Heat (1995)

Is Heat the greatest film of all time? Is Heat the most technically proficient film of all time? Is Heat the best heist film of all time? All these monikers and more have been attributed to Michael Mann’s high action crime thriller.

Even those who haven’t seen the film might be aware that this is the first time DeNiro and Pacino shared screen time (i.e. been in the same scene together in a movie.) I could easily list the entire cavalcade of stars who appear throughout but the three most prominent are Robert DeNiro as Neil McCauley, Al Pacino as Lt. Vincent Hanna and Val Kilmer as Chris Shiherlis.

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McCauley and Shiherlis are two members of a very proficient group of organized thieves. Pacino is a veteran cop whose sole focus in life is hunting criminals. All three of them must contend between their path in life and their respective relationships with a wife/girlfriend. DeNiro in particular has made a choice to not attach himself to anyone or anything, so it goes entirely against his code when he finds himself in love with Eady (Amy Brenneman).

One thing that clearly works well about Heat is telling a complex story with multiple perspectives while maintaining clarity. Each actor in the film brings their A-game with total dedication to his/her role. Aside from the main stars, this was incredibly impressive with Dennis Haysbert as recent ex-convict Donald Breedan. Periodically, the film will shift back to his character starting with very little information and slowly building an understanding of who he is. Eventually, Breedan is forced to make a tough decision which serves as an excellent bit of tension and drama.

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While the film shifts perspective and handles a large cast well for the most part, I must admit that there were a few times I got mixed up by characters names. I came to the conclusion that it’s more important to remember faces than names. Even when I would get temporarily mixed up, it would ultimately resolve itself if I just kept watching.

Another positive element of the film is its use of cinematography. Many of the scenes are beautifully shot, particularly in their use of color. With that being said, I felt that some of the scenes were a bit too dark. I’m not sure if that was just due to my laptops display or not, nonetheless, it was a minor criticism.

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Regardless of my personal opinion, which is positive, Heat is a must view solely because of its impact on film in general. It has inspired many subsequent heist and crime films, most notably the bank robbery scene in the Dark Knight.

Although at times the film is over the top (see extensive police shootouts with automatic weapons and many of Al Pacino’s interrogation scenes) it is both engaging and entertaining. Once again, a must see. In fact, it’s on Netflix currently which is where I watched it.

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The Night Porter (1974)

The Night Porter is a 1974 period drama direct by Liliana Cavani. It stars Dirk Bogarde as a former Nazi officer and concentration camp guard, as well as Charlotte Rampling as a former concentration camp prisoner and Holocaust survivor.

Max (Bogarde) works as a porter at a hotel in Vienna. Lucia (Rampling) is married to a conductor and meets Max by chance while staying at the hotel where he is working. While in the concentration camp, Max sexually abuses Lucia on a regular basis. After meeting again they seem to rekindle the sadomasochistic relationship. For this reason, the film is highly controversial due to its sensational nature.

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To me, some parts of The Night Porter were truly fascinating. Particularly the details about Max and other former Nazis going to great lengths to remain in hiding. These plot elements transcend sensational sexual exploits and provide an intriguing psychological investigation. With that being said, certain parts of the film felt more exploitative than natural to the plot.

The sound track and cinematography in the film were both excellent. It is easy to get lost in such a well shot film. That may cause some to lose consideration as to whether the film as a whole is unethical in dealing with one of histories greatest tragedies.

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Aside from critiquing the overall plot and subject matter, another criticism I had was in the setting and costumes. Though the cinematography is great, it feels like a film that is taking place in the 70’s rather than the stated year of 1957.

Overall I feel this film is an important piece of culture to investigate. Moments of raw emotion and the concept of Nazis in hiding provide strong content for analysis. I would recommend this only to viewers who are willing to bring skepticism and historical context to their viewing experience.

Daisies (1966)

What do you do when you realize the world is “spoiled”? In Daisies, the 1966 surrealist comedy/drama directed by Vera Chytilová, Marie I and Marie II decide to directly reflect said world.

Marie I (Jitka Cerhová) and Marie II (Ivana Karbanová) are two young women (maybe sisters???) who reflect the spoiled state of the world primarily by pranking older men. They frequently will go out on dates, have their meal paid for and then hop off the train as it leaves with the man on board.

