The wave of global protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement would have been no surprise to African-American writer-director Spike Lee.
Since his debut feature, She’s Gotta Have It in 1986, he has provoked black and white audiences alike with movies that range from the highly personal and iconoclastic, through to ones that put a spin on long-standing genres.
Examples include the musicals School Daze (1988) and Bamboozled (2000), the epic Malcolm X (1992), bank heist thriller Inside Man (2006) and, most recently, undercover police drama BlacKkKlansman (2018).
While racial themes run through all of them, Lee’s characters are remarkably diverse and only occasionally veer into stereotypes.
He was 29 at the time he made She’s Gotta Have It, soon after graduating from film school in New York. Its sexually-charged story, and all-black cast for the first time, reflected a parallel world of language and manners that Hollywood had ignored.
Comparable mainstream movies at the time were Pretty in Pink and Peggie Sue Got Married.
This is not to detract from Hollywood’s contribution, which was mainly about relations between races.
While stereotypes have continued, others have thankfully disappeared. Suppressing classic movies such as Gone With the Wind for these reasons is understandable, but largely futile.
Some of Lee’s own works, such as the Italian-American gangsters in Summer of Sam (1999), are guilty of this.
In Da 5 Bloods (Netflix), Lee tackles the war in Vietnam as some veterans return to the scenes of their past battles.
Originally, the story about recovering a fallen soldier’s remains and a hidden cache of gold, was written for another director, Oliver Stone, who made Platoon about the war in 1986.
Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott changed the soldiers’ ethnicity, adding complexity to a routine story that resembles another recent big budget Netflix movie, Triple Frontier, set in South America.
As usual, Lee bookends his movie with typically loaded montages, accompanied by Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, that show the shootings, riots and looting of recent times are nothing new.
In addition, wartime propagandist Hanoi Hannah makes an appearance, reporting the assassination of war opponent Martin Luther King in 1968, and claiming the treatment of blacks in America paralleled that of the Vietnamese.
The strengths in Lee’s movies are his characterisations (he often uses the same actors; in this case Delroy Lindo) and what critic Pauline Kael calls his “film sense” – a natural flair for using the camera to tell the story.
The four vets, plus one of their sons and a Vietnamese guide, find the gold early on in their mission. But that is only the start of their troubles.
Lengthy dialogue scenes, also a Lee specialty, show the men arguing about their motives, post-war experiences and future aspirations. These do not stint on the language that pervades all his movies.
Other characters include a dubious French businessman (the veteran Jean Reno), a landmine remover (Mélanie Thierry) and armed Vietnamese thugs who make a bid for the gold.
Netflix rating: 16+. 154 minutes.
Queen & Slim
The timing couldn’t be better for a Black Lives Matter testament about racially-biased policing. A minor traffic infringement in Cleveland turns tragic in a struggle between a white cop and a black driver. The latter is a churchgoer, played by Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya, and who has been on an awkward Tinder date with a young attorney (Jodie Turner-Smith). What they lack in chemistry soon becomes necessary joint resourcefulness as they flee, branded as dangerous fugitives and cop killers. They head south to Florida, while media coverage brands them as a Bonnie and Clyde. Of course, they aren’t bank-robbing criminals, but they do attract support and sympathy as victims of the law enforcement system. Director Melina Matsoukas makes an impressive debut, stepping up from Beyoncé videos and TV episodes to take plenty of time to develop her main characters.
Rating: Restricted to audiences over 13. 152 minutes
The code number for an aircraft hijacking heralds a taut thriller as three Turkish terrorists attempt to take over a flight from Berlin to Paris. The action is entirely set in the cockpit, where the pilots try to maintain control as the German-speaking hijackers attack the cabin crew and then break in. The German flight captain and one hijacker are early casualties, leaving the American second officer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, last seen in Snowden) to cope with one hijacker, and wondering if his Turkish crew-member wife is also a victim. Constant pounding on the door adds to the drama as the plane is diverted to Hanover. While first-time director Patrick Vollrath’s effort is modest compared with India’s Neerja or United 93 – the events outside the cockpit are viewed from a monitor – he maintains a real-time pace to the end.
Amazon rating: 16+. 93 minutes.
New York’s book collecting industry may be a shadow of its heyday from the 1920s to the 1960s, when Fourth Avenue was lined with dozens of bookshops specialising in rare publications. Only a handful remain, but the industry still packs a big punch with fewer players and much larger wallets. Parker Posey, best known for her roles in 1990s “indie” movies, including Spike Lee’s Clockwatchers, narrates the story through interviews with today’s identities and events from the past. Authors Gay Talese and Fran Lebowitz are among them, while the 2019 New York Book Fair provides a backdrop where the traders display their wares. Director D.W. Young makes clear the difference between books as objects to buy and sell, rather than their contents, with some notable exceptions. In some cases, the jackets are worth more than the books themselves. The narrative lacks any major revelations or structure, allowing the interviewees to talk in chunky episodes. But this becomes repetitive, with attention spans likely to be lessened by tacking on fashionable, but largely superfluous, feminist and Afro-American perspectives.
Rating: Exempt. 99 minutes