Spike Lee Is Our Most Intriguing Filmmaker

No one else is operating at his level.

During the publicity cycle for BlacKKKlansman there was a fair amount of press over how director Spike Lee ending the film by using news footage from the 2018 Charlottesville white supremicist rally as well as shots of Trump praising the “very fine people” on both sides of that rally. That coverage treated it as something novel or unusual, for Lee to use real life footage in his film. It was anything but.

As I rewatched Lee’s Malcolm X I was reminded it begins with footage of Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police as well as the ensuing protests that swamped parts of that city in the aftermath less than a year after those events occurred. There are plenty of other examples, including his recent short video that shows the real police killings of Eric Garner and George Floyd along with the scene of police killing Radio Raheem from Do The Right Thing.

Lee uses the same style in his recent film Da 5 Bloods. The movie is an examination of the connections between the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 70s, specifically dealing with how black soldiers were treated before, during and after that military action. Throughout the story, the question is asked why black soldiers were sent overseas to die disproportionately for freedoms they themselves were not able to enjoy at home?

As we watch the five veterans navigate the jungles of Vietnam in search of the remains of their fallen friend and the treasure they buried decades prior, we get footage from that era. Lee weaves in clips of protests, marches and more along with the often violent actions of law enforcement to those protests.

In Da 5 Bloods that footage is contemporary, at least in relation to the flashback sequences of the soldiers’ time in-country. In the other movies the news clips serve a different purpose, juxtaposing recent news with a feature whose narrative is set in the past to show how little has changed in that time. The Charlottesville rallies make it clear that the Klan depicted in BlacKKKlansman is not a part of history but something that is alive and active right now. Rodney King’s beating shows how the dignity Malcolm X fought for is still missing.

The skillful way all that is presented in these and other films never gets in the way of the narrative he’s building but always supports it. Unlike some filmmakers, he underlines the point being made without it being obtrusive or distracting.

If anything, it shows he is telling a narrative story – often a real life one – with the ethos and mindset of a documentarian. That’s something no one else is really doing.

It’s just the latest reason Lee has remained one of the most vital filmmakers operating for over 30 years, someone who’s never really had a downswing in terms of quality or relevancy. Everything he does sizzles and pops off the screen and is just as important today as the day it was released. That’s both a positive in that he has told important stories that reward continued viewing regardless of whether you’ve seen the film before or not and a negative because we’re still dealing with the same issues Lee was addressing in 1986.

Few others can say likewise. In fact, the director he’s a contemporary of and is frequently compared to – Oliver Stone – has devolved into a parody of himself in the last 15 years with movies that keep hitting the same paranoid themes and Boomer mentality. Stone made his bones telling stories about Vietnam and its veterans, but always from the perspective of there being someone else to blame for the tragedies that happened there and without examining how that has reverberated through the rest of society.

Lee has now done that, using the archival footage to support his thesis, showing that the party to blame was us, because we weren’t grappling with issues at home while feeling we could still help the rest of the world deal with theirs.

That comes into focus in one relatively minor piece of dialogue. As Paul (Delroy Lindo) is trying to negotiate for the eventual transportation of the gold he and his friends recover out of the country, he and the French smuggler (played by Jean Reno) begin trading words about the U.S. assistance provided to France in WWII. “Yes,” Reno’s character points out, “but even America couldn’t win in Vietnam.”

That’s an admission that goes beyond the “war is hell” ideas presented by Stone and others and plays into how Lee is and has always been willing to go where others can’t or won’t. Even the premise of the film, that Vietnam impacted some groups more than others because of racial or economic disparities at home, has rarely been addressed so clearly. It’s just the most recent example of how Lee is a filmmaker unlike most others, one that too often is left out of discussions of the great directors in cinema history.

Da 5 Bloods – Marketing Recap

How Netflix is selling the latest Spike Lee Joint.

Chadwick Boseman, Delroy Lindo and a host of other talent all star in this week’s Da 5 Bloods, the new film from director Spike Lee debuting on Netflix. The story focuses on a group of Vietnam War veterans who return to that country to search for the remains of one of their fallen comrades as well as the treasure they left buried there decades ago.

Of course this being a Spike Lee Joint, the story is likely only a framework on which to examine issues of race and justice in America and the world as a whole, something he has done throughout his career to great effect. That’s part of the allure of his films, along with the masterful way he crafts narratives and directs actors to some of their all-time best performances.

Netflix’s campaign for the movie culminates at a time when the U.S. might finally be having the hard conversations about race that have been tabled for centuries.

