Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3640
SOURCE: "Spike Lee's Gotta Have It," in The New York Times Magazine, August 9, 1987, pp. 26-9, 39, 41.
[In the following essay, Mieher discusses the making of Lee's School Daze and his emerging success as a filmmaker.]
The scene is an old fairgrounds building in Atlanta, now Madame Re-Re's Beauty Salon, a surreal creation of plywood, plaster and paint. The set has been packed with a score of dancers, a film crew and the director Spike Lee, all of them sweating under 140,000 watts of lighting to piece together a production number. Now the crew is taking a break. The dancers, overheated, head for cooler air outside.
Lee wanders out too, a short, spindly figure in black trousers, black sneakers and a Mets baseball cap. He is looking for an audience, and he finds one, a visitor. He asks, "Did you hear we got kicked off campus?" The campus in question is that of Morehouse College, Lee's alma mater and the main location for his second feature film, about student life at an all-black college. Things are not working out as planned. Lee tells of how the school's president, Hugh Morris Gloster, "thought this would be a negative portrayal of black colleges." The director pauses at a snack table to stuff a few orange slices into his mouth, then adopts a mocking, presidential tone: "He said, 'We have information that actors in the movie use an obscene word, and parents wouldn't want to send their children here if they heard that.' Sure, we're using the word. And so are the parents of those kids."
(Gloster, the Morehouse president, says: "They came in shooting on the campus and we began to get reports about things that were going on," such as some football cheers with decidedly off-color references. Parents, he feared, "would judge the school on what they see in this film.")
Lee devours a few more slices of orange, then continues: "We were going to do a premiere in Atlanta. Now we'll do it in New York. We need a warm reception, and there are too many people, powerful people in Atlanta who wish we'd never come here."
This is Spike Lee, talking wise, disrespectful of authority, a bit paranoid, hungry. As a first year graduate-school film student, he had the audacity to parody the cinematic classic The Birth of a Nation. As director, writer, star and producer of his first feature-length film, he became a phenomenon. She's Gotta Have It was the tale of a young black woman who felt no need to choose among her three lovers. She was, says Lee, "living her life like a man." Lee played Mars Blackmon, a rapping street kid who joked his way into her bed and stole scene after scene. The film, made in 1985 for less than $175,000, pulled in $7 million at the box office. For an independent, shoestring production, this was remarkable. For an independent shoestring production by a black man about black people, it was astounding.
Since then, Lee has emerged as a nexus of black culture. Stevie Wonder wrote a song for his new film. Jesse Jackson delivered a prayer on the set for the project's success. In Atlanta, clean-cut Morehouse students beseeched Lee for autographs, seeing in him a new role model. One, grasping a copy of Black Enterprise magazine that featured an article about Lee, asked, "Should brothers and sisters go to an entrepreneurial mode and struggle it out, or go to white corporations?" Lee's advice: "It's always better to have your own thing going."
Still only 30 years old, Lee has gained a degree of respect and freedom accorded few independent film makers at any age. "I consider him, forget black and white, one of the most original young film makers in the world," says David Picker, president of Columbia Pictures. Lee's current project, which Columbia plans to distribute next February, is a musical with the punnish title School Daze. Its budget of about $6 million is small by Hollywood's standards, but three dozen times larger than Lee has had before.
With an audience or an interviewer, Lee is animated, opinionated, gloriously quotable. He rails against black celebrities who "have a vicious crossover mentality." According to Lee, "They want to get on the cover of Rolling Stone. That's when you start seeing the symptoms—the nose jobs, the cleft chins, the blue and green contact lenses."
He takes the film establishment to task for producing shallow, misleading portrayals of black society. "I'm tired of people who know nothing about us defining our lives," he says. He trumpets a grand ambition: to present a new view of black life to the mass audience.
But on the set of School Daze, a different Spike Lee emerges, one with little of his shoot-from-the-lip arrogance. He is a thoughtful, organized and silent presence, focused on the task at hand, giving an occasional direction but welcoming no interruption. One friend calls him "a pot at continuous simmer," and the description seems apt.
The director, all 125 pounds of him, is sitting in a college auditorium, a black pork-pie hat perched on his head. His sweatshirt this evening says on the front "Mission," the name of the fictitious black coed school where the film takes place. On the back, a motto: "Uplift the Race." Lee's high-top basketball shoes are secured with orange Day-Glo laces. His socks droop around his skinny ankles. He is a minor spectacle.
It is three months before the Madame Re-Re scene, the first day of casting calls in Atlanta. The site is Spelman College, the black women's school across the road from Morehouse. Lee is cracking jokes, filling the short breaks between auditions by swaying to music swelling out of a tape player. He recognizes a young woman who wants one of the minor roles Lee has reserved for student talent. "Miss Wannabee, the prototype," he says teasingly. The term is short for "wannabee white," and it describes one of the opposing groups of students in the film, whose plot revolves around the clash between well-to-do, light-skinned students—wannabees—and poorer, darker students, whom the script calls "jigaboos."
Morehouse and Spelman form one of those bastions of the black middle class about which the rest of America knows little. Blacks seeking to communicate the schools' preeminence call them the black Harvard and Radcliffe. Their students have included Martin Luther King Jr., the novelist Alice Walker and not only Spike Lee but his father and grandfather.
Shelton Jackson Lee, nicknamed Spike by his mother, was born in Atlanta shortly before his family moved to Brooklyn. His mother, who died in 1977, taught art and black literature. His father, Bill Lee, is a jazz musician and composer. Spike had been indifferent to guitar and piano lessons. But in 1976, during his sophomore year at Morehouse College, he began playing around with another instrument, an eight-millimeter camera. Lee made his first short film during a summer in New York, interposing footage of the 1977 blackout with shots of disco dancers.
If Morehouse was an education, it was also an inspiration. As at many colleges, students built their social lives around fraternities and football rivalries. Lee helped direct the Coronation pageants, the highlight of homecoming weekends, huge productions, the size of a Broadway musical.
At Morehouse, Lee says, as in black culture generally, there were signs that blacks discriminated on the basis of color, that light-skinned blacks had an easier time reaching the upper levels of society. Yet even the thought of such color lines is controversial, and Lee's new film is already cause for grumbling. "This just isn't true, and it's never been true," says Hugh Gloster. "I don't see anyone around here wanting to be white."
Lee says that while his film may exaggerate a bit, it speaks an essential truth. "The people with the money, most of them have light skin. They have the Porsches, the BMW's, the quote good hair unquote," he explains. "The others, the kids from the rural South, have bad, kinky hair. When I was in school, we saw all this going on." He grins wickedly. "I remember saying. 'Some of this stuff has to be in a movie.'"
After his graduation from Morehouse, Lee enrolled in the film program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, where he was one of only a handful of black students. His first-year project was a cheeky film portraying a black scriptwriter assigned to a remake of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, and it included some digs at the classic director's portrayals of blacks in the Old South. The short bombed with Lee's instructors—he suspects they didn't like his criticism of the great Griffith—and he barely made the cut for the second year. Eleanor Harnerow, the film program's director, says that Lee was simply too ambitious: "You make 10-minute films in your first year, and it's hard to redo Birth of a Nation in 10 minutes."
Lee went on to win a student director's academy award, given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for a 45-minute film about a barbershop-cum-numbers-joint in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant section. But the prize produced no work. Lee made ends meet by cleaning and shipping film at a movie distribution house for $200 a week, all the while trying to line up film projects. He networked feverishly in New York's artistic community. Larry Fishburne, who plays one of the two pivotal male roles in School Daze, remembers he was watching a comic in Washington Square Park one evening when he felt a tap on his shoulder. "It was this little guy who said, 'You're Larry Fishburne, you're a great actor.' I said, 'Thanks.' Then he said, 'I'm Spike Lee, and I make films.'"
She's Gotta Have It came about almost by accident. In the summer of 1964, Lee was set to begin a family drama about a young black bicycle messenger coming of age. Then, shortly before shooting was to begin, part of the financing fell through. So Lee wrote a different script for a smaller project, used some of the same actors and rounded up a crew of friends. He began filming with $18,000 in grant money from the New York State Council on the Arts. Most of the film's eventual cost of $175,000 was financed by I.O.U.'s. The effort was to Hollywood what a street bazaar is to Tiffany's. Cast and crew sweated their way through 12 days of summer shooting in a poorly ventilated restaurant attic. The film, shot in black and white, was edited in Lee's studio apartment, with a rented editing machine wedged between Lee's bed and his huge record collection. By the end, Lee was so behind on his bills that his film lab threatened to auction off the finished product.
Lee eventually ransomed the film, found a distributor, Island Pictures, and had his hit. Investments in the film paid off handsomely, and Island Pictures offered Lee a production deal.
Lee went to work recasting a three-year-old script into a musical, School Daze. The project grew into a family enterprise. An aunt, pianist Consuela Lee Morehead, was named assistant music director. Spike's sister, Joie, was cast as one of the "jigaboos." Two brothers, David, and Cinque, were assigned jobs on the crew. And to write much of the music, Lee turned to his father, Bill Lee, who had done the lush score for She's Gotta Have It. By November, Lee had cast many of the principal roles.
Then, on Jan. 19, a Monday, Lee was awakened after midnight by a phone call from Island's California office. The small production and distribution company likes to keep its projects below $4 million, and School Daze was beginning to look more expensive. Island wanted out. "The picture got a little rich for us," explains Laura Parker, Island's vice president of production. "We really wanted to do the movie, but we didn't want to cramp Spike's style," she explains. Without backing, the project would have to fold.
Lee remained calm. The next morning, Tuesday, he began calling studios. That afternoon, he hopped a subway to Manhattan and delivered a script to Columbia's president, David Picker. On Wednesday, Lee cut a deal with Columbia, and on Thursday, he flew to Los Angeles for a round of meetings.
That weekend, Lee went to the Super Bowl and had a taste of what life could be like Hollywood-style—the studio, he says, had found him some great seats.
It is a brilliant afternoon, perfect for shooting one of the film's big scenes, the homecoming football game. The two teams run through their drills in a borrowed football stadium. A band plays some jazzy tunes under the direction of Bill Lee, his hips swaying, sweat beating on his brow. More than a thousand extras pack the stands. They have been working all day for free, and they are tired and disgruntled. The Columbia deal raised the budget by $2 million but School Daze still has to scrimp.
Lee has been in motion all day, shuttling among the three cameras, loping up and down the field with a pigeontoed gait. Now and then he directs himself in his role as Half Pint, a "pledgee" with Mission College's most powerful fraternity, Gamma Phi Gamma. He tends toward the "jigaboo" in color and background, but he has "wannabee" aspirations.
One crew member says Half Pint is "a kid who doesn't have a romantic interest and is very inept at finding one." Lee says nothing at all, perhaps fearing that talk of the role will lead to one of his pet peeves, his label as the "black Woody Allen." There are some similarities. Both directors are from New York. Both write and direct ethnic films that transcend their ethnicity. But most of all, both act in their films, playing frail, fast-talking lovers whose sex appeal lies in their wit.
The comparison angers Lee. He says his cinematic role models are directors like Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese and Gordon Parks.
"Woody Allen, he can do a film about Manhattan—it's about one-half black and Hispanic—and he doesn't have a single black person in the film," Lee says. "And they ask me. 'When are you going to have some white people in your films?' Nobody asks Kurosawa, 'When are you going to have non-Japanese?' But a black film maker, they say he's racist, he's separatist, because he doesn't have any white people."
The comment points to one of Lee's paradoxes as a film maker, that he both affirms and challenges America's view of itself as an integrated society. The affirmation comes from his talent: She's Gotta Have It eloquently communicates black culture to a broader audience. The challenge comes from Lee's desire to make films that highlight the uniqueness of black society.
In the early 1970's, Hollywood wooed black audiences with so-called "blaxploitation" films. Artistically, the results were uneven, but the best of the films, such as the Shaft detective series, made millions for the studios, employed black directors and gave black actors big roles that challenged negative stereotypes. The genre soon petered out. Recently Hollywood has shown new interest in films about blacks, including A Soldier's Story and The Color Purple. The industry has also begun to appreciate films by black directors. Earlier this year, Hollywood Shuffle, Robert Townsend's comedy about the travails of black film actors, was received warmly by both critics and audiences. But it disturbs Lee that he might be part of another passing fad. "We don't want to have two or three films, and then wait 10 years again," he says.
Good films, Lee says, should be able to cross cultural lines. But he also has a message. "We want to show we're not all hanging around in the ghetto, shooting up, selling crack," he says. "We want to look at the black middle class, at some of the success stories."
Yet Lee and those who know him say his agenda is artistic, not political. "I think that when ideas first come to Spike, it's because there's something intrinsically right about transforming them into films," says Barry Brown, Lee's film editor for School Daze, who co-directed a documentary about the Vietnam era that won him an Academy Award nomination. "Spike was just in love with the cinema," Brown explains, recalling his first encounter with Lee. "He was the only one I knew who wouldn't look down his nose at a musical, for instance. Everyone else thinks that isn't serious film making."
Lee thinks cinematically, conceiving his films in visual as well as verbal terms, and this is one reason he insists on controlling the film from scripting through editing. "I have the original vision, and I see the film in its finished form before one frame is shot," he says. "When you get people dickering with your stuff, it distorts the vision and it's not what you set it out to be."
Lee started to plan the major shots for School Daze last fall, with Ernest Dickerson, a friend from N.Y.U.'s film school. To prepare for the dance scenes, they watched old M-G-M musicals and West Side Story, observing the bright colors, the intense lighting, the way the dancers were photographed.
"We didn't want the dance to be edited into motion," says Dickerson. "And we wanted to film the dance in full figure, the way an audience would see it on stage." To plan the actual shots, they drew storyboards, diagrams of how certain shots should look through the camera. As a result, when shooting began, the pace moved quickly enough to cram all the shots into an eight-week schedule.
Watching Lee on the set gives few clues to his methods. One day he is filming a scene with Larry Fishburne, who plays the campus radical, head of the anti-wannabee faction. In this scene, Fishburne's task is to ring an antique bell. Lee watches silently for a take or two. Then he gives his most conspicuous direction of the day: "Larry, the way you did it the first time was really better."
Dickerson says this is the height of extroversion. "Sometimes" he says, "Spike has his back turned and his eyes closed. He will just listen."
Much of Lee's direction takes place off the set, in small groups. And he encouraged the actors whose characters belonged to different factions—the fraternity men, the wannabees, Fishburne's rabble-rousers—to become friends with their on-screen friends and avoid their on-screen enemies. "It was brilliant," says Fishburne. "He knew a director just cannot tell a group of eight actors, 'I want you all to be as one.' So he sets you up in a situation where you're going to be together 24 hours a day."
On the set, says Fishburne, "Spike really doesn't communicate verbally with actors a lot. I'll look at him like I'm wondering, 'Hey, am I doing O.K.?' And he nods."
Fishburne says this is, in part, the silence of inexperience. "I don't think he's developed all the skills he might need to communicate with actors." But it might imply the silence of sheer inscrutability. "When he gets behind the camera, there are other things at work," Fishburne says. "And what they are, I have no idea."
If Lee loves film more than basketball, perhaps it is only because, at 5-foot-6, he is too short to play. Even so, he hopes one of the perks of success will be a pair of season tickets behind the bench at Madison Square Garden. His passion for the game found its way into the character of Mars Blackmon in She's Gotta Have It. During an argument, Mars describes the star forward of the Boston Celtics, Larry Bird, who is white, as the ugliest so-and-so in the National Basketball Association. The line has since echoed off locker room walls throughout professional basketball.
So it was probably inevitable that Lee's and Bird's paths would cross. It happened one night last January, when the Celtics were playing the Knicks. "I had great seats," Lee says. "I could see what they were saying on the bench." Conner Henry, a Celtics guard, who was sitting next to Bird, spied Lee. "He pokes Bird, and he points to me and says, 'Look at him, the guy in the hat, he's the guy who made the movie.' And when Bird looks around, he isn't laughing."
"All the guys in the N.B.A. have seen the movie," Lee says, "and that line is their biggest laugh."
Lee seems pleased by such celebrity, and he relishes the chance to make films with real money. These days, he says, $4 million, the original budget for School Daze, is too small. "If you do that you end up with two people talking in a closet," he says.
Lee's production company, Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks now operates out of a stylish converted firehouse in Brooklyn where he is polishing School Daze into its finished form. Otherwise, aside from his notoriety in the N.B.A., success has had few detectable effects on his life. When in New York, he still rides the subway; he doesn't own a car, and he doesn't drive one. He is already preparing himself for the time when he is no longer a novelty. He volunteers that: "On your first film, people will fall all over you. With your second film, the audience and critics can be laying for you. They're ready to put you to the firing squad." Lee now has a chance for a bigger success, or for his first big failure. But the prospect doesn't seem to worry him. "I feel that I'm a very good film maker, and this film's going to make money, regardless," he says. "I think I will be making films for the rest of my life. And I'm just going to get better."
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4770
SOURCE: "Insight to Riot," in Rolling Stone, No. 556/557, July 13-27, 1989, pp. 104-9, 174-5.
[In the following essay, Handelman discusses the making of Lee's Do the Right Thing and its reception at the Cannes Film Festival.]