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Daisies is rife with symbolism. This includes apples, which may reflect the forbidden fruit of eden. Also sausages and eggs which are cut with scissors, potentially representing a break from conventional sexual norms. As well as an overall theme of purposeful gluttony as satire of communist rule leading to greedy dictatorship.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the wide variety of cinematic techniques used while filming and editing. Some scenes are in black and white while others are in color. Further, many scenes adopt interesting color tints to add another layer of experimentation. In one particularly interesting sequence, Marie I and II humorously cut off their limbs with scissors. The scene then devolves into a fast paced patchwork mural over the rhythmic sound of a typewriter. (By the way, yes that is as crazy as it sounds).

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If I had to mark one complaint, it would be one sequence in particular which I felt was a bit heavy handed with its use of symbolism. When the two Marie’s sit on their bed slicing sausages, eggs, pickles, and other food with scissors, the phallic and yonic (yes I had to google that word) overtones felt over the top in a film that clearly skates that boundary throughout. The commentary being made is interesting, but the method of doing so felt obvious and unoriginal to me personally.

For anyone not familiar with surrealist European films, I being no expert myself, a movie like Daisies may be a culture shock. There is very little linear story and a plethora experimental cinematography. With that being said, I feel it always valuable for individuals to keep an open mind and experience new things. Therefor, I would recommend Daisies. I greatly enjoyed watching and it is widely heralded as an important piece of cinema history.

Pariah is the 2011 feature length debut from writer and director Dee Rees. It’s an expansion of the 2007 short film she made by the same name. The film has been described by Rees as semi-autobiographical.

Pariah was produced by Spike Lee, which I was unaware of until after watching the film. As I watched it, the film did have a similar tone to some of Spike’s work. It was not then surprising to find that out. 6675da943810a1468b4440f94a8b0c03_originalThe movie stars Adepero Oduye in the lead role of Alike, a gifted student struggling with expressing her sexuality to her family. She has a close relationship with her father, played by Charles Parnell, who is a police officer suspected of cheating on her mother. Sahra Mellesse plays Sharonda, a religious and often strict disciplinarian mother and nurse who is in conflict with Alike.

Throughout the film, Alike is close friends with Laura (Pernell Walker) who dropped out of the same high school she is attending. Together they regularly visit a local lesbian nightclub and confide their struggles to each other. On the way to school and club, Alike packs clothes in a backpack to change in and out of what her mother finds appropriate. x950Eventually, Sharonda tells Alike she is going to be friends with Bina, played by Aasha Davis, the daughter of her coworker.  After a time Alike develops feelings for Bina, which leads to a tumultuous relationship and eventually the film’s resolution.

The performances in Pariah are top notch. The relationships are both convincing and full of raw emotion. The scenes of Alike and her father playing basketball together are just one of the many examples. The characters are so interesting and endearing that the movie left me wanting more.fHHHovuNllg.maxresdefault

screenshot3The film also has the unique ability to make you love and hate each character at different points in the film. Particularly the mother who so often is harassing Alike. Despite the harsh treatment, empathy is evoked in the fact that she is also facing an adulterous husband. Further, it is somewhat implied that she has a strained relationship with many of her co-workers.

One minor criticism I have is that occasionally the dialogue or interactions in the film feel unnatural. This is not unique to Pariah, almost every film has moments like this. It’s hard to describe accurately, but unnatural or un-organic is the best wording I can come up with.PariahPariah was an excellent film. Most of the films I choose to watch I anticipate I will enjoy, so it may be rare that I don’t recommend something I watch. This movie is on Netflix and I recommend everyone check it out.

 

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

The Hitch-Hiker was made in 1953 by actress turned director Ida Lupino. It is one of the only noir films directed by a woman. The story is based on true incidents involving hitchhiker/spree killer Billy Cook from 1950-51.

The film stars Edmond O’Brien as Roy Collins, an escaped convict who takes up hitchhiking to avoid authorities. He cons Gilbert Bowen (played by Frank Lovejoy) and Emmett Myers (played by William Talman), in the midst of a trip to go fishing and relax, into giving him a ride. From there on out they embark on a tension filled journey through Mexico as Collins seeks permanent solitude.

