On a warm August night in 1977, detectives arrested a man outside his apartment building, located an hour north of New York City. Even with two guns pointed at his head, the man, whose name would soon be on the front page of every newspaper in the state, seemed oddly calm. “I’m Sam,” he said – almost sweetly, the detectives were later to recall. And then, “Sam. David Berkowitz.”
In the thirteen months leading up to his arrest, Berkowitz had become the most feared criminal in a city widely seen as the most dangerous place in the United States. In July 1976, he murdered two teenaged girls with a .44 Bulldog revolver, inspiring the first nickname the papers gave him, “the .44 Caliber Killer.” Months later, after he’d killed or injured half a dozen more, he left the police a letter. When someone leaked it to the press, a new nickname, “the Son of Sam,” replaced the old one. In May 1977, he sent a second letter, this time to Jimmy Breslin of the New York Daily News. The edition of the Daily News in which letter appeared is still the highest selling in the paper’s history (reporters from the New York Post were rumored to be offended that Sam hadn’t thought of them first). Following Berkowitz’s arrest, publishers secretly competed for the rights to his tell-all, prompting the passing of a “Son of Sam Law” that prevented criminals from profiting from the stories of their crimes. Berkowitz’s name and nicknames continue to show up in true crime paperbacks, punk songs (although thousands of people still insist, mistakenly, that Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” is about Berkowitz), Saturday Night Live skits, video games, and films.
Summer of Sam, Spike Lee’s study of outer-borough New York City in the months leading up to Berkowitz’s arrest, has never been one of his most highly regarded works. At the time of its release in 1999 it was criticised for its profanity and violence, or else ignored in favor of features by fresher faces like David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and David O. Russell. Faced with a minor outcry about the ethics of making a Hollywood film about a real-life serial killer, Lee adopted a curtly defensive stance in interviews, claiming, confusingly, that his film wasn’t really about a serial killer at all. Further controversy arose because Summer of Sam was the first Spike Lee Joint with a predominately white cast. In a 1991 interview with Elvis Mitchell, Lee – who’d criticised Steven Spielberg and Norman Jewison for directing films with largely African American casts – insisted, “Black people are qualified to direct movies about white people … Because we grow up with white images all the time, on TV, in movies, in books. It’s everywhere, you can’t get around it. The white world surrounds us.”1 Eight years later, he put his own claim to the test, and the experience of filming “the white world” proved interesting enough that he returned to it in 25th Hour three years later.
Viewed today, Summer of Sam deserves a place in the ever-growing subgenre of unjustly neglected Spike Lee Joints. Its portrait of white America, condemned at the time for its harshness, now seems nuanced, sympathetic, and tragically prophetic, and its maximalist style, dismissed as Lee’s overreaching, now seems like a fitting way to document a pivotal era in history of New York City, white America, and the United States itself. The film opens with the real-life Jimmy Breslin (who passed away early in 2017) addressing the camera in the brash, hyperbolic tone he perfected in his Daily News articles:
I write about New York, the city of my birth. Where I’ve lived and worked all my life. The city that I love and hate both equally. Today things are much different. Business is booming up, up and up. Crime is down, down, down. Homicides are the lowest it’s been since 1961. Well, it wasn’t always like this. This film is about a different time, a different place. The good old days, the hot, blistering summer of 1977. There are eight million stories in the Naked City, and this was one of them.
Even more explicitly than Lee’s previous ‘70s New York film, Crooklyn (1994), Summer of Sam emphasises its setting – a time and place unlike the present, but still well within living memory; different and yet uncannily similar. With this in mind, the overarching question the prologue poses isn’t simply, “What was it like in the old days?”, but a sharper, more political one: “How did New York get here from there?” What had to change about the city’s culture, its law enforcement techniques, its newspapers, and, not least, its racial dynamics, in order for it to become what it was on the cusp of the new millennium?
Less than a minute into its run time, Summer of Sam has already posed challenging questions about politics and history. Instead of taking these questions seriously, critics were ready to conclude that the director had once again bitten off more than he could chew.2 Summer of Sam finds Lee in an unusual mode, to which he has yet to return: there are too many bodies packed into each frame, too many important events compressed into too little time, and a strange sense of repetitiveness offset by sudden splashes of grotesque violence. It is, in other words, the appropriate mode for a film about the Bronx in the summer of 1977.