"I don't need this shit!" says USA Today gossip columnist Jeannie Williams. It's the morning of May 19th, and Williams has just seen the breakfast press screening of Do the Right Thing at the Cannes film festival. Tonight, the film will have its black-tie, red-carpet gala première at the Palais des Festivals, on the Côte d'Azur beach, where it will be competing with films from around the world for the coveted Palm d'Or prize. This morning, the more modest Palais press-conference room is abuzz with a few hundred international journalists and photographers waiting for the arrival of the film's director, Spike Lee.
"I live in New York," Williams says, her eyes flashing. "I don't need this movie in New York this summer. I don't know what they're thinking!" The ghetto in the movie is "too clean," Williams complains to a colleague, its inhabitants are "too nice," and there's too much violence.
Williams's diatribe is interrupted by Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times critic and TV personality, the only journalist ever called on by name at these conferences. He sweeps into the room and declares, "It's a great film, a great film. If this doesn't win the grand prize, I'm not coming back next year." (In the back of the room is Tom Pollock, the head of Universal Pictures, which is releasing Do the Right Thing on June 30th; Pollock later says Ebert's threat may hurt the film's chances of winning.)
Williams, who clearly values Ebert's upward thumb, is horrified. "How can you say that? What's going to happen when they release this?"
Ebert smiles and says, "How long has it been since you saw a film you thought would cause people to do anything?"
Ebert moves on, leaving Williams to bluster. "I can't believe Roger liked it!" she says.
Without even entering the room, Spike Lee has rocked it. Do the Right Thing portrays a block in Brooklyn's predominantly black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood during the hottest day of the summer. The day starts peacefully and ends in a racial brawl, the murder of a black youth by a white cop and an ensuing riot. Lee's impressive, upsetting movie is inspired by—and pointedly dedicated to—black victims of white violence in New York City, like Eleanor Bumpurs, an elderly woman who was killed by police after she wielded a knife; Michael Griffith, who was chased onto a highway by white youths in Howard Beach, Queens, and killed by a car; and graffiti artist Michael Stewart, who was killed while in police custody. As complex and insistent as its title, the film is designed to spark controversy from its opening song—Public Enemy's discordant, militant rap "Fight the Power"—to the quotes that scroll before its end credits: Martin Luther King Jr. decrying violence, then Malcolm X claiming that violence used in self-defense is "intelligence."
When the wiry, poker-faced Lee, 32, enters the press-conference room, he is wearing a T-shirt that says MALCOLM X: NO SELLOUT. He sits at a table with cast members Ossie Davis, Joie Lee (his sister) and Richard Edson; he announces that today would have been Malcolm X's sixty-fourth birthday and that Davis gave the eulogy at the 1965 funeral.
This leads a journalist to ask Lee about the movie's two end quotes. "The quotes complete the thread of Malcolm and Martin that has been woven throughout the film," Lee says patiently. "In certain times, both philosophies can be appropriate, but in this day and age, the year of our Lord 1989, I'm leaning more toward the philosophies of Malcolm X…. Nonviolence and all that stuff had its time, and there are times when it's still appropriate, but when you're being hit upside the head with a brick, I don't think young black America is just going to turn the other cheek and say, 'Thank you, Jesus.'"
Someone asks why drugs are never mentioned in the film. "This film is not about drugs," says Lee. "It's about people and racism. Drugs are at every level of society today in America. How many of you went and saw Working Girl or Rain Man and asked, 'Where are the drugs?' Nobody. But the minute we have a black film that takes place in the ghetto, people want to know where the drugs are … because that's the way you think of black people. I mean, let's be honest."
Another journalist says, "I'm a Canadian living in New York, and it's my sense that it's all going to come down this summer, it's going to be a mess. A lot of people are going to get hurt. Your film seems to be anticipating that and speaking to that. What is your impression?"
Lee smiles and says, "I see Mr. Pollock getting fidgety back there…. We wanted to come out this summer [because] in November there's going to be an election for mayor of New York, and [current mayor Edward] Koch has divided the city into black and white…. If anything happens, it'll be because the cops killed somebody else with no reason, but it won't be because of Do the Right Thing."
"This film," another journalist says, "takes a very despairing view of the possibility of an amicable relationship between the races."
"I think there's some hope at the end, a shaky truce," says Lee. "But on the other hand, I think it'd be very dishonest to have a kind of Steven Spielberg ending where we all hold hands and sing 'We Are the World.'"
In many ways, the same could be said about Spike Lee's relationship with Hollywood.
The question that really gets Spike Lee going is "What do you think of Mississippi Burning?" The Academy-Award-nominated film—which recast the civil-rights movement as the triumph of a white FBI agent—came up during many of the constant interviews at Cannes, being one of the few recent Hollywood films that is even about blacks, and it symbolizes everything Lee thinks is wrong with Hollywood today. Like Cry Freedom and The Cotton Club, Lee says and says again, Mississippi Burning distorted history, exploiting blacks to turn whites into heroes. "Hated it," Lee says. "They should have had the guts to have at least one central black character."
Lee speaks in measured tones, every now and then unleashing a wild "Ha!" or a quieter "Ch-ch-ch-ch" laugh. But he mostly goes about the tedious business of answering for his movies with a deadly seriousness. Lee calls his production company Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks (after the never-realized proposal following the Civil War to give land and a mule to each freed slave); he's published a book about the making of each of his films. In the one about Do the Right Thing, he writes: "I've been blessed with the opportunity to express the views of Black people who otherwise don't have access to power and the media. I have to take advantage of this while I'm still bankable."
Spike Lee sees himself as a man with a mission: to shake down the creeping resurgence of racism in post-Reagan America, to inform, entertain and motivate—all the while operating in an industry entirely controlled by whites. It is a tall order for a man who stands five feet six in Air Jordans.
His path to Hollywood, Lee says, has been pitted with racist potholes. After growing up in various racially mixed Brooklyn neighborhoods and graduating from all-black Morehouse College in 1979, he went to New York University's film school and found himself in a "hostile situation."
"I had to prove whether I belonged," Lee says, "or was just another quota." When NYU professors criticized his first student film, The Answer, he attributed it to "cultural arrogance," because his film took D.W. Griffith's classic The Birth of a Nation to task for its condescending portrayal of blacks.
Lee's 1982 senior thesis, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, was shot by Ernest Dickerson, the only other black to complete NYU's three-year program while Lee was there. (Dickerson has gone on to shoot all of Lee's films.) The movie won the student Academy Award. Two years later, Lee got a grant to start filming a script called Messenger, but the Screen Actors Guild refused to grant him a low-budget waiver of its union wages, Lee says, on the grounds that his script was "too commercial." According to Lee, white directors with larger budgets are regularly granted the waiver. "It was a definite case of racism," he says.
Lee quickly wrote the serious and saucy comedy She's Gotta Have It, which takes place mostly in a woman's bed, and filmed it for $175,000 in the summer of 1985. (His hilarious performance as bike messenger Mars Blackmon stole the film.) In order to keep She's Gotta Have It from getting an X rating, he had to shorten one of the film's sex scenes; he insists that white sex scenes in films like the R-rated 9 1/2 Weeks were much more deserving of an X rating than what he had to cut.
She's Gotta Have It won the Prix de la Jeunesse at Cannes in 1986 for Best New Director, was released by Island Pictures and earned $8 million. This enabled Lee to get Columbia to finance his second feature, School Daze, a $6 million musical about activism and intraracial divisions at a black college. School Daze also did well at the box office, grossing $18 million despite no advertising support from Columbia Pictures after its chairman David Puttnam was deposed. School Daze was ambitious, if problematic—suffering from overlong dance numbers, wandering plot lines and an insider tone. Lee didn't take the criticism well, particularly the pan from New York Times critic Janet Maslin, who questioned Lee's technical abilities. Believing her comments "dangerous; like the same Al Campanis shit that black people don't have the capabilities to be baseball managers," Lee wrote a petulant letter to the Times, demanding that Maslin never review his films again and ending with the line "I bet she can't even dance, does she have rhythm?"
Is this reaction racist? "I don't think blacks can be racist," Lee says. "Racism is where you put laws into effect, structures that affect you socially. What can black people do to harm Jewish people as a people? Set up laws in Congress, stop them from voting? That's what racism is.
"We still have people in America who say that racism ended when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and black people were allowed to vote," he continues. "And because Michael Jackson's the number-one rock star, Eddie Murphy's the biggest box-office draw in the world, Bill Cosby is the number-one TV star, Mike Tyson is the world heavyweight champion, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player in the world, that black people have arrived, and everything is all right. But the black underclass in America now is larger than it's ever been. So you can't be lulled to sleep just because Eddie Murphy's huge."
In fact, Lee has been an outspoken critic of celebrities like Murphy and Whoopi Goldberg, who he feels have not asserted their black identities and have not flexed their money muscle to get blacks hired.
According to the Los Angeles Times, while twelve percent of Americans are black and blacks make up twenty-five percent of the moviegoing audience, minority membership in the Writers Guild is a paltry 1.6 percent. Furthermore, there are no black film executives with the power to approve a movie, and although Lee has helped open the door for black directors like Robert Townsend (Hollywood Shuffle) and Keenen Ivory Wayans (I'm Gonna Git You Sucka), blacks directed fewer than one percent of Hollywood's releases last year.
Against these odds, Lee has gotten his movies made, adopting Malcolm X's credo "By any means necessary." He works without an agent, a manager, a publicist or membership in the Writers and Directors guilds, supervising every aspect of his films down to the logos, soundtracks and videos. He's scraped around for studio "pickup deal" financing that guarantees him the final cut. Both onscreen and off, he has tried to employ as many blacks as possible, founding a minority-student scholarship at the NYU film school and a Forty Acres film-training program at Long Island University. He has also been able to make some pocket money from being an ad clotheshorse for both the Gap and Barneys and from directing a series of jump-cut commercials for Nike starring Michael Jordan.
But the necessary means were hard to come by for Do the Right Thing, even though its final budget was $6.5 million, one-third that of the average Hollywood film. The first studio Lee approached, Paramount, balked at the ending, and Disney also passed. When Universal approved the script, the executives there hadn't yet experienced the uproar over the studio's release of Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ. And when Lee's finished film seemed harsher than the script, some were troubled; there were nervous murmurs that it could be a second coming of Christ.
The film is being released in one of the most competitive movie summers ever, against Batman and sure-fire sequels like Ghostbusters II and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Though Universal would like it to earn $30 million, vice-president of production and acquisitions Jim Jacks says, "It deals with emotional issues, and when you make movies like that, you never know what's going to happen."
All Lee hopes is that the controversy doesn't dampen the receipts, because his license seems short-term. "Hollywood will overlook subject matter in my case," he says, "because my films [so far] make money. Universal did not make this movie because they're in love with me."
"I loved your movie," a man says, approaching Spike Lee at the outdoor-terrace bar at the stately Carlton Hotel, in Cannes. "I run this film festival on the West Coast. We'd love to have you out there." He hands over a pamphlet.
Lee looks at it and reads, "Wine Country Film Festival? When is it?"
The man tells him it's in mid-July, two weeks after Do the Right Thing opens. "Maybe next film," Lee says kindly.
He's sitting with Jim Jacks, and, leafing through the latest copy of Variety, he stops at the ad for See No Evil, Hear No Evil. "How does Gene Wilder keep getting top billing over Richard Pryor?" Lee asks Jacks. "Folks are not going to see him."
Lee turns to the chart of grosses. "Mississippi Burning made only $34 million? What happened, backlash?"
"It'd be great if we made more than them," says Jacks. "Hey, imagine what kind of file J. Edgar Hoover'd have on you if he were around today."
Lee doesn't smile. "My phone was bugged, you know. The line was dead, then came back on two days later. I had it checked, they didn't find anything, but that doesn't mean anything."
"What are you doing?" asks Jacks, skeptical.
"Film is a very powerful medium," Lee says soberly.
"Don't make it any more powerful," says Jacks with a laugh. "I don't think I could take it!"
The official screening of Do the Right Thing is tomorrow night. Jacks asks Lee if he's nervous about the Cannes competition, which pits him against much-ballyhooed films such as Denys Arcand's Jesus of Montreal, Shohei Imamura's Black Rain, Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train and Steve Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotape. Lee shakes his head. "This man is ice!" Jacks exclaims.
Lee puts down Variety, stands up and pantomimes dribbling a basketball on the terrace floor. "On the line," he says, taking aim at an invisible hoop. "One second to go, one point down." He mimes two shots and makes two whoosh! sounds and sits down again, smiling.
Do the Right Thing was stirring things up even before it got to film. Lee showed up last July 12th at its first cast read-through with T-shirts emblazoned with the film's title and flags of Africa, America, Italy and Puerto Rico, and he distributed them to the cast he had assembled from wildly varied backgrounds: Bronx street-kid-turned-actor Danny Aiello as pizzeria owner Sal; Lee himself as pizza deliveryman Mookie; stage veterans Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee as neighborhood stalwarts Da Mayor and Mother Sister; stand-up comic Robin Harris as one of three lay-about "corner men"; legal secretary Rosie Perez as Mookie's Puerto Rican girlfriend Tina; and Yale School of Drama graduate John Turturro as Sal's racist son, Pino. Turturro mumbled his scripted slurs, thinking, "God, what have I got myself into?"
After the reading, Lee opened the floor for discussion, and Paul Benjamin, who plays a corner man, complained that the script showed nothing but lazy, shiftless blacks.
This sent Rosie Perez—who grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant and whom Lee discovered dancing at an L.A. disco—on a ten-minute tirade about how people like the corner men exist and that the cast should go to Bed-Stuy and take a look. Lee explained that he wanted to deal with the realities of the neighborhood but treat the people with dignity and humor.
Today, Lee says that he doesn't agree with those who think that only positive black images should be portrayed. "I think people still look very good in this movie," he says. "You can accent the positive or talk about the problems. My approach has been to talk about the problems."
Yet after the read-through, the cast of this movie about racial issues never really discussed those issues. "It's an indication of how divided the races are that you can't even talk about racism on a personal level," says Richard Edson, who plays Sal's more sympathetic son, Vito. "There's too much distrust, too historical a thing to be able to relax. To even bring it up is a threat, to both blacks and whites."
The turning point in the movie is a fight between Sal and a neighborhood agitator named Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito). And while the scene was being shot, the improvisation that Lee encourages on his sets tapped something deep. Esposito's real-life mother is black and his father is Italian; off-camera, he had gotten chummy with Aiello, and the two talked in Italian. But when the cameras rolled, Aiello, ad-libbing, suddenly called Buggin' Out "nigger," and Esposito went wild, flinging back epithets like "guinea bastard."
"It was a sense of pride," says Aiello. "Giancarlo and I have an audience out there watching—neither of us wanted the other guy to get one over on us. So we started using words like the roughest truck drivers you ever seen."
"It was very shocking to me," says Esposito. "When Danny said, 'Nigger,' I freaked. It finally came up for him. I knew that at some point in his life, he'd called somebody a nigger, and I went crazy because he was someone I liked. Danny was upset with himself, I was really upset with myself, and Spike was gleaming, because he'd gotten the scene."
Filming took place on location in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Members of Louis Farrakhan's Fruit of Islam were employed as suit-and-bow-tie security men; they closed down three crack houses on the block, nailing them shut. Lee used locals on the production and set up a scholarship fund for the neighborhood high school. (He also commissioned black filmmaker St. Clair Bourne to make a documentary about the filming.)
Filming the riot took weeks. "It was frightening," says Joie Lee, 26, who plays Mookie's sister, Jade. "Once the cameras were rolling, you didn't know what to do—there was water, flames. There was one time I looked at the monitor and I saw film, but the rest of the time, I believed it."
"You'd stop and see the pizza parlor burning," says Edson, "200 extras running out in the street, and you'd think, 'This could be the real thing, this is the shit.' The question is, why do these things keep happening? Who's gonna do the right thing? Would I? And what is the right thing, at the moment of truth?"
"Can I get a dessert?" Spike Lee asks the waiter. He's back at the bustling Carlton Hotel bar.
"Non," the waiter replies, "only drinks on ze terrace."
Lee, a near teetotaler, disappears a few seconds later, then returns in his slightly pigeon-toed, speedy gait, carrying a fruit-and-cream confection. "That guy didn't know what he was talking about," he says and digs in.
Asked to name his influences, Lee says, "I would say my parents more than any filmmaker." Bill, a jazz musician who has scored all of Spike's films, and Jacquelyn, a teacher (she died in 1977), took Spike and his four younger siblings to dance and jazz performances and Broadway shows. (Besides Joie, there is David, 28, a still photographer on Spike's films, and Cinque, 24, also a filmmaker, who appears in Jarmusch's Mystery Train. Another brother, Chris, lives in Washington, D.C.) "I think that's what everything's about, exposure."
The first films Lee recalls going to are Bye Bye Birdie at Radio City Music Hall and a double feature of Dr. No and A Hard Day's Night. But his favorites are searing cinéma vérité like Hector Babenco's Pixote and Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets and fantasies like The Wizard of Oz and West Side Story.
As a kid, Shelton Jackson Lee (his mother nicknamed him Spike as a baby) was more of a sports fan, organizing games on the block, sending baseball cards away for autographs, fighting to watch Knicks games on TV when his sister wanted to watch The Brady Bunch. Today, his main reading is the daily sports pages; he has Knicks season tickets, he says, "but not as good as Woody Allen's."