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One of the strongest elements of The Hitch-Hiker is the acting. Each of the three main characters give incredibly convincing performances and really drive the movie forward. There is also an interesting study of friendship as Bowen and Myers continually pass up opportunities to escape individually.

One particularly emotional moment comes when all three characters enter a Mexican convenient store to pick up food and supplies. Bowen, who has a child/children (I can’t recall of the top of my head which), hugs the storeowners young daughter. The look on his face and remark for her to “go with God” masterfully express how much he misses his family.

The Hitch-Hiker is also an interesting analysis of the difference between true strength and masculinity as opposed to fear and paranoia. At one point Myers, who begins to break down much quicker than Bowen, even confronts Collins about this directly. The acting and story combine for an edge of your seat experience throughout the movie.

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One minor weakness is the films semi-predictable ending. I will say that though it could be guessed, I remained engaged till the last moment. Watching the movie and becoming engrossed made the ending, while obvious on paper, less predictable than some may claim.

Overall, the film comes highly recommended from me. It is “short, sweet, and to the point” as some may say. It’s also in the public domain, therefor it is quite easy to access. Any fan of the noir genre or those interested in films directed by women will find an enjoyable viewing experience in The Hitch-Hiker.

Crooklyn (1994)

Crooklyn is Spike Lee’s 1994 semi-autobiographical family drama, which takes place primarily on one block in Brooklyn. In previous films, especially Do The Right Thing, there are sequences involving children. In this film, Lee decided to do an entire movie primarily from a kid’s perspective.

The film’s three primary stars are Alfre Woodard as mother Carolyn, Delroy Lindo as father Woody, and Zelda Harris as daughter Troy. The story covers the struggles, triumphs, and tragedies of a family of five based loosely on Spike Lee’s own childhood.

Woody is a determined jazz musician who struggles to find work due to his refusal to compromise and play popular music. Carolyn, a school teacher and hard working mother, must balance a career with keeping her family disciplined. Troy, the only girl in the family, plays peacemaker with her parents while coming to terms with her own self-image.

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Crooklyn (1994) Directed by Spike Lee Shown from left: Christopher Knowings, Delroy Lindo, Sharif Rashed, Alfre Woodard, Zelda Harris, Carlton Williams, Tse-Mach Washington

One of the best parts of the movie is the soundtrack. Featuring all songs of the 60’s and 70’s, Spike Lee took full advantage of the opportunity to display his love for two great decades of music. One memorable moment that comes to mind is Troy walking out of a convenient store to the song Hey Joe. As she approaches her home, the families roommate Vic (played by Isaiah Washington) is being placed into the back of a police car after an altercation with their neighbor.

This brings me to one of the more questionable elements of the film. The family and neighborhood are constantly feuding with eccentric resident “Tony Eyes” (played by David Patrick Kelly). He is constantly berated about his houses odor and accused of throwing trash around. At various times Tony is confronted by children and adults, leading to violence in the previously mentioned instance with Vic. My feeling is that he is probably based on Spike’s own life experiences. Either way, it’s a bit of a strange character who ultimately does not develop into much.

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Similar to that is Spike Lee’s own glue huffing character known as Snuffy. His limited role makes a bit more sense near the end of the film. I won’t divulge the final interaction as it would be a spoiler.

A particularly interesting sequence takes place when Troy goes to live with her Aunt and Uncle south of New York. These scenes illustrate interesting differences between African American communities both geographically and financially. I don’t feel qualified to attest to the accuracy of this, however, I trust Spike Lee as a director. Ultimately, this is up to viewers on an individual basis.

Without giving away any specifics, the conclusion of the film is both sad and uplifting. Spike Lee could’ve easily made this film and focused on one of the male characters, reflecting himself as a child. Instead he painted an incredibly mature and nuanced picture of a girl facing some of life’s most difficult challenges. Even with questionable moments, Crooklyn was an incredibly enjoyable viewing experience. Between an endless chain of great songs and very tender realistic relationships, this film balances fun with a heartfelt emotional core.

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As I round out a month of Spike Lee, this is yet another highly recommended viewing. I hope those that have followed my journey with Spike enjoyed his work just as much as I have. Stay tuned for an upcoming month of films directed by women.

