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african-american directors series: inside man (spike lee, 2006)

I'm usually about a year behind on my movie watching, and something like Inside Man is exactly the kind of film that slips through my cracks, so to speak. I'll watch 30 movies in a month leading up to the Oscars, but Inside Man, a genre picture, is apparently a movie that Oscar tends to avoid. (Although I wouldn't say Inside Man is a "black" movie, it's interesting that while it received no Oscar nominations, Spike Lee won a Black Movie Award, a Black Reel Award, and an Image Award for his direction, with Denzel Washington getting an acting nomination in all of those competitions.) I watched it now because I was thinking of using it in my fall class (and now that I've seen it, I think it'll make a good fit). It's a very strong movie … Spike Lee is an erratic director, but he was on a roll last year, with this film and the New Orleans miniseries When the Levees Broke. Denzel is the perfect combination of movie star and actor (the two don't have to go together), Jodie Foster nails her few scenes, the supporting cast is fascinating … there's a lot to like here. It's also an intelligent movie, or perhaps more accurately, it assumes an intelligent audience (as Stephanie Zacharek said, "This is a mainstream entertainment designed for that forgotten movie audience, grown-ups who have brains").

I'm mentioning Inside Man here because of the similarities between the film and the Spike TV miniseries The Kill Point that I was cajoled into watching for a couple of episodes. The Kill Point is decent enough, with some good actors and some reasonably tense action scenes. But the entire series is far too reminiscent of a dozen other bank-robbery hostage dramas. Inside Man is what The Kill Point wants to be: smart and stylish, but with characters who break free of the stereotypes that informed their creation. The moments meant to reveal character in The Kill Point reveal nothing we haven't seen before, so that you can predict what's coming even when you can't predict what's coming … when John Leguizamo gives a passionate speech about how poorly served he has been by the country that he himself served with honor, it's a good speech and he does a good job of presenting it, but there's nothing in it that you haven't heard in other movies about other veterans of other wars. But the characters in Inside Man are much harder to predict, because they're closer to real human beings, with all of the quirky randomness that implies.

The plot twists are enjoyably complicated, enough so that I'm not spoiling any of them here. But I'll give one thing away, what you might call the biggest joke Spike Lee plays on the audience: he casts Clive Owen as the head of the bankrobbers, and Clive Owen is like a white British version of Denzel, he's better looking than the rest of us and knows how to use his looks to supplement his acting chops. So what does Lee do? He has Owen spend most of the movie hiding his face behind a mask.

(Here is a letterboxd list of movies with African-American directors.)

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