Spike Lee’s ”Summer of Sam” is being killed by controversy. Since the film’s debut at the Cannes film festival last month, Lee has taken heat from the victims’ families, from disappointed reviewers, and even from a grieving David Berkowitz himself, who told the New York Times he prays for Lee and his family. Tired of playing defense, Lee has said, ”I feel for the parents… But we do not feel that the film is a glorification of David Berkowitz.” In subsequent interviews, Lee has usually chosen not to address questions about the families’ objections to his drama’s gritty depiction of the Berkowitz murder spree.
Unlike their director, however, ”Summer of Sam” cast members are eager to speak out about one frequent criticism — that the film is an Italian-American minstrel show. ”This is an accurate portrayal of a certain class of Italian-Americans,” says Ben Gazzara, who plays the resident Bronx Mob boss, Luigi, who’s enlisted by police to help catch Son of Sam. ”Spike stayed very true to the neighborhood feel. He knows us guineas.”
Michael Badalucco, who plays the titular serial killer, also vouches for ”Sam”’s authenticity. ”These kind of characters do exist,” says the Brooklyn native who’s best known for playing Jimmy Berluti on ABC’s ”The Practice.” ”What drives this movie is not Son of Sam, but showing how this (neighborhood) group is affected by the horrible events going on around them. You take (Martin) Scorsese’s movies, and they do the same thing — highlight a community, an era.”
Lee and his cast managed to sidestep the film’s negative attention at Monday night’s New York City premiere party, where 1500 friends and fans celebrated 1977, the summer of ”Sam.” Roseland concert hall featured glittery silver columns, professional disco dancers, and Abba songs galore. Lee’s pals Wesley Snipes, Lynn Whitfield, and Annabella Sciorra mingled with ”Sam” coscreenwriter Michael Imperioli and his fellow ”Sopranos” James Gandolfini and Steve Van Zandt, who was ready to boogie in his trademark bandana. Jennifer Esposito — who stars as Ruby, the neighborhood slut-turned-punk — reminisced about ’77: ”I was very little that summer,” said the 27-year-old from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. ”But I remember that during the blackout my family made sure I felt safe by making it like a family party.” Michael Rispoli, who plays a Mob thug, had a more adult memory. ”I was cruising Rockland County in my convertible, getting into trouble with my friends,” he laughed. ”That was the summer after I lost my virginity.”