This week, we’re exploring the films of Spike Lee.
1992 Malcolm X
Malcolm X is a 1992 American biographical motion picture about the African-American figure Malcolm X. Directed and co-written by Spike Lee, the film stars Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman, Jr., and Delroy Lindo. Lee has a small supporting role as Shorty, a character based partially on real-life acquaintance Malcolm “Shorty” Jarvis, a fellow criminal and jazz trumpeter. Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and future South Africa president Nelson Mandela have cameo appearances.
The film dramatizes key events in Malcolm X’s life: his criminal career, his incarceration, his conversion to Islam, his ministry as a member of the Nation of Islam and his later falling out with the organization, his marriage to Betty X, his pilgrimage to Mecca and reevaluation of his views concerning whites, and his assassination on February 21, 1965. Defining childhood incidents, including his father’s death, his mother’s mental illness, and his experiences with racism are dramatized in flashbacks.
Malcolm X’s screenplay, co-credited to Lee and Arnold Perl, is based largely on Alex Haley’s 1965 book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Haley collaborated with Malcolm X on the book beginning in 1963 and completed it after Malcolm X’s death.
Malcolm X was distributed by Warner Bros. and released on November 18, 1992. Denzel Washington won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. In 2010, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
In archival footage, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. says: “The assassination of Malcolm X was an unfortunate tragedy and reveals that there are still numerous people in our nation who have degenerated to the point of expressing dissent through murder and we haven’t learned to disagree without becoming violently disagreeable”.
In voice-over, actor and activist Ossie Davis quotes from the eulogy he gave at Malcolm X’s funeral as a montage of new and archival footage and photographs of Malcolm X is shown:
“ Here, at this final hour, in this quiet place, Harlem has come to bid farewell to one of its brightest hopes. Extinguished now, and gone from us forever … It is not in the memory of man that this beleaguered, unfortunate, but nonetheless proud community has found a braver, more gallant young champion than this Afro-American who lies before us unconquered still. I say the word again, as he would want me to: Afro-American — Afro-American Malcolm. Malcolm had stopped being Negro years ago; it had become too small, too puny, too weak a word for him. Malcolm was bigger than that. Malcolm had become an Afro-American, and he wanted so desperately that we, that all his people, would become Afro-Americans, too. There are those who still consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times … and we will smile … They will say that he is of hate; a a fanatic, a racist who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say unto them: Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? … Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did, you would know him. And if you knew him, you would know why we must honor him: Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood! This was his meaning to his people. And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves … However much we may have differed with him or with each other about him and his value as a man, let his going from us serve only to bring us together, now … Consigning these mortal remains to earth, the common mother of all, secure in the knowledge that what we place in the ground is no more now a man, but a seed which, after the winter of our discontent, will come forth again to meet us. And we will know him then for what he was, and is: a prince! Our own black shining prince who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so. ”
The film ends with a scene of a black teacher in an American classroom. Behind her on the blackboard, are the words “MALCOLM X DAY”. She tells the class that it is Malcolm X’s birthday.
“Malcolm X is you – all of you – and you are Malcolm X”, she says.
In succession, some of her students stand up and shout, “I am Malcolm X!”. The scene switches to African students who mimic the American students. The film culminates with recently released anti-apartheid activist and future South African president Nelson Mandela, quoting one of Malcolm X’s speeches.
Crooklyn is a 1994 semi-autobiographical film co-written and directed by Spike Lee. The film takes place in Brooklyn, New York and the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant during the summer of 1973. Its primary focus is a young girl, Troy (played by Zelda Harris), and her family. Throughout the film, Troy learns life lessons through her four rowdy brothers, her loving but strict mother (Alfre Woodard), and her naive, struggling father (Delroy Lindo).
A distinctive characteristic of Crooklyn is its soundtrack, composed completely of music from the 1970s, except the hit single “Crooklyn” by the Crooklyn Dodgers, a rap crew composed of Buckshot, Masta Ace and Special Ed. A two-volume release of the soundtrack became available on CD along with the release of the film.
Similarly to School Daze, Do the Right Thing and She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee appears in Crooklyn. He plays a bully and drug addict named Snuffy.
Crooklyn is one of only two films directed by Spike Lee to earn a PG-13 rating in the USA, the other being 1992’s Malcolm X.