Until graduating from high school, says David Lee, Spike had a "massive Tito Jackson 'fro," and Lee himself says he looked like a kid until halfway through college. The only one of the Lees to attend Morehouse, Bill Lee's alma mater, Spike got involved there with writing, directing and producing the gown-and-float homecoming coronation, a spectacle on the order of an MGM musical, which served as the inspiration for School Daze. He began to dabble in 8-mm movies, and after graduating in 1979 he went to NYU film school. "I went knowing that I wasn't going to learn anything from the faculty," he says. "I just wanted the equipment to make films, because I knew that's how I'd become a filmmaker."
When rookie Spike Lee was in Cannes in 1986 touting She's Gotta Have It, he was one of eight people sharing a cramped apartment. This year, his photo is up on a billboard on the palm-tree-lined main drag alongside those of Woody Allen, Francis Coppola and Wim Wenders, and with Universal's money, he has a two-room suite at the Carlton to himself. (He doesn't have a steady girlfriend but would like to someday get married and have five kids.)
He walks around the hotel in sneakers, athletic socks, a T-shirt, stone-washed jeans, a leather-thong Public Enemy medallion, a baseball cap and a Knicks windbreaker. He spends much of his time giving interviews to the international press, which often puts him in the dicey position of being the spokesman for Black America. He is quick to remind reporters that the movie applies not just to New York or America but to racism everywhere. Because of his introverted, aloof manner, at least one journalist departs saying, "I think he thought my questions were stupid."
One interviewer asks about the grandstanding of the Reverend Al Sharpton, the New York black activist. "By focusing on him, the press ignores the issue," Lee says. "Any time there's a movement, people tend to focus on personalities, instead of what's being fought for. Whether people think Sharpton's a clown or not has nothing to do with what happened to Tawana Brawley."
One scene in Do the Right Thing takes place in front of a brick wall sprayed with the graffiti TAWANA TOLD THE TRUTH! Despite overwhelming evidence that the upstate-New York black teenager's story was fabricated, Lee says, "I find it unbelievable that a fifteen-year-old girl would smear herself with feces and throw herself in a plastic bag. The truth still hasn't come out yet."
Asked about black-separatist leader Louis Farrakhan, Lee says, "I don't agree with everything he says. But anything the media says about him has been distorted. Time and time again, the press has tried to have me come out and blast him, but I won't do it."
Certain questions pop up in nearly every interview:
What's "the right thing"?
"I don't know. I know what the wrong thing is: racism."
Will Sal be able to reopen his pizzeria after the riot?
"I don't know. The movie's not about that. It's about racism. The white critics identify with Sal, but the movie's not about him. You cannot equate a human life with the destruction of a pizzeria. Why does no one ask me if the cops are going to be tried for the murder?"
What can be done about racism?
"People cannot expect me to have answers. That is not my goal or agenda. What I have to do as a filmmaker is present the problem so that discussion can start. If America was thinking about racism, Do the Right Thing wouldn't be the first film about it."
Spike Lee still lives in the same spartan Brooklyn basement apartment he did before making She's Gotta Have It, works out of the same converted firehouse, travels by subway. Forty Acres vice-president (and Lee's Morehouse classmate) Monty Ross explains, "If people who're going to make a difference leave the black community, how is the standard there ever going to be raised? Spike wants to make a difference. Hanging out in Brooklyn, you tend to stay involved and committed, instead of out in a mansion in Hollywood."
Lee only started to vote in 1984, when Jesse Jackson ran for president; he directed a commercial for Jackson's '88 campaign and has offered to do the same for David Dinkins, a black candidate for mayor of New York City.
Next, Lee says, "I want to do a less antagonistic, less confrontational film." He has already written the script, Love Supreme, named after a John Coltrane song. It's a contemporary tale of a jazz musician trying to balance his work and his love life. Lee, who will play the jazz band's manager, is reportedly seeking a $12 million budget.
Also in the planning stages is a movie about drugs and their effect on young kids. "We can't have art for art's sake," says Monty Ross. "There's so much of black life that needs so much work. Forty Acres will always do movies that are entertaining and give people something to talk about. It won't be movies in the south of France with people running around talking about a cherry moon. Our agenda has to include education."
Lee himself has few illusions about the educational impact of his movies. "The only time I've seen a film take real effect was The Thin Blue Line—that got a guy out of jail. Something like that only happens once in a blue moon. I don't think I'm gonna be able to walk through Bensonhurst or Howard Beach because of Do the Right Thing: 'Let's not crack him on the head with a bat because we saw his movie and we're all brothers and sisters.'"
On May 23rd, the Cannes Film Festival awards were announced: The Palm d'Or went to sex, lies and videotape, the first feature by Steven Soderbergh, a twenty-six-year-old American. Many films won prizes, but Do the Right Thing was shut out. The New York Times reported that the film's only supporters among the judges were director Hector Babenco and actress Sally Field. "We got robbed," Lee says back in Brooklyn. "I guess they really wanted to stick the knife. [Cannes jury president and film director] Wim Wenders was quoted as saying, 'Sex, lies and videotape shows there's a future for cinema,' so I guess we're not the future."
That same week, an unemployed construction worker named Richard Luke, twenty-five and black, died in a New York City jail after a struggle with city-housing police. His family had called the police because he was having difficulty breathing. But after his death, his mother was quoted saying, "My son was beaten…. They had a nightstick right up under his throat." The Reverend Al Sharpton held another demonstration. The medical examiner ruled the death was drug related. A grand jury said it would investigate.
And the summer hadn't even begun.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5390
SOURCE: "A World without Whole Notes: The Intellectual Subtext of Spike Lee's Blues," in Boundary 2, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 238-51.
[In the following essay, Merod analyzes Lee's portrayal of jazz in his Mo' Better Blues, and includes a discussion with other scholars about the importance of jazz in the film.]
The depiction of jazz musicians and of jazz-related subjects in the history of North American film has suffered from the chronic neglect and misunderstanding that still marks this culture's pathological abuse of creative energy. The inventory of that abuse is poised to expand with another dramatic adventure in applied techno-sadism as computer-operated tanks and planes prepare to fertilize the Saudi desert with human blood. In the history of North American cinema, war, murder, violence, and destruction of every imaginable kind have archetypal predominance above the ordinary uses of human capacities. When we turn to a film that explores the risks and joys of artistic development, we hope for an enlargement of our understanding about the ways that creativity thrives or lingers against harassment. Spike Lee's recent film, Mo' Better Blues, promises to reward such hope. If it defers the task of giving the jazz musician a place and a voice appropriate to the magnificent accomplishments carved from endless (and seemingly unending) struggles—accomplishments and struggles specific to the constant reemergence of jazz in North American culture—that deferral no doubt reflects several forms of ambivalence.
One of them is certainly Spike Lee's own uncertainty about the importance of jazz in twentieth-century North American culture. Mo' Better Blues displays a weak interest in capturing, in representing, the fire and dignity (the indomitable beauty) embedded within each genre of the jazz archive. Put bluntly, Mo' Better Blues does not portray the world of the jazz musician convincingly or compellingly. When Bleek Gilliam, the film's ambitious trumpet "star," gets his bell rung savagely in a back alley pounding by the cudgels and ferocious punches of street thugs sent to discipline his errant gambling manager, Spike Lee escapes from the perplexity of his own central subject. Bleek no longer has the embouchure adequate to continue as a trumpeter. Lee's film, then, is free to stalk on as an exercise of moral anxiety.
The major premise of Lee's film is a minutely drawn—in truth, an overblown—awareness of the danger of artistic commitment. Lee's moral fable pursues the ambivalent love life of its brooding trumpeter as a contemporary black incarnation of a Faustian wager. Bleek Gilliam sells his imaginative life and his emotional soul to the devil of his own artistic inspiration. The film's romance with the archetype of romantic self-dissolution inscribes the theme of creative isolation on the remarkably public and inherently communal world of jazz musicians as if the fundamental forging of the jazz musician's identity, knowledge, talent, and self-confidence were developed privately and at a protected distance from human relationships. Bleek Gilliam is shown to defend himself from the commitments and responsibilities of ongoing mature heterosexuality by dividing his sexual energy between two women—each talented, each attractive, each fascinated by his macho self-absorption. But that ambivalence is depicted as a defense from the obligation to sublimate self-concern and artistic narcissism.
Spike Lee is simultaneously tempted by the seductiveness of artistic self-possession, of creative narcissism, and alarmed by it. Mo' Better Blues works itself out as a moral tale giving the prideful place of public and personal success to Bleek Gilliam's companion-rival, Shadow Henderson, a crafty and aggressive musician/businessman/lover. Shadow steals one of Bleek's two women, gives her the artistic support her own musical ambitions require, and develops an apparently relaxed capacity to express himself as a lover, as a partner, and as a jazz musician. When Bleek, attempting a comeback from his wounds and his layoff after the beating he took, joins Shadow's gig—a gig that features Bleek's beautiful former lover, Clarke Betancourt (played to stunning effect by Cynda Williams)—he is thwarted by three startling events: Shadow's generosity, Clarke's talent, and his own musical incapacity. The entanglement of so much personal significance within a public moment of embarrassment compels Bleek to retire. Mo' Better Blues works its way to a thumpingly banal conclusion that fulfills its predictable subtext. Bleek returns to the second of his two previous lovers, summons her late at night, after a year's neglectful leave, to accept his need for her healing warmth. The name Indigo suggests, metaphorically, the very uncertainty, confusion, and ambivalence that Indigo's character (played with saucy tolerance by Spike Lee's sister, Joie) suffers from Bleek's inconstant attention. Indigo's overly submissive acceptance of Bleek's amorous reversal suggests that a deeper code is at stake in her name and in the film.
The bottom line of Lee's celebratory wedding scene is the assertion of happy family-hood and the virtues of well-earned monogamy. As a safe haven from the torments of artistic insecurity, marriage takes on the dim glow of any booby prize. Mo' Better begins as an exploration of a supposedly dedicated young musician's struggle to find and express the soulful fire that jazz has always carried in its rich and unpredictable ninety-year heritage. It ends as a dull, comic portrait of the artist as a patient father giving his son just that extra measure of understanding, in the face of a scolding mother, that Bleek may have wanted or needed as a child. Sports, the neighborhood gang, and the riotous, amorphous pleasures of hanging out in Brooklyn's tree-shaded autumn light supplant the father's relentless youthful pursuit of the right note, a semblance of perfect pitch. The son will carry on his father's dream with the difference that playground experience lends.
A reading of Mo' Better as a filtered study of the black family is plausible, more plausible perhaps if it is pursued as an affirmative tale that quarrels with Oedipal relationships. Lee has claimed that his film is "about" relationships. One of them may be the archetype of family romance, the relationship of parental authority in the symbiotic gestation of erotic and artistic energies. Such a reading would have to accommodate the strange evasion that defines Mo' Better Blues. How can a filmmaker, whose avowed ambition is to construct a film that does justice to jazz, its people, and its heritage, produce such an embarrassed representation, one that miscasts and misunderstands its central purposes? How can it be that the black cultural context sketched in vaguely—and wholly sifted through the brooding, if also beautiful, foreground of frustrated and compensatory romance entanglements—is left to blur into stereotypes of artistic and erotic hopes unfulfilled?
The hopes most unfulfilled are those carried by the viewer who wants to see a film worthy of the music called jazz, a body of deeply engaging music that is revered everywhere the spirit of Afro-American creative intelligence resides. Lee's film joins a slowly growing list of films that nod toward the Afro-American musical heritage. That nod takes on ever new forms of disavowal. The nod turns into a perplexed gaze. In Mo' Better Blues, jazz is the excuse to explore dramatic camera angles, lovely canvases of color, even more beautiful surfaces of lovemaking, and no less gorgeous sound tracks filled with the masterful blowing of John Coltrane and Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter as well as that mountainous index of saxophone purity, Julian "Cannonball" Adderly.
When Spike Lee writes midway through the book he wrote with Lisa Jones, Mo' Better Blues, "Jazz has been an integral part of all my movies. My father has scored every film I've done since my second year at film school, and all these scores have been jazz-based," he cops a plea.
The plea is a reach for authority mediated by filial lineage and repeated experience. Like most pleas, it is an appeal for understanding and leniency. In Lee's collaborative book, the chapter "Mo' Better Music" addresses the sound track, as well as the "philosophy" of jazz, that are meant to undergird the film. That chapter reads as an apology for limited conceptual depth:
I knew that the average moviegoing audience is not the same audience that frequents jazz clubs, and they won't come to a theatre to sit through a fifteen minute musical number…. I didn't make this film out of some lofty mission to bring jazz to the masses. If people are exposed to jazz through this film, that's wonderful. I hope that [John Coltrane's] A Love Supreme sells two hundred thousand more copies because of Mo' Better Blues, but ultimately that's not the reason I made this film. This was simply the film I had in me at the time.
Unlike Clint Eastwood's Bird and Bertrand Tavernier's Round Midnight, Spike Lee's treatment of Bleek Gilliam is not an attempt to portray a legendary jazz musician or a luminous composite figure. Bird circles low over the dark incarnation of Charlie Parker, while Round Midnight treks wearily through a smaller-than-life depiction of an American expatriate "star," part Bud Powell (the innovative bop pianist), part Lester Young (the appealing and understated, if also somewhat enigmatic, tenor saxophonist). The failure of those two films in the face of biographical and cultural contexts that deserve careful rendering leaves a viewer to forage among the images of passionate personal and artistic neglect that each tale offers. One comes away from them with the bitter leavings of lives obliterated by drugs and sickness. As cinematic statements, Round Midnight and Bird clarify almost nothing about the force and the dignity of the music. They evade both the life struggles and the creative achievements of their putative subjects. Mo' Better Blues avoids the burden of biographical accuracy, but it executes its fictional search for individual musical distinction in a setting filled with rivalries and sophomoric quests for middle-class satisfaction. The film that Lee had "in" him appropriates the world of the jazz musician in order to weave an Oedipal tale of entrepreneurial failure.
Bleek Gilliam does not fall short of his artistic destiny. His misspent act of heroic intervention provides the premise for the film's aggressive moralizing to thwart his self-absorption. Bleek, deftly fleshed out on screen by Denzel Washington, is a half-hip urban Quixote whose sensitivity is reserved for studied moments of lovemaking with his two women and for brief moments of exasperated patience with his parodic Sancho Panza side-kick/manager, Giant. The predominant feature of Mo' Better Blues, beyond its brilliant color and its fluid sound track, past the self-conscious pursuit of dense meaning among half-rendered artistic and erotic relationships, is the vivid absence of any insight into the extremely variable (richly annotated) world of jazz. The primary contribution of Spike Lee's film, from that perspective, is its paradigmatic pretense to explore jazz as a scene of sustained and explicable creative interactions between divergent, but wholly engaging, temperaments. This paradigm—of promises subverted, of one art form (jazz) lost in the fumblings of another (cinema)—constitutes an almost Dostoevskian theme of betrayal. One thinks of the Karamazov family as the adequate representation of so much squandered energy. Motives, in Dostoevsky, are always explicable in the consequences of their indirect destinations. The occasion to paint jazz, the jazz musician, and the jazz subject as powerful instances of secret wisdom (of the public display of private reckonings too forceful for routine knowledge) is too tempting for witnesses like Lee and Eastwood and Tavernier to turn down. What becomes indirect but without destination is their treatment of the jazz artist as an empty site to be filled in with somber clichés and dramatic caricatures.
The largest emptiness called up by these filmic gestures is the perfect zero of the jazz legacy in the history of film. Lee, Tavernier, and Eastwood merely call attention to the long-standing incapacity of filmmakers and the film industry to penetrate the fatuous imagery of self-destruction and self-involvement that confuses the popular representation of jazz. One might expect a black filmmaker, who celebrates his pride in the music and in his father's contributions to the music, to deliver a greater degree of nuanced understanding. But then, something about the art form seems to elude each approach to cinematic capture.
With the remarkable exception of a single film, Straight No Chaser, which focuses closely on the music and personality of a stunningly brilliant and stunningly eccentric innovator, Thelonious Monk, jazz has received no adequate embodiment as a cultural archive or a musical universe with its own special depths and stories and human features. That this should be the case as jazz enters its tenth decade of formal self-manufacture is nearly, but not completely, inexplicable.
The absence of mature explorations of what can only be thought of as North America's most powerful indigenous art form expresses the studied neglect and the active demotion attending black cultural life in the United States. When we see that Spike Lee, an energetic and clearly alert black filmmaker, fluffs his own attempt to portray jazz as a cultural phenomenon that cannot be reduced to drug-driven inspiration, a larger issue than the failure of a single film emerges. Lee's film carries out the predicament of any filmmaker to render adequately a heritage, and a richly woven complex art, that has accumulated the full of its considerable force against the predominant values of a majority cultural apparatus. On one side, jazz has enjoyed haphazard success as a distinctly black art form given refuge in the crevices of popular commercial culture. On the other side, as jazz has grown older, more accepted by established interests and tastes, it has suffered an increasingly indifferent reception from black audiences. Surrounding both receptions—perhaps, more accurately, suffused within or beneath hostility and insouciance—the long-enforced and well-calculated decision by large capital interests (record companies, television networks, school systems) to treat jazz first as "race music" and then as an explosive and seductive, but altogether inferior, embodiment of incomprehensible excitation has maintained the cultural, if not so fully the financial, marginality of the music.
