To split the works of Spike Lee into “fiction films” and “documentaries” does the man a great disservice, for he is a formalist with more modes than two fingers can count. A number of his documentaries are filmed records of already-successful performances—The Original Kings of Comedy is one, Passing Strange is another. But with six nonfiction pictures he’s made since the late ’90s, Lee has crafted another box to store his joints in. They are 4 Little Girls, Jim Brown: All-American, When the Levees Broke, If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise, Bad 25, and Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall, the last of which premiered at Sundance ‘16 and is now playing on Showtime. Each of them intercuts interviews conducted by the director with archival footage of the given subject. Mr. Lee emerges with a three-sided role: filmmaker, interviewer, reporter.
The last two such works place Lee’s cinematic journalism in the arts section. Bad 25 and Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall are both authorized profiles of the legendary pop star, and each is structured around track-by-track breakdowns of the eponymous albums. Journey saves that approach for the second half, beginning with a scattershot portrait of Jackson as a young man, wherein Lee presents him as an artist trapped by his own reputation. Deprived of his ability to do so with photographic compositions or written dialogue, the director does all his editorializing in the edits themselves: The live-wire prologue mixes and matches footage of early Jackson 5 performances with clips of an older Michael still dutifully performing favorites like “I Want You Back” in concert, implicitly positioning the singer as a mature artist ensnared by the cultural value of his own youthful efforts. Those present to comment on the subject include Michael’s parents, his brother Marlon, former Motown executive Berry Gordy, former EPIC executive Ron Alexenburg, former CBS executive Walter Yetnikoff, Quincy Jones, producers Gamble & Huff, musician Greg Phillinganes, and recording engineer Bruce Swedien, as well as fans ranging from Rosie Perez to Kobe Bryant to Questlove to The Weeknd to Gene Kelly. They invariably have nothing but praise for the singer’s talents, and any particularly unsavory memories seem to have been dutifully redacted. The split from Motown, for instance, may earn placement in the film’s title—but the reasons it happened are left almost entirely to the subtext, with vague commentary filling in where specific details might usually be found. We hear that the transition between labels was “the most tense time of life” for Michael, but then the sequence cuts to Kobe Bryant for a discussion about the pressure of celebrity. For all their strengths, these M.J. movies have been sanitized. It’s worth noting that there’s only one place you can buy the two films on home video: michaeljackson.com.
What remains, when you remove anything that might offend the more delicate sensibilities of the Jackson estate, is a film of historical digressions. The opening half of Journey dances its way through the 1970s, sliding back then forth then back again, presenting a number of riffs that put the Off The Wall album into a sociocultural context—the people interviewed comment on the New York City music scene of the era, the production of The Wiz, the racial subtext of the “disco sucks” movement, and the soundtrack of Ben, to provide but four examples. The second half, which matches the structure of Bad 25 by going through Off the Wall track-by-track and collecting comments based on the individual songs, is comparably tangential: “Rock with You” leads to a conversation about the American roller-skating fad, “She’s Out of My Life” leads to clips and comments taken from Eddie Murphy: Delirious. What Lee’s crafted, in lieu of a comprehensive biography or timeline, is a cultural spiderweb: these are records of the places that Jackson’s artistry emerged from, and of the other artists who splintered out of his shadow. For Lee, the subject is typically just a starting line. He spends most of his time on the associations they lead to.
Digressions and associative connections come to define the language of Lee’s nonfiction cinema. It’s a structural strategy that’s formed solid even in 4 Little Girls and All-American, his earliest journalism-influenced nonfiction features, which were produced for HBO in 1997 and 2002. The first segment of the former film—which matches Joan Baez’s “Birmingham Sunday” against images of the girls murdered on that day, then fades into the voices of the people who knew them—establishes an approach that recurs throughout all six: Lee searches for ways to connect archival clips to direct interview footage, creating multimedia-fueled histories that are both expansive and inclusive. Though he’s working with the same ingredients as a typical talking-heads social-issue documentary—testimonials, media footage, stirring score music—Lee rearranges the doses. Works made in this form are usually marked by single mindedness, if not by outright didacticism. Those movies talk. Lee, contrary to his boisterous reputation, is more of a listener.
One can’t help but ascribe these artistic choices to the director himself, given the consistency of the six film’s structural makeup in the face of constantly rotating collaborators—the editor credit alone has been passed back-and-forth among Samuel Pollard, Mark Fason, Barry Alexander Brown, Geeta Gandbhir, and Ryan Denmark. And by the test of those editing choices, Lee is also an egalitarian. In each of the six, you notice a concentrated effort toward diversity among the placement of the various primary-source interviews; you often detect no specific emphasis with regards to race, gender, class, or professional background. In All-American, his film converses with Jim Brown’s childhood friends, his coaches (from high school to the pros,) his Hollywood collaborators, his family, and his fans too, crafting a bio-doc that jukes as often as its subject. One segment in All-American hears the sources position Brown as a revolutionary commercial actor (given his status as a highly-sexualized black man), another aims to investigate whether or not there was any legitimacy to domestic abuse charges levied against him (specifically one where he was accused of throwing a woman off a balcony.) In many ways All-American looks forward to the two Lee-directed Michael Jackson films: all three use disparate interview subjects to map the effect and influence fostered by a central figure on various elements of American society, while simultaneously reclaiming the oft-damaged reputations of that primary subject, therefore positioning them once again as black pop icons.
