Dropping the Gloves Part 1: Steven Soderbergh vs. Spike Lee
This essay is the first of, hopefully, a series of fun hypothetical tête-à-tête matchups of great filmmakers. With each essay I’ll choose two directors of similar quality of films and compare a number of their films. The intent is to stir up some commentary on both filmmakers and encourage readers to revisit their films.
In this corner… Spike Lee, a cultural figurehead in filmmaking from the late 80’s to today. Other than Sidney Poitier, no one has helped further the enhancement of African-American filmmakers than Spike. After series of success short films his auspicious feature film debut 1986’s “She’s Gotta Have It”, made for $175,000, instantly established Lee on Hollywood’s radar. His first breakout hit was “Do the Right Thing” in 1989, which stirred up much controversy for its depiction of racial tension in contemporary America. Spike has been outspoken and controversial on all matters of race on film ever since.
In this corner… Steven Soderbergh, a renaissance filmmaker who’s a writer, director, producer, cinematographer and sometimes actor. He has a remarkable output of films, including directing 7 films in 5 years from 1998 to 2002. Steven was the youngest filmmaker to win a Palm D’Or in 1989 for “Sex, Lies & Videotape”. Steven is also famous for his lengthy sophomore slump after “Sex, Lies”, which saw him produce 3 unsuccessful films, before bouncing back with “Out of Sight.” Since then, he’s been a major player as a director and producer. His fruitful producing partnership with George Clooney has resulted in films such as “Good Night and Good Luck”, “Syriana”, “Far From Heaven”, and “A Scanner Darkly.”
Enough preamble, let’s get it on:
Round 1: Do The Right Thing(1989) vs. Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
This is an interesting comparison. Both films were the breakout films for Lee’s and Soderbergh’s careers and both competed for the Palme D’Or in 1989 with “Sex, Lies” taking the prize. In hindsight, which film is better? “Do the Right Thing” has become a cultural landmark for black cinema and has influenced a whole generation of filmmakers. “Sex, Lies” though not as influential on the cultural radar, established Miramax’s reputation as a major Hollywood distributor. On a creative and filmmaking level, “Do the Right Thing” pushes the boundaries of filmmaking and creates the perfect mix of art and politics. Winner: Lee.
Round 2: Malcolm X(1992) vs. Traffic (2000)
“Malcolm X” is Spike Lee’s epic, a three-hour plus opus about the controversial black muslim leader. “Traffic,” also Soderbergh’s grandest film, is the Oscar-winning saga of drug trafficking in modern America. Spike’s film arrived with much baggage and controversy, but it was hailed by many most critics, including Roger Ebert as “one of the great screen biographies.” Some criticized it as overindulgent and cartoonish especially in the portrayal of its white characters. It’s virtually impossible to find a flaw in “Traffic.” It will likely stand the test of time (7 years) as an engrossing study of the effects of drugs from the politicians finding it to the kids on the street who buy it and use it. “Malcolm X,” though grand and majestic, perhaps suffers most in its nobility. “Traffic” seems to exist naturally and is more provocative. Winner: Soderbergh.
Round 3: Crooklyn (1994) vs. Out of Sight(1998)
Each of these films would represent the “lightest” and most audience friendly of each director’s body of work. “Crooklyn’s” one of Lee’s most personal films inspired by his own childhood in Brooklyn in the 70’s. It’s a refreshing colourful burst of life, about his beloved city most often portrayed for its seediness. It’s brimming with fresh visual ideas and wonderful characters and, sadly, is an underrated and lesser-known film. “Out of Sight”, Soderbergh’s “comeback” film, was based on an Elmore Leonard novel and is also colourful and fun. The affability of George Clooney and the sultriness of JLo make a great pairing, but the film lacks the originality of Lee’s film. It feels like a hodgepodge of “Pulp Fiction,” “Get Shorty” and other better crime films. Winner: Lee
Round 4: 25th Hour(2002) vs. The Limey(1999)
The “25th Hour” is one of Lee’s better and more recent films. It came out in 2002, to critical acclaim but it failed to excite voters at awards season. As a result it disappeared quickly from the map. It starts off as fun romp of a trio of college buddies on the town. The film changes emotional gears when it’s revealed that one of them is to be sent to prison the next day. “The Limey” is about a man, released from prison who seeks revenge for the murder of his daughter. “25th Hour” works best as a one-nighter-slice-of-life, but when it tries to “say something” it gets bogged down in dogmatic preaching. “The Limey” stays on target as a journey into a crime underworld and into the psyche of a man who will not stop until revenge is exacted. Winner: Soderbergh.
Round 5: Inside Man(2006) vs. Erin Brockovich(2000)
Wow, it’s tied. Let’s throw down two of their most popular and successful films. “Inside Man,” which made $88 million in the box office last year, and Spike’s most successful film – an unabashed heist film without an agenda. “Erin Brockovich” has a very clear agenda – the triumph of one insignificant single mother against big business in favour of the environment. “Brockovich” made $125 million at the box office and garnered 5 Oscar nominations, including Julia Roberts win for best actress. Despite the Oscar “Brockovich” exists soley as the Julia Roberts vehicle. “Inside Man” is succinct and compelling from start to finish. Winner: Spike
Steven Soderbergh 2 - Spike Lee 3
Perhaps a surprising winner, but Spike Lee deserves full acclaim. He’s also a talent waiting to burst out with a critical comeback and reestablish himself. His controversial remarks often make him out to be a bitter filmmaker, but filmmaking skills should be separated from his politics. Soderbergh, on the other hand, is often overpraised. Though slick and gorgeous, often his films lack the personal edge that separates Spike from the pack. Soderbergh is a technical filmmaker who more often than not seems to imitate rather than originate. A challenge to Mr. Soderbergh: I want to see your personal film, without the nostalgic wink to the audience.