In the case of Spike Lee's misrepresentation of jazz as a world of enigmatic inspiration marked by personal rivalries and predominant egos, the failure to capture the simple dignity of the music's immediate force and elegance can be looked at as a consequence of the black intellectual's plight—a difficulty that my esteemed colleague Cornel West has described as "a grim predicament." To frame his important essay of 1985, "The Dilemma of the Black Intellectual," West uses the following epigraph from Harold Cruse's Crisis of the Negro Intellectual:
The peculiarities of the American social structure, and the position of the intellectual class within it, make the functional role of the negro intellectual a special one. The negro intellectual must deal intimately with the white power structure and cultural apparatus, and the inner realities of the black world at one and the same time. But in order to function successfully in this role, he has to be acutely aware of the nature of the American social dynamic and how it monitors the ingredients of class stratifications in American society…. Therefore the functional role of the negro intellectual demands that he cannot be absolutely separated from either the black or white world.
West immediately acknowledges that the circumstances Cruse accounts for "has little to do with the motives and intentions of black intellectuals; rather it is an objective situation created by circumstances not of their own choosing. Those objective conditions can be thought of as massively material conditions—of conditions inhabiting and surrounding black intellectual work that are specifically institutional in their placement, culturally perfected and reinforced, commercially routinized, legally sanctioned, and socially dispersed in ways that reenact (and constantly reenact) the internal stratification of clans, neighborhoods, interest blocs, political assemblages, and families, not to mention the organizations of people construed by that most amorphous and deceptive designation, "race."
One of the stratifications that can be lifted from the layering of differences at work in the ensemble of black intellectual identities is the "choice of becoming a black intellectual" in the first instance—a choice (if in fact such a submersion within the crevice of double self-identification can be, after all, an act essentially of will) that is necessarily "an act of self-imposed marginality." One becomes, in a professionally marked culture, an "intellectual" by considerable effort of initial subordination. Such subordination to mentors, curricula, schools, local production protocols, and the like is endured for the sake of mastery to come: mastery and the opportunities for analytic differentiation and ideological discrimination. I nudge the term "discrimination" forward along with Paul Bové's memory of R.P. Blackmur calling up the root sense of discrimination as an operation with criminal implications. Such resonances of the inexpungible baggage of criminality—of our inevitable selfincrimination in the unself-conscious expenditures of intellectual effort—are echoes of Blackmur's (and Bové's) labyrinthine techniques of unsystematic critical suspicion.
The notion of a crime endured as well as a crime to be administered haunts the understanding that Cornel West brings to his careful reading of the black intellectual's plight. The crime suffered most painfully may well be "the inability of black intellectuals to gain respect and support from the black community." A number of forces create that condition, the most problematic is "the widespread refusal of black intellectuals to remain, in some way, organically linked with Afro-American cultural life."
Of the most immediate means of access for black intellectuals to reach a close working relationship to ongoing and long-standing traditions that define black life in North America, two are inherently rich enough and historically elaborated enough to warrant West's belief that they are genuinely "organic intellectual traditions in Afro-American life: The Black Christian Tradition of Preaching and The Black Musical Tradition of Performance."
Both traditions, though undoubtedly linked to the life of the mind, are oral, improvisational, and histrionic. Both traditions are rooted in black life and possess precisely what the literate forms of black intellectual activity lack: institutional matrices over time and space within which there are accepted rules of procedure, criteria for judgement, canons for assessing performance, models of past achievement and present emulation, and an acknowledged succession and accumulation of superb accomplishments.
One of the troubling elements of Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues is its inability to step within the self-conscious understanding of the jazz heritage that is ever more enticingly, always probingly active in the work of just those musicians that his film claims to honor by way of cinematic remembrance—by way of sound track reproduction, script, dialogue, visual, if nonetheless frequently fleeting, images, and most of all a somewhat proud engagement of narrative/dramatic performances. The spirit of John Coltrane is invoked repeatedly, only to dissolve in a facile gesture: his name is presented, his legacy beckoned, and his music put on display without the careful, calm exploration of artistic structures that in fact marked the whole of Coltrane's musical life. Coltrane was a restless, but always quiet and innovative, artist. His life's work is used cheaply if its exemplary energy—the enigmatic clarity of an undisruptable musician—is misappropriated.
One might assume without much difficulty that the concept of intellectual work engaged by Spike Lee, across his efforts in Do the Right Thing and Mo' Better Blues, is at some distance from the notions of intellectual identity that inform "traditional" intellectuals who define themselves within norms set up by white humanistic paradigms. But Marxist and Foucauldian intellectual frameworks are inappropriate for the consciousness-raising effort apparently under way in Lee's films. I do not know Lee's first two films, but in his two most recent "texts" something akin to an "insurgency model" of black intellectual activity, an effort constructed within a set of very specific social circumstances, is at work. West believes that "the uniqueness of the black intellectual predicament" demands for filmmakers like Lee to "articulate a new 'regime of truth' linked to, yet not confined by, indigenous institutional practices permeated by the kinetic orality and emotional physicality, the rhythmic syncopation, the protean improvisation, and the religious, rhetorical, and antiphonal repetition of Afro-American life."
This sense, coupled with a demand, may miss the gesture of accommodation to a distinctly hip and cryptic model of knowledge on display in Lee's flirtation with the jazz heritage. Although I am uncomfortable with the characterization of black life in West's snapshot definition, his tentative conclusions about the black intellectual's embeddedness in traditions that are remarkable for their melodic and poetic power deserve the attention of white and black intellectuals, of critics of every persuasion and interest, without evasion:
The distinctive Afro-American cultural forms such as the black sermonic and prayer styles, gospels, blues, and jazz should inspire, but not constrain, future black intellectual production; that is, the process by which they came to be should provide valuable insights, but they should serve as models to neither imitate nor emulate. Needless to say, these forms thrive on incessant critical innovation and concomitant insurgency.
The following discussion took place immediately after this paper was presented and involved Jim Merod, Andrew Ross, Sharon Willis, Stephen Crofts, Patricia Mellencamp, and Rob Wilson.
Ross: It seems to me that there's a very interesting debate and it is where the historical exploitation on the part of club owners runs right up against the grain of white romanticizations of jazz in the Nat Hentoff tradition, so I'm wondering where your reading of those characters [in Lee's film] and your opinions about that debate fall in the general context of exploitation.
Merod: My sense is that Spike Lee has trivialized the aggression and the exploitation of the two Jewish club owners. First, most club owners aren't Jewish; second, to make them Jewish is another form of stereotyping that is not going to advance a critique, and it will not help him embody the kind of historical significance about the place of jazz in North American culture that the film is apparently concerned with. If anything is at stake there, I'd say that the depiction of the exploitation is so sketchy, so trivial, that it dismisses the ways that exploitation of musicians really takes place. That rip-off occurs on so many levels that it cannot be, except metaphorically, located at the intersection of the club owner who pays bills and the jazz artist who gives up time and energy. Frankly, the greatest exploitation takes place between the jazz musician and the record companies and the media. That squeeze has been going on, as you know, for sometime—I've seen references in your work to knowledge of this, which I've got to congratulate you for since critics of jazz often overlook this completely. An example [of this squeeze] is the breaking of the musicians' strike in the late forties, which created a contractual situation in which instrumentalists were subordinated to star singers. Musicians were thereby relegated to the sideman's role and paid maybe a hundred bucks for a record session without any credit at all or an acknowledgment much diminished. And no percentage of the profits. This has been going on with little deviance unless a lucky "heavyweight" musician, like Miles Davis or Wynton Marsalis, signs with a major record company and has the added benefit of good legal advice. Otherwise, even for the musician with a promise of a percentage take of profits, the control of how much that musician receives remains in the record executive's closet. This is the exploitation that has demoted the jazz musician more than any other kind. It is a matter, also, of the jazz artist not having much say in the representation of jazz as an art form. One notices, for example, how seldom, over the forty-plus years of the television age, jazz has been given large-scale national exposure. You can attribute that malign neglect to several indigenous cultural sources. It is another form, larger than exploitation by club owners, of white cultural hegemony of the sort Spike Lee points to, yet misses, in his film. Jazz musicians are quite aware of the power that record company advertising holds over their working lives, but none that I am aware of has a strategy to counteract it or turn it to their own control. How could they, since the representational manipulation of powerful capital formations plays heavily throughout the entertainment industry? This is a subject of much attention and considerable discussion among the musicians. There are two attitudes that seem to have taken hold among the main cadre of working jazz artists. Frequently the older, more traveled musician says "What the hell can you do? I just try to figure out a way to keep playing and meeting ends." Younger musicians, with recent examples of high-profile contracts and the lionizing of peers like Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, Marcus Roberts, and now Mark Whitfield, are often less tolerant.
Ross: Given what you say, why do you think Spike made a movie like this one?
Willis: He's confused.
Merod: That's the best reason I can come up with. If there's a strategic reason, where he believes his film is somehow presenting a kind of culturally rich tactical gesture that reaches into the black community, I'd have to say that I think he's got that wrong, too, for reasons that are mapped out in Cornel West's understanding of forces and opportunities at work on organic black intellectual activity.
Crofts: I agree with you along the lines of the reading you've set out. I think, at the same time, that we have to look at the conditions under which the film industry offers possibilities to make films about jazz. My comment would be to have us think a bit about the history of Hollywood cinema and so I'm thinking here of, is it Straight No Chaser, the movie about Chet Baker.
Merod: Let's Get Lost, a film where the same thing happens. Chet is romanticized for fifteen minutes, everyone falls in love with his incredible James Dean good looks and with the beautiful sound track underscoring the idealized jazz scene. But from that point on you go through a tour of his self-ravaging decomposition without any real sense of the world that brings jazz creativity into being and without an accurate portrayal of Chet's own personal struggles—how he got so far as an artist despite his problematic, drug-riddled life.
Crofts: I'm struck by the fact that 'Round Midnight is the first full-length feature about jazz with any depth and detail. The first thing we encounter there is a relaxation of racism sufficient to allow a black or a group of blacks to be central figures. The second thing is the yuppification of jazz, certainly, I think, on the East Coast. I don't know about the West Coast. Jazz has seemed to move from clubs to something like chamber music halls. One of the signs of that is Wynton Marsalis as a jazz star who is also a classical musician, where the classical cache is important for the promotion of jazz and Marsalis. I remember a night in 1986 when I saw Art Blakey at Sweet Basil's in New York, and I heard a group of listeners wondering out loud who this guy Blakey was, after all. I think such comments reflect the new respectability based on the yuppification of jazz. Another concern is the kind of aesthetic that the film industry concocts around jazz. There seems to be no way to deal with it directly but in terms of "couple formation," which gets jazz into, for example, Spike Lee's film. Maybe we can say that, given the constraints working against jazz, people with jazz projects have to operate with the industry's standards and limitations in force.
Mellencamp: You know, much the same thing happened with rock in the Hollywood film, since all the film studios signed contracts with the white upper-middle class union. Rock did not enter into American movies until the seventies, and, in a way, it's the same phenomenon. No rock music is offered as scoring for sound tracks, for example.
Willis: In terms of what irks you so completely about Spike Lee's film, the fact that it's a lie about the actual jazz scene, isn't it possible to say that the film isn't at all "about" jazz? It is sort of an apology to Spike Lee's father, since Spike has been so much more successful in his own career. But, more than anything, it feels like a film about Spike's ambivalence about his own class position and his relation to an audience.
Merod: There's a lot to be said about that.
Willis: One of the reasons why the film keeps collapsing just as you've shown is because it can't seem to make its mind up about whether it is concerned most with Bleek or Giant. That is made all the more confusing for me because Giant happens to have Spike Lee's face, but the film seems to want to say that the real "Spike Lee" figure is Bleek—whose ambivalence finally is demonstrated at its most banal level when he argues with Shadow about their audiences.
Merod: Exactly. But even that argument is skewed because Shadow is depicted earlier as taking long Coltrane-like solos that go on forever, and yet later he pugnaciously insists that he intends to play for the masses. He accuses Bleek of being a somewhat dysfunctional purist. The flip-flops in their rivalry blur the sense of what it would mean to address both the hip jazz cognoscenti and a wider, general audience that just loves good music. But I think you're no doubt right. This is not a movie about jazz in any essential way despite the fact that Spike Lee wanted it to be called A Love Supreme, which is the title of one of the three or four most important recordings John Coltrane made and probably the one recording most centrally identified with his legacy. You may know that Alice Coltrane, his wife, would not give Lee the rights to that title—mostly on the ground that the film was filled with profane words she objected to. Nonetheless, Lee truly did want his film to have an even more overt and resonant relationship to the high jazz tradition than he was able to create.
Wilson: I want to come back to the theme of the film's attempt to make an intervention into the Afro-American community. You've pointed out that something about jazz as an art form seems to "elude each approach to cinematic capture." I'm wondering here about the idea of "capture"—capture for whom? There is you, who has an archival understanding of jazz in its many versions and transformations as well as how it functions in the black community. But how many people know that history? In a way, you've portrayed jazz as if it is uncapturable: that is to say, it is a nomadic, improvisational form that eludes any sort of capture.
Merod: No, jazz is not merely or essentially an instance of the sublime.
Wilson: Well, my more vulgar point here is my sense that the affirmation of the bourgeois family and the polarization of the two women create a kind of vulgar politics in the film itself. And yet, I see that as an affirmation of the black family being decimated. It makes a very stark attempt to recuperate black family life. And, looking at the film's preoccupation with the Jewish club owners, we find such a broad, reductive statement about New York City politics that I can only read it as a surprisingly clichéd and vulgar form of nationalistic political thinking.
Merod: This is no doubt in part what Andrew [Ross] had in mind at the outset of our discussion. While I agree with the points you're after here, I find both of those themes rendered so sketchily in the film as to make an unconscious code that is deeply puzzling. On one hand, Spike Lee has a political agenda that he is quite unembarrassed to develop from film to film. On the other hand, he has not yet found the narrative and cinematic resources of his fellow filmmaker, Charles Burnett, whose remarkable film, To Sleep with Anger, constructs a grand fable of upper-middle class black family life on a scale (and with a leisurely pacing) capable of confronting just those racial stereotypes that undermine, from either side, the cultural common ground that jazz—perhaps more than any art—has placed among frequently miscast, sometimes unendurable, forms of diversity.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3363
SOURCE: "He's Gotta Have It: An Interview with Spike Lee," in Cineaste, Vol. 18, No. 4, 1991, pp. 12-15.
[In the following interview, Lee discusses his film Jungle Fever and his approach to filmmaking.]
Spike Lee is a filmmaker with a vision and an agenda. He makes no bones about it: his purpose is to hold his cinematic mirror up to reflect African-American reality as experienced by his generation. These are the young blacks who grew up after the civil rights movement and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. They have seen the dream of a Great Society and Affirmative Action crumble into crackhouses and quota-babble.
Not yet thirty-five, Lee has directed five feature films since 1986—She's Gotta Have It, School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Mo' Better Blues, and Jungle Fever—which have earned him a controversial reputation for interpreting contemporary black America to itself and to society at large. He's a man with a commitment and credentials, working in the right medium for the times.
Born in Atlanta into an educated, culturally stimulating family environment—his father is an accomplished jazz musician—Lee moved as a child with his family to New York City, where he lived in middle class Brooklyn neighborhoods. He returned to Atlanta to become a third generation graduate of Morehouse College. After a summer internship at Columbia Pictures, Lee enrolled at New York University's film school where he and friends from Morehouse formed a creative team that has stayed together.
Cultural advantages, solid education, old school ties … sounds like upscale America. But it's the middle class family and the college campus that often incubate American liberal reformers. A shrewd businessman, adept at marketing and public relations, Lee talks freely and concisely about the controversial subjects portrayed in his films. He knows how to work the press, how to take control of an interview and make it serve his own ends. At the same time, he maintains a pose of professional detachment, projecting the high seriousness of an artist and social critic. He directs his gaze slightly away from the questioner, but drops his mask when irritated or amused, replying sharply or bursting into hearty laughter, and sometimes revealing adolescent-like petulance or impish charm. It's hard to tell the public persona from the man and best to take Lee at face value on his own terms. He continues to live and work in Brooklyn as an independent filmmaker at his own company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, and is currently at work on a feature film on Malcolm X.
The following interview, which took place at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival after the screening of Jungle Fever, also incorporates Lee's responses to questions posed at a general press conference and at a panel discussion of American directors.
[Mosier Richolson:] What is the primary purpose of your films?
[Lee:] I try to show African-American culture on screen. Every group, every culture and ethnic group needs to see itself on screen. What black filmmakers can do is show our culture on screen the same way Fellini's done for Italians and Kurosawa's done for the Japanese.
You describe your films as "litmus tests" that measure the pulse of public opinion on issues of social concern. Do you believe that the cinema has significant social power to help eliminate racism and prejudice?
I don't think my films are going to get rid of racism or prejudice. I think the best thing my films can do is provoke discussion. In my films, I try to show that there's a very serious problem. Racism is such a broad subject. I think conditions are the same as they've always been. There is still prejudice in the United States and Europe. To me prejudice is based on ignorance. A lot of times, racism is tied directly to exploitation and money. I think the biggest lie that's ever been perpetrated on the American people is 'If you're American, it doesn't matter what race, nationality, religion, or creed you are—you're American, and that's all that matters.' That's a lie and it's always been a lie. The United States is built on the Constitution of the United States. In that Constitution, it says that black people are three-fifths of a human being and could be sold as property … as cattle. Black people have been trained and taught to hate themselves. We've been taught that everything black is negative or derogatory. We've been taught that Africa, our homeland, which is a cradle of civilization, is a place where cannibals run around naked, swinging on trees.