4 Little Girls, in turn, looks forward to the two-film New Orleans cycle; it recontextualizes a politicized tragedy by redefining it with personalized accounts. In these nonfiction features Lee often credits the interview subjects as “witnesses,” and it’s in these three films that the phrase is most emphatically justified—the structure of each is anchored around firsthand historical accounts, with Lee allowing his editing to serve the comments offered, rather than vice versa. It’s telling that we only hear Lee’s voice when he’s asking a question, as it adds to the impression that the films don’t have a specific thesis to present—instead they play out as though the director is willing to follow his sources’ leads instead, no matter where their comments take his movie (hence Journey ending up at an extended segment concerning roller blades.) As such 4 Little Girls–which is ostensibly focused on the simultaneous murders of Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—features a highly-discursive structure, and often moves away from the lives of the four victims to feature entire chapters on related topics: the black experience of Birmingham in the 60s; the formation of the SCLC; the first assassination attempt made against Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth; accounts of experiences had with former police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor and former governor George Wallace (white supremacists both); the use of the 16th Street Baptist Church as a civil-rights-movement meeting ground; the decision to station children alongside adults during marches; the history of conflict between police and citizens at Kelly Ingram Park; and the day of the bombings themselves; all before documenting the funerals, court cases, and trauma that followed. In his first work of cine-journalism, Lee’s egalitarian tenor has been formed already, too. Playing the journalist, he always affords the opposition a rebuttal, regardless of his own slant. No less than George Wallace himself is present to defend his reputation.
When the Levees Broke and If God is Willing represent the apex of this form—taken as one individual work, they surely represent one of the most vital viewing experiences of the 21st century American cinema. Each film is a four-hour “requiem” for a post-Katrina New Orleans, investigating and recording the effects and circumstances of the levee breach in relation to the population that lived through it (the first film does so immediately after the tragedy, while the second one returns to the same group of sources five years later.) The director organizes his largest witness stand to-date: we hear from workaday citizens (names include Phyllis LeBlanc and John M. Barry,) politicians (former mayor Ray Nagin, former governor Kathleen Blanco,) journalists (from Soledad O’Brien to local newsmen,) historians (from numerous disciplines and background,) civil rights activists (Al Sharpton from the national side, as well as numerous figures working on the regional spectrum,) and scientists (multiple researchers from the LSU hurricane research center,) among many others, with Lee eventually going all the way up to FEMA head Michael D. Brown and noted George Bush-critic Kanye West. Often times their comments will be edited to put specific figures into artificial conversations with one another—Lee crafting a distilled form of discourse with snips and cuts. The bio-docs are necessarily partisan, and 4 Little Girls doesn’t hesitate to rightfully vilify Mr. Wallace. So the New Orleans cycle represents an evolution of dialectic complexity within Lee’s nonfiction form: they’re light on prescribed ideologies, heavy on historical accounts.
This is all to say that Lee had turned the “oral history” into cinema years before it became cultural journalism’s form du jour. Within their deference to the content of the interviews, the six films reveal a great reverence for the human voice itself: not only does Lee often allow his subjects to speak at length and without interruption, but numerous testimonies seem to be included solely for the poetry of the speech contained therein. The New Orleans cycle goes so far as to pause itself for spoken-word poetry (courtesy local resident Shelton Shakespeare Alexander) and for recitations of prepared speeches (most notably by the aforementioned LeBlanc.) Once again, it is those two films that serve as the apex. By the time you get to hours six and seven and eight, another regionally-specific element of the New Orleans pictures becomes apparent. Before your eyes and ears, they evolve into comprehensive records of black-southern diction in the late 20th century.
And just as Lee has visually-minded trademark techniques within fiction—say, the way he often “replays” a single hug or handshake, showing it from two or three angles—he’s developed a number of trademarks for nonfiction as well. Each of the six films is structured in a manner that allows for a slow, almost imperceptible build-up to the rare moments where all the commenters agree on a given topic—at which point Lee piles all their answers on top of one another, as if printing a headline in large-type font. In Journey, that happens when everybody just can’t help but start humming and tapping to the hooks of “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” and “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.” In All-American, it’s when everyone talks about how slowly Jim Brown got up from a standard tackle. In Bad 25, person after person starts crying in rapid succession at the mention of Mr. Jackson’s death. And in When the Levees Broke, it happens when a series of residents who lived alongside those levees testify to having heard an explosion at the moment when the architecture gave way. Spike Lee might have the byline, and he might do the structuring, but the people in these films speak for themselves, and seem to craft their own narratives. And in these sequences, when everybody is orating over one another at a rapid clip, these films literalize their theoretical approach. They become cacophonies of human expression. They write history with voices—and perhaps more importantly, they make voices into history.
MICHAEL JACKSON’S JOURNEY FROM MOTOWN TO OFF THE WALL. NOT RATED. AVAILABLE FOR STREAMING VIA SHOWTIME ANYTIME UNTIL 2.29. BLU-RAY/DVD AVAILABLE AT MICHAELJACKSON.COM