By Zak Rye. Between low-brow and no-brow, this is unCultured, where we attempt to shed a new light on some of our favorite misunderstood and often overlooked films. This week, we turn our attention to a film often considered the redheaded stepchild of Spike Lee’s impactful catalogue of “joints”, 1999’s ‘Summer of Sam’.

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In the summer of 1977, Spike Lee returned home to Brooklyn after attending Morehouse College to find the city at a pinnacle of anxiety, paranoia, and excitement, deteriorating under the pressure of a record heat wave, mass blackouts, and of course, serial killer David Berkowitz, aka the Son of Sam. Engulfed in the frantic bustle of his surroundings, it was in this summer that Lee decided to become a filmmaker. Fast-forward twenty-two years: Lee is approached with a screenplay, one that encapsulates the sense of catastrophic cause and effect that initially inspired the young director to create. Originally, Lee intended only to produce Summer of Sam, though his undeniable connection with the piece influenced him to not only rewrite the screenplay, but also direct it. The result is this boiling pot, teeming with the darkest facets of human obsession.

The story told is not of the notorious serial killer, Son of Sam. Our true focus lies on Vinny (John Leguizamo), an adulterous hair stylist living in south Bronx, and Richie (Adrien Brody), a childhood friend of Vinny and porn actor/stripper who has recently inhabited a new punk persona… complete with a fake British accent. The city is on edge, and the addition of New York’s first media-famous serial killer serves as the catalyst that teeters its citizens over the brink. With every cop, criminal, parent, and child looking at their neighbors and friends with a crooked eye, lists are made, mobs are formed, and the sense of personal safety quickly dwindles into nothing.


While the concept of social tension eventually became a muse of sorts for some of Lee’s most prolific work, Summer of Sam was shot with an eye that is wholly independent of his other films. While it certainly shares its core topics with Lee’s opus, Do the Right Thing, it couldn’t be more stylistically contrasting. Explicitly, the cinematography by Ellen Kuras, who had briefly worked with Lee in the past, is intensely dramatic and theme oriented. The diffused, steamy light lets us feel the heat and claustrophobic air of the city. The long shadows and chromatic colors of the killer’s scenes take us into a completely other world. Visually, Summer of Sam is an undeniable standout in Lee’s repertoire.

The most common mistake made about this film is to assume that it’s a serial killer movie. Critics couldn’t help but to try to fit Summer of Sam into a box, defining it as a serial killer flick, a typical Spike Lee “Joint”, or a companion piece to Do the Right Thing. (The film couldn’t fit into these boxes so the critics slammed it.) And while it doesn’t fit into any of the aforementioned molds, Summer of Sam does share one major attribute with these models, that it is a film about the monsters that live in our world — not just among us, but inside of us. The contrast is apparent, and certainly complex: Vinny is constantly concerned with what God would want, but is unable (or unwilling) to follow those thoughts, while the Son of Sam follows blindly and faithfully what he believes the Devil wants. So, who is more devout, honest, and true to themselves? The concept of villain and victim is drowned out by the misdoings of each character; the heat, blackouts, the World Series, and even the killings are little more than excuses for their own inherent evils to surface and fester. In the end, the film’s only true victims are those at the business end of Berkowitz’s .44.

Richie poignantly states, “Evil spelled backwards is live”. Though each character sees evil in everyone around him or her, none of them are able to subdue the evil inside of themselves. Instead, as it is easier to point the finger at everyone around them, they each simply live their malicious lives comforted, if anything, by the thought that they are alive and living.


Five more things that a dog told us about Summer of Sam:

5) Though Adrien Brody was written as the main character, Leguizamo’s improvising impressed Lee so much that he ended up shifting focus to Vinny. Some of Lee’s standout favorites of Leguizamo’s improv are, however, somewhat disquieting. Specifically, the scene in which Leguizamo spits in Mira Sorvino’s face during an argument and when he dumps a cup of hot coffee on Gloria (Bebe Neuwirth).

4) The letters read by writer and reporter Jimmy Breslin are in fact word for word recreations of the original letters that David Berkowitz sent to Breslin during the hunt for the Son of Sam.

3) Though the film mainly takes place in the Throgs Neck area of the Bronx, Lee occasionally shifts focus to the predominately black neighborhoods of the city during segments called the “Darker Perspective”, hosted by John Jeffries (portrayed by Lee). It is in these sections that Lee’s character is publicly chastised for, well… not being black enough. Quite likely, Lee included these sequences as a figurative double wink to his audience and their probable reaction to Spike Lee writing a directing a movie with almost no black characters. Either way, we think it’s pretty hilarious.

2) The orgy scene, (which was cut in order to receive an R rating), is set at Plato’s Retreat, an actual sex club that opened in New York City in 1977. There’s a 2008 documentary about Plato’s Retreat called American Swing that we highly recommend.

1) In the closing scene of Summer of Sam, Adrian Brody’s vulture beak of a nose is actually broken during the fight sequence that takes place in front of his home.