Spike Lee, who speaks under the auspices of the University of Colorado Denver tonight, is among the most fascinating and frustrating of modern directors. He's extremely talented and relentlessly passionate, yet during the two decades-plus since the breakthrough success of 1986's She's Gotta Have It, he's only occasionally been able to translate his skills into strong movies.
Lee's reputation rests on 1989's Do the Right Thing, and for good reason: The tale of one scorching day in the racial hotbed of Bed-Stuy remains his boldest, most affecting work of fiction to date. Granted, his filmography contains other high points, including big productions (1992's Malcolm X) and small (1994's warm, underrated Crooklyn). However, there are plenty of misses that border on the unwatchable (e.g., 2004's She Hate Me), and the likes of 2006's Inside Man seem to be about little more than proving his bankability.
To his credit, Lee is devoted to telling stories that major studios typically eschew; his forthcoming project, The Miracle of St. Anna, a World War II tale about a division of so-called buffalo soldiers, could well fit in this category. Still, his most moving offerings in recent years have been documentaries that allowed him to cut away the artifice and engage directly with his subjects particularly When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, a 2006 epic made for HBO that dissects the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina with tremendous empathy and furious intelligence. If only he could harness such power on a consistent basis, he might become the great American director he aspires to be instead of the intriguing but erratic figure he is.