysteria not too many other filmmakers would dare to plumb. In fact, I would go so far as to say no one else shot physical violence like him. Just take a look at his fight scenes, it's like what Sam Peckinpah did with the gun fight, Scorsese did with the fist fight and what Raoul Walsh, Anthony Mann, Samuel Fuller and Don Siegel did with the poetry of combat and the persistence of pain. These men shot men in action with a knowing edge of what violence does and how much it hurts. It wasn't fun and games; it genuinely hurt not just the body but also the mind and soul. 

Think Angie's Italian American father played by the late great Frank Vincent walloping the living daylights out of her while her brothers try hopelessly to rescue her. Lee holds the shot until Vincent and the two crazy brothers literally fall onto the floor rolling over their living room carpet, overturning chairs and tables, the angry father still sputtering and spewing the most vengeful racist rage. Think Malcolm X's assassin played by an unrecognisable Giancarlo Esposito being crushed as all kinds of people pile up on him after he rolls down a staircase railing. Or even Danny Aeilo's final meltdown as he smashes Radio Raheem's boom box with a baseball bat, or the final Rodney King like murder of Raheem by two angry cops. Think also Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes' shoulder pushing confrontation in a backstage corridor of a modern speakeasy in Mo' Better Blues or Spike's Giant being pummelled by Sam Jackson's Mike Tyson punches as he cuts to whirling push ins of Denzel's trumpet. 
Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues, Denzel Washington
A Still from Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues
These sequences are all masterworks of staging and physical stunt work by all actors involved. I've never seen fight scenes quite like the ones Spike used to shoot. I refer to him as Spike because of how much his movies have meant to me since childhood. He's almost like the friend I never knew. The classmate clown who had more on his mind than making people laugh. Fritz Lang is his closest cinematic cousin. He could also be seen as a descendant of Sam Fuller. As funny and exhilarating as Lee's films were they could also make you cry. There was something deeply poignant and sensitive about his more tender as well as slender moments. I can't think of the eponymous Girl 6's unsuccessful meeting with her mystery man without swelling up, and Prince's song also swells on the soundtrack. It's a moment evocative of Ismath Chugtai's harrowing culmination of her short story Nivaala. 

One of Lee's most potent moments comes from John Turturro's emotional explosion and cathartic confrontation with his elderly father (played by an aging Anthony Quinn), after which he descends the steps to his tenement only to eave teased, picked on and tormented by his neighbourhood gang, in particular the brilliantly diminutive Nicholas Turturro (his real life brother and one of my favourite actors. Him and Joe D'onofrio are like Joe Pesci's younger brothers). All the while Sinatra's 'Hello young lovers' plays gently on the soundtrack. When Ossie Davis' The Good Reverend Doctor shoots his crack head son (Sam Jackson's masterful Gator, which was so mesmerising a performance that it forced the Cannes authorities to create another section for Best Supporting Actor) Mahalia Jackson's Gospel music 'He calmed the ocean' wails on the soundtrack as if lamenting what's going on.
Spike Lee's He Got Game, Denzel Washington
A Still from Spike Lee's He Got Game
Spike understood the neighbourhood guys but he also understood the girls. He understood pain, loneliness, frustration and anger like very few filmmakers before or after him. He could be in equal parts blistering as well as deeply sensitive. Just observe his use of music through the ages, his casting, his characters, his ground shattering and earth shaking camera work, his writing which was almost like Black Beat poetry at times. A lot of his dialogues and words were structured like lyrics and would often rhyme. His vernacular excavation and monikers are worthy of Damon Runyon. He intensified my understanding of New York, more so even than Scorsese, and made me realize how similar my neighbourhood was to his. The constant disharmony between the African Americans and the Italian Americans was akin to what I witnessed around me with the Mian Bhais (Muslims) and the Maca Paaos (Christians). 

He Got Game is a masterpiece of editing, probably up there with the best of Eisenstein and Stone. The energy of picturization and sheer choreographic audacity of the lindy hop dance sequence at the beginning of Malcolm X can compare with the best of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. The ending of Bamboozled is a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking. In one expertly extended montage he shows us with a lightness of touch and kindness and generosity of spirit-- all the sins that Hollywood has been guilty of toward the black community since it's inception, even managing to weave in Loony Toons images of Mammies, minstrels and watermelon chompers, sparing no one not even old Al Jolson. 
Spike Lee's Crooklyn
A Still from Spike Lee's Crooklyn
His collaborations with Ernest Dickenson resulted in some of the most audacious imagery that popped out of the screen and grabbed you by the throat. There is of course the famous Spike Lee floating dolly shot, but think also of his canted expressionistic angles, his effortless aerial hoverings and the fluidity of his movement and mise en scene. Terence Blanchard was definitely his Bernard Herrmann and his compositions provided Lee's moments with a Wagernian weight and gravitas. This was classic drama and dramaturgy almost of Shakespearean proportions in a language that is unique to this medium and no other. One of Lee's most moving films is the semi-autobiographical Crooklyn. Just take a look at the astonishing opening montage of this film, which documents all the now extinct street games that kids used to play before Sega was invented. The ending of this film is one of Lee's most poignant yet ambiguous ones, it's up there with the best of the Coen Brothers abstract endings. I was even particularly moved by the little girl painting- 'THE END' on the floor in Mo Better Blues. Lee understood the street, he had a childlike fascination for it. It was a sacred space for him, almost like a spiritual playground, and his characters and colours and forms were like beautiful birds pecking at the troubled trees with a playful camaraderie. There was always something of the child in Lee, and he has moments of poetry in his films that are unlike any other in the history of the medium. He taught me pretty much everything I know about Black music. His films are like operas of the soul, each note structured like an aria that explodes and understands, plumbs and pains, draws and drives, heals and hurts. His films carry some of the playful innocence of a child's drawings with an adult's sensibility. I hope and pray he gets to make movies as long as he wants to and we get to watch them and learn from him, about culture, humanity and above all fun. Although his films could be heavy they were always fun. Every time I see one of his movies I am enriched and enlightened, spiritually and transcendentally. He's Got some serious Game. He's like the Mohammed Ali or the Michael Jordon of cinema. He punches you out and pushes you over the rim, but when he slides into slow motion he leaves you breathless and breathing heavily at the same time. It's like seeing time stop and reconstructed before one's very eyes. He always cures Ma Better Blues, makes me wanna Do the Right thing, jump into the jungle with a fever, and it's only after I'm Bamboozled, and Clocked that I know I've gotta have it. Take it easy Spike! Keep crackin! Aaitee?!

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your valuable thoughts are highly appreciated!  

About Author - 

Vivaan Shah is an actor, director, writer, musician, singer, and painter. He has tried his hands at various art forms though acting is the one through which he earns his bread and butter. He studied in The Doon School, St.Stephen's College and Jai Hind College. He has been active in the theatre scene since he was a child. Theatre is unquestionably the most important medium in his life. Currently he is trying to make it as a fiction writer of genre and hardboiled novels.

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