It seems there’s nothing director Spike Lee loves more than to focus on topics most people would prefer not to think about or talk about. An example of the message he tries to get across might best be found in the final scene of “School Daze,” where Laurence Fishbourne’s character insistently rings the school’s bell and bellows, “Wake up!!!”
Here’s a selection of his movies that definitely aim to do more than tell an entertaining story. The ones followed by a (W) indicates that he wrote the script as well.
* “Bamboozled” (2000): Complaints from the NAACP about the lily-white state of network television sound like a Chihuahua barking compared to this lion’s roar that savages the largely white network staffers and the black talent who capitulate for guaranteed money and success. (W)
* “The Original Kings of Comedy” (2000): The Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac tour grossed $37 million and sold out such venues as Madison Square Garden at a time when stand-up clubs were dying, yet mainstream America had barely heard of the foursome. However, the concert film preserves these class acts on film.
* “He Got Game” (1998): College recruiting’s sordid underbelly gets exposed in this tale of a father, in prison for killing his wife, who is given a one-week reprieve to try to persuade his son to sign with the warden’s alma mater. (W)
* “4 Little Girls” (1997): The documentary opens up with a modern church bombing, then goes back to 1963 during the middle of the civil rights protest, when a bomb blew up a Birmingham, Ala., church and killed four girls. Only then did America grasp the deadly opposition to integration.
* “Get on the Bus” (1996): A bus carries men from L.A. to the Million Man March in the nation’s capitol. The confines of the bus don’t leave much room except to find a common bond beyond the issues of race, homosexuality and death itself.
* “Girl 6” (1996): A starving actress becomes disgusted with how the movie industry treats women and finds more respect and sensitivity in her sideline job as a phone sex operator.
* “Clockers” (1995): A homicide inspector has to figure out if a family man who has confessed to a killing is really protecting his low-level drug-dealing brother. On the urban streets, traditional values can pale in comparison to the glamour of the drug world. (W)
* “Malcolm X” (1992): A bio-pic of the black nationalist leader who went from being a street thug to a convert to the Nation of Islam, then ultimately rejected his adulterous leader Elijah Muhammad after becoming a Sunni Muslim. (W)
* “Jungle Fever” (1991): An adulterous affair takes on political meaning when it involves crossing racial lines. (W)
* “Do the Right Thing” (1989): What can happen on a scorcher of a summer day when frayed tempers, underlying racial tensions, abandoned responsibility and the false salve of money provide combustible material for an apparent race riot. (W)
* “School Daze” (1988): Shades of hue become the flimsy but intractable dividing lines of color politics at an all-black college. (W)
* “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads” (1983): Lee’s NYU thesis film is set in a barbershop in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn (later the setting of “Do the Right Thing”). The corner store is itself a setting for gambling, murder, dreams to make it big and a few haircuts. (W)
Vera H-C Chan