Summer of Sam was released twenty-two years after Berkowitz’s arrest, a decade or so before the glut of films, books, and TV shows about ‘70s New York in which American culture is still swimming. That the decade of stagflation and shag carpeting is currently the subject of so much nostalgia has baffled more than a few people, particularly those who actually lived through it. In a long article for n+1 on recent, ‘70s-set fiction by Jonathan Lethem, Don DeLillo, Rachel Kushner, and others, Nicholas Dames reassesses the ‘70s’ reputation as a cynical, disaffected era, haunted by the failures of the utopian left of the previous decade. The defining feature of the ‘70s as it’s been captured in recent literature, Dames finds, is a sense of overpowering banality, which Lethem, DeLillo, and their peers depict as maddening yet addictive.3
The paradox, for Dames, of “’70s throwback fiction” is that it coincides with a surge in nonfiction writing that, like the prologue to Summer of Sam, frames the decade as an era of change, in which the American cultural, economic, and racial status quo came into its current form. In Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, Jefferson Cowie argues that the oft-parodied stagnancy of the ‘70s was, in itself, an important political event, and the consequence of specific political maneuvers that left the white working class in shambles.4
Under the presidency of Richard Nixon, the Republican Party began catering to white, traditionally Democratic factory workers, one of the most reliable segments of the New Deal coalition, while continuing to pedal the same economic agenda. In the 1972 presidential elections, Cowie argues, Nixon defeated George McGovern by catering to white working-class voters’ desire for law and order, their opposition to busing, and, thanks to his skillful use of dog whistle rhetoric, their racism against African Americans. 5 The result was that the Republican Party persuaded millions of white working-class voters to vote for a political platform guaranteed to undermine their own economic interests by appealing to a shallow version of white identity, rooted in hatred of the Other—a political stratagem that has reappeared in the 21st century with the rise of the Tea Party.
Lee’s great achievement in Summer of Sam was to capture the dead-endedness of ‘70s America without ignoring the broader social changes afoot. After Breslin’s prologue, the film cuts to a derelict apartment, in which Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco) writhes on his mattress, screaming for the neighbor’s dog to stop barking. We’ve seen this apartment before – in The Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, and sundry other serial killer movies – and yet Lee doesn’t frame his antagonist’s mania in terms of the typical Freudian or fundamentalist mumbo-jumbo. Instead, Berkowitz is cracking under the pressures of New York City itself – the impotent, negatively sublime feeling of being surrounded by eight million people, each with their own culture and behavior and noises. Then, abruptly, the film cuts to a crowd lining up outside a discotheque, coping with the pressure of city life the way most sane people do, by spending time with their like-minded friends. As the camera pans down, we hear “Fernando,” one of ABBA’s sugary late-’70s hits. It’s no coincidence that much of Summer of Sam’s extensive soundtrack was written by European musicians such as The Who, ABBA, Rod Temperton, and Elton John. Coming from Lee, for whom music is as important a part of cinematic storytelling as dialogue, this suggests the cultural vacuum of late-’70s white America, the era in which millions of white youths turned to African American or British performers for their music and style.6
The characters lined up outside the disco include Vinnie (John Leguizamo), the closest thing in the film to a protagonist; his wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino), and Dionna’s cousin Chiara (Lucy Grillo). There’s a lovely moment, echoing the Technicolor dance sequence in Lee’s otherwise black-and-white She’s Gotta Have It (1986), in which the other dancers vanish, leaving Vinnie and Dionna to conquer the disco. But a few minutes later, Vinnie is having rough anal sex with Chiara in the back of a car, wrecking whatever sense of starry-eyed romance the dance sequence might have generated. Vinnie, a hairdresser, seems to be one of the few men in his Italian-American Bronx community with a nine-to-five job; when we first see his peers, they’re standing around in the middle of the day, doing nothing in particular. There’s nothing cheerful or relaxed about these characters’ loitering. While the supporting characters of Do the Right Thing (1989) – an earlier Lee film about tensions escalating in the hot New York summer – seem mostly at ease with themselves while they’re killing time, the Bronx residents of Summer of Sam exude frustration. Within a few minutes, we’ve witnessed them putting out cigarettes on a character’s arm and throwing bottles at a WASP-y Long Islander’s car. They’re so bored and so uncomfortable with themselves that they spend their waking hours harassing others.
Summer of Sam’s opening scenes uphold Cowie’s grim portrait of ‘70s white working-class America: the decaying institutions of work and marriage; fragile masculinity; a high-octane, bullying manner to compensate for it – somehow held together by the fleeting comforts of drugs and pop culture. Like the sign around which the characters gather, which also serves as the film’s final, epitaphic image, Bronx life as Summer of Sam depicts it is one big “DEAD END.”
