I hate to be the one to say it, but it feels like only ’80s babies and older truly appreciate what Spike Lee brought to the game; and I’m not talking about the game of basketball (’90s Knicks fans hate him for that; just watch Reggie Miller vs. the Knicks to understand why). I’m talking about the cinema game. Bold with his vision and controversial with his stories, Spike knew how to engage audiences with his characters while enabling them to feel a certain way with the narrative. Not only was Spike ahead of his time, he was what we needed at the time.
While Do The Right Thing is the movie most-associated with Spike’s career and the one labeled a masterpiece by all who saw it (and it was), the truth of the matter is that it also became a curse the same way Illmatic made Nas’ hip-hop career seemingly a “disappointment.” Like Nas, Spike’s work has been criticized as inconsistent or mediocre and because of that it has lost some credibility in his field. That, in turn, caused Lee’s quality films like 25th Hour, He Got Game, and Summer of Sam to get downgraded to decent or mediocre movies by audiences, and his genius soon became an afterthought. It’s gotten to the point where today’s generation mainly associates Spike with things such as NBA commercials and pulling the cards of his directorial peers (such as Tyler Perry, Quentin Tarantino, etc.).
One of his gems that is often overlooked is 1990’s Mo’ Better Blues. Sandwiched between his critically acclaimed Do The Right Thing and controversial Jungle Fever, Mo’ Better Blues was an vividly painted personification of the life of a jazz artist named Bleek (Denzel Washington) and the choices he struggles with in the chaotic lifestyle of the jazz musician.
The natural opinion of such a life is simplistic: music, money, women, and everything in-between. But when those things intertwine into a single life, priceless things like trust, loyalty and love become compromised. Before you know it, you’re caught looking out for numero uno and putting yourself before everyone else. Does he listen to his bandmates’ cries for more money or does he listen to his indebted manager in his ear saying his band gets enough of the take as is? Would the love of a woman complete his cipher more so than the notion that he could be the greatest jazz musician ever? This four-minute collage will give you an idea of the kind of film you missed out on if you slept after watching Do The Right Thing.
Mo’ Better Blues was not only well-written, it was superbly executed by a cast of all-stars that would drown the Ocean’s 12 crew in a sea of talent. Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes, Robin Harris (R.I.P.), Samuel L. Jackson, Charlie Murphy (before he was Charlie “Chappelle Show” Murphy), with Spike Lee assuming the role of a ’90s Puff Daddy by inserting himself into the background/forefront to steal a little shine for himself, MBB was a sign that Spike was really coming into his own as an artistic director. Taking place in Brooklyn (my borough is thorough), it was the perfect storm of vision, perception, adaptation and chemistry, set in a world that is almost never explored visually and has only been visited through sound and vibe. It was a real achievement for the cast, crew and the director.
Overflowing with soulful music (duh!), well-balanced themes, comedy, drama and superb acting, Mo’ Better Blues should get the kind of recognition and appreciation that Nas’ It Was Written rightfully deserves, as well (I had to say my piece on that).
And for the record, Spike Lee became a household name not because of the NBA or Michael Jordan, but because of his ability to personify subject matters that, while common in “urban” neighborhoods, were foreign to outside communities. Lee has the capability to build the bridge in-between the two populations, showing the cause-and-effect that can manifest and trickledown as a result. Whether he’s gauging the recruitment methods used by universities when wooing a top flight sports prospect; humanizing a criminal’s last 24 hours of freedom before turning himself in to do a bid; or showing how one man’s reign of terror with a .44 Caliber had people in 1977 New York fearing the unknown, Spike has a gift for putting human characteristics on display for all to see, relate to and reflect on.