The Posters

A crying black face wearing an Army helmet is depicted on the first poster (by marketing agency Gravillis Inc.). That poster, released in early May, uses a simple image to convey a great deal of the story’s tone as well as the upcoming release date.

A similar image is changed a bit on the second poster that came out just a short while later. This time the four main characters can be seen raising their fists defiantly from the helmet of the soldier while bombs with the face of Richard Nixon painted on them fall from above and a couple slogans are painted on the wall behind them.

There’s more imagery, some of it variations on what’s been used previously, on the next poster from later in May. New here is a colorful background as well as an illustration of black protesters marching with signs showing the black power fist being raised or declaring “I am a man.”

That same fist is the main element on the final poster, released in early June. This time it, not a face, is seen under the helmet, symbolizing the how the civil rights movement was expected to give way to the more important military effort but still existed within it and as part of that. The “Our fight is not in Vietnam” slogan shown here reinforces that idea while the faux folds in the design make it seem like this was a propaganda poster pulled out from storage for display.

The Trailers

The movie’s one trailer (1 million views on YouTube) came out in mid-May and immediately sets the tone by showing Hanoi Hannah reading a message to black U.S. troops asking them if they know what they’ve been (disproportionally) sent to Vietnam to fight and die for. As “Time Has Come Today” by The Chambers Brothers plays we see the former soldiers struggling with their return to the country where they experienced so much pain, searching for their fallen comrade along with the hidden gold they left there. There are flashbacks – presented in a different aspect ratio and with the look of different film stock – of them as younger men as well as actual historical footage of protests, politics and more from that period. It’s chaotic but clear and promises yet another masterstroke of filmmaking from Lee.

Online and Social

Nothing here, but Netflix did give the movie a good amount of promotion on its brand profiles.

Advertising and Promotions

Lee announced a June release date just a couple months ago.

More of the movie’s story is on display in a short TV spot-like video released in early June. You get the basic plot outlines and what the mission these men are embarking on is made clear, adding up to a strong spot.

Netflix also seized the cultural moment we’re all living through to offer something that is relatively rare on the service, a curated collection of films. In this case it’s a “Black Lives Matter” list of titles that offer a number of movies, series and documentaries touching on the black experience, by black filmmakers and so on.

In addition to the soundtrack by composer Terence Blanchard being available, Spotify offered a playlist of songs Lee used as inspiration or which were otherwise important to him, with commentary from the director sprinkled in touching on how the songs related to the movie.

Media and Press

Boseman spoke briefly about the movie while promoting other projects late last year.

In May the first look at stills from the film was offered along with comments about the story and more from Lee.

A profile of Lee in late May included a number of tidbits about the film, from the fact he wasn’t using any de-aging technology for the flashbacks to the wide range of political opinions the story’s characters would represent. In another interview with Lee he talked about how this film continues his career-long focus on racial issues and the inequality that pervades throughout society, something that hasn’t improved in the decades since his first film.

Overall

If the campaign accomplishes anything – at least anything outside of creating a desire to see the movie – it will likely be to create more awareness of how the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement were intertwined and influenced by each other. That, to be transparent, is something I wasn’t fully cognizant of myself until the movie sent me down a research path.

To that end, Netflix’s marketing shows that once again Lee is using the power of the moving image to make sure audiences understand the past isn’t dead but still alive in the present. His mixing of new footage with news clips is something he’s done to great effect in movies like BlackKKKlansman and Malcolm X. It’s even on display in a short video created by Lee – not tied directly to this movie but certainly relevant and consistent with the topics he’s regularly addressed – showing the tragic similarities between the fates of George Floyd and Eric Garner and what happens to the character Radio Raheem in Do The Right Thing.

The timing of the film, while entirely coincidental, means it’s inescapable how vitale and relevant the story and the issues it addresses remain. And the elements of the marketing make it a must-see for anyone who’s been a fan of Lee’s previous films.

Picking Up the Spare

More from Lee here on crafting the story, including his inclusion of characters that don’t match preconceived notions and more. Lee was also interviewed via video on “The Tonight Show” and again on “The Daily Show.” 

That political diversity is covered by Lindo in an interview where he talks about working with Lee and more. 

A couple new clips were released just before the movie hit Netflix. 

A featurette on the history of the art used on the posters and how they tie to the civil rights movement came from Netflix that’s super-interesting. That process was also covered in this story

On release date, Netflix bought a Twitter Promoted Trend to raise awareness of the film. 