Malcolm X (1992)

Whenever a movie runs over 2 hours, it immediately comes under some level of extra scrutiny. Such is the case with Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, which actually has a run time of over 3 hours. To do this, he had to call upon many prominent black celebrities to raise funds when the studio budget had been spent. To this day he thanks Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan, Oprah, Prince and others for their donations.

Malcolm X, an adaptation of X’s autobiography, was originally slated to be directed by a white director. Spike Lee went well out of his way to obtain directorial control of the project. After securing the position, he did hundreds of interviews and other research to prepare. For his part, Denzel Washington totally changed his lifestyle choices. He didn’t eat pork, smoke, or drink in preparation for the role. This level of dedication on the part of both Spike and Denzel is not surprising, it shows throughout the film. It has been recounted by Lee that Washington would often continue speeches beyond the script channeling the spirit of Malcolm X.

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The film immediately solidifies its connection to modern social ills by using Rodney King footage during the opening credits. It also lampoons the famous speech from Patton (1970) by prominently displaying the American flag while Washington, as X, recites a speech sharply criticizing the collective white man for centuries of violence. From here, the film takes off.

A great quality of Malcolm X is both the pacing and timeline used throughout the film. It jumps back and forth at times, particularly in the first act, keeping the story fresh, interesting, and engaging. I will say, however, that a few of the scenes early in the film feel a bit gimmicky. In an attempt to recreate Harlem in the 1940’s, there are a few instances in which I felt Spike Lee went too far over the top. This film was the first instance in my watching where he felt “in the way” in some of his scenes. That being said, his overall acting contribution in the film worked out.

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Speaking of performance, there are a quite a few notable ones in the film. Denzel as Malcolm is of course excellent, particularly as the film develops. Angela Bassett as his wife Betty Shabazz is compelling and has great chemistry with Denzel. As well, Al Freeman Jr. in the role of Elijah Muhammad  both looked and sounded incredibly close to his real life counterpart.

I would like to note that about a year ago or so I did read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Several years prior to that I watched the film, with almost no knowledge of Malcolm whatsoever. If I recall correctly, at least two major elements stuck out in my mind that were not included in the movie. First was his relationship with his brothers and sisters much past early childhood. If I recall, they played a role in his joining the Nation of Islam (NOI) as opposed to the composite character of Baines (Albert Hall) a prisoner used to represent many real life people. This was obviously done to make a more cohesive story, however, I think it may have been better to use his family members. Also, midway through the film a white college student asks him if there is anything she can do to help his movement. This is based on a real event in the book. However, later in the book X expresses how that moment encapsulates the regret he has for many of his actions as part of the NOI. The second half of the story is not explicitly told in the film.

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Despite these somewhat notable exclusions, anyone expecting the film to cover the entirety of the book and his life is aiming too high. It’s understandable that certain things had to be changed in order to keep the film at a cohesive pace. It’s still a mammoth achievement that serves both to inspire and encourage further research on an individual basis. Clearly Spike Lee had prepared himself above and beyond what was necessary, which ultimately resulted in a masterfully dynamic portrayal of a complex man.

This is the first Spike Lee film I’ve reviewed not to be scored by his father Bill. Even so, there are still many great songs on the soundtrack. This includes jazz sage John Coltrane and a memorable montage using Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come. Unlike the past 3 films, it also doesn’t have music underlying the entirety of the movie. This clearly makes sense being a historical drama and not a fictional story.

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The film concludes with several sequences. There is a heartbreaking eulogy read by legendary actor Ossie Davis, as well as a short speech given by Nelson Mandela among other scenes. While both of these elements were excellent on their own, overall it felt the ending lingered a bit too long. Each piece individually stood alone well, but together felt indecisive.

Even with some criticism, I highly recommend Malcolm X. At over 3 hours, a majority of the film will leave viewers on the edge of their seat. Students of X or those with little background info will equally gain something positive from viewing it. I would recommend reading his autobiography as well. As a historical figure that has been compartmentalized by mainstream historians and commentators, it is essential to gain a perspective from both Lee and X himself. Paring the film and autobiography may inspire one to study other prominent black leaders and intellectuals, I know it had that effect on me.

