In Focus

Unmistakably Spike Lee

The usually outspoken Spike Lee says,
The usually outspoken Spike Lee says, "I speak out a lot less than I used to." (By Brendan Mcdermid -- Reuters)
By Jen Chaney
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 24, 2006

Spike Lee has never been a thriller guy.

The prolific, button-pushing director has spent two decades making movies often defined more by their Spike Lee-ness (see "Do the Right Thing," "Jungle Fever," "Crooklyn") than their relationship to any genre. In fact, one could argue that Lee's films, with their frequent focus on racial tensions and everyday New Yorkers with names like Mookie, are a genre unto themselves.

Which is why it's interesting that at age 49, Lee has, at least for the moment, become a thriller guy.

In his new movie, "Inside Man" (see review on Page 30), the filmmaker depicts situations more typical of, say, "Dog Day Afternoon" than "Do the Right Thing": an expertly planned bank robbery, a tense hostage situation and a down-on-his-luck cop determined to overcome his demons and resolve the case. When asked during a recent phone interview to explain his decision to tread into high-suspense territory, Lee was matter-of-fact.

"I had never done a genre film before, but this one was well written," he explains, referring to the screenplay by newcomer Russell Gewirtz. "And I knew it was so well written that it could attract a cast of the caliber we ended up with."

Indeed, the cast of "Inside Man" is so high caliber that some audiences may focus more on the actors than on the director who steered them. In addition to Denzel Washington, a frequent Lee collaborator, major players include Jodie Foster, Clive Owen, Christopher Plummer and Willem Dafoe. But even as the stars of "Inside Man" navigate the twists and turns of Lee's thriller, many subtle moments along the way are unmistakably Spike: an exchange between a robber (Owen) and a young African American boy obsessed with a violent video game; posters on a New York City building referencing 9/11 with the words "We Will Not Forget"; the rage of an Arab man who rants about how callously his people are treated in this age of anti-terrorism.

"That just reflects the world we live in now," Lee says of such scenes. "If you live in post-9/11 New York or anywhere. You just get on a plane, and it's different now."

Known for being outspoken and sometimes controversial, Lee is mostly polite and mellow during the interview. He answers questions about "Inside Man" happily, albeit somewhat briefly. For the first few minutes of the conversation, it's tempting to think that time, age and his work on children's books (he and wife Tonya Lewis Lee have co-written two, including last year's "Please, Puppy, Please") have softened his edges. Even he confirms at one point, "I speak out a lot less than I used to."

But what gets the filmmaker going is a discussion of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. That's the subject of one of his upcoming projects, a documentary titled "When the Levees Broke" that he's working on for HBO.

He amps up his rhetoric when he speaks about the Bush administration; in the April issue of Stuff magazine, he chastises Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for going shoe shopping while the Katrina crisis was unfolding and is quoted as saying, "I dislike Condoleezza Rice more than [President] Bush." When asked to explain what he meant by that, he replies simply, "Look, I don't expect much from our president. That's just my opinion."

He describes his disheartening visit to New Orleans a few weeks ago during Mardi Gras.

"There is not a good feeling down there about how the United States of America, the most powerful country in the history of the planet, is always so quick to go to the four corners of the Earth to help somebody but is very slow in response to its own citizens, on U.S. soil, in such a great time of need," he says.

"We have to keep this on the front page because it can't be like Iraq, where a year or two years ago, it was front page news. Now it's 'Twenty American soldiers died in such-and-such blast' and it's on Page 25. Two little paragraphs just buried. We can't let this happen with Katrina."

Clearly Lee hasn't lost his serious, outspoken side. But apparently he's also eager to tackle lighter fare. When asked if he'd consider helming another thriller after his experience on "Inside Man," he cheerfully says yes. Then he adds that he'd still like to do a musical. When a reporter remembers out loud that he was originally in talks to direct the screen version of "Rent," Lee says, "I'm glad that didn't work out." Then he chuckles gleefully.

"I'm just kidding," he says.

But there's still enough of that old Spike Lee edge to make one wonder whether he really is.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company