Outside Man: Why Is Spike Lee So Underrated?S

Spike Lee celebrated his 55th birthday in March. I still can't believe it. When he turned 40 in 1997, I remember being astonished that a man so youthful and vital could possibly be that old. (I was 22 and clearly very naive.) In my mind, the filmmaker of Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X would always be the brash, youthful insurgent—the guy who hung out with Michael Jordan and rooted for the Knicks with a childlike (and occasionally childish) enthusiasm. He never really seemed capable of being old, of being anything but a bratty upstart. I figured he'd always be Mookie.

When I read Leitch's terrific interview with Spike Lee in New York, the first thing I noticed was the photo. Mookie is a middle-aged man now—tired, rheumy eyes; a dusting of white hair in his beard; some professorial furrows in his brow. (Incidentally, Lee's new film, Red Hook Summer, out in August, will feature a return of the Mookie character.) But I got to thinking about how this interview comes at a weird time for Lee—he's not regarded as a bratty upstart anymore, but neither is he widely thought of as an auteur entering his mature period. He's too seasoned to have the hip cachet of younger filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan, but he's not a decorated, beloved Hollywood institution like his older peers Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. The filmmakers closest in age and stature to him are the Coen brothers, but after the No Country for Old Men Oscars and the commercial success of True Grit, they're at the peak of their popularity. You can't say that about Spike Lee.

Although Lee had the biggest hit of his career with Inside Man, that was six years ago, an eternity in Hollywood. Since then he's made some great but little-seen documentaries (When the Levees Broke and Passing Strange) and a flawed but ambitious war movie (Miracle at St. Anna) that tanked. If you ask most people, though, the one thing they remember that Lee did recently wasn't any movie—it was that unfortunate tweet he sent out concerning George Zimmerman's address. Between that and his constant appearance courtside for the Knicks, the perception has begun to harden that he's just another "controversial" media figure—another cross-platform nuisance who's famous for being famous. (His choice of Mars Blackmon, his mouthy character from She's Gotta Have It and all those Jordan commercials, as his Twitter avatar only fuels that perception.)

This public image of Lee is partly his own fault for arriving on the filmmaking scene with such gusto. A cocky, energetic young writer-director, he made his mark in the late '80s with his first two features, She's Gotta Have It and School Daze. Then with 1989's Do the Right Thing, he announced himself as a major artist, talking bluntly about race relations with a visual assurance that made critics take notice. Although his talent was evident, the fact that he was African-American also helped separate him from a lot of '80s independent filmmakers—and with that came the burden of having to be (in the eyes of many) the director who represented "Black America" to white audiences.

In the next few years, he made Mo' Better Blues, Jungle Fever, and Malcolm X, each film thematically more ambitious than the last. It's hard to describe just what a thrill it was back then to see the next Spike Lee Joint in the theater: He was only 35, but his movies seemed more alive, more inspired than just about anything else in film. His movies had a freedom to them, wandering along interesting tangents that, however discursive, gave the proceedings with a sense of possibility. (Malcolm X's extended dance sequence may not add much to the film, but it's the sort of self-indulgence that Lee pulls off with such panache that you're happy he went for it.) Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who shot Lee's Inside Man, describes Lee's impact at that time pretty well:

You had this guy who just breaks out and is more than just a filmmaker but is sort of a pop culture icon. At the time, you also had the Sub Pop movement: Nirvana and Mudhoney and Pearl Jam. And on the East Coast, you had Public Enemy and KRS-One — music was blowing up. And because of Spike and Jim Jarmusch and Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez, filmmaking was blowing up. It was just this explosion in pop culture that was happening.

For those who came of age in the late '80s and early '90s, Lee was a symbol (as much as Nirvana and Public Enemy) of youthful rebellion—of an indie/alternative mindset that was sweeping through film and music. Featuring Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" throughout Do the Right Thing only further cemented Lee's place at the center of this new movement.

After that initial rush of great films—which he celebrated with the release of a book immodestly titled Five for Five—Lee hardly slowed down. But his constant attempts to outdo himself became more difficult after Malcolm X. Crooklyn was a likable, modest comedy-drama, while Clockers was a serious attempt at Major Statement filmmaking, preachy and engrossing in equal measure. But from there, he seemed to struggle to find his sweet spot again. When he tried to do something light, like Girl 6, the critics complained that it wasn't substantial enough. When he tried to do something grand and sweeping, like Summer of Sam, the public shrugged. (Tellingly, his biggest hit during this period was The Original Kings of Comedy, a stand-up comedy film that was probably the least Lee-like of all films from that time.)

It was hard not to feel that Lee's relevance had started to diminish. He was still an incredibly skilled filmmaker, but he was no longer part of the new guard, and he was no longer at the forefront of cinematic debate. (To be fair, when one of your first films is accused of wanting to incite riots, it's hard to sustain that level of provocation.)

But this doesn't mean that Lee isn't still making great movies. Films like He Got Game and 25th Hour bristle with life, even if audiences largely ignored them. And although his later films aren't as superficially "shocking" as Do the Right Thing was, he's still taking on big themes. Beyond He Got Game's father-son drama, the movie is also a sober look at how the love of sports is corrupted by money and other interests. Likewise, 25th Hour dares to intertwine the story of a convicted drug dealer (Edward Norton) with a larger portrait of New York in the wake of 9/11, a potentially manipulative tactic that Lee executed with grace and maturity. He's one of a handful of filmmakers who can segue between indie projects (the underrated, blistering satire Bamboozled) and mainstream fare (Inside Man, the forthcoming Old Boy remake), putting his stamp on whatever film he's making. Even a misfire like Miracle at St. Anna has more passion and gravitas than a dozen blandly competent Hollywood films. (Lee's longtime composer Terence Blanchard helps elevate even the filmmaker's weaker efforts with his melancholy, searching scores.)

Lee's movies aren't perfect, but in some ways they're better than perfect—they're messy and jagged and they lodge themselves in your head. In his review long ago for Mo' Better Blues, Roger Ebert concluded, "Mo' Better Blues is not a great film, but it's an interesting one, which is almost as rare." That's the way Lee's career has been ever since—his movies refuse to settle for being ordinary or forgettable.

At 55, Lee isn't Mookie or Mars anymore, but the youthful vibrancy is still there. It's in the alert performances he elicits from everyone from Jodie Foster (Inside Man) to Anthony Mackie (She Hate Me) to Samuel L. Jackson (Jungle Fever) to Edward Norton (25th Hour). You may not love everything Lee has made, but you can't say that he's ever once phoned it in. His mistakes come from caring too much. (Despite its undernourished story, Miracle at St. Anna resonates because you can feel that Lee simply had to dramatize the role of African-American soldiers in World War II.) He's not the Coen brothers or Martin Scorsese or Paul Thomas Anderson. He's not even the same guy who made Do the Right Thing. He's just Spike Lee, telling the stories he has to tell. That isn't celebrated nearly enough.

Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.