Theory and Praxis Spike Lee Attains a New Naturalism in the Showtime Movie 'Sucker Free City'

By Cox, Ted | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), February 11, 2005 | Go to article overview

Theory and Praxis Spike Lee Attains a New Naturalism in the Showtime Movie 'Sucker Free City'


Cox, Ted, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Ted Cox Daily Herald TV/Radio Columnist

As a filmmaker, Spike Lee is devoted to dialectic. His stories don't unreel so much as they pit some noble thesis against an ignoble antithesis to produce a (usually violent) synthesis. This approach has worked best with "Do the Right Thing," but otherwise it has tended to limit his movies, so that even a family drama like "Crooklyn" or a biopic like "Malcolm X" has come off stiff and contrived.

That's why Lee's new "Sucker Free City," debuting at 7 p.m. Saturday on Showtime, is such a revelation. Instead of setting up a clear conflict of polar opposites, Lee instead follows three intertwining stories involving the street gangs of San Francisco. Some conflicts are resolved, others left hanging. Yet the storytelling seems natural and unforced. Combined with the linear "The 25th Hour," it shows Lee entering a comfortable, confident artistic maturity.

Many film stars turn to premium cable for boutique projects too personal to be considered mainstream. It's unclear if Lee intended "Sucker Free City" to be made for TV, as it debuted at last year's Toronto Film Festival. Yet there's no doubt he achieved the same unpretentious feel with this movie that premium cable tends to look for. Its understated naturalism is its charm.

There's no one star, but Anthony Mackie eventually seizes center stage as Keith, known to his V-Dub gang buddies in the black neighborhood of Hunter's Point as K-Luv. Mackie has a smooth, Will Smith quality as an actor, which comes out as his character tries to navigate the dangerous waters surrounding this group of drug dealers. A gangbanger with a skill for avoiding conflict, he tends to his grandmother, stricken with Alzheimer's, and also teaches Afrocentric pride to his gangsta-wannabe cousin, Li'l O.

Over in Chinatown, Ken Leung's Lincoln is likewise teaching Chinese pride to his little brothers. Yet at the same time he's working as an extortionist for the Chinese Mafia, and not only is he skimming off the top, but he's also banging the boss' daughter in a mutually manipulative relationship rife with class conflict.

Speaking of class, 19-year-old slacker hacker Nick, played by Ben Crowley, finds himself and his hippie-dippy family relocated from the increasingly gentrified Mission District to V-Dub turf in Hunter's Point. Nick is the only member of the family with any real survival skills on the street, as he's been stealing and selling credit-card numbers at the office where he works as a mailroom gofer. …

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