Photo: ‘New York, New York’
Since his directorial debut, She’s Gotta Have It in 1986, Spike Lee has been a long-time Hollywood staple. His films, known as “Spike Lee Joints”, are well-regarded for their deep exploration of themes such as race relations, colorism, and urban life. Certain aspects of cinematography, such as long dolly shots, also appear often in Spike Lee Joints and grant a consistent style to his filmography. His latest release, BlacKkKlansman, starring John David Washington and Adam Driver, was released in 2018 and tells the true story of Colorado Springs’ first black detective, Ron Stallworth, as he infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan.
Another major aspect of Spike Lee’s work, and one that may be often overlooked, is the presence of New York City. Though Lee was born in Atlanta, Georgia, his family moved to Brooklyn when he was only a child. Lee’s experiences growing up in Brooklyn shaped much of his life and therefore had a great impact on his films. His ties to New York City hold strong, as he continues to serve as a tenured professor in New York University’s Graduate Film Program.
Many of Lee’s Joints, particularly his early films, take place in New York City. Prominent New York-set films directed by Lee include She’s Gotta Have It, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, He Got Game, 25th Hour and Inside Man. His first-hand experience with Brooklyn’s race relations and urban life allowed him to very accurately portray these concepts on film. Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, is also located in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn and continues to be used to this day.
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Now, as the coronavirus continues to affect people around the world, Spike Lee has come out in support of his city. New York, New York, a short film aired on CNN on May 7th, is the latest Spike Lee Joint. Running at about three and a half minutes long, the short film consists of shots of major New York City landmarks that now stand empty due to the coronavirus lockdown.
Major attractions such as Times Square, Yankee Stadium and Grand Central Station appear eerily empty, without crowds of tourists and New Yorkers alike flooding through them. Frank Sinatra’s rendition of Liza Minnelli’s “New York, New York” plays, acting as a soundtrack, throughout the entire Joint.
New York, New York is meant to celebrate the beauty of New York City, even during this trying period of pandemic and lockdown, and it also celebrates the healthcare workers currently fighting to help others. At the end of the film, the empty city streets are left behind in order to show active fire stations, working ambulances, pharmacies, hospitals and dozens of healthcare workers. These healthcare workers are shown being applauded by other people, who clap from their apartment windows or hold up signs from inside their cars. The scenes of community and celebration are an effective juxtaposition to the empty landmarks depicted in the first half of the short film.
This short film comes at an opportune time, as New York and the rest of the United States have been under lockdown for more than two months. With movie theatres closed and unlikely to reopen soon, and filming for all theatrical productions put on hold, new films are an extreme rarity. Spike Lee’s release not only celebrates New York City and healthcare workers but also gives the world a new theatrical release to appreciate during this trying time.
The purely visual quality of the Joint, with no sound other than the Frank Sinatra song as background music, means that it can be appreciated by anyone in the world regardless of language. New York, New York has the potential to connect people around the world during a time when everyone feels quite isolated.
This short film isn’t the only contribution that Lee has made to New York during this pandemic, either. A telethon titled Rise Up New York! was held on May 11th, hosted by actress/comedian Tina Fey, in an attempt to raise money for relief and recovery efforts. Spike Lee also appeared on the telethon, discussing how sporting events will eventually reopen, to help raise money for his beloved city. The event raised $115 million to help those impacted by COVID-19.
New York, New York is available to watch on Spike Lee’s Instagram. It is an incredibly poignant short film, shot by a master talent who loves his subject. The sight of an empty New York City may be bittersweet, but it is a unique and powerful image that will forever mark this period of time. The tribute to healthcare workers who are fighting to save lives, even at personal risk to themselves, is an extremely meaningful image next to the barren streets. As the latest of Spike Lee’s Joints, this latest short film may be his most touching.
By Thomas McNulty
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