Review: The Spike Lee Joint Collection Vol. 2

The Spike Lee Joint Collection Vol. 2 brings together two disparate subjects: The summer a real serial killer brought hysteria into a neighborhood and a war that brought racism to the forefront. “Miracle At St. Anna” is the more sentimental and fanciful of the two while “Summer of Sam” is a thoughtful look back at poisonous suspicions.

Summer of Sam

Instead of examining the psychology of the serial killer Son of Sam (David Berkowitz), Spike Lee with co-writers Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli, look into the psychological breakdown of a neighborhood and a group of friends as suspicion turns them against each other.

To set up the situation, Lee shows a broadcast news segment and we hear a dog barking. A man, whose face we don’t see, is holding his ears and while clad only in white boxers made semi-transparent by sweat, is plunging his face into the mattress on the floor. The man is not a minor character in the lives of the main characters.

Like the inescapable heat of the summer, this man is part of the environment, the atmosphere. The soundtrack takes us back to “Boogie Nights” and a time when disco was still cool and not retro and there really was “something in the air that night.” Fear.

Taking place during the summer of 1977, the serial killer Son of Sam has already shot several women in parked cars. Vinny (John Leguizamo) is a hairdresser who seduces women. Married to a waitress named Dionna, he’s fooling around with other women including Dionna’s cousin. While returning from a date, Vinny and Dionna pass a crime scene and Vinny realizes that he was very close to the victims earlier. He can’t tell Dionna because he was at that spot having sex with Dionna’s cousin at the time.

One of Vinny’s  old friends, Ritchie, has become a punk rocker and his dress and spikey hair. Vinny’s half-sister, Ruby, is the only one sympathetic to Ritchie’s punk rock ways and questionable lifestyle.

As the Son of Sam killings continue, suspicion falls upon Ritchie. Ruby has joined Ritchie’s band and although Ruby and Ritchie invite Vinny and Dionne to see them perform at CBGB, Vinny and Dionne decide the don’t like the crowd, and first attempt to get into the famed Studio 54, and on failing there, the couple goes to the newly opened swingers club Plato’s Retreat (1977-1985) where they engage in an orgy.

Driving home, Vinny angrily confronts Dionna over her participation, but Dionna fires back. She knows about his infidelities and she leaves him to stay at her parents’ house.

Lee takes us to the experience of the common man, the person who wasn’t singled out for murder but was possibly suspected of the same. In doing so, we get a look at mass hysteria, not in a small town, but in a segment of a large city. We see how easily suspicion leads to violence and wrongful vigilante action.

Miracle of St. Anna

“Miracle of St. Anna” seeks to correct the kind of mass racial hysteria that had almost erased all the accomplishments of black Americans by introducing a sentimental story about men at war and survivor guilt.

This being Spike Lee, we not only get the viewpoint of the African American soldiers, we also get racism, the kind of racism that denied the intelligence of black soldiers and put them in danger.

The story begins in 1983 with an elderly postal worker who goes postal. The man, Hector Negron, recognizes a customer and shoots him. Negron is a World War II vet and at his apartment the investigating officers discover the head of an old Italian statue that has been missing since the war.

From here, the story is told in flashback and we meet Negron as a young corporal in the 92nd Infantry Division in 1944 Italy. Their division advances farther than their commanding officer is willing to believe and the officer, Captain Nokes, orders bombing to their position as a result.

After many of their men are killed Negron ends up on the wrong side of the river with three other soldiers: Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps, Sergeant Bishop Cummings, and Private Sam Train. As they move on, Train finds a little Italian boy, Angelo as the head of the statue. Train believes the head has magical powers and takes the head and the boy along.

When the soldiers then befriend people in a small Italian village, it becomes hard to tell who is the enemy–the German soldiers, the Italian villagers or the white American soldiers.

The title suggests there is a miracle and you should wait for it to happen. Unlike “Son of Sam,” this movie has a happy ending of sorts. Justice is served in a way that makes this a fairytale for adults.

Even if you feel this plot is contrived, it is one of the first movies that considers the position of the Buffalo soldiers and shows them fighting in Europe against the Axis nations as well as the American brand of prejudice. This alone makes it worth seeing, but there is more, much more in the DVD extras. Like the documentaries that I’ve been reviewing by German-born Michael Kloft, this fictional account and the DVD extras help give us a fuller understanding of the history of World War II. You can hear the passion in Lee’s voice and the earnest enthusiasm in author/screenwriter James McBride’s voice during the commentary. 

I delayed this review in light of the civil discord of Ferguson, Missouri. A black man was shot in his hometown. In “Miracle,” the black soldiers we follow survived friendly fire that occurred because they were black and thus not considered reliable sources of information. They found themselves treated better in a small foreign town. Yet if we look to “Summer,” Lee shows that skin color isn’t the only reason people will turn against you, just being different during a time of heightened emotion (and in Spike Lee’s world that seems to be any summer in New York) will suffice.

When I saw and heard Spike Lee in person, it was at Ebertfest during a screening of his “Do the Right Thing.” In that movie, Lee emphasizes how the heat transformed people, and melted away the thin veneer of civilization. Maybe that is Ferguson as well, but it is also the sad fate of the dispossessed, men like the Central Park  Five  or the more recent case of Kalief Browder, who spent three years at Rickers Island but whose case never went to trial.

These differences of race as in “Miracle” or musical and costume preferences as in “Summer” prevent monotony, the gray tedium of sameness between each person on earth, but they also can excite prejudice. Hitler’s Nazi regime began the war, but the racial prejudices weren’t his alone and they weren’t limited to Germany.

Now, in the aftermath of a heated exchanges of Ferguson and before the heat sends emotions into hyperdrive next summer is the perfect time to view these two Spike Lee movies.

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