They may very well be travelling in opposite directions, but make no mistake–both Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee are great American filmmakers. Tarantino’s directorial efforts in ten different films since 1992(including his “sequence” director role for 2005’s “Sin City”), has garnered him a horde of rabid followers. And right now a bunch of them seem to be really mad at Spike. Why? Is there no room for criticism of Tarantino and his apparent penchant for using the so-called “N-word”? Quentin has received wide critical praise for his latest film, “Django Unchained”. You can count me among the fervent advocates. But I think it’s perfectly reasonable for Spike to wonder if Mr. Tarantino relies on the word too much and for Spike to believe that Tarantino disrespectfully turns the horrors of slavery into a “spaghetti” western. Btw, Lee also leveled the “N-word” accusations against Tarantino 15 years ago concerning 1997’s “Jackie Brown”, so there is some precedent here. I mean in his last two motion pictures Q.T. has re-imagined the antebellum South(“Django Unchained” and its uprising, gunslinging slave)and the demise of Adolf Hitler(2009’s “Inglourious Basterds”). Quentin deftly managed to create a pair of violent, exciting, box office hits with both films. But I paused in each case to reflect on the possible objections from some as to the disservice he could be doing to the actual history. I paused. That’s it. Will Tarantino-ites come after me now? Both “Django” and “Basterds” are wildly entertaining films. But Spike has a right to query, so just leave it at that. He’s expanding the dialogue, and I think it’s fine. But it seems to be the feeling in the mainstream media the past few days that because black director Antoine Fuqua has jumped to Quentin’s defense, that Mr. Lee should feel the same way. Huh? Two African-American filmmakers can’t have two disparate opinions? Let’s explore the racism in that. Spike Lee has in his canon, perhaps the finest American film ever made about racism in America in the form of 1989’s “Do the Right Thing”. And I doubt that any movie either Quentin or Spike directs over the remainder of their respective careers will ever match it. But this year Mr. Lee attempted to attract an audience with a spiritual sequel to his masterpiece with his unjustly maligned “Red Hook Summer”. He even went so far as to grace us with a repeat performance(23 years on)as the character of Mookie. Still delivering pizzas after all these years.
“Red Hook Summer”(Mr. Lee’s first new theatrical feature since 2008’s “Miracle at St. Anna”)focuses on the day-to-day solstice adventures of 13-year-old Flik Royale(Jules Brown). The Atlanta-raised Flik is being sent off to Brooklyn by his mother to spend some quality time with his grandfather, Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse(a commanding Clarke Peters). Adjustment to the unfamiliar landscape is not easy for Flik. He finds his grandfather’s lifestyle way too restrictive, he gets robbed of his I-Pad by a local gang and he’s expected to attend his grandpa’s fiery sermons. On the other hand, he does get to kayak in the East River(!)and he even begins to appreciate the urban flavor through his friendship with local girl Chazz Morningstar(Toni Lysaith). Flik also starts to enjoy the church services, too. Then in the 3rd act, the script takes an alarming left turn. It blindsided me. Spike obviously knew what he was doing as he lulled us into a false sense of security. It’s a shock to the system as a bittersweet coming-of-age story suddenly gets deadly serious. I ponder how many critics were unable to process this divergent path. Like it or not, the finale does contain one of the most brilliant, disturbing scenes of seduction I’ve ever witnessed. So, despite a certain loose-limbed sloppiness throughout the first two-thirds(intentional?)of the film, Mr. Lee proves at the finish line that he has not lost his ability to provoke.
And then there is the spectacularly violent yet revisionist path of Mr. Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”. We are introduced to Django(Jamie Foxx)during the opening credits as he shuffles along with a chain-gang of slaves being transported across a desolate landscape. In the darkness of night, the slave owners are approached by Dr. Schultz(an incredible Christoph Waltz), who seeks the slave Django to assist him in identifying a band of brother criminals. Things get bloody from the get-go after Schultz, threatened by one of the slave drivers, proceeds to blow the man’s head off. After attaining Django from the other injured slave holder, Schultz leaves the remainder of the chain gang to “have their way” with him. Turns out Schultz is a bounty hunter who despises slavery, and simply needs Django’s help in collecting the cash offered for the capture of some vicious killers. They enter into an exhilarating partnership that leads to Schultz eventually assisting Django in locating his wife Broomhilda(a stunning Kerry Washington), who was separated from the rebellious Django and sold to a plantation called “Candyland”. Candyland is headed by the dashing, yet brutal, Mr. Calvin Candie(the cast against-type, Leonardo DiCaprio), who enjoys purchasing Mandingo warriors for fights to the death, but also utilizes an elderly house slave(a perfect Samuel L. Jackson)as a trusted confidante. Do Django and Schultz get to leave a trail of crimson carnage in their wake on the mission to free the beautiful Broomhilda? Is a bluebird blue?
It can certainly be argued that Spike Lee is inconsistent, and that he hasn’t had a masterful feature film in at least ten years(2002’s “25th Hour” is seen in some circles as being superior even to “Do the Right Thing”). But there are flashes of the old brilliance in “Red Hook Summer”, just as there are flashes of 55-year old Mookie still carrying those extra-cheese pies. It’s apparent that Mr. Lee was going the “naturalistic” route with his teenage actors—their lack of experience makes for a bumpy ride in the film’s early going, despite being surrounded by a cast of veterans. But I admire Spike’s bold stroke in the final portion—few would have had the balls to go there. And no one will ever accuse Mr. Tarantino of lacking cojones. And, like Spike, he couldn’t resist the urge to insert himself into his finished product via an extended “Django” cameo. Quentin’s lastest is typically violent, polarizing and controversial. He’s on a helluva hot streak with critics and awards shows though—I’m certain that “Django” will garner a slew of Oscar nominations later this month. And Mr. Lee may have appeared dormant while he was actually spending some high-quality time with a series of renowned documentaries over the last several years, but he’s also poised for a major comeback with his upcoming remake of Chan-wook Park’s worshipped “Oldboy” from 2003. So, Tarantino is releasing the superior work these days, but quite possibly that’s all about to change. Regardless, I still find both filmmakers fascinating. And I’m certain that neither of them will ever run out of a variety of things to say. Grades: “Red Hook Summer” B- “Django Unchained” A-