You've made two films about confrontation between African-Americans and Italian-Americans. Why did you pick these ethnic groups?
New York City is made up of many different ethnic groups. That is not to say that the only conflicts between ethnic groups there are those between blacks and Italians, but these are the most violent ones in my mind. I don't know what it is, but when blacks and Italian-Americans get together, a lot of times you have a conflict. Take the murder of Yusuf Hawkins as an example. One day he wanted to check out a used car and ventured into a neighborhood which happened to be a predominantly Italian-American neighborhood and he was shot.
You dedicated Jungle Fever to Hawkins. Does that mean there is revenge in the air?
No. I don't think there is any revenge in the air. What happened in 1989 happened then. It's two years later. I'm a kinder, gentler person.
In your film, you use the term "jungle fever" for the sexual attraction some whites and blacks feel for each other. Have you ever felt jungle fever?
No. I've never had a relationship with a white woman.
What kind of research did you do? Was the film based on personal experience or invention?
Both. A lot of my films are based on personal experience. My mother died in 1977 when I was twenty. My father remarried a white woman. That probably had something to do with it.
Did the marriage work?
Yes, they're in love. They had a child. I have a little brother.
Do you like the woman?
We don't get along, but it's not because she's white. I was my mother's first child, so my stepmother's never going to be my mother.
What do your father and stepmother think of the film?
They haven't seen it yet. It might be hard for him to look at. She ain't gonna like it.
Do you think she'll take the issues of the film as a personal slight?
What's she gonna do—beat me? I'm a grown man.
What are you trying to show in the film?
I think what we're trying to do with this film is to show sexual myths. What's important about this film is that the characters Flipper and Angie, played by Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra, are not drawn to each other by love but by sexual myths. When you're a black person in this country, you're constantly bombarded with the myth of the white woman as the epitome of beauty—again and again and again—in TV, movies, magazines. It's blond hair, fair skin, blue eyes, thin nose. If you're black, you never see yourself portrayed in that way—you don't fit that image, you're not beautiful. So we cut away our noses to get a thinner nose … we'll cut away our lips … wear blue and green contact lenses. Why do we do that? Because that's what's pounded into us constantly. Annabella Sciorra's character bought into the myth that the black male is a stud, a sexual superman with a penis that's two feet long. So those are the two sexual myths that bring these two people together.
Are you saying that they wanted to explore the sexual myths—that they were curious about each other's flesh?
That was the basis of their relationship. One thing a lot of people aren't picking up on is that the film is not just about interracial marriages and relationships. It's about identity. There are people in the film who are products of mixed marriages. My character's wife in the film has a black father and a white mother. The same is true for Flipper's wife. The people in the film are constantly talking about their identity, where they belong. They make a distinction between mulattoes, quadroons, and octoroons. And not just the blacks. In the candy store, the Italian-Americans have the same concern. There are a lot of dark Italians. Sicily is very close to Africa. The character Frankie says. "I'm not black. My mother's a dark Italian. I'm as white as anybody here."
In one scene, the black women characters speak frankly and openly about sexuality and color. Was it scripted?
It was completely improvisational. We did between twenty and twenty-five takes. I find the more you talk the more honest you get.
How do you feel about interracial relationships?
Interracial relationships and marriages have been going on since we were brought over here as slaves. We're not trying to condemn interracial relationships. People have to realize that this film does not represent every single interracial couple in the world. We're not saying that a black man with a white woman won't work. I think if two people love each other, that's great. There's another interracial couple in the film. The John Turturro character named Paulie and the character Orin. I think they have a chance of having a better relationship because they have a real foundation of friendship, whereas Flipper and Angie's was based on myth. They didn't really love each other. I think if they had, love would have enabled them to withstand the onslaught of abuse they were getting from their family and friends and the two neighborhoods they live in—Harlem and Bensonhurst. In the end, Angie comes to love Flipper, but he still loves his wife.
When Angie's Italian-American father finds out that she's been with a black man, did he have to beat her up so badly?
He feels he does.
Would he have done the same if she'd gotten involved with any other man who wasn't Italian-American?
No. If Angie had gotten involved with an Irish or Jewish man, her father might have been upset, but the fact that he's black—that's the ass-whipper.
She seems to get the worst of it. Her family's reaction seems much more violent than the one Flipper gets.
It's been my experience—I'm not going to say both communities welcome interracial relationships—but it's very rare that black people disown a relative if they marry somebody white. They might not talk to you for a week or so, but they're not going to lock their door. I know several cases where white people with black partners were thrown out of the family and the family hasn't spoken to them since. They're cut out of the will and all types of stuff. That's the difference.
When Flipper's wife discovers that her husband is unfaithful to her, she seemed more upset that her husband was with a white woman than with the fact that he was unfaithful.
I think that regardless of whether the other woman was white or black, Flipper's wife would be throwing his stuff out of the window. The fact that he was having an affair with a white woman made it that much worse of an offense.
Flipper is a very well-heeled, upwardly mobile professional African-American. Is there a point being made there?
Yes. We're saying that one should not lose himself—who they are—while striving to be successful. There are other things more important than success.
Why did you wait so long to tackle the issue of the drug problem?
I felt that drugs should be a big part of this film. It was right for Jungle Fever. I had to be the one to determine when drugs would be in my films. I wanted to show the drug problem as a main theme in a film, not just stick it in because the drug topic is trendy, chic, or faddish. In Do the Right Thing, drugs would have been a bogus sub-plot. The main thrust of that film was racism. In Mo' Better Blues, I did not want to make another typical story of a jazz musician who's an alcoholic or who's hooked on heroin.
Religion is a big theme in this film. In your portrayals of the characters Gator and the Good Reverend Doctor—Ossie Davis's character—you seem to imply a relationship between religion and drugs.
That implication's not there for me. Gator's on crack for a lot of reasons. One is the relationship with his father, who's a reverend. The Good Reverend Doctor is out of touch. He goes overboard, and I think religion really had a bad effect on Gator in the film. But I don't think religion is what turned Gator into a crackhead. His brother Flipper isn't on drugs. I really think people are responsible for their own actions. Gator likes getting high.
Where did you get the idea for the characters of Gator and the Good Reverend Doctor?
The whole idea of the Good Reverend Doctor killing his son is based on Marvin Gaye Sr. shooting Marvin Gaye Jr., who was a cokehead at the time.
You definitely say 'no' to drugs in the film. You show Flipper wandering through a crackhouse looking for Gator, then crying 'no' as he holds a young addict close to him. Is that your 'no' or the 'no' of the character.
Me and him. Flipper's going crazy. He just spent the last two hours in hell.
Is your portrayal of a crackhouse realistic?
Crackhouses aren't that big. It was artistic license. I wanted to show how crack is totally wiping out generations of African-Americans.
Do you think of yourself as a role model for black filmmakers?
No, I don't think of myself like that. I think from the beginning, I never, ever wanted to think of myself as 'king of the hill' of African-Americans who make films.
How did you get started as a filmmaker?
When I went to film school, I knew I did not want to have my films shown only during Black History Month in February or at libraries. I wanted them to have a wide distribution. And I did not want to spend four or five years trying to piecemeal together the money for my films. I did my first film, She's Gotta Have It, independently for $175,000. We had a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts and were raising money the whole time we were shooting. We shot the film in twelve days. The next stage was to get it out of the lab. Then, the most critical part was when I had to hole up in my little studio apartment to get it cut. I took about two months to do that. I had no money coming in, so I had to hold off the debtors because I knew if I had enough time to at least get it in good enough shape to show, we could have some investor screenings, and that's what happened. We got it blown up to 35mm for a film festival. What you have to do is to try to get a distributor. You enter as many film festivals as you can. She's Gotta Have It was picked up for $475,000 after a lot of distributors saw it at a festival.
Your name is often mentioned today as a milestone in black filmmaking. How do you feel about that?
It's very encouraging. But even though I might be the one who's getting the publicity, there were a lot of people before me who made it happen. If Melvin Van Peebles didn't do Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, none of this would have been possible. And there's Gordon Parks, Ossie Davis—all these people and others put up with a whole lot of stuff. So the people following them twenty or thirty years later are able to do what we're doing now. Because of my success, it's going to make it easier for the next generation that comes up behind us.
Do you think you've opened the door for black filmmakers?
I try to make the best films I can, good films that make money to enable things to open up. I'm not saying the door's wide open … it's not wide open. But the fact is that blacks are making films instead of the door being shut. I think there were nineteen films by black filmmakers released last year, and that's more than the whole previous decade combined. I think what's important is that we not get too high and start doing cartwheels and say that happy days are here, that Hollywood's in love with black people. That's not the case. We're not getting the same treatment as general market films, which means films for white moviegoers. And this is something we continue to fight. We want to raise the ceiling of how much Hollywood will spend to make and promote our films.
As your films get bigger, as you get more success, do you find that you're getting intervention from the moneymen? Do they try to persuade you to do the film their way?
They're always going to tell you what they think. If their suggestions are good, I use them. If they're not, I don't. I think I have the best of both worlds because I'm an independent filmmaker with complete creative control of my films. I hire who I want. I have final cut. But at the same time, I go directly to Hollywood for financing and distribution. I find it's best for me to work within the Hollywood system. It's an individual choice, and you have to make up your mind. I have a classmate from NYU who hates Hollywood. He's found his financing with Japanese money.
Music is an important component in your films. How much of that is your input?
I start thinking about the music for my films at the same moment I'm writing the script. It's part of my creative process. I pay as much attention to the music as I do to the cinematography, casting, and production design. I'm the son of a great jazz musician, Bill Lee. He's done the scores for all of my films before Jungle Fever. I was raised with jazz. It was played in the house all the time.
Stevie Wonder did the music for Jungle Fever. You also used some Frank Sinatra songs. Why was that?
For juxtaposition. We had three songs by Frank Sinatra at the candy store in Bensonhurst, representing the Italian-American community. We also had four songs by Mahalia Jackson for the scenes with the Good Reverend Doctor and his wife.
You often use music and dialog at the same time.
A lot of people say you shouldn't do that. I don't agree. If it's the right music, you can play it behind dialog. We had a great ten week mix to make sure we had the right balance, that the music never overrides the dialog.
What's your next project?
I hope to make a film on an epic scale about Malcolm X. I want it to be on a David Lean scale. The Malcolm X project has been trying to get made for twenty years. There were several directors … scripts were written. I thought the first script—James Baldwin's—was the best.
When it comes to race relations, would you say that you're an optimist or a pessimist?
I think I'm a realist. In my films, I'm not saying, "Throw up your hands, there's no hope," or that black and white people will never get together. Even though some people say my films have a bleak outlook, I think my films are optimistic. I still think there's hope.
Do you think the problems of racism and prejudice can change in your lifetime?
I don't think racism can be eliminated in my lifetime … or my children's or grandchildren's. But I think it's something we have to strive for. I'm going to keep working toward that day coming.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2123
SOURCE: A review of Jungle Fever, in Film Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 2, Winter, 1991–92, pp. 37-41.
[In the following review, Saltman discusses Lee's Jungle Fever, asserting that 'Amid his pop sociology and artistic excesses, Lee demonstrates a thoroughly contemporary consciousness and the ability to put it on film."]
Spike Lee developed his skills in independent movie making and music videos, working his way up to become an American auteur—perhaps not quite ready to be an artistic successor to Woody Allen, but ready to enter the social and political space left by Costa-Gavras and Godard, and in racial issues to locate himself somewhere between Eddie Murphy and Malcolm X. In other words, Lee is hard to pin down. Perhaps of all his work so far Jungle Fever is the hardest to locate. Lee's filmic style is a kind of slowed-down MTV, an assemblage of fragments which present his social concerns broadly and unanalytically. As an entertainer he mastered the attack language of pop music and night-club comedy and adapted it with persistence and ambition to interracial and intraracial issues. Some serious reviewers have rejected Jungle Fever, first for Lee's apparent scorn for integration, second for his misreading of black-white relationships, and third for his creation of bad art. They find the love relationship in the film to be superficial: the interracial affair between a black man and a white woman is dismissive, and the whole issue of interracial relationships is treated too harshly. Because the affair doesn't work out and the two lovers split at the end of the film to go back to their neighborhoods (Bensonhurst and Harlem) Lee seems despairing and separatist, and in fact appears to attack integration in the manner of the black nationalists of the sixties—but without their heroism.
The answer to this criticism may lie in Lee's use of social types from the African-American and white worlds. Neither Lee's talent nor interest point toward character in depth; in flat panels he raises the racial and ethnic types who make up his story. The audience can hardly help but notice that the plot in Jungle Fever is a mockup of Romeo and Juliet by way of West Side Story; in this case culture-and-race-crossed lovers represent not some Renaissance notion of the individual creative romantic self but racial and ethnic stances. There is no lyric here but rather a desultory passionate moment, an experiment in cross-race sex, followed by confusion and regret. Without the intensity or complexity of their literary ancestors, the lovers play an ensemble role together with others in the film who also make a strong claim upon our attention and are portrayed just as sharply and just as superficially.
In this context the film would therefore seem to fail. But my point is that the love story is a pseudo-theme designed to present race relationships and stereotypes, a cleverly ironic frame designed to dismiss traditional romance, to point out its irrelevance. The real theme of Jungle Fever is, in fact, the power and persistence of racial oppression; the film argues that the chief issue for blacks is the amelioration of their condition, to which other issues must be subordinated. This theme is distributed in the film in curious ways: it does not move toward a single overwhelming point, nor does it unify a variety of interrelated points. The love story plays no better or more unifying part than any other story within the film. Lee's concern transcends "romance"; he has little use for idealized sexual relationships in the face of vital economic and political needs—his crude verb for sexual intercourse is "to bone." This cynical attitude about romance is certainly not new for him; it was thoroughly developed in She's Gotta Have It, where it was a form of domination.
It is a mistake to accuse Lee of failing to develop the love story in Jungle Fever or even give it time to mature; he even rejects the tradition of secrecy between lovers. The affair is almost immediately evident to both the black and the white families and friends of the lovers. The social matrix takes precedence over intimate romance, making the sexual affair a localized social disaster and not a personal event. The lovers only succeed in dramatizing the incommensurability of the white and black worlds of New York, typified by white Bensonhurst and black Harlem. And Lee wants it that way. He could have chosen Greenwich Village as the scene of an affair with which to examine the subtle personal pressures that touch mixed-race couples; but that was not his story. The subjects of this decentered film are instead the black condition, the drug-riddled poor, the continuing economic disaster of a devastated Harlem, and the problems of the black middle class, whose confused and uneasy black professionals (the hero is a talented architect) are inescapably caught up in the realities of racism. Flipper Purify, played by Wesley Snipes, works for a glitzy white firm while in Harlem the houses are falling down. He is disassociated from his surroundings even though he chooses to live in Harlem. His romance with an Italian-American temp-secretary is halfhearted, hardly a challenge to his marriage. The film opens with a highly charged sex scene between Flipper and his wife, played by Lonette McKee, and in its heat there is no implication that the hero is jaded, or suffering a midlife crisis—he is clearly happily married, and the subsequent "boning" of the white woman performed upon his architect's drafting table becomes an act of curiosity for both characters and of cynical social commentary on Lee's part. In setting up this situation Lee is not critical of black professionals only; the social and economic background of the affair is part of its foreground. He is insisting that the black condition takes precedence at this time and place over personal issues.
Yet Lee's obvious manipulative traits, his conceit, his MTV personality, his money-making commercials with Michael Jordan, his presuming to be a spokesman for blacks, distort the perception of his movie. He neither analyzes the black condition with care, nor does he reveal much compassion for it. He appears to lack the high seriousness that characterized earlier spokesmen for African-American causes; writers like Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, and Eldridge Cleaver were intensely analytic, and presented the issues in sharply focused works. Lee's world is cool, eclectic, and despairing, its focus wanders; it suggests a cynical yet dismayed withdrawal from situation similar to television commercials that show young African Americans playing basketball on brick courts in city ghettos wearing impossibly expensive Nikes.
Lee's cynicism, his lack of focus, of unity, is the key to his special effect as film-maker. He is often under attack for not doing what he does not intend to do, while what he does achieve is misunderstood. Unlike Woody Allen, he does not focus upon a single complicated protagonist who represents contemporary dilemmas. Allen's strongly centered, highly unified work reflects the modernist traditions of Bergman and Fellini, but Lee's work celebrates the despair and pleasure attendant upon disunity. Jungle Fever is loosely connected, decentered; it portrays the black condition in one anecdote after another containing characters who surface and disappear like offshore rocks. An example is Flipper's family: his brother, played beautifully by Samuel Jackson, is a drug addict who will do virtually anything short of murder to find his fix; but the incidents which lead to his death at the hands of his father have virtually nothing to do with the hero's interracial fling. The father is also a story in himself (in a perhaps too easy performance by Ossie Davis): a rigidly religious preacher bitter over the black condition but unable to do anything about it. The tentative romantic subplot involving the secretary's ex-boyfriend and an intellectual black woman comments on the difficulty encountered by successful black women—they turn to white men rather than "ordinary" black men, since there aren't enough successful black males to go around and since black males are intimidated by successful black women. Thus another off-focus aspect of the film explores the plight of black women of achievement who feel emotionally, sexually isolated—a gathering in which black women unload their complaints is perhaps the film's funniest scene. Lee's anecdotal method differs here from the multiple-story form familiar to us in movies and on TV, in films like Towering Inferno or Airport (one may call it "The Grand Hotel Method"), because this form is designed to explore character, as superficial and stereotyped as that character might be. Lee's point is social and not individual, and his loose structure is a mockery of plot. The final incident, a stereotypical freeze frame, depicts the hero embracing in anguish a black teenage junkie hooker, confronting the black condition from which he has been escaping through personal ambition and cross-racial dalliance. The hero has passed the hooker at various points in the film, so the final shot comes as no great shock in itself—what is shocking is that the hero's sudden tortured outburst completely shatters any notion of his character we may have gleaned from the film. This scene cannot be explained logically by the glimmer of plot which supports it; although Flipper has witnessed the failure of his interracial affair and the murder of his dope-addict brother by his father, he has given no hint of the emotional resources needed for his explosive reaction.