The movie opens with scenes of a racially mixed neighborhood and their various activities, like hand rhymes, double Dutch, tag, street races, and even the neighborhood children watching the teenagers of their block make out in the alleyways of their block. Nine-year-old Troy (Zelda Harris) and her older brothers Clinton (Carlton Williams), Wendell (Sharif Rashed), Nate (Chris Knowings), and her younger brother, Joseph (Tse-Mach Washington) are introduced as their father Woody (Delroy Lindo) is blowing a horn to call them in from playing to eat dinner. Their mother, Carolyn (Alfre Woodard) is introduced as well. Dinner takes place during which we find out that the Carmichaels’ next-door neighbor, “Tony Eyes” (David Patrick Kelly) seems to be somewhat of a nuisance to the family, which includes continuously singing while they are eating dinner. That night, Carolyn comes home and comedically wakes all of the children up out of their sleep because the kitchen was not cleaned. There’s some argument naturally on the part of the children to which Clinton says, “I’d rather have a father than a mother any day”.
The next day, the neighborhood junkies are introduced: Snuffy (Spike Lee) and Right Hand Man (N. Jeremi Duru), who are glue sniffers. Tommy La La (Jose Zuniga), Clinton, Nate and a couple of their neighborhood friends are sitting on the Carmichael stoop while listening to the radio and playing a baseball board game. Tommy La La takes a bottle and throws it at the door of Tony while yelling homophobic slurs. This starts an argument because Clinton says the Carmichael children always get blamed for the mess on his property. The argument ends as Vic Powell (Isaiah Washington), a war vet, comes home and greets everyone. Vic is renting the upstairs apartment from the Carmichaels. Carolyn comes out to see what is wrong, and Tony tells her that Wendell and her kids are always throwing trash into his area. Carolyn responds by telling him that he and his home are nasty. The arguments continue as the neighborhood kids jump in. Tony is still yelling and arguing when Vic comes downstairs and tells him to shut up. In anger, he punches Tony in the face and goes back into the house. Troy sneaks out and goes to the corner store to get candy. While in the store, she is intrigued by a woman (RuPaul) and one of the store owners dancing erotically in the store. As Troy leaves the store to walk back home, she sees Vic getting arrested for punching Tony.
One night, Woody and Carolyn are downstairs arguing because Woody’s music is not providing for the family and Carolyn, a schoolteacher is the sole provider. They are also arguing because Woody caused the family to have bounced checks. The argument escalates as Carolyn yells upstairs for the children to turn off the TV because it is a school night. She charges upstairs with Woody following and turns off the TV. A defiant Clinton argues with Carolyn and turns on the TV. Carolyn grabs him up for disobeying and disrespecting her and Woody grabs her and carries her out of the room. Everyone is in on the fight as Woody is dragging Carolyn down the stairs and Nate is jumping on Woody’s back. The other children have a hold of Carolyn pulling her in the opposite direction and Carolyn hurts her ankle in the struggle. Woody yells and everyone gets quiet as he expresses his need to respect for his work in the house. Carolyn kicks him out of the house. Woody comes over the next morning and brings flowers for Troy to give to Carolyn. Troy brings the flowers to Carolyn, and soon she and Woody get back together. They all decide to go on a trip to get out of the neighborhood but as they are leaving a worker from Con Ed comes by to shut off the electricity because the bill is unpaid. The trip is postponed and because of the situation, the family has to use candles for light.
A few days later, the family leaves Brooklyn to take Nate and Troy down South to stay with relatives. Troy stays with her cousin Viola (Patriece Nelson), who was adopted by Uncle Clem (Norman Matlock) and Aunt Song (Frances Foster). Troy doesn’t want to stay, but she does it to appease her mother. Troy eventually starts having fun with Viola despite a dislike of Aunt Song and her beloved dog, Queenie. On Troy’s 10th birthday, she gets a letter from Carolyn (who narrates it) telling her about the happenings in the neighborhood since the weeks she’s been away. After reading the letter, Troy decides she wants to go home. Meanwhile, Aunt Song has been looking for her lost dog, Queenie all day. At Troy’s birthday sleep-over, Queenie is located when she pops out having been accidentally closed into the fold-out couch which deeply upsets Aunt Song. When Troy returns to Brooklyn picked up from the airport by her Aunt Maxine (Joie Lee) and Uncle Brown (Vondie Curtis-Hall) she is eventually told her mother is in the hospital and is taken to see her.
