(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2003)
Spike Lee may be one of the five most famous directors in the world, but his fame doesn’t mean he gets the respect that’s due to him. Actually it limits it. The antics at Knicks games, the commercials, the inflammatory statements and rabble-rousing – it’s more the profile of a poseur or provocateur than of a great artist. Of course, everyone acknowledges Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing, but after a string of flops we’re almost at the point where Lee might be widely regarded as someone who occasionally hits greatness despite himself.
Lately he’s complained about budget restrictions (his failed ventures include a Jackie Robinson biopic), while yet becoming more prolific than ever. He has six directing credits in the last three years: documentaries on Huey Newton and Jim Brown, the concert film Original Kings of Comedy, a segment of the anthology film Ten Minutes Older, and two feature films – Bamboozled and his new 25th Hour. Bamboozled was a flop, failing to generate much support even in Lee’s usual cheering section. I thought it was an utter masterpiece – one of those rare movies in which artistic risks and happy accidents combine to almost mystical effect. But most viewers stumbled on the film’s grainy camera style, Damon Wayans’ accent, and their own assumptions that blackface could no longer serve as the vehicle for effective satire.
As if in reaction to these recurring criticisms, 25th Hour is one of Lee’s most handsome-looking films, with some of his most straightforward “good” acting. And, through its recurring references to September 11, it could hardly be more topical. He might be forgiven for thinking he can’t win, because 25th Hour has been criticized for opportunism, for grafting its layers of significance onto a plot that can’t really carry them.
Edward Norton plays a drug dealer who’s been busted for possession, and the movie takes place on the day before he turns himself in for a lengthy jail sentence. He’s basically just a soft kid who fell in with the wrong crowd and the lure of easy money; the prospect of jail – particularly of assault by the other inmates – is paralyzing him. On his last day he spends time with his two oldest friends – one now a schoolteacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who’s obsessed with a teenage pupil (Anna Paquin), the other a Wall Street trader (Barry Pepper); with his pub owner father (Brian Cox), and with the girlfriend he suspects of turning him in (Rosario Dawson). And in perhaps the film’s dominant image, he walks alone with the dog he found dying by the side of the road and then saved – an act he views as perhaps the one good thing he ever did.
Lee paints a diverse circle here – whether measured by racial background or age or worldview. During his last day of freedom, Norton tests the contours of this group as if already caged and exploring his boundaries. About halfway through the movie, he goes to the washroom, and his reflection in the mirror delivers a long, profane rant (accompanied by a visual montage) against almost every definable (mainly by race) group in New York. It’s instantly reminiscent of the similar sequence in Do the Right Thing, but that echo illustrates what’s different, and unprecedented in Lee’s work, about 25th Hour. There’s no real anger to the dialogue here – it never seems like more than a rationalization of Norton’s predicament, an attempt to externalize his self-recrimination. This is confirmed at the end of the film, when some of the faces in the montage reappear outside the car as he’s driving away – but now they’re welcome, like the last thing he has left to grab on to.
It’s as if Lee was officially giving up the ghost on his angry young black man persona. Not least of all because the film has less “black” content than any he’s made before. But the feeling of resignation goes further than that. 25th Hour often feels as though September 11 had knocked Lee’s stuffing out of him. It’s a distinctly post-traumatic New York. The opening credits are built around the blue lights that for a while commemorated the two towers, and one of the film’s key scenes – a long exchange between Norton’s two best friends – takes place in an apartment overlooking Ground Zero. Touching on guilt and justice and recrimination, the conversation grapples with identity and stability, with a backdrop commemorating our most shocking reminder of those qualities’ fragility.
I mentioned that some critics find the 9/11 parallels overblown, and point out that Norton is an implausibly nice drug dealer. The latter opinion surely overlooks how Lee has always functioned as a satirist (Bamboozled even started out by defining the term “satire”.) His films have better surfaces than just about anyone else’s, but much as they radiate intense commitment and vibrancy, he never seems confined by his plots’ ostensible limits. He uses formal distancing devices (one of his favourites being close-ups with the background shifting behind them – as though the characters had fallen out of sync with their surroundings), fiery montages, dialogue delivered direct to camera. He filmed a big chunk of Crooklyn out of focus to reflect the protagonist’s disorientated state. His films have the feeling of vaudeville, of agit-prop, of performance art. He wants you to think.
But in 25th Hour it all turns melancholy. I think Lee succeeds in virtually all his ambitions here. The film’s world is unquestionably stylized; it’s a fascinating aesthetic construction like all Lee’s films, but it also sustains a remarkably comprehensive study of attitudes (aided by an excellent cast). And at its heart, it’s as simple as this: someone led a good life he didn’t deserve and now must pay the price. What good can that presage for New York? Except that the film’s final passage explores the possibility that it might still turn out differently, that the relative lack of accountability might yet be extended, perhaps indefinitely. It’s a dreamy, elegiac passage, but beautifully rendered, summing up the film’s equilibrium between resignation and escape.
I should note though that the ending has been criticized even more than the rest of the film: the Globe and Mail referred to a “final 15 minutes that surely ranks among the clumsiest endings an otherwise good movie has ever received.” I don’t agree (at the very least, “clumsy” seems unfair to Lee’s fluency), but maybe Lee would take this criticism better than he’s taken others. Post 9/11, a certain amount of well-meaning clumsiness might seem to him merely like the mark of a good man.