This week, we’re exploring the films of Spike Lee.
Get on the Bus is a 1996 film about a group of African-American men who are taking a cross-country bus trip in order to participate in the Million Man March. The film was directed by Spike Lee and premiered on the one-year anniversary of the march.
Fifteen disparate African American men board a bus in L.A. bound for Washington, D.C., where they plan on attending the Million Man March. Other than their race, destination, and gender, the men have nothing in common: Xavier is an aspiring filmmaker hoping to make a documentary of the March; Flip is an openly racist and sexist actor; Kyle and Randall are a homosexual couple; Gary, a police officer, is the sole biracial man on the bus; Jamal is a former gang banger turned devout Muslim who has evaded prosecution for the rapes and murders he committed; Evan Jr., is a petty criminal who has been permitted to break probation to attend the march on the condition that he remain handcuffed to his father, Evan Sr.
As the bus travels across country, Xavier conducts interviews with the various attendees, allowing them to express their views on race, religion, and politics. The interviews often provoke outbursts from other men on the bus, invariably leading to confrontations; the only topic of unity is the O.J. Simpson trial, with the men agreeing that, while Simpson is probably guilty, his acquittal is justified as his victims were a white woman and a Jew. Peace is kept through the various arguments and physical altercations that occur by Jeremiah, the eldest member of the group. A former alcoholic who lost his job and family, Jeremiah has found new meaning in life by embracing his African heritage; his philosophies on the black experience and stories of precolonial Africa serve to unite the men and ease tensions.
En route the bus breaks down and the men are forced to board another bus, driven by an ethnically Jewish man named Rick. Several of the passengers harass Rick with antisemitic remarks and jokes; Rick ultimately refuses to drive any further, citing the group’s prejudice and his opposition to antisemitic remarks made by the leader of the march, Louis Farrakhan. George, himself a bus driver, accuses Rick of racism, but begrudgingly agrees to let Rick resign without incident. George takes over driving for the remainder of the trip, with help from Evan Sr.
As the bus passes through the American south, the men are surprised to find that they are greeted hospitably by several white southerners at various restaurants and rest stops. At one stop, the men pick up Wendell, a wealthy African American Lexus salesman who sees attending the march as a way to make business connections. After Wendell makes disparaging remarks about lower-class African Americans, the rest of the men forcibly eject him from the bus and abandon him on the side of the road.
In Knoxville, Tennessee, the bus is pulled over by a pair of racist state troopers, who accuse the men of using the bus to smuggle drugs. The bus and its passengers are searched, turning up no evidence of drugs; the troopers reluctantly allow the bus to progress.
As the bus nears Washington, Jeremiah passes out and is rushed to a hospital. The doctors there discover that Jeremiah is suffering from advanced coronary artery disease, which made the stress of the trip potentially deadly for him. Evan Sr. and Jr., Gary, Jamal, and Xavier opt to stay with Jeremiah at the hospital and watch the march on television while the rest of the men leave in the bus to attend. Shortly after they leave, Jeremiah dies. The rest of the group returns to the hospital, saying that, to stay true to the spirit of the March, they chose not to attend but to return and be with Jeremiah.
As the bus prepares to return to L.A., the men find a prayer that Jeremiah wrote in honor of the March. The men drive to the Lincoln Memorial, where George leads the men in Jeremiah’s prayer and Evan Jr. and Sr. remove their handcuffs.
1997 4 Little Girls
4 Little Girls is a 1997 American historical documentary film about the 15 September 1963 murder of four African-American girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, United States. It was directed by Spike Lee and nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Documentary”.
The events inspired the 1964 song “Birmingham Sunday” by Richard and Mimi Fariña. The song was used in the opening sequence of the film, as sung by Mimi’s sister, Joan Baez.
4 Little Girls premiered Wednesday, June 25, 1997 at the Guild 50th Street Theatre in New York City. It was produced by 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks, Lee’s production company, and Home Box Office (HBO).
The film covered the events in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 related to civil rights demonstrations and the movement to end racial discrimination in local stores and facilities. In 1963 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King arrived in the town to help with their strategy. People of the community met at the 16th Street Baptist Church while organizing their events. The demonstrations were covered by national media, and the use by police of police dogs and pressured water from hoses on young people shocked the nation. So many demonstrators were arrested that the jail was filled.
A local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan placed bombs at the Baptist Church and set them off on Sunday morning 15 September 1963. Four young girls were killed in the explosion. The deaths provoked national outrage, and that summer the US Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The film ends with trial and conviction of Robert Edward Chambliss [also known as Dynamite Bob] in 1977 as the main person responsible for bombing. The film also delves into black churches being set on fire in Birmingham in 1993, giving the impression that while progress has been made, there are some aspects that still haven’t changed.
1998 He Got Game
He Got Game is a 1998 American sports-drama film written and directed by Spike Lee. It stars Denzel Washington as Jake Shuttlesworth, a prison inmate convicted for killing his wife. The father of the top-ranked basketball prospect in the country, Jesus Shuttlesworth (played by NBA star Ray Allen), Jake is released on parole for a week by the state’s governor in order to persuade his son to play for the governor’s alma mater in exchange for a heavily reduced prison sentence. Filming took place between July and September 1997, and locations such as Coney Island, Brooklyn, Cabrini–Green housing projects in Chicago, Illinois, North Carolina, and Los Angeles, California.
Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen), a student at Lincoln High School from Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York, is being pursued by the top college programs in the nation. His father, Jake (Denzel Washington), is a convicted felon serving time at Attica Correctional Facility for accidentally killing his wife (Jesus’ mother) by pushing her while arguing with Jesus at the age of 12. The father is temporarily released by the governor, an influential alum of “Big State,” one of the colleges Jesus is considering, so that he might direct his son to sign with the governor’s college in return for an early release.
While seemingly a sound plan, it turns haywire as we realize the strained relationship between Jesus and his father. Upon his first moments outside of prison, Jake touches base with his daughter Mary Shuttlesworth (Zelda Harris) who is happy to see him. Mary invites her father up to the apartment where she and Jesus now live, having moved out of their Uncle Bubba’s place. When Jesus returns home he is unhappy to see his father and refuses to look him in the eye as he tells his daughter to get rid of the “stranger” in their living room. Jesus then later agrees to meet with his father at an alternative location away from Mary. Throughout the movie Jake attempts to persuade Jesus to attend “Big State” with seemingly no success. Eventually he divulges the deal set up by the governor but Jesus appears unsympathetic to his father’s situation.
Intertwined with the story of the Shuttlesworth family is the sub-plot of Dakota Barns (Milla Jovovich) a prostitute who stays in the room next to Jake in the run down hotel that the warden has set up for him. Dakota is being abused by her current boss/lover and Jake overhears the domestic violence through the thin walls. Throughout the movie Jake is seen helping clean her wounds, and eventually clean up her act giving her some of the money that was set aside for him to survive the week out of prison. Dakota is seen in one of the final scenes of the movie taking a greyhound bus away from New York City.
1999 Summer of Sam
Summer of Sam is a 1999 crime-drama based around the Son of Sam serial murders. It was directed and produced by Spike Lee and stars John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino and Jennifer Esposito.
It is the summer of 1977 and New York City lives in fear of the serial killer Son of Sam who has shot several women in parked cars. In the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx hair dresser Vinny (John Leguizamo) is married to waitress Dionna (Mira Sorvino) although he continues to carry on affairs with multiple women. One night, Dionna and Vinny are returning from a date when they pass by the police at one of the crime scenes. Vinny gets out and looks at the bodies of the victims. The next day a friend warns Vinny that the killer may have been watching and might target Vinny next.
Vinny is approached by Ritchie (Adrien Brody), an old friend. Ritchie has become part of the punk rock scene and his unusual dress and hairstyle concerns Vinny and others in the neighborhood. The only one who seems accepting of Ritchie is Ruby (Jennifer Esposito) who thinks he looks good. Ruby is initially shocked when she learns that Ritchie makes money by dancing and prostituting himself at a gay theater but the two become closer.
As the Son of Sam killing continue the neighborhood becomes more on edge. Detective Petrocelli (Anthony LaPaglia) tries to enlist local mobster Luigi (Ben Gazzara) to help keep a look out for the killer. Luigi is initially reluctant but later he and his men begin assembling a list of possible suspects. A group of men in the neighborhood also make a list of possible suspects, including Ritchie who they regard as “a freak”.
Ruby joins a band with Ritchie and they manage to get a gig at CBGB. They invite Vinny and Dionna but the couple are intimidated by the punks at the club and leave. Vinny and Dionna try to get into Studio 54 but are denied and instead end up at Plato’s Retreat where they engage in an orgy. On the ride home, Vinny berates his wife for her participation in the orgy, calling her a “freaky slut”. Dionna tells Vinny that she knows about his prior infidelities including his having sex with her cousin. She angrily storms off and spend goes to stay at her parent’s house.
After another gig, Ritchie sees Vinny sitting in his car outside CBGB and sneaks up on him, pretends to be Son of Sam and startles Vinny. Returning to the neighborhood an increasingly tired and unstable Vinny meets with Dionna and apologizes to her, promising never to cheat again. However, she doesn’t believe him and says she wants a divorce. The police publish an eye witness sketch of the murderer and some of the local men think it looks like Ritchie. Vinny, distraught over his impending divorce gets drunk. A group of local men come by his house asking for his help to lure Ritchie into a trap so they can deliver him to the police. Vinny reluctantly goes along with it.
Unknown to Vinny and the men, the police have arrested David Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco) for the shootings. Vinny goes to Ritchie’s place and finds Ritchie and Ruby there, having recently made love. He lures Ritchie out of the house on the pretext of talking about his marriage but changes his mind and warns him to run. The other men emerge and attack Ritchie as Ruby look on horrified. Ritchie’s step father (Mike Starr) comes out of the house and holds the attackers at gunpoint. When they say that Ritchie is the Son of Sam he tells them that the killer has already been captured. Unable to face Ritchie, Vinny walks away.