Hating the Other
Many of Spike Lee’s most controversial films have a prophetic quality, so that what initially seems laughable about them later becomes all-too true to life: the critic Ashley Clark recently wrote about how Bamboozled prefigured a decade and a half of Fox News, Rachel Dolezal, and Tyler Perry.7 Nobody in 1999 could have predicted the polls indicating that a significant percentage of Americans believed Barack Obama was a Kenyan Muslim; the election of Donald J. Trump, the preferred candidate of the Ku Klux Klan; or the surge in hate crimes, the vast majority of them perpetrated by white Americans against African, Muslim, and Mexican Americans – and in fact, anyone who had would have been accused of perpetuating crude, anti-white stereotypes. Nearly two decades later, it may be time to start taking Summer of Sam’s portrait of white America more seriously.
In his essay on Do the Right Thing, Stanley Crouch faulted Lee for “turning people into things,” filling his screenplays with shallow, one-dimensional characters whose only purpose was to spout whatever position on race Lee put in their mouth.8 Crouch isn’t wrong to point out the artificial characterisation in Lee’s films. People go on talking for far longer than they would in real life, and they often seem neatly arranged to steer the film’s themes in one direction or another – witness Mookie’s (Spike Lee) long conversation on race with Pino (John Turturro) midway through Do the Right Thing, or the way that Lee counterpoints Pino’s behavior with that of Vito, his sweeter, more tolerant brother (Richard Edson). Crouch is wrong, however, to suggest that Lee writes shallow characters. In a typical Spike Lee Joint, characters struggle with themselves, constantly and painfully aware of the stereotypes about how they should behave. Some of these characters – the Harvard-educated, affectedly genteel Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) in Bamboozled, for instance – push back against the script they know society expects them to follow. Others choose to revel in their stereotypes, defying society, paradoxically, by doing exactly what society expects them to do, and then some – thus, in Do the Right Thing, whenever the racist Pino berates Mookie for his laziness, Mookie makes a point of moving even more slowly. This is why it would be wrong to say that Lee’s characters are one-dimensional: in the best Spike Lee Joints, they teeter on the verge of one-dimensionality, sometimes giving in to it, sometimes, resisting it, but almost always making a conscious, humanity-confirming decision.
When asked about one-dimensional portrayals of Italian-Americans in Summer of Sam, Lee hid behind the fact that his two co-writers, Michael Imperioli and Victor Colicchio, were Italian.9 Even at the time, this seemed like a flimsy excuse – both because Lee alone wrote the final draft of the screenplay and because Lee the auteur was usually reluctant to attribute his films’ artistic visions to anyone other than himself. Throughout the film, Lee seems to hold his Italian-American characters at arm’s length – there are noticeably fewer of the intimate neighborhood details that immediately make his portrayals of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Red Hook feel true to life, whether they are or not. Most of the Italian-American men in the film are violent and argumentative. Lee shows them using drugs and firing guns (albeit to protect another character from harm), whereas in his previous films he’d refused to show either act, on the grounds that there were already too many gun and drug-filled films with predominately black casts.
It’s important to be precise in distinguishing between Lee’s portrayals of Italian-American culture and white culture: the former is a close-knit, tribal identity, rooted in food, music, slang, and sports; the latter is a looser category, always on the verge of collapsing on itself, but held together by hatred of outsiders of any kind. The implicit subject of Summer of Sam is how the decline of the former gave way to the latter toward the end of the 1970s, the same historical process at the centre of Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive. At various times in the film, the group gathered around the DEAD END sign, which Lee called simply the “Dead End gang,” consists of drug dealers and drug addicts, homophobes and one overtly homosexual character. Over the course of the film, they work together to catch the Son of Sam, whom they believe to be living somewhere in their neighborhood – suspects include “Billy the Jew, Jimmy del Fini and that guy that drives the bus to City Island.” No definition of the Dead End gang’s common culture is ever offered; their identity is based, in a triumph of circular reasoning, on bullying people who are different from them, all under the guise of protecting their community.
The prime target of the Dead End gang members’ bullying – and, supposedly, the person they most suspect of being the Son of Sam – is Ritchie, a wannabe British punk played by Adrien Brody. Too little has been made of the way Spike Lee uses casting to ridicule racial and cultural essentialism. Buggin’ Out from Do the Right Thing, played by the half-Italian, half-black Giancarlo Esposito, complains that there are too many Italians and not enough African Americans on the walls of Sal’s Pizzeria; meanwhile, John Turturo plays Italians in some Spike Lee Joints and Jews in others. Brody represents one of Lee’s wittiest directorial choices: unless you count Badalucco, he’s the film’s only starring actor to be born and raised in New York City. (John Leguizamo was born in Colombia; Mira Sorvino grew up in New Jersey.) By casting the New York insider as a perceived outsider, Lee makes further nonsense of the Dead End gang’s xenophobia.
