1995; directed by Spike Lee; adapted by Spike Lee and Richard Price; 123 mins
The opening credits kinda tell you all you need to know with regards to the tone of this film. It’s clearly stating that this story will be a far more sobering one than Do the Right Thing. Whereas Lee’s 1989 classic was big, brash, confrontational and fleshy, this is mournful, bloody and just flesh now. Death after death after death of young African American men and women, caught in an unending battle on the streets over drugs that started with Nixon’s regime and still, in 2017, sees no sign of ever even getting better.
Mekhi Phifer plays Strike, a Clocker (street-level dealer) in Brooklyn, working for local kingpin Rodney, getting hassled by cops Rocco Klein and Larry Mazilli and trying to avoid the attention of Rodney’s best friend, the terrifying Errol. One night, a local two-timer called Darryl Adams gets shot dead outside his restaurant. It appears to be Strike who did it but his brother, Victor, is taking the fall. Everyone seems to think Strike must’ve done it but it makes no sense that Victor since he’s known for being straight as a die and a grafter, so why is he taking the fall and why does the morally conflicted Strike seem now so relatively unfazed by letting his brother take the rap?
Talking about his film Naked, Mike Leigh referred to the main character, Johnny as “a frustrated, disappointed, embittered optimist” and in this, more than any other of Spike Lee’s films do you get the sense of him in a state of despair yet, through the film, a real love and heartache pervades the atmosphere. That and a respect and a yearning for the characters to come out of this situation well – somehow. He’s been accused of being a polemicist and a racist but that’s as if the people saying that either haven’t seen his films or just don’t get them at all. He is a master filmmaker who gets uniformly great, real, empathetic performances from all his actors and has a wellspring of empathy in him but a clear, no-nonsense political viewpoint. Keith David as local cop, André, could be seen as merely a turncoat: someone who takes out the white man’s trash but he isn’t. He’s just frustrated and scared for the welfare of the young. Even the white cops’ foul-mouthed banter over a dead body is seen with a sense of them just grinding on through and despite their oftentimes bigoted approach to life on the streets, they’re not depicted as idiots.
Based on Richard Price‘s novel, it’s a clear precursor to The Wire in terms of it’s themes and multi-stranded, multi-tiered overview of a community at war. It’s perhaps too long but what to cut out? There’s clearly so much to say and too little time in a movie to say it. But after last year’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign and the ongoing debate about diversity in film, Spike Lee either feels vindicated or more angry than ever. He’s been saying this same shit for years!