If you’ve seen any of Spike Lee’s films, really any of them, then you’ve found yourself at one moment or another staring directly into the face of one of his characters. Lee has a penchant for this kind of shot, usually a medium close-up to close-up, sometimes at the end of or as a part of a tracking shot, other times static, that positions we in the audience face-to-face with the people that populate his films, by proxy putting us face-to-face with the issues, themes, and struggles they personify.
This cinematic tactic is about more than first-person narration or breaking the fourth wall, it’s about engaging the audience and making them look the characters in their eyes to see beyond their words or deeds into their inner depths, where their real character lies. Lee isn’t just trying to tell you a story, he’s attempting to relate an experience, be it the experience of racial tensions boiling over one summer, or the experience of widespread paranoia and terror spawned by a killer on the loose another summer, or the experience of a young middle-class boy learning the virtues and values of religion and inner-city life yet another summer. This requires more than narrative, it requires communicating understanding, the kind you can’t acquire unless you’ve walked the metaphorical mile in a character’s shoes. By forcing us to see his characters and not just watch them, Lee is enabling us to see ourselves in them, or at least to see them as they see themselves, including the things they feel and fear and celebrate when words fail.
In the following supercut set to the smooth sounds of Sam Cooke, I’ve collected some of these shots from each of Lee’s narrative features – there’s a list below the embed – to demonstrate the various impacts they can have and the various emotions they can conjure, both in the characters and in us.
She’s Gotta Have It – School Daze – Do The Right Thing – Mo Better Blues – Jungle Fever – Malcolm X – Crooklyn – Clockers – Girl 6 – Get On The Bus – He Got Game – Summer of Sam – Bamboozled – The 25th Hour – She Hate Me – Inside Man – Miracle at St. Anna – Red Hook Summer – Oldboy – Da Sweet Blood of Jesus – Chi-Raq