As much as the Dead End gang adheres to hollow, tautological sameness, Ritchie adheres to difference for the sake of difference: he projects outsiderness in every way, but refuses to commit to any one identity. At various points, Lee shows Ritchie playing at a punk concert at CBGB’s, jamming to The Who, having sex with his girlfriend, and prostituting himself for the patrons of a gay midtown club. Ritchie’s refusal to accept life in the Bronx strikes the Dead End gang as an insult: what’s good enough for them isn’t good enough for him. At the end of the film, the gang – now including Vinnie, Ritchie’s lifelong friend – ambush and beat Ritchie, not because they have any proof that he’s the killer (who, ironically, has just been arrested) but because they want to punish him for his difference and, by the same token, rejoice in their own hollowed-out, dead-end sameness.
Over the course of Summer of Sam, Ritchie, Vinnie, the Dead End gang, and the Son of Sam are shown to suffer from the same profound self-loathing, intensified by the decay of New York City, the influx of many different kinds of people and cultures, and, not least, the summer heat. They try to compensate for the feeling in wildly different ways: Ritchie with music and sexual experimentation; Vinnie with adultery; the gang with bullying; and all, ultimately, with some form of violence. In this respect (and contrary to what Lee claimed in interviews), Summer of Sam isn’t wildly different from other films about serial killers; like the bulk of its predecessors, it diagnoses characters on both sides of the law with the same disease while implicating the viewers in its gory depictions of violence. In the film’s aesthetic highpoint, a montage set to The Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” Lee shows the characters struggling to release their pent-up frustration, first lashing out at themselves and then at other people. The pointless destruction is grotesquely childish and yet exhilarating, and one can feel Lee’s exhilaration in filming it.
The same sense of exhilaration lies at the core of Summer of Sam’s politics and its depiction of the Bronx. In spite of the film’s cynicism about certain characters, it’s full of reverence for Italian-American culture. For as long as he’s been giving interviews, Lee has been extravagant in his praise for ‘70s Italian-American cinema, especially the works of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, the latter of whom mentored him at NYU. These directors’ early work not only provided Lee with a guide to excellent filmmaking; it also gave him a model for how to represent minorities onscreen as protagonists, rather than supporting players. In this sense, it’s instructive to compare the receptions of Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and Do the Right Thing: for all the praise the two films received, both were reviled for glamorizing violence and crime and perpetuating crude stereotypes, and it’s likely that Lee took inspiration from Coppola when deciding how to depict African Americans sensitively without ignoring the unpleasant realities of their lives. Throughout Summer of Sam, Lee pays tribute to his Italian-American idols – the “Baba O’Riley” interlude, with its juxtapositions of life and death, sacred and profane, echoes the climax of The Godfather, and the film’s constant, giddy blend of violence, pop music, and comedy is difficult to describe as anything other than Scorsese-esque. To argue that Spike Lee denigrates Italian-Americans, as some did in 1999, is to miss the distinctly – and gloriously – Italian-American quality of the film’s directing.
In another sense, Lee’s portrayal of the Italian-American community in Summer of Sam comes down to a fine distinction between one-dimensional and hollow. One-dimensional characters are boring, predictable, and not worth the audience’s time. Hollow characters, by contrast, often make for fascinating films: they project dangerous charisma, challenge expectations, and provoke complicated emotions from the audience. Vinnie, Ritchie, and the other Bronx characters of Summer of Sam are often difficult to admire, but never dull – even when they’re betraying their friends or tearing themselves apart, they demand attention. Similarly, the historical process that Lee portrays – the hollowing-out of Italian-American New York in the 1970s, leaving behind a paranoid, reactionary whiteness – is disturbing but also tragic. Like Michael Corleone, Vinnie and his peers try to be virtuous, and then to balance virtue and sin, but in the end, they surrender to the latter. They may be hollow, but they continue to command our sympathy and our respect.
… Same as the Old Boss?
Summer of Sam ends as it begins, with Jimmy Breslin addressing the camera. The Son of Sam – “that sick fuck” – was sentenced to six consecutive life sentences, he explains, and then repeats, “There are eight million stories in the Naked City, and this was one of them.” As the Frank Sinatra version of “New York, New York” plays, Breslin abruptly walks out of the frame, leaving viewers to ponder the yellow “DEAD END” sign.
