Bummer of “Sam”: Spike Lee Does Too Much and Not Enough

In Summer of Sam, Two sets of young Italian-American couples, Vinny (John Leguizamo) and Dionna (Mira Sorvino), and Richie (Adrien Brody) and Ruby (Jennifer Esposito) deal with their relationship strife and conflict, while simultaneously growing fearful and obsessed with a serial killer terrorizing New York City.

Summer of Sam was a Spike Lee movie nobody quite knew what to make of, in part because of its strange narrative. The film’s main characters, Vinny and Richie, want to escape the humdrum surroundings of a working class Italian-American neighborhood, but their respective blueprints are murky at best. Vinny cheats on an increasingly suspicious Dionna, while Richie embraces punk rock, complete with a phony English accent and spiky, Sex Pistols-esque haircut. (He also earns side cash as a male stripper and prostitute at a XXX gay movie theater, because ¯\_(ツ)_/¯) Lifelong friends, Vinny and Richie find themselves struggling to relate to each other, which puts them in good company with the audience. This “life in flux” setup is presented with the backdrop of the Son of Sam stalking New York City in the sweltering hot 1977 summer. Without question, this is an oddball plot not for everybody’s taste.

Summer of Sam

The film also confounded folks in one very specific and reductive way that pissed Lee off: the question of Lee directing his first perceived “white” movie. “I had a reporter in Cannes ask me if I approached the white cast any differently than I do a black one,” Lee said to the New York Daily News. “Forgive me, but I find that to be an ignorant question. Does he think that when I speak to a black cast, I say, ‘Yo, we be sayin’ me want you to be doin’ dat dere. Heah what I’m sayin?” Lee later added, “I articulate to any black cast member the same, exact way I do to a white cast member, like a professional director talking to a professional actor. Hey, I’ve always used white actors [like] Anthony Quinn, Danny Aiello, John Turturro, Tim Robbins, John Savage, Christopher Plummer, Harvey Keitel. This is nothing new. I never saw ‘Summer of Sam‘ as a white film, just a very good New York story. Period.” And the question becomes absurd with SOS, considering Leguizamo is actually Latino, not Italian, even if critics apparently considered Italian characters, regardless of the actual actors involved, “white” by the standards of a Spike Lee Joint.

In this case, a movie about Italian characters with only one true Caucasian lead (Brody) got pegged as “white” because of the director, rather than the characters or subject matter. If Lee viewed this classification as a referendum on his place in Hollywood, you could hardly blame him. This broad “typing” of Lee’s cast also feels very specific to the late 90s. Say what you will about Hollywood’s ever-problematic diversity issue, but at least critics and audiences have grown more “woke” over twenty years. In 2016, Scarlett Johansson sparked widespread cries of “whitewashing” upon landing the lead role as a Japanese Anime character in Ghost in the Shell. For sure, some questioned whether it’s worth taking up arms because Hollywood strayed from the perceived origins of a fictitious cartoon cyber-human. But even those who feel the social justice warriors have made a cottage industry out of getting offended would hopefully agree this beats a 1999-era mindset where ethnicity in casting boils down to “meh… close enough.”

Ironically, the latter part of Lee’s career has been filled with movies that, keeping within this broad framework, were more “white,” or at least, less overtly “black.” 25th Hour. Inside Man. Oldboy. Lee hasn’t changed much over the years as a filmmaker, but had everyone been privy to Lee’s future, perhaps Sam wouldn’t have been treated like some bizarre outlier. Especially since the movie wasn’t really a heavy departure at the time, people weren’t inclined to look beyond the racial surface. Beyond the previously mentioned recurring use of Italian-American characters, it was another Spike Lee Joint set in a working class New York neighborhood that locals never leave, where neighborhood politics (not to mention, sexual politics) become a central force. As the movie continues, a heat wave ratchets up the tension which culminates in vigilantism, ala Do The Right Thing. The movie is filled with Lee’s signature dolly shots and camera angles, plus narration and visuals that could be generously described as “on the nose.” (“Dead End” signs littered across a neighborhood that’s a metaphorical and, upon Sam’s arrival, literal dead end? Subtle.) In many ways, Sam’s actually a prototype Spike Lee joint masquerading as a crazy left turn.

Summer of Sam

The larger detour with SOS is that after the critical success of 1998’s He Got Game – with a highly creative and entertaining storyline featuring Denzel Washington successfully cast against type as a manipulative ex-con and NBA star Ray Allen in a highly credible film debut – Lee would make such a muddled and imitative film. To put it kindly, the film feels like a salute to (also mid-70s-set) Saturday Night Fever and Boogie Nights, right down to soundtrack choices, shot selection, plot points and character choices. (When Richie walks around his parents house clad in just a pair of dark bikini briefs, you half-expect him to chant “Al Pacino! Attica! Attica!” at his horrified grandmother.) A mere two years removed from Boogie Nights’ release, it often plays like Lee looking to recreate elements of a surprise hit that tackled tough, adult subject matter.

Those movies transformed John Travolta and Mark Wahlberg into stars, while here an equally talented (and frankly, excellent) Leguizamo is stranded by a muddled script. It’s overstuffed with stories, none explored terribly well, including the terror reaped by Sam. Vincent’s relationship with Dionna never gets fleshed out in a meaningful way, and it’s unclear what drew them together in the first place, so the religious and sexual politics pulling them apart feels entirely ambiguous, particularly set against the backdrop of a looming serial killer. Similarly, Richie is more of a plot concept than a real person. You’d be hardpressed to say what the movie is really “about,” or whether it knows what wants to be. The script, originally written by Michael Imperioli(!) and Victor Colicchio, got a pretty substantial reworking by Lee. Perhaps too many chefs were in the kitchen, or maybe it was never particularly cohesive to begin with. Wherever the fault may lie, it’s easy to understand why audiences reduced SOS to little more than a quirky footnote on Lee’s filmography.

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