Composer Terence Blanchard, who also offers commentary on the movie’s Spotify playlist, talks here about creating the film’s musical elements. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel also spoke about working with Lee to create the film’s look and the difficulties of the location shooting. 

The topic of Lee making one of his main characters an overt supporter of Pres. Trump continued to generate feature stories and interviews and was part of a profile of Lindo. 

The movie’s journey to the big screen was not always a straight line. 
Netflix has put out a number of video interviews with the cast where they shared what it’s like to be picked by Lee for a particular role. Majors also talked about how Lee helped him prepare for his character.

Movies For A Troubling Moment

Some ideas on what to watch to help make sense of this moment.

So much is happening right now it’s a bit hard to keep your head above water. But as with so many things it’s important not only to keep some perspective but to appreciate the context current events are happening within and the history that’s informing them.

Movies and documentaries can help us do just that. This is not by any means a complete list, and I’m the first to admit there are many gaps I’ve yet to fill in, but these are just some I’ve watched recently that I recommend you check out to do just that.

13th

Ava DuVernay’s documentary about the injustices inherent in the justice system when it comes to how black men in particular are treated is powerful and unforgettable. It pairs well with Michelle Alexander’s excellent book “The New Jim Crow” and hits on similar subject matter. Netflix has made the entire thing free on YouTube, so you’re out of excuses and should watch it immediately.

When They See Us

Also from DuVernay and also on Netflix, this is a moving and dramatic retelling of the story of the Central Park Five, a group of young men wrongfully accused of a crime and tried by those in power in the press as well as the courts. The director and producer recently launched an educational initiative about social justice and inspired by the case.

Sorry To Bother You

Head over to Hulu for this tragically under-appreciated gem of a societal comedy about code-switching, racial identity, labor practices and lots more. It’s incredibly funny and then, as you’re laughing, you realize what a huge and important point it’s making.

BlacKKKlansman

Not only is Spike Lee’s true story of a black man who managed to infiltrate a Klan cell funny and dramatic, but the director managed to insert footage at the end of the racial fears and tensions our current president was fanning into flames even as a candidate.

Pass Over

This one passed a lot of people by and that’s a shame. Lee directed this filmed version of a Chicago stage production about two young men who are terrorized by local police for no reason. Most damning is the presentation of the “good white man” character who turns out to be even more sinister than the armed authorities.

I Am Not Your Negro

The vision of acclaimed author James Baldwin is on full display in this documentary, which uses archival footage of interviews with Baldwin as well as contemporary comments from scholars and historians to educate the audience. It’s massively informative and highly recommended.

See You Yesterday – Marketing Recap

see you tomorrow posterThe new Netflix-exclusive feature See You Yesterday is a kind of wolf in sheep’s clothing. On the surface it seems like a movie about two young people – Claudette (Eden Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian (Dante Crichlow) – who have put together a working time machine in the way that often happens in movies, where physics isn’t so much a thing.

The surprise comes in what Claudette wants to use that time machine for: Saving her older brother Calvin from being shot by police despite being unarmed and not doing anything illegal. The kids find that while their intentions are good it’s more difficult to rewrite the past than they may have anticipated, and the results of doing so aren’t always what they assumed they would be.

The Posters

There’s a definite Spy Kids vibe coming off the poster, which shows Claudette and Sebastian in jumpsuits and sporting goggles and other gear as they run toward the camera and away from a clock. That communicates the time travel nature of the story while the emotional stakes are hinted at in the copy “Going back is the only way forward.” It doesn’t hit details of the story too hard, though, seemingly attempting to hook audiences in by showing a fun adventure before offering more serious social commentary.

The Trailers

Claudette and Sebastian are working on their project in the first trailer, seeing its completion as the key to them succeeding. They’re determined to show time travel is possible, something that becomes more personal when Claudette’s brother Calvin is shot and killed by police despite being unarmed. She tries to go back in time and save him but never succeeds. With only a limited amount of time jumps possible she becomes more and more desperate, putting herself and Sebastian in harm’s way as a result.

Online and Social

Nothing here. Netflix didn’t even give it much love on its brand profiles, focusing instead on other recent and upcoming releases.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

No paid media I’ve seen, but some ads are likely coming up post-release.

Media and Publicity

The trailer debuted on EW in late April, just a few weeks before release. Later on director Stefon Bristol revealed how he managed to get Michael J. Fox for a cameo role and then expanded on how criticism Lee had for an early short he produced lead to the two of them collaborating because Bristol wanted to up his game and never be put in that position again.