“New York, New York” was composed by Fred Ebb and John Kander for Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film of the same name, released just five days before Dave Berkowitz shot two people in Bayside, Queens. Originally written for Liza Minnelli, it didn’t become a hit until after Frank Sinatra performed it at Radio City Music Hall in 1978. Today, it’s so heavily associated with Sinatra – and with New York itself – that many people don’t realise Sinatra was sixty years old before he started singing it, at a time when New York was widely seen as a place whose best days were far behind it. The enduring charm of “New York, New York” lies in the way it ignores reality, breezing past everything that happened to New York, and Sinatra, in the ‘70s in order to celebrate a glittering, old-fashioned city that never existed in the first place:
Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today
I want to be a part of it, New York, New York
These vagabond shoes, are longing to stray
Right through the very heart of it, New York, New York
I want to wake up in a city, that doesn’t sleep
And find I’m king of the hill, top of the heap
These little town blues are melting away
I’ll make a brand new start of it, in old New York
If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere
It’s up to you, New York, New York
It’s peculiar that a song that glorifies ruthless, every-man-for-himself competition has become a symbol of citywide solidarity, performed for tearful crowds near the rubble of the World Trade Center and after every one of Lee’s beloved Knicks games. One could say that solidarity and competition, helping out one’s neighbors and fighting with them, are the two central themes of Spike Lee’s directorial output, and his films are never better, or more quintessentially New York, than when these two themes come together in the same scene. Oftentimes, there’s something oddly affectionate about the way his characters argue with each other, celebrating their boisterous New York-ness even while they’re shouting in each other’s faces.
Sinatra crooning, “It’s up to you, New York, New York,” is as powerful an expression of the United States’ motto E Pluribus Unum – “from many, one” – as one can find in the nation’s music. The beauty of the song is that it glorifies competition, even as it asks all its listeners to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in love for their city. So it is that Summer of Sam, a film about the corruption of one portion of American society, ends by suggesting how people of all backgrounds might get along. Coexistence as Lee understands it doesn’t mean giving up one’s identity or even one’s ambition – rather, it means accepting other people’s differences, and the concept of Otherness itself, to a degree that none of the Dead End gang members have the courage to accept, but which Lee himself exemplifies throughout his film.
Few people who watched Summer of Sam in 1999 realised how insightful, or how prophetic, its story of white America driven to frustrated, xenophobic violence would become. To this day, even fewer recognise the utopian vision hidden in the film’s final scene – the same vision that runs through much of Lee’s later work, from 25th Hour (2002) to When the Levees Broke (2006) to Red Hook Summer (2012) to Chi-Raq (2015). Even as Lee grows more thoughtful in his middle age, pundits continue to dismiss his politics as angry ranting. There is anger in Summer of Sam, but also hope – and the rest, with all due respect to Mr. Sinatra, is up to us.
- Spike Lee. Interview with Elvis Mitchell. Playboy (July 1991): p. 59 ↩
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Summer of Sam,” Chicago Reader, 1999, https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/summer-of-sam/Film?oid=1067578 ↩
- Nicholas Dames, “Seventies Throwback Fiction,” n+1 Issue 21 (Winter 2015), https://nplusonemag.com/issue-21/reviews/seventies-throwback-fiction/ ↩
- Jefferson Cowie, “Introduction: Old Fashioned Heroes of the New Working Class” in Stayin’Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (The New Press, 2010), 1-21. ↩
- Ibid., “Nixon’s Class Struggle,” 125-167 ↩
- In Summer of Sam, Breslin discusses the death of Elvis Presley, an event which Lee claimed “had a huge effect on white America.” See: Spike Lee. Interview with Prairie Miller. All Movie Guide (1999): p. 82. For Lee, Elvis – who stole lyrics, melodies, and dance moves from black musicians, and who Public Enemy called a “straight up racist” in the opening credits sequence for Do the Right Thing – seems to represent the cultural dominance of white America, and his passing in 1977 may have signaled a new era of black cultural empowerment. ↩
- Ashley Clark, ‘Bamboozled: Spike Lee’s masterpiece on race in America is as relevant as ever, The Guardian, 6 October 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/oct/06/bamboozled-spike-lee-masterpiece-race-in-america ↩
- Stanley Crouch, “Do the Race Thing: Spike Lee’s Afro-Fascist Chic,” Village Voice (20 July, 1989), pp. 73-74. ↩
- Miller, p. 71 ↩