Released in 1990, Mo’ Better Blues is the follow up to Do The Right Thing. Not only is it a chronological continuation, but many of the same actors appear as well. Furthermore, this film explores many of the same themes as both Do The Right Thing and She’s Gotta Have It.
The male lead, Bleek Gilliam, is played by Denzel Washington. Bleek is a professional jazz musician who has been mastering his craft from a very young age. As a child he was reluctant to sacrifice time with his friends in order to practice. Now, as an adult, he seems determined yet simultaneously indecisive about where he sees himself in the future.
Sharing as dual female leads are Indigo (played by Joie Lee) and Clarke (played by Cynda Williams). Much like Nola in the She’s Gotta Have It, Bleek is unable to decide on just one woman. Indigo is a student and aspiring professional, while Clarke is a hopeful jazz singer looking in part for a chance to sing with Bleek’s band.
The supporting cast includes Spike Lee as the gambling addicted band manager Giant. As well as Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, and Dick Anthony Williams as Left Hand Lacey, Hammer, and Big Stop Williams respectively. They are the members of Bleek’s band and often a source of contention throughout the film. Other notable features include Robin Harris (as comedian Butterbean), Samuel L. Jackson (as both Señor Love Daddy and gang enforcer Madlock), and Charlie Murphy (as one of the jazz clubs two doormen).
Throughout the film Bleek struggles to remain focused and honor relationships he’s built through childhood and as an adult. Whether it’s confusing Indigo and Clarke in bed, failing to appease his bandmates request for a higher salary, or being too slow in helping Giant out of a gambling debt, Bleek seems to make one wrong step after another. Compounded on this is bandmate Shadow (Wesley Snipes), who’s also in love with Clarke and continually threatens to leave Bleek’s band. This leads him to hit rock bottom before making a slow and painful rise leading into the films conclusion.
One issue that came out after the films initial release was the portrayal of Jewish club owners Moe and Josh Flatbush (played by real life brothers John and Nicholas Turturro). Spike Lee pushed back by citing decades of skewed and outright racist portrayals of African Americans in cinema. As I often write, this is up to individual viewers to decide.
Although I greatly enjoyed the conclusion, which bookended magnificently with the opening sequence of the film, the “ending” so to speak felt a bit unnatural to me. It seemed to be going one way and rapidly went another. Ultimately it works out in my opinion. To avoid spoilers, I will leave it at that.
This film is about much more than just jazz but it would be foolish not to mention how much great music is in the film. Once again Spike’s father (who also plays a small role) provided music. Further, contemporary jazz great Branford Marsalis (who Spike worked with in School Daze, a film I have not seen) contributed both music and guidance to the actors. On top of that, many great jazz artist’s are featured in the soundtrack. One of my personal favorites was the use of the legendary John Coltrane toward the end.
Mo’ Better Blues handles relationships, luck vs responsibility, support for jazz in the black community, and many other heavy issues. Yet despite that, it manages to remain fast paced and sometimes even funny. The numerous references to jazz history and expansive soundtrack further illustrate Spike Lee’s love of the genre. This film is the culmination of prior work and a sign of things to come for Lee both in terms of subject matter and cinematography. His maturation as a filmmaker continues to show.
Whether it’s Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, another of the cavalcade of stars, jazz music or just general curiosity, Mo’ Better Blues has something for most viewers. Much like the prior two films this month, I consider this a must watch….even if you have to pay to view it.
On a sad note, this movie is the final work of the great comedian Robin Harris. He has some great stand up scenes in this film, a great testament to his legacy.