This week, we’re exploring the films of Spike Lee.
1990 Mo’ Better Blues
Mo’ Better Blues is a 1990 drama film starring Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, and Spike Lee, who also directed. It follows a period in the life of a fictional jazz trumpeter, Bleek Gilliam (played by Washington), as a series of bad decisions result in his jeopardizing both his relationships and his playing career. The film focuses on themes of friendship, loyalty, honesty, cause-and-effect and ultimately salvation. It features the music of the Branford Marsalis quartet and Terence Blanchard on trumpet. The film was released five months after the death of Robin Harris and is dedicated to his memory.
The film begins with a scene set in Brooklyn, New York in 1969. A group of four boys walk up to Bleek Gilliam’s brownstone and ask him to come out and play baseball with them. Bleek’s mother insists that he continue his trumpet lesson, to his chagrin. His father becomes concerned that Bleek will grow up to be a sissy, and a family argument ensues. In the end, Bleek continues playing his trumpet, and his friends go away.
The next scene brings us to the present (over twenty years later), with an adult Bleek (Denzel Washington) performing on the trumpet at a busy nightclub with his jazz band, The Bleek Quintet (Jeff “Tain” Watts, Wesley Snipes, Giancarlo Esposito and Bill Nunn). Giant (Spike Lee, one of his boyhood friends from the previous scene and current manager of Bleek’s band), is waiting in the wings, and advises him to stop allowing his saxophone player Shadow Henderson (Snipes) to grandstand with long solos.
The next morning Bleek wakes up with his girlfriend, Indigo Downes (Joie Lee). She leaves to go to class, while he meets his father by the Brooklyn Bridge for a game of catch, telling him that while he does like Indigo, he likes other women too and is not ready to make a commitment. Later in the day while he is practicing his trumpet, another woman named Clarke Bentancourt (Cynda Williams) visits him. She suggests he fire Giant as his manager; he suggests that they make love (which he refers to as “mo’ better”). She bites his lip and he becomes upset about it, saying, “I make my living with my lips”, as he examines the bleeding bottom lip.
Giant is with his bookie, betting on baseball. Then he goes to the nightclub and argues with the doormen about what time to let the patrons into the club. He meets Bleek inside with the rest of the band, except for the pianist, Left Hand Lacey (Esposito), who arrives late with his French girlfriend and is scolded by Giant. Later Giant goes to the club owners’ office, points out how busy the club has been since Bleek and his band began playing there, and unsuccessfully attempts to renegotiate their contract.
Giant meets his bookie (Rubén Blades) the next morning, who is concerned that Giant is going too deep into debt. Giant shrugs it off, and places several new bets. He then stops off at Shadow’s home to drop off a record. Shadow confides in him that he is cheating on his girlfriend. This leads to the next scene where Bleek is in bed with Clarke, and she asks him to let her sing a number at the club with his band, to which he declines.
Bleek and Giant are fending off requests from the other members of the band, especially Shadow, for a raise due to the band’s success at the club. Bleek goes to the club owners to see about more money, which they refuse, reminding him that it was Giant who locked him into the current deal.
That night at the club, both Clarke and Indigo arrive at the club to see Bleek. They are wearing the same style dress, which Bleek had purchased for them both. Bleek attempts to work it out with each girl, but they are both upset with him over the dresses, and though he sleeps with them each again they leave him (after he calls each of them by the other’s name). However, tension rises with Shadow, who has feelings for Clarke.
Bleek and Giant go for a bike ride, where Bleek insists to Giant that he do a better job managing and bringing in money. Giant promises to do so, then asks Bleek for a loan to pay off his gambling debt. Bleek declines, and later Giant is apprehended by two loan sharks (Samuel L. Jackson and Leonard L. Thomas) who demand payment. Giant can’t pay and gets his fingers broken. Later Giant tells Bleek that he fell off his bike on the ride home, but Bleek does not believe him. Giant asks the other band members for money and Left loans him five hundred dollars. When loan sharks stake out Giant’s home, he goes to Bleek for a place to stay. Bleek agrees to help him raise the money, but fires him as manager.
Bleek misses both his girlfriends, leaving messages for each, but Clarke has begun a new relationship with Shadow. Bleek finds out about it, and fires Shadow after the two fight backstage before a gig. The loan sharks track Giant down at the club before Bleek can come up with the money, take him outside and beat him while Bleek plays. Bleek goes outside to intervene, and gets beaten as well. Additionally, one loan shark (Samuel L. Jackson) takes Bleek’s own trumpet, and smacks him across the face with it. This not only puts Bleek in the hospital, but it also permanently injures his lip, making him unable to continue playing trumpet.
Months later, Bleek reunites with Giant, who has gotten a job as a doorman and stopped gambling. He drops into see Shadow and Clarke, who are now performing together with the rest of Bleek’s former band. Shadow invites him on stage, and they play together. Bleek still has scars to his lips, and is unable to play correctly. He walks off the stage, gives his trumpet to Giant, and goes directly to Indigo’s house. She is angry with him because she hasn’t heard from him in over a year. She tries to reject him, but agrees to take him back when he begs her to save his life.
