It's been clear ever since those great Nike ads with Michael Jordan: Something about television really seems to suit Spike Lee. He's one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers working today, and "Do the Right Thing" is arguably the best American movie of the last 20 years. But for the last several years, either Hollywood hasn't known to do with Lee or Lee hasn't known what to do with Hollywood. His last three pictures — "He Got Game," "Summer of Sam" and "Bamboozled" — all had moments of true brilliance and moments of head-scratching aimlessness.
Somehow, though, cohesive narrative seems to fall into place whenever he works for the small screen. I haven't seen his John Thompson profile, but "Freak" and especially "4 Little Girls" are incredibly disciplined, exciting pieces of work. He hopes to keep the streak going on June 18, when his filmed adaptation of Roger Guenveur Smith's "A Huey P. Newton Story" airs on the Black Starz! cable network. (In light of the fact that many viewers don't get Black Starz!, it will air subsequently on PBS as well as African Heritage Network.) Smith and Lee go back as far as "School Daze" — he was Smiley, the stutterer who sells the Malcolm X/Martin Luther King photos in "Do the Right Thing" — and "Huey P. Newton" marks their seventh collaboration.
Smith won two OBIE Awards in 1995 for his gritty one-man show, which portrays the rise and fall of Newton, the legal scholar and poet who co founded the Black Panthers and ultimately died a crack addict in 1989. Lee saw the production at the New York Shakespeare Festival, and they had discussed filming it off and on ever since. "Spike is probably the most independent of the American independents," says Smith, "and he brought his 'A' team along for the ride." That team included director of photography Ellen Kuras and production designer Wynn Thomas, both of whom have worked on numerous Lee films. "It took a lot of hard work on a lot of people's behalf, but we pulled it off. Now it lives on in posterity — and hopefully prosperity."
The vast majority of "Huey P. Newton" was taped during one live performance of the play — "just one man, one chair and 20 Kool cigarettes" — last November at the Angel Orensanz Center on the Lower East Side. And although the text was largely intact from the stage show, Smith says the end result is completely different. "The format of the play is kind of like a press conference, so it lent itself to the format well. But the first thing Spike said was, 'It's not a stage show anymore. It's a film now. You've got to commit to that." Smith, who has toured with the show extensively for six years (and who will perform his new one-man show, Iceland, in Minneapolis in September), enjoys finding new nuances with each performance, so the idea of one fixed performance took some getting used to. But he says he tapped into emotions during that November performance that he has never found before or since.
One of the biggest differences in the film is Lee's use of archival film. Marc Anthony Thompson's sound design for the play consisted of both original music and a sonic collage of words about Newton by everyone from Stokely Carmichael to Angela Davis to Vincent Price (whose vocal style Newton admits to appropriating). The film version attaches visuals to much of this material, in many cases using the actual footage of the speeches. "You also see very brief snippets of Huey," says Smith, "but you don't see him talking. I couldn't compete with that." Smith is well aware, however, that Huey P. Newton is one of the least iconic of the major civil rights figures. Many people know Newton's basic background, but the details remain fuzzy. Smith believes this is because Newton was at his least accessible — he spent time in jail, in Cuba and in the relative obscurity of academia — during the period when he was most notorious. "Hopefully," he says, "this film will give people a chance to reconsider Huey P. Newton."
I'm writing this before the Tony Awards, but it's a safe bet that any real tension will come less from the musicals and more from the plays. Just for kicks, which Best Play nominee do you think would make the most interesting film? Who would you cast, and who would direct? The nominees are Proof, The Invention of Love, King Hedley II and The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, but while you're at it, you can suggest a movie of Stones in His Pockets or The Dinner Party.
By the way, I want to apologize for misidentifying director Richard Benjamin in my last column. It was corrected in the first day or two, thanks to several eagle-eyed readers, but my apologies go out to anyone who saw the incorrect version. Also, some of the information contained herein may be the slightest bit out of date. I'm filing this column well in advance because ... I am currently on my honeymoon! As you read this, my new bride and I are tooling around Sonoma Valley in a Spider convertible. So please pardon any slightly out-of-date information.
Cutting-Room Floor: The plot thickens concerning the Uma Thurman production of "Hysterical Blindness" for HBO. Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara and Juliette Lewis are costarring for director Mira Nair ("Kama Sutra"), and the film is apparently set in 1987 New Jersey. This is apparently not the southern gay comedy so many of you remembered. ... After seeing Dorothy Stanley in the Roundabout Follies, you can hear her in this year's big Disney cartoon, "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" (June 15). Also opening in limited release that day are Janet McTeer in "SongCatcher," costarring Jane Adams, and "Let It Snow." The press materials present the latter as a breezy romantic comedy set in New York, but listen to this cast: Bernadette Peters, Larry Pine (The Designated Mourner), Miriam Shor (Yitzhak in the stage and screen "Hedwig and the Angry Inch") and Living Theater cofounder Judith Malina.
My Favorite Thought: One of my regular readers, Kevin, can always be counted out to speak his mind about what he's seen. This week he weighs in on the Showtime production of "Sister Mary Explains It All":
"In 'Christopher Durang Explains It All for You' (a collection of six Durang plays), 'Sister Mary Ignatius' is followed by an Addendum outlining the pitfalls to be avoided in putting on that particular play. The Showtime adaptation plunged headlong into every one of them. Diane Keaton 'too nice' in the title role? She rants and bullies and acts neurotic from the start. The whole point of the play is how people are taken in by Catholic doctrine, so we need a Sister Mary of great charm (not to mention comic flair, which Ms. Keaton lacks completely) to add credibility to her more outrageous pronouncements. If only they'd gotten Lynn Redgrave, who was a great Sister Mary years ago in the Los Angeles production.
"The sweetness of the play, which balances the eruptions of the second half, is missing. (Thomas, the little boy who is supposed to adore Sister, in this version already seems a bit wary of her.) Everything is telegraphed too early, such as the motives of the quartet of ex-students, and we don't need Martin Mull sitting and mugging commentarily in Sister's audience. A one hour production of the play without the interpolations would have been much more satisfying."
Your Thoughts: So how many of you get Black Starz? If so, do you plan to catch "A Huey P. Newton Story?" And don't forget to cast one of this year's Broadway plays.
Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theater critic for Back Stage.