While it didn’t mention the movie explicitly, a profile of Lee had him talking about working with Netflix on other projects and more about his recent work.

The movie did screen at the recent Tribeca Film Festival, where Bristol continued to speak about the story and how he came to expand his short film to feature length.

Overall

It’s interesting to see a movie like this happen. So many of the recent movies that have told stories related to the Black Lives Matter movement have been serious dramas about predominantly adult characters dealing with the aftermath of violence in their communities. Expanding those stories into the realm of science fiction, particularly sci-fi aimed so clearly at younger audiences means touching on those themes in new ways.

A stronger push here would have been welcome to raise awareness the movie was happening and available, but it lacks the star power of some of Netflix’s other recent releases, likely a big reason it didn’t receive more attention. Still, the message is important and shows, at least in some ways, that the idea of police officers shooting unarmed black men is still something we find troubling.

Picking Up the Spare

As suspected, Netflix started running some online ads for the movie once it was available for streaming. 

BlacKkKlansman – Marketing Recap

blackkklansman poster 3Spike Lee, one of the most powerful and important filmmakers of the last 30 years who we collectively too often sleep on or overlook, is back this week with the new movie BlacKkKlansman. The movie is basically just what you might think it is based on the title, a story of a black member of the KKK…at least kind of.

Based on real events from the 1970s, John David Washington plays police officer Ron Stallworth. In the midst of the social turmoil of the time, Stallworth decides to infiltrate the KKK to determine how dangerous they are. He conducts most of his business over the phone but partners with fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to be the face of the operation when things need to be handled in-person. They do so well they eventually cross paths with KKK leader David Duke (Topher Grace) himself.

The Posters

Ummm…wow. Stallworth is shown on the first poster standing there with one fist raised in a “black power” salute and the other holding a hair pick, all of which, when combined with the leather jacket he’s sporting, makes it clear the story takes place several decades in the past. The main thing is…he’s wearing the white hood of the Klan over his face, creating an incredible juxtaposition between the visual elements and setting up the nature and premise of the story. The edges of the photo shown have been artificially worn to give it a dated feel as well.

Driver and Washington stand on opposite sides of a white triangle, on which is the tagline “Infiltrate hate” and a reminder this is based on a true story. Of note here is the clear callout beneath the title that the movie comes “From producer Jordan Peele” to capitalize on his popularity.

 

One more had Washington standing within an American flag whose red and white stripes had been converted to black and white, those stripes going both behind and in front of him to illustrate how woven he and others are into the American experience. This one promises the movie is “Based on a crazy, outrageous, incredibly true story.”

The Trailers

I’m just not sure how to adequately explain how the first trailer opens with Stallworth, recently added to the police force, adopting a very white-sounding voice to call and get in the good graces of David Duke. Stallworth is out to infiltrate the KKK and can handle part of that, but needs “the right white man” to actually play the part in person, which means recruiting Zimmerman, who’s a bit skeptical. The execution of the plan coincides with the civil rights movement and other societal upheavals, with the reluctant partners out to take down those looking to keep any non-white people in their place.

It’s…it’s really funny. What’s shown here, with the music and everything, plays fast and loose and breezy, showing how the two partners make their plan come to fruition, albeit for different reasons. This is the kind of filmmaking we haven’t seen from Lee in a number of years and both Washington and Driver look pitch perfect.

Online and Social

Focus Features’ website for the movie isn’t exactly chock-full of information, but the basics are all covered. The site uses the studio’s standard layout, with the trailer playing as the site opens and other content available further down the page. So as you scroll down you can see an “About” section and then, available by clicking on the various pictures on the page, read bios and other facts about the cast and crew. Over on the right there are also links to the movie’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

I’ve seen a few online ads that have used the film’s key art and some social posts using the trailer, but that’s it. There no TV spots I’ve been able to find.

Media and Publicity

Aside from the…unconventional and eyebrow-raising title, the first real bit of news about the movie came when it was announced as one of those screening at the Cannes Film Festival. Footage was shown off by Lee at CinemaCon, with the tone of what was seen taking a good amount of the press and other attendees by surprise. The first still was released shortly after that. The movie was also part of the later CineEurope presentation from the studio.