A montage flashes through their wedding, the birth of their son, Miles, and Bleek teaching his son to play the trumpet. In the final scene of the movie, Miles is ten years old, and wants to go outside to play with his friends. Indigo wants him to finish practicing his trumpet lessons. However, unlike the (almost identical) opening scene in the beginning of the film, Bleek relents and allows his son to leave and play with friends. This final scene uses exactly the same dialogue as the first, with changes only in the delivery of the dialogue. A major part of the film’s themes is cause and affect and fate. In letting Miles stop practising which Bleek never did, then maybe his life will lead to an alternate, and ultimately happier, conclusion.
1991 Jungle Fever
Jungle Fever is a 1991 American drama film directed by Spike Lee, starring Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra. It was Lee’s fifth feature-length film. The film mainly explores interracial relationships against the urban backdrop of the streets of 90s New York City. This was the film debut of Grammy Award winner Queen Latifah and Academy Award winner Halle Berry.
Before the opening credits begin, a dedication to Yusuf Hawkins is shown, who was killed on August 23, 1989, in Bensonhurst, New York, by neighborhood folk who believed the youth was involved with a white girl in the neighborhood, though he was actually in the neighborhood to inquire about a used car for sale in the area.
Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes) is a successful, married black American man who works at an architectural firm in New York City. One day, a white woman named Angela “Angie” Tucci (Annabella Sciorra) is hired as a temporary secretary at the place. Flipper complains to his partners Jerry (Tim Robbins) and Leslie (Brad Dourif) about wanting an African American secretary; they tell him that they want “the best human being for the job.”
When Flipper returns to his Harlem home after visiting his friend Cyrus (Spike Lee), he tells his wife Drew (Lonette McKee) about his promotion. Drew tells him to be prepared if his promotion is declined, but Flipper tells her not to worry. Meanwhile, Angie returns to her Bensonhurst home, and cooks dinner for her father Mike (Frank Vincent) and her two brothers Charlie (David Dundara) and Jimmy (Michael Imperioli). Her boyfriend Paulie Carbone (John Turturro) arrives and takes her out on a date.
One night, Flipper and Angie are working late at the firm, and they start to have a conversation about cooking. They have dinner in his office that night and at least another time which leads them to have sex on a desk. The next day, Flipper does not say anything when he is walking his daughter to school. Later, at the office, he tells Jerry and Leslie that he wanted to be partner at the firm. After his offer is declined, he abruptly quits his job. Later that night at the park, Flipper admits his infidelity to Cyrus, who tells him the affair is problematic not only because his mistress is white, but also because she is Italian and from Bensonhurst. Then, Flipper’s brother Gator (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up with his girlfriend Vivian (Halle Berry). He asks Flipper for some money so he can feed his crack habit. Flipper initially refuses, but gives in eventually. Meanwhile, Angie tells her girlfriends that she is seeing Flipper, shocking them when she tells them he is African American. She then tells them not to tell anybody.
The next evening Flipper and Angela are ignored by the staff at a restaurant. He complains to a waitress (Queen Latifah) about not being served; she in turn berates him for dating a white woman. Later, the rumors about them surface when Flipper comes home and sees a furious Drew throwing his things out of the window, forcing him to move back in with his mother Lucinda (Ruby Dee), and his father, the Good Reverend Doctor (Ossie Davis). Later that night, he confronts Cyrus for betraying his trust. Cyrus admitted he told his wife Vera (Veronica Webb), but did not know she told Drew. Flipper insults Vera, causing a rift in his friendship with Cyrus.
The next day, Flipper tries to make things up to Drew by bringing her flowers at work, which she proceeds to refuse. Meanwhile, Angie ends her relationship with Paulie. His father Lou (Anthony Quinn) finds Paulie in the bathroom and consoles him. When Angie returns home, a livid Mike violently beats her for dating a black man and throws her out of the house. Flipper and Angie move in to an apartment together, where they subsequently encounter social problems including a failed dinner with Flipper’s parents, and another problem when they are walking down the street, they joke around and Flipper forces himself onto her, the police show up thinking he is raping her, she tells them that he is her boyfriend and threatens to have their badges. Flipper yells at her and does not want anyone else to know. Paulie attempts to start a similar relationship with an African American woman called Orin Goode (Tyra Ferrell), but encounters problems of his own.
Lucinda has Flipper come over and informs him that Gator has taken the television. She wants him to try and get it back before the Good Reverend Doctor comes home, so Flipper goes out to find Gator. Flipper finds Gator at a crack house, where he and Vivian are smoking the drug. Gator tells Flipper that he pawned the TV to get money for the crack. Flipper slaps Vivian in the face and tells Gator that their mother is crying over him; Gator does not appear to care. Flipper tells him that he is cutting him off for good and leaves.
Eventually, issues surrounding Flipper and Angie strain the relationship so much so that they break up. Orin accepts Paulie’s offer to take her on a date. But when he tells his father he is going on a date with an African American, his father disowns him. On the way to meet with Orin he gets into a fight but still heads to her house. One night, Gator storms into his parents’ house while the Reverend is away, demanding money from Lucinda while trashing the house. The Reverend arrives and threatens him if he does not leave. Gator refuses to leave and mocks his father. The Reverend tells Gator he is better off dead and regretfully shoots him in the stomach. Gator dies in his screaming mother’s arms.
Flipper attempts to reconcile with Drew. After having sex with her, Drew, still hurt, tells him it is best for him to leave. While walking down a street, Flipper passes by a prostitute who offers to perform fellatio for two dollars. Flipper, in response, hugs her and screams “No!” out to the heavens.