If you haven’t been paying close attention to Spike Lee’s career, you might think he has fallen off the map. The truth is he has been successfully juggling at least five careers simultaneously, prolific in all and compromising none. Let’s look at what he has done in this century alone. Lee has been most visible with his mainstream work, which is usually modestly budgeted and moderately profitable. Whatever the commercial failings of his more personal and experimental work, the combined profits of films such as The 25th Hour (2002). The Inside Man (2006), Miracle at St. Anna (2008). and Old Boy (2013), generate enough capital for all parties involved that he can sink $15 million into something like this year’s “Chi Raq” without worrying too much about what people think about it.
By today’s standards, $15 million is peanuts. That’s what Sharon Lawrence was paid for “Joy,” an extremely modest picture with a $60 million budget, most of it going to the actors. As of New Year’s Eve, “Chi-Raq” had only grossed $2.5 million, and although his last mainstream pictures, “Oldboy,” and “The Miracle at St. Anna” lost a total of $64 million, “The Inside Man,” showed a profit of over $140 million, and The 25th Hour +$18 million, so he has still put $94 million into some already deep pockets, so even after two mammoth flops, he is not considered a big risk in mainstream production circles. and despite mixed reviews from both critics and audiences, those flops were excellent pictures.
The beginning of the separation between Lee’s personal and mainstream pictures began with the commercial failures of Bamboozled (budget $10 million, gross 2.5 million) and “She Hate Me” (budget $8 million, gross $1.5 million). these films were too radical for the mainstream audience. women hated “She Hate Me,” and “Bamboozled” made both whites and blacks uncomfortable. It wasn’t always like this. In the beginning, it was Lee’s sharp radicalism that drew a crossover audience.
In the 80’s and 90’s, people were more open to movies that tried to tell the truth about complicated situations. In 1986 She’s Gotta Have It” initiated a rebirth of independent movies being given mainstream release, when this $175,000 picture grossed $7 million. His follow-up was considered something of a letdown, although it made $14 million on a 6.5 million investment. Then Lee made his mark. “Do the Right Thing Was a masterpiece, the best film of the 80’s since “Raging Bull.” And it only gets better with time. As for the figures, they went through the roof. Costing only 6.5 million, “Do the Right Thing” grossed a phenomenal $37 million. With higher grosses come bigger budgets, but Lee didn’t go crazy with success and kept expenses down for his next picture, and a good thing he did. “Mo Better Blues,” with a $10 million budget, grossed $16 million in the US. Not phenomenal, but profitable. many directors in Lee’s situation would have shot the moon and incurred heavy losses, but Lee played it safe and smart. Upping the ante to $14 million for “Jungle Fever,” he scored large with a $42 million worldwide gross. Then came the big gamble, a project that could only have made it off the ground with Lee at the helm. A three and a half hour epic on the life of the great “Malcolm X.” It would cost $33 million. And it grossed $48 million in domestic receipts alone.
Once a director makes a successful epic audiences expect his pictures to keep getting bigger and bigger. Look what happened to David lean aft “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” And nothing is bigger than Malcolm, so he went in the other direction, with a low-key family comedy-drama that, at $14 million, just about broke even. Then came the crash, when the $25 million adaptation of Richard Price’s “Clockers” was Lee’s first loser, with a $13 million dollar domestic gross, a loss to the tune of $12 million. Many viewers, myself included, refused to buy Spike Lee on Scorsese’s turf and thought his emphasis on the book’s black characters a miscalculation. Then he pissed off the women with his comedy about a sex-phone operator, “Girl 6,” which lost $7 million. Then, smartly, he cut the budget of his limited appeal “Get on the Bus” and more than doubled that in domestic receipts. The he got extravagant without another low key picture with a message, “He Got Game” costing $25 million with domestic receipts totaling $21.5 million. Not exactly a bust, but the success story was receding into the past. He tried again for a mainstream hit on Scorsese turf and hit about the same ration of budget to gross with “Summer of Sam.”
“Bamboozled” was an uncompromising analysis of blackface and other scams designed to bilk the African-American audience. Hysterically funny ad for Timmy Hillnigger jeans, though, didn’t get many laughs from the racially uptight audiences. although the budged was downsized to $10 million, the grosses didn’t even amount to three. Lee’s ship seemed to be returning to the sea. Meanwhile had begun two a new careers: one as a documentary film maker and the other as a film professor. The first kept him in non-commercial contracts on subjects he believed in. Two of these films, “When the Levees Broke” and “Four Little Girls,” are among the best African American documentaries made in the US. By 2006 he proved he could turn in a profitable mainstream film, make small independent films without losing too much money, and earn himself some merit badges from Academia.
Now, in 2015, he alienates a good percentage of his potential audience, with “Chi-Raq,” a film inspired in part by Aristophanes’ comedy “Lysistrata,” and in large by the killing of babies in black America. His targets are the NRA, street gangs, and penis fury. Casualties of his friendly fire include “Patton” and Tyler Perry films. His arsenal is inspired by Brecht, guerilla theater, rap music, vaudeville, and the French New Wave. This is a wildly funny, deeply thoughtful essay, not only on the parallels between the South Side of Chicago with Middle Eastern war zones, but on the mentality of a culture that refuses to make changes for the better, even when their present mistakes have led them to the brink of self-genocide.
It is a water balloon and squirt gun riot of a movie that pops and squirts all around us until the levees break and we choke and spit and gurgle until we are wringing the tears out of our underwear.