Fans of Spike Lee know that the acclaimed director has long idealized jazz. His father, jazz musician Bill Lee, has composed a number of his son’s films. So it wasn’t surprising to see Spike create a film centered within that world. Unfortunately, the ambitious Mo’ Better Blues wasn’t as well received as the works preceding it.
The 1990 drama follows the life of Brooklyn jazz trumpeter Bleek Gilliam (played by Denzel Washington), who is conflicted in his personal relationships as much as he is in his professional ones. Bleek is torn between two women – the sultry songstress Clarke Bentancourt; and the less glamorous, but more stable Indigo Downes.
Meanwhile, Bleek’s professional troubles stem from his band needing better leadership in order to make it big.
Critics like the New York Times’ Caryn James lauded the visual aesthetics of the film though quipped, “But if the best you can say about a film is that it looks good, there's serious trouble underneath. Like Bleek himself, Mo' Better Blues is all smooth, handsome surface and no inner life.”
Peter Tavares, longtime film critic for Rolling Stone, had similar complaints, writing, “Spike Lee has helped right that wrong by making a film about and primarily for Blacks. Unfortunately, he has merely reshuffled the Hollywood clichés instead of rethinking them.”
And like any Spike Lee film, it was not released without controversy. The director was blasted by the Anti Defamation League for the Mo’ Better Blues’ depictions of the Jewish nightclub owners in the film. The organization claimed Lee was dredging up old anti-Semitic stereotypes and alleged he “has employed the same kind of tactics that he supposedly deplores.”
Spike Lee shot back at those claims in a New York Times editorial entitled “I Am Not An Anti-Semite,” dubbing the criticism “unrealistic and unfair.”
Mo' Better Blues was released 21 years ago today.