Lee seems incapable of making a straightforward statement about the social and political issues he depicts. His juxtaposition of anecdotes defines no particular stance, no unified vision. Those who want a definite statement such as "Fight the power" will not find it, because Lee is himself divided about the nature of the struggle. He will not and perhaps cannot embrace an ideology. He inhabits an aimless political space. As Robert Chrisman says of Do the Right Thing: "Lee's inability to present a coherent value system in the replication of black life in his films raises the question, indeed, what is the right thing?" It is too easy to claim that Jungle Fever raises significant questions; questions must be asked in coherent and significant ways. Lee's assemblage of anecdotes prevents him from entering deeply into any one of them. The very structure of his work is against analysis and for surfaces. With an entertainer's despair of depth and delight in types and observation, he gives us sketches of men and women in the context of a racist society. These are types but not, with the exception of a few misses here and there (Flipper's bosses and his mother), stereotypes. Flipper and his wife are not stereotypes; Flipper's brother transcends stereotype as a drug addict like a virtuoso musician transcends a night-club hack.
Essentially, then, the film is episodic, a combination of burlesque and street theater brought into the multi-million dollar milieu of a nineties film. It is relentlessly popular in its quest for effects, in its shtick. Incidents in the film stand out and apart from each other as if they were culled from different films. The astounding scene in the Taj Mahal crack house is dreamlike and expressionistic; the scenes between the bible-thumping father and his family are melodramatic family drama; the scenes involving the Italian fathers (who are comically similar, though Anthony Quinn's portrait is more accomplished) are farcical; the scene in which the hero's wife throws his possessions from the window of their apartment is an adaptation of Lee's communal street scenes in Do the Right Thing. Jungle Fever is decentered in plot, in filmic style, and ultimately in tone.
The film's tone—comic, angry, cynical, turgid, ridiculous, melodramatic, despairing—is its most vital aspect. This tone is decentered in the sense that it neither knows itself nor proceeds from a unified authorial identity; it is not so much ambiguous as it is vaporized in the multiple stories and styles of the film. The special quality that distinguishes Jungle Fever from other postmodern films like Blue Velvet or Crimes and Misdemeanors in which the tone is at bottom despairing is the film's socio-political message, which ultimately cannot permit the wry, cynical helplessness of Lynch's and Allen's films. There is always a reformer's hope in even the darkest political films, and this is true of Jungle Fever. Lee's achievement is to combine an unfocused construction of contingencies with serious political satire. His work cannot be characterized as a monolith but rather as a sprawling and varied city. Such combinations would seem to be self-canceling, but in this case the result is an unsettling comedy which demands that Americans make room for diversity, for the multiplicity of otherness. Amid his pop sociology and artistic excesses, Lee demonstrates a thoroughly contemporary consciousness and the ability to put it on film.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2341
SOURCE: "Law of the Jungle," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLIV, No. 4, Winter, 1992, pp. 642-7.
[In the following excerpt, Cardullo discusses Lee's Jungle Fever and suggests that Lee watch African films to "discover something not only about artistic economy, about the virtue (and resonance) of a simple tale straightforwardly told, but also about the culture of his Mother Africa."]
… Spike Lee's Jungle Fever is about villagers of a different kind: those of New York City, which, with the possible exception of upper Manhattan, is America's most parochial city. (My mother, who spent the first forty years of her life in Brooklyn, rarely felt the need to venture outside Flatbush, let alone the borough itself.) Lee's "villagers" are all played by professionals, and it shows in the unevenness of their work, in the absence from all but a few scenes of an ensemble feeling. For every subtly inflected performance, like that of John Turturro or Annabella Sciorra, there is a forced or wooden one, like that of Wesley Snipes or Lee himself. For every powerfully affecting piece of acting, like Samuel L. Jackson's, there is a slackly maudlin one, like Anthony Quinn's. Even the cinematography of Jungle Fever—by Ernest Dickerson, who has shot all of Lee's features—is uneven, in that it combines realistic or on-location interiors—in a Bensonhurst candy store, an uptown architectural firm, a Harlem restaurant, a Greenwich Village apartment—with prettified or doctored exteriors, with outdoor scenes whose visual effects are so calculated that they seem to have been shot on sound stages. This has been a problem in all of Lee's color films, and I can only conclude that his time spent in film school (at New York University) has addicted him to cinematic trickery, to the legerdemain of the studio over the reality of the street. How else can one explain his outrageous use—twice!—of a traveling matte behind two characters in conversation, which creates the illusion that they are taking a walk when in fact they're standing still?
Jungle Fever is Spike Lee's fifth feature film (he has made one documentary, his thesis project at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts in 1982: Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads), which, as usual, he wrote as well as directed, and it comes amidst a plethora of films by blacks, about blacks—that is, about blacks more as they relate to one another than as they relate to whites. But Lee is the only one among the new wave of black directors who's even close to being an artist, and, despite its failings, his Jungle Fever is easily the best of the current crop of films about black America. It is far more sophisticated in its exploration of interracial relationships than his School Daze was in its treatment of the intraracial clash between light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks at an all-black college, and it deserves to be taken as seriously as Do the Right Thing, Lee's serious but fatally flawed examination of racism and economic exploitation in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Certainly Jungle Fever is something of a return to form for the thirty-four-year-old Lee after the disastrous Mo' Better Blues, which thought it was telling the story of a black jazz musician from a black filmmaker's point of view, but was only retelling the formulaic, melodramatic story of countless jazz films, substituting a black trumpeter for the young white man with a horn, and throwing in a little anti-Semitism (in the person of two grossly caricatured Jewish club owners) for bad measure.
"Jungle fever" is the movie's description for interracial love—or lust—in the urban jungle of New York. Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes)—God knows why Lee gave him this ridiculous name—is a successful young architect who lives on Striver's Row in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem with his light-skinned black wife, Drew (Lonette McKee), a buyer at Bloomingdale's, and his adoring little daughter, Ming. Angela Tucci (Annabella Sciorra) is a temp secretary with only a (Catholic) high-school education who lives in the Bensonhurst district of Brooklyn with her widowed father and two brothers, Jimmy and Charlie—the same Bensonhurst where in 1989 a gang of young Italians killed a black teenager, Yusuf Hawkins (to whom Jungle Fever is dedicated, and whose murder, says Lee, sparked the making of the film), because they thought he was dating a local white girl. Flipper and Angie meet when she takes the place of his former secretary at the architectural firm in Manhattan where he works, and which he eventually quits to go into business for himself (he says, but we never see this happen) because his two white bosses will not elevate him—their best, most productive architect—to partner. Flipper and Angie get along, despite the fact that he had demanded a black secretary, and after a few late-night work sessions topped off with heartfelt conversation over Chinese takeout, they copulate on a drafting table. Here's Lee on the nature of Flipper and Angie's relationship: "She's attracted to him because she's been told that black men know how to fuck. He's attracted to her because all his life he's been bombarded with images of white women being the epitome of beauty and the standard that everything else must be measured against."
I beg your pardon, Spike, but your film reveals that Angie falls in love with Flipper (although Lee rushes the blossoming of that love), rejects her longtime boyfriend, Paulie Carbone (John Turturro), for him, and endures a beating from her father as well as the ostracism of her Bensonhurst neighbors—who learn of her affair from a girlfriend to whom she had entrusted her secret—in order to remain with her black lover. Flipper, by contrast, never commits himself to Angie, never has what can be called a complex relationship with her, despite his description of it as such. He moves into a Greenwich Village apartment with her only because his wife, to whom he has never before been unfaithful, throws him out of their place (after learning of his affair with a "low-class white bitch" from her best friend, Vera, who learned of it from her husband, Cyrus [Spike Lee], to whom Flipper had entrusted his secret); he insists to Drew that he loves her, not Angie; and he leaves his white lover the moment he has an excuse to: after his father, a defrocked Baptist preacher (Ossie Davis), delivers a racist tirade against miscegenation that culminates in his calling his son a whoremonger in front of Angie—a tirade that is followed by an incident on the street in which Flipper is accosted by two white cops for attempted rape, merely for playfully returning a punch that Angie threw at him to break the tension. When Flipper tells Angie that he doesn't love her and questions her motivation in getting together with him, she responds, "Speak for yourself, not for me."
So Flipper pursued Angie merely out of sexual curiosity, as he finally admits, but by not having this character fall in love with his white girlfriend, Lee missed the opportunity to explore an interracial relationship, perhaps an interracial marriage, in depth—a marriage that Drew herself is the product of, and whose mixed race has drawn her the abuse of some blacks together with the adoration of others, like Flipper, as well as instilled in her the paradoxical belief that blacks should stop diluting their blood by procreating with whites. The closest we get to a genuine interracial relationship is in the tender moments between Paulie and a middle-class black woman who comes into his candy store every morning to buy the New York Times, but must settle for the Post or the Daily News instead, since Carbone's won't stock a newspaper that doesn't sell to its mostly working-class clientele. Paulie pursues this woman, Orin Good, after Angie breaks up with him, despite protests and beatings from his domineering father (Anthony Quinn) and loutish friends. Toward the end of the film, he has his first date with Orin, for which he arrives to the accompaniment of Sinatra's "Hello, Young Lovers" on the soundtrack. But although Lee has asserted that "their initial attraction is based on genuine feelings," he doesn't develop that attraction; we leave Orin and Paulie at her front door, never to see them again. (As in the Flipper-Angie relationship, the black in this one is educated and the white Italian is not, though he talks of applying to Brooklyn College; Lee doesn't seem to realize that, after race, differences in education—and thus in social class as well as earning power—keep people apart more than anything else.)
Instead of spending more time on the relationship between Orin and Paulie, why did Lee base Jungle Fever on the short-lived affair between Flipper and Angie, a couple that, according to the director, "came together because of sexual mythology"? Because, as he did in Do the Right Thing, he prefers to do the easier thing: cram his film with incident rather than exploration, with texture rather than subtext. It isn't as if he didn't have examples to draw from: there were 211,000 interracial marriages in the United States in 1990, of which 71 percent were between black men and white women, while 29 percent paired white men with black women. Lee's texture is sometimes very good: he gets exactly right, for example, the atmosphere of Carbone's Candy Store and the behavioral rhythms of the young men and old-timers who hang out there; and, with the help of Ernest Dickerson, he visually complicates the relationship between Flipper and Angie where his screenplay has tended to simplify or reduce it—during this couple's penultimate scene together in their sparsely furnished Greenwich Village apartment, for instance, she poignantly asks, "Are we together?" as they look off in opposite directions and are photographed in separate frames, with white light shining on Flipper in silhouette and low-key lighting on Angie in a black dress off one shoulder.
But texture of this kind is not enough, and incident alone is too much, as in the case of Flipper's strained relationship with his crack-addicted brother, Gator (Samuel L. Jackson), whose sad story takes up a significant portion of the film. Lee seems to be responding here to the criticism that he unrealistically omitted the drug culture from the jazz world of Mo' Better Blues and the Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto of Do the Right Thing. In Jungle Fever, however, the drug culture is superfluous: what does Gator's addiction have to do with Flipper and Angie's affair, with the response of the Good Reverend Doctor (the title by which his wife and sons always address him, despite his having been defrocked, apparently for sexual misconduct) and Mrs. Purify (Ruby Dee) to that affair? What does the Reverend's murder of Gator—for his addiction, for stealing from his own family, for tormenting his mother—have to do with Mr. Tucci's beating of Angie for "fucking a nigger"? And what does Flipper's anguished embrace, in the film's very last shot (during which the camera hyperbolically zooms in on him), of a drug-crazed black hooker have to do with his rejection of Angie? The answer to all of these questions is, of course, "nothing." Spike Lee has yet to learn that merely to juxtapose disparate narrative strands—something that film can do almost too easily—is not to connect them, to link them with a central theme. Two narrative strands that he could handily and fruitfully have merged, he fails to do: Flipper's starting his own business, beginning a career as a black architectural entrepreneur, with his committing himself to an interracial relationship in which Angie is his partner in work as well as in love.
By the end of Jungle Fever, Angie has returned home to the father who had banished her, while Flipper has returned home to the wife who had banished him and who banishes him again for his infidelity—but only after this black stud has satisfied her sexual needs as no white man ever could (this is the film talking, not your film critic!). Lee prefaces the bedroom scene between Flipper and Drew with a crane shot down to the street to pick up the delivery of the New York Times to the Purifys' doorstep, then up to and through their bedroom window. This sequence is a reprise of the one that opened the film and is testimony to little more than Lee's addiction to circularity and the use of his Louma crane—he used a similar shot to open and close both Do the Right Thing and Mo' Better Blues. Circularity here serves no purpose: it's thematically bankrupt, as it was not in Tilaï, and all the more so since it does not end the film, but is followed instead by Flipper's commiserative embrace of the black hooker after she has solicited him on the street.
Neither does much of Stevie Wonder's music serve a purpose: his eleven songs may make a new album for him (his first in four years), but most of them seem laid on the film; they combined with three Frank Sinatra recordings, a few tunes from Mahalia Jackson (heard during scenes in the home of Flipper's parents), a little rap music, and even some conventional movie scoring (by Terence Blanchard) to give this viewer a case of sensory overload. Again, contrast this heavy dependence on music with Tilaï's discreet application of it: the title song is the only song, sung (by Abdullah Ibrahim, its author) over the opening and closing credits, and the instrumental music in-between never competes for attention with events on the screen. I suggest that Spike Lee take a look at Tilaï and other African films like it: he might discover something not only about artistic economy, about the virtue (and resonance) of a simple tale straightforwardly told, but also about the culture of his Mother Africa—an Africa that he and his fellow black artists routinely trumpet as their ultimate place of origin, but about which they know so very little.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5268
SOURCE: "Our Film Is Only a Starting Point: An Interview with Spike Lee," in Cineaste, Vol. 19, No. 4, 1993, pp. 20-4.
[In the following interview, which took place in December, 1992, Lee discusses the making of the film Malcolm X, and explains his reasons for excluding certain material.]
In addition to our Critical Symposium on Malcolm X, Cineaste felt it was important to talk to Spike Lee and incorporate his comments in our overall perspective on the film. In the following interview, Lee explains his primary desire to introduce Malcolm X to young viewers and his awareness that the time limits of even a nearly three and a half hour movie prevented him from producing anything more than a "primer" on one of America's most charismatic black leaders. His additional comments about the difficulties of attempting to produce an epic political film within the budgetary constraints imposed by Warner Bros. and in light of the many other pragmatic and political considerations involved are important aspects in arriving at a fully informed appraisal of the artistic achievement and political significance of Malcolm X. Spike Lee spoke to Cineaste Editors Gary Crowdus and Dan Georgakas in mid-December 1992, just three weeks after the film's nationwide premiere.
[Cineaste:] What sort of research did you do for the film? And what was the role of your Historical Consultant Paul Lee?
[Lee:] I read everything that I could, including a new book by Zak Kondo about the assassination that was very important in helping us re-create the assassination in the film. Paul Lee was a great help because he's someone who's really devoted his life to Malcolm X. Paul, who lives in Detroit, was in the Nation, I think, when he was twelve years old. As far as scholars go, I don't think there's anyone who knows more about Malcolm X than Paul Lee.
I also talked to a lot of people, including Benjamin Karim, who's Benjamin 2X in the film, Malcolm's brothers—Wilfred, Omar Azziz, and Robert—his sister Yvonne, Malcolm's widow, Betty Shabazz, and Malcolm Jarvis, who's Shorty in the film. I also went to Chicago and talked to Minister Farrakhan. That's where a lot of the good stuff came from, going around the country and talking to people who knew Malcolm. Not just his relatives, but people who were in the Nation with him, in the OAAU, and so on.
Have you had any dealings with the Socialist Workers Party? They got to Malcolm early, gave him podiums numerous times, and published a lot of his speeches.
Pathfinder Press? No, I just used their books, because they're fine documents.
Of the various screenplay adaptations of The Autobiography that had been written, why did you feel that the James Baldwin/Arnold Perl script was the best?
I read 'em all—the David Mamet script, Charles Fuller's two drafts, Calder Willingham's script, and David Bradley's script—but the Baldwin/Perl script was the best. James Baldwin was a great writer and he really captured Harlem and that whole period. He was a friend of Malcolm's.
What did your rewrite of the Baldwin/Perl script involve?
What was lacking, I felt, in the Baldwin/Perl script was the third act—what happens during the split between Malcolm and the Nation, between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad. A lot of stuff about the assassination had not come out then. William Kunstler was a great help on that. He represented Talmadge Hayer and gave me a copy of Hayer's affidavit where he 'fessed up to the assassination. I mean, if you look at the credits of the movie, we name the five assassins, we name those guys—Ben Thomas, William X, Wilbur Kinley, Leon Davis, and Thomas Hayer.