A feature profile of Lee appeared just before the Cannes debut that allowed him to talk about making the movie, what he wants to convey through it, his thoughts on the current president and lots more that show he hasn’t missed a step over the years. He talked again to Vanity Fair after that screening, which was very well-received and generated a ton of great word-of-mouth. It also included comments from Lee, unsurprisingly, about the current U.S. political climate and administration. He reiterated those views in subsequent interviews like this before the movie was ultimately given the festival’s Grand Prix award, significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it was one of the few entries in the actual competition this year from a U.S. filmmaker.

The movie was one of two at Cannes featuring Topher Grace, resulting in a narrative emerging about how this was a kind of comeback for the actor and how this was part of a mission to reinvent his career. He talked more about why he opted to take on such a controversial role while Washington was also profiled in a feature where he talked about carving out a career independent of his father’s and more.

At some point it was noticed the movie was one of several either primed for release or in production that focused on the KKK being the adversary in some manner.

In late July a major press push happened that included Lee talking about the tone of the movie and how he sees himself in the scope of film history, how he became involved with the project and how his family influenced his filmmaking, why he included recent news footage as well as more on the Trump presidency and the current state of racism in America. That Rolling Stone story also revealed Lee had secured an unreleased Prince song to use during the end credits, something he explained more in-depth here. Co-writer Kevin Willmott also talked about many of the same themes mentioned above.

That coincided with the release of two clips, one showing Grace as Duke thanking his supporters for putting “America first” and one showing Stallworth getting more familiar with black culture.

While there wasn’t much on the paid front, there was a significant press push in the final week before release. Washington appeared on “Access Hollywood,” while Grace appeared on “The Today Show,” as did both Lee and Washington. Meanwhile, Lee showed up on “NBC Nightly News” and elsewhere. All those and others created an exclusive featurette for Regal Cinemas.

The real Stallworth was interviewed as well, mentioning how he’d spoken to Duke recently and how the Trump-supporting racist was “concerned” he may not come off well in the movie, something that defies parody.

Overall

Well…What to say about that. Spike Lee has made a movie that:

  1. Is about black law enforcement standing up for an underrepresented culture and taking on established powers that have ignored the plight of their community for too long.
  2. Is about how white supremacist neo-nazis are unquestionably the bad guy, someone to be targeted for investigation and taken down because of their hate speech.

And all of that and more is in a campaign that makes the story seem not only timely but funny. It’s hard to think of a story that’s more relevant, especially since its release is timed to the one year anniversary of the white supremacist marches at Charlottesville.

PICKING UP THE SPARE

More from the real Ron Stallworth on how he helped John David Washington prepare to play him. There’s also this additional interview with screenwriter Kevin Willmott.

Spike Lee shared a music video for the previously-unreleased Prince song he managed to secure for the movie.

Great profiles here and here of Laura Harrier, who didn’t get much attention in advance of release. Costume designer Marci Rogers also was interviewed about her work on the movie.

John David Washington shared what his first experiences on the set of the film were and what inspired him about working with Spike Lee.

Washington and others from the cast spoke out about what has happened in the country in the year since the Charlottesville incidents and how the movie connects to that. They also explained how they got into character for the time period the story is set in.

There have been a number of stories like this that continue to explore the real events depicted in the story and the connection between the real Ron Stallworth and Washington, who plays him in the movie.

Topher Grace continues to be a central focus of the press as he appears on “Late Night” to talk about the film.

Lee finally got on TV, talking with Seth Meyers about the connections between this movie – and the events that inspired it – and the present day. He also appeared on “The Daily Show.”

John David Washington appeared on “Kimmel” to talk about the movie, working with Spike Lee and more.

The real-life Ron Stallworth is interviewed here about his actual experiences and how closely the movie adheres to that.

The technical aspects of shooting the film are discussed here by director of photography Chayse Irvin.

The movie’s producers spoke about how they were a bit more free to tell this story in the way they wanted following the success of Get Out.

Pass Over – Marketing Recap

pass over posterAuthor Antoinette Nwandu debuted her latest play at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater last year. Now, via director Spike Lee, Pass Over is coming to Amazon Prime this week in a feature adaptation that retains the theatrical conceit.

The story follows two young black men in Chicago who are just hanging out on a street corner talking about their dreams for the future and not causing a single bit of trouble. Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Julian Parker) are long-time friends and residents of the neighborhood. The story follows how, staying on that one corner, their routine of talking about “passing over” from one phase of their lives to the next is interrupted by a series of events involving a stranger who’s not from the area, the intrusion of an aggressively bullying cop and other events.

Continue reading “Pass Over – Marketing Recap”