Later, Woody takes Troy home and Troy decides to clean & mop the kitchen without being told. Later that evening, Woody tells the kids that their mother is sicker than she thought and must stay in the hospital for more tests. The boys cry, but Troy remains stoic. In the next scene, Troy walks through a public park with her brothers while singing a children’s gospel song she learned at her cousin’s down South. One of her brothers wonder if they might have to dress up for their mother’s funeral revealing either their mother has died or is near death. The day of the funeral Troy is approached by her Aunt Maxine (played in life by Joie Lee, the author and the grown Troy) and tries to coax her into trying the new clothes she’s brought. Troy lashes out angrily that her mother would never let her wear polyester. She announces that she is not going to the funeral when Woody calls her down. Woody explains that they’re all in pain but Carolyn would want them all together at church. At the house gathering after the funeral, Troy is withdrawn when Clinton (the character based on Spike Lee as a boy) approaches her and silently takes her hand to comfort her, showing a small sign of kindness. Joseph comes inside crying, saying that Snuffy and Right Hand Man are making fun of him because their mother was dead and they robbed him. Following her mother’s wishes to protect her younger brother, Troy goes outside with a baseball bat and hits Snuffy in the head drawing blood. Much like her mother Troy tells him to go sniff glue on his own block.
Early the next morning, Troy is restless as she dreams she’s hearing her mother’s voice shouting. She goes downstairs saying she doesn’t like it when her parents fight, but instead sees it’s her father making a racket trying to kill a rat in the kitchen. Troy not fully awake says “Mommy?” Woody tells her Mommy’s gone and that its all right to cry. Troy runs to the bathroom to throw-up and Woody consoles her. Woody says that they’ve all been wondering when she was going to break, meaning to finally show her grief. He says that even Clinton has cried. Troy concludes that its good that her mother isn’t still in a lot of pain. This scene is scored with the song “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone.”
There are scenes of the neighborhood continuing to play much like the beginning of the movie. Troy is sitting in Carolyn’s old barber’s chair with Joseph sitting in her lap while she combs his hair the way Carolyn did. Then, Carolyn is seen sitting on the stoop narrating a letter that Troy imagines is meant for her, encouraging her from beyond on how she can’t believe that she’s 10 now and how she’s proud of the way she’s growing up. Troy is coping with her mother’s absence by imagining that her mother is only away and can still write to her the way she did when Troy was down South. Her fantasy is interrupted when the neighborhood kids come to the window for Joseph. Troy tells him not to go far because dinner is almost ready. Troy surveys the neighborhood as Carolyn used to from the stoop. The end credits play over old footage of episodes of “Soul Train” with its original closing music. The score then changes to a contemporary rap song written for the film by The Crooklyn Dodgers featuring Special Ed, Buckshot and Masta Ace. The dancers of the original “Soul Train” series seem to keep time with and dance to the contemporary rap music
Clockers is a 1995 American crime drama film directed by Spike Lee. It is an adaptation of the eponymous 1992 novel by Richard Price, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Lee. The film stars Harvey Keitel, John Turturro, Delroy Lindo, and Mekhi Phifer in his debut film role. Set in New York City, Clockers tells the story of Strike (Phifer), a street-level drug dealer who becomes entangled in a murder investigation.
In a Brooklyn housing project, a group of “clockers” – street-level drug dealers – sell drugs for Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo), a local drug lord. Rodney tells Ronald “Strike” Dunham (Mekhi Phifer), one of his lead clockers, that another dealer, Darryl Adams (Steve White), is stealing from him and “got to be got”, implying that he wants Strike to kill Darryl. Strike then meets with his brother, Victor Dunham (Isaiah Washington) and tries to persuade Victor to kill Darryl Adams.
Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel) and Larry Mazilli (John Turturro), homicide detectives, ride to the scene of Darryl Adams’ murder. Larry and Rocco receive a phone call from another detective who says a man has confessed at a local church that he killed Darryl. The police meet Strike’s older brother Victor at the church and take him in for questioning. In the interrogation room, Victor tells Rocco that he shot Darryl Adams in self-defense. Rocco finds holes in this story and starts looking into Victor’s background which includes two jobs, a wife, two children, no criminal record, and aspirations to move out of the projects; Rocco comes to the conclusion that Victor is covering for his younger brother.
Rocco pressures Strike but Victor sticks to his story, so Rocco convinces Rodney that Strike has confessed and informed on Rodney’s drug ring. Rocco arrests Rodney and then humiliates Strike in front of his crew. Strike gets together some money and decides to leave town, but a younger boy who admired Strike shoots Errol, Rodney’s enforcer, with Strike’s gun. Rocco lets Strike leave town.