I also wanted to tie the film into today. I did not want this film just to be a historical document. That's why we open the film with the Rodney King footage and the American flag burning, and end the film with the classrooms, from Harlem to Soweto.
The speeches in the Baldwin/Perl script were not really Malcolm's best speeches, they did not really show the growth politically of Malcolm's mind, so we threw them all out. With the help of Paul Lee, who gave us copies of every single speech that Malcolm gave, Denzel and I chose and inserted speeches. Baldwin had stuff out of order. He had Malcolm giving speeches at the beginning of the movie that didn't really come until 1963 or 1964, so we had to get rid of those.
So Denzel was involved somewhat in working on the script?
Yeah, Denzel was very involved. He has a good story sense. We both knew a lot was riding on this film. We did not want to live in another country the rest of our lives. We could not go anywhere without being reminded by black folks, "Don't fuck up Malcolm, don't mess this one up." We were under tremendous pressure on this film. We can laugh about it now, but it was no joke while we were doing the film.
Given the difficulty of portraying about forty years of a man's life in any film, even one nearly three and a half hours long, are there some aspects of Malcolm's life you felt you weren't able to do justice to?
No, this is it, this is the movie I wanted to make. Our first cut was about four hours and ten minutes, I forget exactly, and we had more speeches and stuff, but this is the best shape the film can be. Of course, people say, "Why did you leave this out and why did you leave that out?," but you cannot put a man's whole life in a film.
People have told us, "The most important year in Malcolm's life was his final year," and "Why didn't you show his whole pan-Africanism thing?" But it's limited. We've never said that anyone who sees this film doesn't need to know anything else about Malcolm X. I mean, the man had four or five different lives, so the film is really only a primer, a starting point.
But don't you think that showing him meeting heads of state in Africa would have added to his dimension at the end, especially for people who don't know?
But people don't know who Kwame Nkrumah is anyway. Besides, we didn't have the money. I mean, we just barely got to Egypt. We shot in the U.S. from September 16, 1991, up to the Christmas holiday and after the holidays we did what we had to do in Cairo and then we went to South Africa. But I don't think we would have gained anything by showing him meeting with Nkrumah or others. Besides, at that point in the film, we're trying to build some momentum.
Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali is sort of dropped from the film, too.
What, and get someone to impersonate him? I think it was important to have Muhammad Ali in the movie, but we show him in a newsreel clip in the montage at the end.
You don't think it dissipates some of the anti-Vietnam War feeling that was in the Nation?
They weren't really anti-Vietnam. Malcolm was, but Elijah Muhammad never said anything about the Vietnam War. And by the time Malcolm spoke out against the Vietnam War, he had already been kicked out of the Nation.
Do you feel a film of this financial scale has built-in 'crossover' requirements in terms of its audience?
We felt so. We felt that everybody would want to see the film and we've received a large white audience to date. This is my first PG film—the previous five have all been rated R—because we wanted to get a young audience. We feel this is an important piece of American history and people, especially young kids, need to see this.
Is that why the few sex scenes in the film are considerably milder than those in the published screenplay?
Yes, because we made the decision for a PG-13 rating. We did not want to give teachers, schools, or parents an excuse why they could not take their children to see this film. I think when you weigh it, it's much more important for young kids to be exposed to Malcolm X than to see that other shit. We're preparing a classroom study guide on the film that'll be out in January.
It's amazing, I've seen this film with ten, eleven, and twelve-year-olds and they're just riveted in their seats. You know the attention span of young people at that age—they're usually throwing popcorn at the screen—but there's not a sound, they're riveted for three hours and twenty-one minutes. A whole generation of young people are being introduced to Malcolm X and people who've heard of him or had limited views of him are having their views expanded. Above all, we hope that black folks will come out of the theater inspired and moved to do something positive.
What sort of message would you like white viewers to come away with from the film?
I think that, as with any film I've done, people will take away their own message. For a large part of the white audience, however, I think we're helping to redefine Malcolm X because for the most part their view of Malcolm came from the white media which portrayed him as anti-white, anti-Semitic, and pro-violence. It's funny, when we had the national press junket for this film, many of the white journalists said they felt they'd been robbed, that they'd been cheated, because they'd never been taught about Malcolm X in school or they had only been told that he was anti-white and violent. A great miseducation has gone on about this man.
In that regard, we heard that Warner Bros., presumably concerned about defusing any controversy about potential violence at screenings, held advance showings of the film for police departments around the country.
That was Barry Reardon's decision. I did not agree with that. I thought it was inappropriate. I mean, if they do that to us, they should do it to Terminator. How many cops got killed in those films? Actually, it was the exhibitors. Before the film came out, exhibitors were calling Warner Bros., they were scared shitless, they were requesting extra police protection. One theater in Chicago even installed metal detectors!
What was the response at the police screenings?
Oh, the cops loved it. In Los Angeles, they showed it to Willie Williams, the new Police Commissioner there. It was the exhibitors and also the press who were waiting for that violence so they could destroy the movie. Do the Right Thing was really hurt at the box office when the press—people like David Denby, Joe Klein, and Jack Mathews—predicted that the film was going to create riots. In Westwood, in Los Angeles, for example, nine police were at the theater on the opening weekend, some mounted on horseback.
What's interesting for me now in reading a lot of the reviews of Malcolm X is how so many critics had predetermined that the film was going to be inflammatory.
To a great extent that's because of their unfamiliarity with Malcolm X other than what they've read in the mainstream press.
And with me, with the combination of Malcolm X and Spike Lee. They were expecting a film that for three hours and twenty-one minutes would be saying, "C'mon, black folks, let's get some guns and kill every single white person in America," but in the end the critics were saying, "This film is mild."
In the published screenplay, there are two sort of 'dramatic bookends' scenes. In the first scene, Malcolm brushes off the well-intentioned young white woman outside Harvard who asks how she might be of help in his struggle. The second scene, which occurs later at the Hilton Hotel in New York, involves the same type of encounter but this time Malcolm has a completely different response. The two scenes emphasizes Malcolm's evolution on this question, but only the first scene appears in the film. Why?
We shot that other scene, but the acting just didn't work. Anyone who's read the book knows that Malcolm's response to that young woman was one of his biggest regrets. I wanted to give Malcolm a chance to make up for it, so I wrote the scene where he could answer that same question again, but it just didn't work.
Are you concerned with how the dramatic weight has now shifted to that first scene? At the two screenings we've attended, that scene always gets a big laugh.
Who's laughing? Black viewers or white viewers?
They've been mixed audiences.
White people don't laugh at that because for the white audience that young white woman is them. We shot the second scene, but it just didn't work, so what were we supposed to do? In any case, I think we see Malcolm change when he comes back from Mecca.
In terms of The Autobiography's portrayal of Malcolm's youthful criminal career and the extent of his drug abuse, Malcolm was much more critical of himself in the book than the film is. Do you think that aspect of the book is exaggerated?
I've talked to Malcolm's brothers and they said that he was not that big of a criminal. He was a street hustler and not even a pimp, just a steerer. I think he was a wannabe, a wannabe big-time gangster, but he wasn't. The description in the book was not so much to build himself up but to lower the depths from which he rises. That's OK, but I don't buy this Bruce Perry bullshit that Malcolm was a homosexual, that he used to crossdress, or that Malcolm's father burned down their house in Omaha or that Malcolm fire-bombed his own house in Queens. That's bullshit! He did a lot of research, and some of the interviews were good, but Bruce Perry's book reads like The National Enquirer.
Many feminists are critical of the Nation of Islam's sexist attitudes towards women. In fact, one of their well-intentioned slogans refers to women as "property."
We didn't make that up. That was an actual banner.
No, we understand that was historically accurate, but since you've taken so much heat from feminists in the past …
Hey, you know who should be taking more heat than me? Oliver Stone!
Oh, he has taken a lot of heat.
Not as much as me, though, about women.
In a historical film like this, the dilemma seems to be whether one can—or should even attempt to—deal with such an issue by presenting an anachronistic, retroactive 'politically correct' perspective on the Nation's attitude towards women.
We just showed it the way it was.
We thought you dealt with this issue well in at least one scene where you intercut Elijah Muhammad's various strictures against women with Malcolm's conversation with Betty where he parrots pretty much the same line.
Yeah, he's a mouthpiece. [Lee at this point does a pretty good impersonation of Al Freeman as Elijah Muhammad] "She should be half the man's age plus seven. She must cook, sew, stay out of trouble." [Laughs] Sure, I've been at some screenings where women go, "Ugh!," but, look, those are not my views.
You often have scenes where there's no obvious interpretation, you leave it up to the viewer.
A lot of my work has been done that way. Some things I'll slant, but a lot of time I let people make up their own minds.
We're thinking especially of the scene where Denzel is watching television, and you intercut newsreel footage of police repression of civil rights demonstrations with a slow zoom into his face.
Yeah, and with John Coltrane's "Alabama" on the soundtrack.
There are a couple of different levels of interpretation there. You can think that he's despising Martin Luther King, Jr. and his nonviolent approach, or you can think that he's regretting that he's not involved in action like that. In this regard, we also wondered about the little smile you see briefly on Malcolm's face just before he's shot.
That was Denzel's idea.
I guess that's also open to interpretation.
Well, Denzel and I felt that he just got tired of being hounded. In actuality, you know, there were several assassination attempts. The CIA tried to poison him in Cairo, and the Nation tried to kill him numerous times. There was a big assassination attempt in Los Angeles, another in Chicago, and one night he had to run into his house because guys with knives were chasing him. So he was hounded for a year, the last year of his life, and Denzel and I thought about it and just felt that, you know, he was happy to go. It was Denzel's idea to smile right before he gets the shotgun blast—like, "You finally got me," and it was over.
Malcolm knew that he was going to die—even in the book he says, "I'll be dead before this comes out"—and that idea is played through that montage where Malcolm, his aides, and the assassins are all driving in separate cars to the Audubon Ballroom—an idea we got from The Godfather, by the way ('props' to Francis)—accompanied by the Sam Cooke song, "A Change Is Gonna Come."
In terms of FBI and CIA involvement in the assassination, do you think it was more a case of them letting it happen rather than actually doing it?
In my opinion they definitely stirred things up between Malcolm and the Nation. The FBI's COINTELPRO operation had infiltrated the Nation and was writing letters back and forth. Then I think they just stood back and let it happen. I don't think the FBI or CIA needed to assassinate Malcolm because, if you read Muhammad Speaks at that time, the Nation was going to do it themselves.
The FBI did the same thing on the West Coast, fomenting a rift between the Black Panthers and Ron Karenga.
Oh yeah, they're great at that. A very important book in this regard is Malcolm X: The FBI File. Two new books coming out—The Judas Factor: The Plot to Kill Malcolm X by Karl Evanzz and Conspiracys: Unravelling the Assassination of Malcolm X by Zak Kondo—both say the Nation was responsible. Of course, Amiri Baraka's saying that I'm part of some great government conspiracy and that the reason the studio let me make the film is because I was going to pin the assassination on black people. That's bullshit!
The five assassins were from Temple No. 25 in Newark, New Jersey, and the orders came from Chicago. I don't know if they came from the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, but it was from somewhere high up. That's the truth. I mean, Baraka should talk to Betty Shabazz, he should ask her who killed her husband. She told me the same thing. I'm not part of some conspiracy to turn black folks against the Nation of Islam. That's bullshit!
Has the Nation had a response to the film yet?
The Thursday before the movie opened we had a special screening in Chicago for Minister Farrakhan.
How did that go?
He was there, and I got a note from his secretary saying he was going to respond by letter, but we haven't heard from him since. But Minister Farrakhan has been supportive. While we were shooting the film, he said, "Look, Spike, I support your right as an artist." That's been it.
Do you think they'll make an official pronouncement, one way or another?
I think they'll just let it blow over.
In making this film, did you arrive at a more sympathetic understanding or appreciation of Islam?
Yeah, I mean you had to have respect. Denzel and I were reading the Koran before we began to shoot. We had to. If we didn't have a sympathetic attitude toward Islam, why would the Saudi government allow us to bring cameras into Mecca to shoot the holy rite of hajj? You have to be a Muslim to enter Mecca, so we had two second units, Islamic crews, who in May 1990 and June 1991 were permitted, for the first time ever in history, to film in Mecca.
I think the Saudi government realized this film could be good publicity for Islam. I mean, Islam and the Arabs in general have been taking a bashing in the West—what with Khomeini and the Gulf War and everything—and in Islam Malcolm is considered a martyr. That's why they let us bring cameras in.
Will the Islamic countries be an important overseas market for the film?
Yeah, we're going to try. We've got to be careful, though, because the same people who gave us the stamp of approval, the Islamic Court, are the same cats who sentenced Salman Rushdie to die, so we don't want to fuck around.
Some felt that the film's Mecca scenes were a little saccharine, somewhat like Christian movies of Jerusalem.
If the man says this was a deeply religious experience, you have to be true to that, no matter how you feel personally about religion. I mean, if up until that point the man felt that every single white person was a blue-eyed, grafted devil, and he no longer believed that after his visit to Mecca, something must have happened.
A very powerful scene in the film is when the young man, after seeing Malcolm and other members of the Nation confront the police, approaches Malcolm and says he wants to become a Muslim. It showed the power of the Nation to influence people and change their behavior.
People can talk about Elijah Muhammad all they want, but there's never been a better program in America for black folks to convert drug addicts, alcoholics, criminals, whatever. Elijah Muhammad straightened those guys out and, once they were clean, that was that.
A lot of people felt Malcolm would have left Islam, but we always thought he was as devout a Muslim as King was a Christian.
No, he would never have left Islam. He would have moved on to other stuff, but he would have remained a Muslim. He would not have made it a requirement to join his organization because he saw it was too regimented. He wanted to include as many people as possible. People wanted to follow him but they weren't willing to give up pork, or sex, or whatever.
There was always this tension between Malcolm and King which some people saw as a contradiction but which we saw as more of a dynamic tension.
I agree. At the end of Do the Right Thing, when I use the statements from Malcolm and King, I wasn't saying it's either one or the other. I think one can form a synthesis of both. When Malcolm was assassinated, I think they were trying to find a common ground, a plan they could both work on.
Some people felt I took a low blow at King in the film in the scene where John Sayles, as an FBI agent listening in on a phone tap on Malcolm, cracks, "Compared to King, this guy is a monk." I don't think that's low blow. J. Edgar Hoover had made tapes of King with other women and he confronted King with them, saying, "If you don't commit suicide, I'm going to send these tapes to Coretta," and he did. Afterwards things weren't the same between Coretta and Dr. King, but I'm not taking a low blow at King. The low blow was the FBI doing this to Dr. King. But some black people told me, "Spike, you know, you shouldn't have done that."
They have a hard time dealing with King as a sexual being. Baldwin also thought that there was this dynamic, this dialectical tension, between Malcolm and King. Toward the end, Malcolm seemed to be saying, "You'd better deal with King, because, if you don't, you'll have to deal with me." It's the Ballot or the Bullet.
He said that all the time. He told King, "I'm good for you."
Some people would have liked for you to have included the scene where Malcolm went down to Selma and spoke to Coretta King. Did you think of putting that in?
[Covers his head in a defensive manner and laughs uproariously] We couldn't do everything! We knew going in that, at best, we'd just get the essence of the man, that's the most we'd be able to do. Besides, Henry Hampton of Blackside—you know, the guy who did Eyes on the Prize—he's preparing an eight hour series on Malcolm. They'll be able to do a lot more than we did, and I'm glad.
We've also heard that there are plans to re-release, at least on video, the 1972 feature documentary on Malcolm.
Marvin Worth's film. It's good. I think if more people can learn about Malcolm X, that's cool.
We thought you might have done more with Ossie Davis's eulogy.
What, you mean see him delivering it? Then we'd have to restage the funeral and I didn't want to see Denzel in a casket. Besides, by that time we show footage of the real Malcolm X. I gotta give my props here to Oliver Stone. Barry Brown [the editor who cut School Daze and Do the Right Thing] and I saw Oliver Stone's JFK the first day it came out, and I said, "Barry, man, look what they're doing. C'mon!" That film gave us great inspiration.
You remember the opening newsreel montage in JFK? Well, we tried to do the same thing, or better it, with our montage at the end where Ossie Davis delivers the eulogy. We also had some of the black and white thing going, like newsreel footage.
So you were directly influenced by JFK?
Yes. There are other similarities between Malcolm X and JFK but what makes our film stand out is the performance of the lead actor. I think Kevin Costner is an OK actor, and I know that's probably the only way Oliver could have gotten the film made with the amount of money he wanted to, but I love that film despite Kevin Costner's performance. In Malcolm X, Denzel is the film, he's in every single scene. I hope he gets nominated for the Academy Award and I hope he wins.
Another thing we're really proud of with this film is the craft. Far too often with my films the craft is overlooked, but I think everything here—Barry Brown's editing, Ruth Carter's costume design, Terence Blanchard's score, plus the source music we used, and Ernest Dickerson's cinematography—is outstanding.
The cameo appearances in your film are another similarity to JFK. In some ways they're amusing, and people love them, but, on the other hand, they seem to disrupt the dramatic intensity, because people are saying, "Hey, that's Al Sharpton," or "There's Bill Kunstler," or "Did you see Bobby Seale?"
