The Lesser Seen 05: Spike Lee’s ‘Sucker Free City’

sucker freecitySucker Free City was originally developed as the pilot for a TV show by the Showtime network in 2004. The script was written by Alex Tse, who would go on to be a screenwriter for Watchmen, and Spike Lee was hired to direct. For whatever reason, Showtime opted not to produce the series, but rather than discarding the pilot, reworked it as a TV movie. I’m not sure if this is made up of one episode or two but it clocks in at almost two hours so doesn’t feel like an episode of a TV show.

One can see why Spike Lee was interested, it’s a gritty, realistic look at life on the street, which bears some similarity to a lot of his work, but Sucker Free City distinguishes itself by being set in San Francisco, rather than Lee’s native New York City.

The story revolves around three young male characters. Nick (Ben Crowley) has an office job but is beginning to partake in crime, dealing drugs to a co-worker. He and his family (who are white) have recently been forced to move out of their house due to rising real estate prices. They move to an African-American neighbourhood where the V-Dub gang prowl the streets. Among the gang is Keith ‘K-Luv’ (Anthony Mackie, who would also star in Lee’s She Hate Me that year), who seems to be more of a reluctant member. He is shown caring for his family at home and feels sympathy for Nick when he is harassed by the gang, and begins to reach out to him. Nearby is Lincoln Ma (Ken Leung), who is shown supporting his community, encouraging young Chinese-American kids to go to school but is also rising up in the Chinese mafia, facing problems from within his neighbourhood and from the V-Dub gang as a result of the sale of bootleg CDs.

Sucker Free City gives us a stark look at what life has to offer for these young men, and while presenting a harsh environment, does not allow itself to simply wallow in pessimism. It does give us one truly shocking scene involving drug dealers, and creates a totally detestable character in Keith’s gang leader, a man who pulls a gun on anyone who he doesn’t like the look of while claiming the area to be ‘his projects’.sucker free city

I can’t quite tell if the catalytic crime for the trio, bootlegging CDs, is simply a product of its time or a deliberately petty crime chosen to illustrate how relatively minor a thing can result in life-or-death situations for these people, but I prefer the latter.

The big question about a TV pilot reworked in this manner though, is; does it work as a self-contained film? Sucker Free City certainly leaves things open ended for its three primary characters, and who knows where the story-lines might have taken them, but does not end with any kind if cliff-hanger or unsatisfactory conclusion. It’s not The Wire in San Francisco as it might like to be, but worth a look.



‘The Lesser Seen’ is a feature in which I highlight a lower-profile film or two by a well-known director.

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