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Mo’ Better Blues (1990)

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.

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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.

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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.

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Do The Right Thing (1989)

Do The Right Thing is often regarded as Spike Lee’s greatest film. Released in 1989, the film studies the complex issue of racism by focusing on one block in Brooklyn surviving the hottest day of the year.

The cast features Danny Aiello as Sal, owner of Sal’s Pizzeria and his two sons Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson). Spike Lee, who plays Sal’s deliveryman Mookie. Tina, played by Rosie Perez, who is Mookie’s girlfriend and mother to his son. Samuel L. Jackson as local radio host Mister Señor Love Daddy. Along with acting legends Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee as Da Mayor and Mother Sister respectively.

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The film opens by illustrating how incredibly hot the day is, even first thing in the morning. We are introduced early to undertones of racism when Pino criticizes his father for paying Da Mayor to sweep the block in front their pizza shop. Conflict arrises further when Buggin Out, played by Giancarlo Esposito, questions why Sal’s only has pictures of famous Italian’s in the restaurant. Soon he is calling for a boycott of after being thrown out.

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As the film moves forward, the audience is introduced to each character and given an understanding of how everyone on the block interacts with one another. Da Mayor, disparaged for being an old drunk, saves a boy from being hit by a car and buys flower for Mother Sister. Mookie visits Tina, confronts the absurdity of Pino’s racism, and protects his sister (played by his real life sister Joie Lee) when he feels Sal is a little too interested in her. He also encourages Vito to stand up for himself against his brothers bullying.

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While the day wears on, Buggin Out soon realizes he’s going to have trouble gaining support for his protest. He finally tells Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), one of Spike Lee’s most memorable character creations, who is willing to confront Sal. Carrying his signature boom box, Radio Raheem is berated by Sal who smashes the stereo in a fit of rage. This ultimately escalates to the films necessarily ambiguous ending.

There are many things that make this film great, but for the sake of fairness I will provide a few minor criticisms. At certain points in the film, the acting becomes a bit melodramatic. Though this may be intentional, as some scenes feel as much like a play as they do like a film, it can take the viewer out of the movie momentarily. Also, there is a sub-plot about the blocks convenient store being run by a Korean family. Spike Lee walks a thin tightrope, often portraying the owner in a one dimensional manner.

One thing that makes the film so enjoyable is the genuine relationships felt between the characters. At 2 hours long it could’ve been double that length simply because of how dynamic the interplay was between the cast. Furthermore, top notch performances are given all around. A testament to this is how even set pieces like Da Mayor’s hat or Radio Raheem’s signature Love and Hate rings feel natural and almost become a part of the characters. To top it all off, the actors and actresses do an excellent job combining Spike Lee’s unique dialogue style with their own manner of speech.

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The film confronts racism from a unique angle. The entire plot is underscored by the seeming yin and yang of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X’s philosophies. This is expressed especially by the character Smiley, played by Roger Guenveur Smith, who scours the block trying to sell copies of the famous Malcolm and Martin handshake picture. In particular, the idea of black ownership of business in black neighborhoods is analyzed. This topic was often addressed by Malcolm X, who believed that the true problem of segregation was the lack of economic and political control by black people over their own neighborhoods. The film does make an important distinction, however, that despite popular understanding Malcolm X believed in violence as a tool of self-defense. It closes with a quotes from both Malcolm and Martin, giving the viewer food for thought long after they finish the movie.

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From a technical standpoint there are many great things as well. Once again his father Bill Lee scored the film and as expected it’s fantastic.  The film opens with a solo sax rendition of Lift Every Voice and Sing followed by Fight The Power. This establishes the tension and duality in the film right from the start. Often there is interplay between Radio Raheem’s playing of Fight The Power and Lee’s jazzy saxophone heavy score that blend masterfully. The editing and actors addressing the camera all play out in true Spike Lee fashion. In regards to cinematography, is a red tint in much of the film that further exemplifies just how hot it is.

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When preparing this review I probably made about 30 notes and I’m not sure I even got to half of them. I may come back at some point and do an analysis of this film, as there are so many angles and subtleties that could be addressed. The only thing I can say is go watch this movie, it’s a masterpiece and you won’t regret it. The themes are just as relevant today as they were in 1989.

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