When I originally began this review, Ferguson, Missouri was, for most Americans, an unknown city. It didn’t break into our consciousness.  Now director/writer Spike Lee has spoken out about the events in Ferguson and in doing so, makes this a good time to examine his movies.

The Spike Lee Joint Collection Vol. 1 includes “25th Hour” and “He Got Game.” It’s hard to go wrong with two movies that star leading men such as Edward Norton and Denzel Washington, respectively. The movies take two men in tricky circumstances with prison a great determining factor in their family relations.

The 25th Hour

David Benioff wrote the 2001 debut novel “The 25th Hour” and the screenplay for this 2002 American drama. The title refers to the impending seven-year prison term that will begin after this protagonist’s last 24 hours of freedom.

The movie begins before then when Monty (Norton) is feeling fine, driving a bright yellow Super Bee in New York City. It’s NYC. Having a car is luxury enough. Monty is with his friend Kostya (Tony Siragusa) when they find a badly mauled dog. Monty at first wants to put the dog out of its misery by shooting it, but decides to take the dog to a clinic.

Suddenly, we’re in late 2002 and Monty has named the dog Doyle. Doyle may be doing better, but Monty is about to begin the seven-year sentence for dealing drugs. He’s enjoying a day in the park with Doyle. He going to meet his childhood friends–Frank (Barry Pepper), a Wall Street Trader and Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an awkward high school teacher with an inappropriate attraction to one of his young female students (Anna Paquin).

Monty didn’t just use his drug money to live high, with a spacious apartment and a cool car, he also helped save his father’s bar. His father, James (Brian Cox), is a recovering alcoholic, but this isn’t the TV show “Cheers.” James will drive Monty to prison in the morning, but he feels guilty and takes a drink. Will he backslide into a drunken stupor during the next seven years?

Yet James doesn’t know that Monty could have gotten out earlier, but he was greedy. And now he must make a decision. Although he refused to turn in the guy he worked for, Russian mobster Uncle Nikolai (Levan Uchaneishvili) , he doesn’t want to remain in his debt, but also isn’t sure how Nikolai will treat him on this last day. And what about his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson).  Monty wonders if she turned him into the police.

At times, moments seem to be put on pause as if we were taking a mental snapshot. Although everyone on the surface attempts to be positive, what do we know? Will Naturelle wait for Monty? Will Monty come out a broken man? He fears rape and he won’t have the Russian mob’s protection. While Frank and Monty joke about opening a bar, Frank feels Monty’s life is over. And certainly in seven years, Doyle will be dead, but perhaps Jacob won’t.

He Got Game

While there’s a feeling of authenticity and of fully developed characters in “25th Hour,” the same can’t be said for 1998 “He Got Game.”  The performances are all top notch in both films, but the plot feels a bit contrived and the ending has nothing to do with reality (It’s a metaphor.).

At the center is a disgraced man, Jake (Denzel Washington), who is in the slammer for manslaughter of his wife although for most of the characters the difference between manslaughter and murder is a minor quibble. By the time we learn about the actual incident, it comes as a bit of a surprise, tweaking our understanding of Jake.

Jake is given an offer by the state governor: If during a week of special furlough Jake can get his son Jesus (Ray Allen) to sign a letter of intent to attend Big State University (is that vague enough to make it universal), the governor’s alma mater, then the governor will reduce Jake’s sentence.  That might not be too easy. His son is bitter and hasn’t forgiven his father while his sister Mary (Zelda Harris) has forgiven Jake.

Everyone wants something from Jesus who was named for a basketball player. Even though that Jesus and Mary match up makes it seems so biblical, the character is named after Earl Monroe, the “Black Jesus” and also “Black Magic, ” “Thomas Edison” and “The Pearl,” who played for the Knicks. Jesus is the number one basketball prospect in the nation. He’s a good boy, but he’s not above temptation. Jesus is being pressured by the aunt (Lonette McKee) and uncle (Bill Nunn) who took the siblings in after his father went to prison, his coach and his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson).

Jake returns each night to a cheap hotel where he befriends the hooker (Milla Jovovich) next door. He pities her; her pimp beats her. He tries to help, but he’s being pressured by the two guys assigned to watch him. Jake’s not a bad guy; he’s not violent; he’s not selfish, but he’s lost his chance.

The cast includes Rick Fox as well as NBA players Shaquille O’Neal, Reggie Miller, Bill Walton, Scottie Pipper, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley and NBA coaches Rick Pitino and George Karl in cameo appearances.  Lee was taken to task by ESPN over sports regulations and Jesus’ living arrangements, so reality didn’t limit Lee.

Allen, who was playing for the Milwaukee Bucks (He’s currently with the Miami Heat), joins Spike Lee on the commentary track.

One of the reasons to get this DVD set is the extras. I’ve heard Spike Lee speak in person about his film “Do the Right Thing.” He wasn’t very interesting then, but I think it was the company. Paired together with Ed Norton, the conversation is easy and revealing. These are two men, respected in their association with movies and equals. With Ray Allen, the circumstances are much different. Allen is a professional basketball player and perhaps Spike Lee might have wanted to be an NBA star, but for the movie, Allen was a newbie, an innocent who is put in uncomfortable situations. He’s has a sex scene. He has to hold the screen against the powerful charisma of Denzel Washington. While it might have been a greater coup for have Washington as a commentator, this pairing is more informative. We have Allen who knows about the reality of basketball and recruiting and two people who can comment on Washington, including his basketball skills.

Why I think the situation at Ferguson makes these films more important and the voice of Spike Lee vital is that both of these movies are about men who are trying to find their way, they don’t know who their friends are, they are trying to do right, but aren’t sure what that is. Norton’s character makes sacrifices for his father but he could have gotten our earlier. His father certainly feels guilt and who knows what will happen after prison. Washington’s character is a black man, who perhaps didn’t get the best deal from the legal system, tries to reconnect with his son.

Prison will change or has changed the relationships between these fathers and their sons. A high-roller rich drug dealer who is otherwise a decent guy (hey, he saved a dog) and a basketball prospect are exceptions to the rule. The drug dealer are scum rule, the black man is unimportant rule.

In this collection, Spike Lee asks us to look at how prison and men with money influence the lives of two characters. There are no happy endings in either of these movies but in both cases the men who are prison-bound aren’t the bad guys. They are just pawns and not the kings of their destinies.

 

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