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Do the Spike Thing

What the studio doesn't want you to know about Spike Lee's new movie.

11:00 PM, Mar 23, 2006 • By SONNY BUNCH
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IF I WERE TO MENTION the new movie, Inside Man, what would you think of first? Its impressive list of stars, which includes Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster, and Clive Owen? Its powerhouse producer, Brian Grazer? Some vague notion that it's yet another slick heist movie being foisted upon the public?

Or that it's a Spike Lee Joint?

If you're a casual moviegoer, it's entirely possible that you would have no idea that the most acclaimed movie of the year is a Spike Lee picture. The only reasonable explanation for this is that the studio wants it that way. The 30-second television advertisements for Inside Man make practically no mention of the fact that the sometimes-controversial director helms the picture, save for the final two seconds when his name--along with 11 other--is listed in the commercial credits. While the theatrical trailers display his name slightly more prominently, his Oscar credentials are not touted as are those of the stars and producer.

In the past, it's been almost impossible to see an advertisement for a "Spike Lee Joint," as he deems his films, without knowing its lineage. The truly awful She Hate Me featured the label in bright pink and black about halfway through the trailer; The Original Kings of Comedy proudly proclaimed itself to be a Spike Lee Joint in its theatrical trailer; Summer of Sam's voiceover boldly states that picture is a Spike Lee Joint. His films bore the moniker as far back as his first major release, 1988's School Daze.

But neither Inside Man, nor 2002's 25th Hour, were touted as "Spike Lee Joints" in their trailers. Why the change? The most obvious answer would be economics. Spike Lee, quite simply, is not a profitable director, and he hasn't been for some time. His first two major motion pictures, School Daze and Do the Right Thing, were both produced for around $6.5 million. The first made more than double its budget domestically, and the second is his most profitable film to date (other than The Original Kings of Comedy, which owes its success far more to the standup comedians performing in it than the man behind the camera), with a domestic gross of $27.5 million. His winning streak continued for two more films: Jungle Fever made an $18.5 million profit, and Malcolm X brought home just over $14 million more than its budget. Since then, however, Lee hasn't made a drama that ended up in the black. Some have been modest failures (Crooklyn, for example, lost only about $400,000). Others have been much bigger flops. (She Hate Me cost $8 million to produce and brought in less than $400,000 at the box office. Clockers lost even more money; the $25 million piece was almost $12 million in the red.)

The question becomes, then, how does one make a Spike Lee movie profitable? Grazer's Imagine Entertainment is probably banking on the fact that white audiences are unlikely to attend what they imagine will be a two hour lesson on why society is racist. Removing the "Spike Lee Joint" tag from his picture will almost certainly increase its marketability at the box office with whites. It's not too much of a stretch to guess that Inside Man might wind up as Lee's highest grossing movie; his previous best is Malcolm X's $48.4 million.

That's not to say that Spike has sold out. The first thing you notice on the screen when the movie begins is that wonderful phrase, "A Spike Lee Joint." (It's almost like Lee is saying "Nyah nyah" to all the people who came to the movie not realizing it's his work.) The social commentary is present, though more muted than in his previous films (for example, the lead thief in the heist, Clive Owen, criticizes the negative portrayal of inner-city blacks in a video game. Sure, it's not Mookie throwing a trash can through a white-owned pizzeria window, a la Do the Right Thing, but subtle social criticism is often far more effective). And his trademark annoying, unnecessary camera moves remain, but they're kept to a minimum.

In other words, it's definitely a Spike Lee Joint. He just doesn't want anyone to know that going in.

Sonny Bunch is an assistant editor at The Weekly Standard.