Not that many viewers know who these people are, and for me it just added weight to the stuff. I don't think I was making jokes or trying to make it campy or funny. I actually wanted Clint Eastwood to play the cop in the Peter Boyle scene, but he was shooting Unforgiven.
Has Warner Bros. been supportive in terms of the advertising campaign and the national release?
Yes, ever since they saw the rough cut. I mean, for a while there during production we went at it toe to toe, but since they've seen it they've been behind the film. We're on 1600 screens nationwide. I have no complaints.
In terms of the highly publicized dispute during production between yourself, Warner Bros., and the Completion Bond Company, to what extent do you feel racism was involved?
Racism is part of the fabric of American society, so why should the film industry be exempt? I think it's a racist assumption that white America will not go to see a black film that's not a comedy, or that doesn't have singing and dancing, or that doesn't star Eddie Murphy. I think there are racist tendencies that keep this glass ceiling on the amount of money that is spent on black films, to produce them or to market and promote them. I mean, how is it that Dan Aykroyd, a first-time director, can get $45 million to do Nothing But Trouble? $45 million! They're willing to give more money to these white boys right out of film school than they are to accomplished black directors.
In terms of the controversy, films go over budget all the time. so why I am on the front page? I wasn't calling up these newspapers and saying, "I'm over budget and the Completion Bond Company is taking the film over."
Wasn't there some sort of misunderstanding about the delivery date of the film?
No. Here's what happened. Any time a director and the lead actor are shooting, that is first unit, that is principal photography. The Completion Bond Company tried to say that what we did in Africa was second unit. But Denzel and I were shooting, so that's principal photography. We finished shooting in Soweto in late January 1992, and five weeks later they wanted a first rough cut!
The Bond Company was mad because they were getting stuck by Warner Bros. and were having to deal with a $5,000,000 overage. Usually the studio will help out the bond company, but in this case Warner Bros. said, "Fuck you. We paid you a fee and this is your job." So the Bond Company said to us, "Look, until we work this agreement out with Warner Bros., we're not paying you anything." So they fired all our editors. We had no money coming in to complete the film, so that's when I made the phone calls to these prominent African-Americans—Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and others.
And their contributions were gifts.
These were gifts—not loans, not investments. So for two months we continued to work and neither the Bond Company nor Warner Bros., knew where the money was coming from. That really fucked 'em up. I chose to announce what we had been able to do on May 19th, Malcolm's birthday, at a press conference at the Schomburg Center. Miraculously, two days later, the Bond Company and Warner Bros. worked it out. They say it was just a coincidence, that it would have happened anyway. I say bullshit.
But I hope this will be a precedent. Next time, maybe myself or some other filmmaker will bypass Hollywood altogether for financing and go directly to people like Oprah or Bill or Magic or Michael who'll finance the production, and then just go to Hollywood for distribution once the film is done. There are plenty of black people with money, plenty of black entrepreneurs. It can be done.
Are there other major black historical figures that you'd like to do films on?
Yeah, Walter Yetnikoff and I are working to acquire the rights to Miles Davis's life story. I heard that Robert Townsend may direct and star in a film on Duke Ellington. Right now, Touchstone is getting ready to do the Tina Turner story, with Angela Bassett, who plays Betty Shabazz in Malcolm X, as Tina and Larry Fishburne as Ike Turner. What we hope, what we're praying for, is that with the success of Malcolm X, you'll be able to eventually see films about Miles Davis, Paul Robeson, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth … you can go right on down the line.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2116
SOURCE: "Male Heroes and Female Sex Objects: Sexism in Spike Lee's Malcolm X," in Cineaste, Vol. 19, No. 4, 1993, pp. 13-5.
[In the following essay, hooks discusses Lee's treatment of women in his films, and asserts that by leaving out the title character's half sister from Malcolm X, "Lee continues Hollywood's devaluation of black womanhood."]
In all Spike Lee's films, he is at his creative best in scenes highlighting black males. Portraying black masculinity through a spectrum of complex and diverse portraits, he does not allow audiences to hold a stereotypical image. For that reason alone, I imagined Malcolm X would be a major work, one of his best films. At last, I thought, Spike's finally going to just do it—make a film that will allow him to focus almost exclusively on black men, since women were always at the periphery of Malcolm's life. Thinking that the film would not focus centrally on females, I was relieved. Like many females in Lee's audience, I have found his representation of women in general, and black women in particular, to be consistently stereotypical and one-dimensional.
Ironically, Nola Darling in She's Gotta Have It remains one of Lee's most compelling representations of black woman-hood. Though a failed portrait of a liberated woman, Darling is infinitely more complex than any of the women who follow her in Lee's work. She's Gotta Have It showed an awareness on Lee's part that there has indeed been a Women's Liberation movement that converged with the socalled 'sexual revolution.' Nola Darling was not obsessed with conventional heterosexist politics. Throughout much of the film she seemed to be trying to forge a sexual practice that would meet her needs. This film shows that Lee is capable of thinking critically about representations of black women, even though he ends the film by placing Nola Darling in a misogynist, sexist framework that ultimately punishes her for daring to oppose sexist norms of female sexual behavior. Rape is the punishment that puts her back in her place. And it is this scene in the film that ruptures what began as a transgressive narrative and makes it humdrum, commonplace.
Just as Lee abandons Nola Darling, undermining the one representation of black womanhood that breaks new cinematic ground, from that moment on he apparently abandoned all desire to give viewing audiences new and different representations of black females. Lee's desire to reach a larger, mainstream audience may account for the shift in perspective. Once he moved out of the world of independent filmmaking into mainstream cinema, he was seeking to acquire an audience not necessarily interested in challenging, unfamiliar representations. No matter how daring his films, how transgressive their subject matter, to have a predictable success he provided viewers with stock images. Uncompromising in his commitment to create images of black males that challenge shallow perceptions and bring the issue of racism to the screen, he conforms to the status quo when it comes to images of females. Sexism is the familiar construction that links his films to all the other Hollywood dramas folks see. Just when the viewer might possibly be alienated by the radical take on issues in a Spike Lee film, some basic sexist nonsense will appear on the screen to entertain, to provide comic relief, to comfort audiences by letting them know that the normal way of doing things is not being fully challenged.
Certainly the female role that most conformed to this pattern was the character of Tina played by Rosie Perez in Do the Right Thing. She is the nagging, bitchified, seductive female who is great to bone (not to be taken seriously, mind you). No matter how bitchified she is, in the final analysis her man, played by Spike, has her under control. This same misogynist message is played out all the more graphically in School Daze where the collective humiliation of black females enhances black male bonding. Yet it is Mo' Better Blues that sets paradigms for black gender relations. Black females are neatly divided into two categories—ho' or mammy/madonna. The ho' is out for what she can get, using her pussy to seduce, conquer, and exploit the male. The mammy/madonna nurtures, forgives, provides unconditional love. Black men, mired in sexism and misogyny, tolerate the strong, 'bitchified,' tell-it-like-it-is black woman but also seek to escape her. In Mo' Better Blues the black woman who gets her man in the end does so by surrendering her will to challenge and confront. She simply understands and accepts. It's a bleak picture. In the final analysis, mo' better is mo' bitter.
Jungle Fever plays out the same tired patterns, only the principal black woman character, Drew (Lonette McKee), is a combination of bitch/ho' and mammy/madonna. The film begins with scenes of lovemaking, where she is busy pleasuring her man. We see her later in the film cooking and cleaning. Even her job is mainly about looking good. Her most bitchified, 'intense' read of Flipper (Wesley Snipes) occurs when he comes to her workplace. As with all of Spike Lee's representations of black heterosexuality, men and women never really communicate. Portrayals of white female characters are equally stereotypical. They are sex objects, spoils in the war between white males and black males over which group will dominate the planet.
In Jungle Fever white and black women never meet, they exist in a world apart. This media construction is a fiction which belies the reality that the vast majority of working black women encounter white women daily on the job, encounters that are charged with tension, power struggles fueled by racism and sexism. These aspects of white and black female interactions are only hinted at in Jungle Fever in the one improvised scene where black women gather to discuss Drew's situation and their collective obsession with getting and keeping a man.
Within the cultural marketplace, Jungle Fever courted viewers by claiming to address the taboo subject of interracial sex and desire, highlighting black male interactions with white females. Despite the shallowness of the film, this focus drew crowds. Overall, however, the film had nothing new or revelatory to share about race, gender, or desire. No doubt the crowd-drawing appeal of such material accounts for the fact that Spike Lee's cinematic reconstruction of Malcolm X's life begins with a sorry remake of Jungle Fever. Anyone who has studied Malcolm X's life and work knows that no one has considered his involvement with white women as the high point of his career as small time pimp and hustler. Yet it is this involvement that most captures Spike's imagination, so much so that almost half of the film focuses on Malcolm's relationship with a white woman named Sophia.
The young Malcolm X was sexist and misogynist, and, in fact, made a point of treating women badly. Yet Lee ignores the sexism that shaped and determined Malcolm's attitude towards women and makes it appear that his lust for Sophia is solely a response to racism, that having the white man's woman is a way to rebel and assert power. Like the younger Malcolm, the real-life Sophia was a hustler, not the portrait of an innocent little girl trapped in a woman's body which Lee gives viewers. It was disturbing to see Lee's version of Malcolm's life begin with and focus centrally on his lust for white female bodies, but it was even more disturbing that this relationship was portrayed as yet another example of 'jungle fever.' Spike Lee refuses to allow for the possibility that there could be meaningful affectional ties between a black man and a white woman which transcend the sexual. The film does not show that Malcolm maintained contact with Sophia long after their sexual relationship ended. In Lee's version, relationships between black men and white women never transcend the sexual. Indeed, in Lee's cinematic world, every relationship between a black man and a woman, whether white or black, is mediated by his constant sexualization of the female.
Fictively recreating the relationship between Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz provided an opportunity for Spike Lee to bring to Hollywood cinema a different representation of black womanhood and black heterosexuality. Lee did not rise to the challenge. All his films show darker skinned men choosing lighter skinned black female partners. Malcolm X should have been different. By his choice as a fair-skinned black male of a darker skinned partner, Malcolm was disrupting a black politics of desire which reflected internalized racism. Rather than honoring through his representations the significance of this choice, Lee reinscribes the same color caste conventions he exploits in all his films. Though a madonna figure in Malcolm X, Shabazz is portrayed as an advocate of 'women's rights' challenging Malcolm's sexism and misogyny. This portrait falsely constructs an image of black womanhood that would not have been acceptable for female initiates in the Nation of Islam, who were taught not to be manipulative or seductive, to be obedient to male authority. Lee's fictive Shabazz seduces and traps. She 'reads' her man in the bitchified manner that is Lee's trademark representation of heterosexual black coupling. Even though the real-life Shabazz shared with her that she did not argue with Malcolm, no doubt because she was conforming to the Nation of Islam codes of behavior which were informed by sexist notions of appropriate female behavior, Lee's film portrays them as fighting. Indeed, the most intense scene in the film is their near violent argument. As with all good nanny/madonna figures, the fictional Shabazz fights with her man because she has his best interests at heart. This image is consistent with the way Spike Lee's films depict black marriage; couples are either fucking or fighting. Like other female characters in Malcolm X, Shabazz must be molded and shaped by Lee so that her character mirrors prevailing stereotypes. Lee's film conforms to racist/sexist iconography that depicts white women as innocent and therefore desirable and black woman as controlling-domineering therefore undesirable. Had Lee chosen to represent Shabazz as submissive, his film would have challenged Hollywood's stereotypical portrayal of black women as always domineering—or as always sexual.
One of the most serious gaps in Lee's fictive portrayal of Malcolm's life is the fictive erasure of Malcolm's half sister (whom he referred to as his sister), Ella Little. She is not present in the film and their relationship is never discussed by other characters. A major influence in Malcolm's life, Ella, along with their brother, Reginald, converted him to Islam, helped educate him for critical consciousness. By not portraying Ella or referring to her influence, Spike creates a fictive world of black heterosexuality in which all interaction between black women and men is overdetermined by sexuality, always negotiated by lust and desire. Conveniently, this allows the film to reinscribe and perpetually affirm male domination of females, making it appear natural.
By not portraying Ella, Lee is able to create a film that does not break with Hollywood conventions and stereotypes. In Hollywood films the super-masculine hero is most often portrayed as a loner, an outlaw, a cultural orphan estranged from family and society. To have shown the bonds between Ella and Malcolm which were sustained throughout his life, Lee would have needed both to break with Hollywood representations of the male hero as well as provide an image of black womanhood never before imagined on the Hollywood screen. The character of Ella would have been a powerful, politically conscious black woman who could not be portrayed as a sex object. Lee's portraits of black women in Malcolm X mirror the usual stereotypes found in films by white directors. Ella was radical in her thinking about blackness, more of a leader than a follower. To represent her fictively, Lee would have had to disrupt the fiction that politics is a male realm, that the fight to end racism is really a struggle between white and black men.
It reveals much about the nature of sexism and misogyny that the erased, symbolically murdered figure of Ella is replaced by a fictional, older black male character, Baines, who initiates Malcolm into the political realm. The invention of this make-believe character allows Lee to fictively create a hierarchical world of male power that conforms to popular, black nationalist, sexist insistence that males are best taught by males. Scenes of black male homosocial bonding in the prison context reaffirm the patriarchal assumption that it is only the actions of men that matter. This creates a version of black political struggle where the actions of dedicated, powerful, black female activists are systematically devalued and erased. By writing Ella out of Malcolm's history, Spike Lee continues Hollywood's devaluation of black womanhood.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1375
SOURCE: "A 'Whiteout': Malcolm X in South Africa," in The Journal of American History, Vol. 80, No. 3, December, 1993, pp. 1199-1201.
[In the following essay, Nasson discusses the reception of Lee's Malcolm X in South Africa.]
In Spike Lee's modest contribution to method writing, By Any Means Necessary, a high-octane account of the making of Malcolm X, we learn that on the Johannesburg shoot to capture Nelson Mandela as a Soweto teacher for the film's final clip, "there was a whiteout of our activities, like we were never there, according to the news organizations of South Africa." There is a nice whiff of radical audacity to this, but it is quite preposterous. With the shooting of Malcolm X no particular danger to the already crumbling fabric of South African society, white English-language papers took rather positive notice of filmmaker and subject. In fact, the only unsporting notes appeared in the country's leading liberal weekly, Johannesburg Weekly Mail, and in the black Johannesburg Sowetan. These reported grumbling amongst local black crew over working conditions under the visiting director, adoringly identified by his production assistant as "a brother who had come home to visit."
What have we here? What we have is not just a filmmaking chronicle that is somewhat economical with the truth, but a film with an equally rough-and-ready grasp of historical logic. Inserting Mandela into Malcolm X may have made it natural for the film to have its April 1993 South African premiere at the African National Congress (ANC) Culture and Development Conference. But the ANC president, with his multiracial populism, is surely not the most appropriate symbolic figure to link the legacy of black struggle in America associated with Malcolm X to black liberation politics in South Africa. The more obvious historical symbol is Steve Biko, murdered in security police detention in 1977. The martyred Biko was the best-known proponent of the separatist black consciousness that, in the 1960s and 1970s, drew a good measure of its intellectual, cultural, and political inspiration from the Black Power movement in the United States, with the contraband speeches and autobiography of Malcolm X then a prominent samizdat source. Still, Spike Lee's purpose is a "brothers-in-the-struggle" historical biography for the 1990s. After all, finding apt historical analogies can be complicated, if a little more even-handed toward both past and present.
With the current "rediscovery" of Malcolm X through this film, the brother has already been appropriated in some fairly novel South African ways, including the mock-heroic. Thus, the university teacher who heads a fringe Coloured National Liberation Front that seeks a post-apartheid transition to an autarkic homeland for people of mixed black and white ancestry has been dubbed "the Coloured People's answer to Malcolm X." Moreover, Chris Hani, the recently assassinated South African Communist party leader and ANC guerrilla commander, haunted several reviews of the movie as the embodiment of Malcolm X, in that "he died preaching peace," or owed his political consciousness in part to the African-American racial experience as articulated by Malcolm X, Huey Newton, and Stokely Carmichael. This last flatulence, aired by the ANC journal, Mayibuye, is silly.
Malcolm X is the third of Spike Lee's movies to be shown in desegregated South African cinemas. Do the Right Thing was favorably reviewed by liberal white critics, while screened mostly in cinemas in black areas. Similarly, Jungle Fever was acclaimed for its relevance "to life in a multiracial society such as ours" and was shown to mixed, middle-class cinema audiences mainly in white areas.
The ease with which these supposedly incendiary African-American films have been absorbed by South African political culture makes the reception of Malcolm X not just interesting, but intriguingly so. It is, for instance, mistaken to imagine that poor and marginalized township youths have swarmed into cinemas to view this brash portrait of black nationalism; inflated seat prices generally restrict movie going to the middle class and better-off working-class minority. There were, of course, black audiences. Promoted as a "civil rights" biography, Malcolm X saw service in fund-raising showings for ANC branches, community organizations, and both colored and African high schools. And despite tart criticism of Lee's historical representations of Islamic life from local Muslim publications, Malcolm X as El Hajj Malik El Shabazz had popular benefit screenings for Muslim educational and welfare projects. Yet, by and large, the commercial showings were to ethnically mixed audiences in mostly white venues. In short, actual viewing was a fairly low-key business. Attendance was accompanied by nothing like the boisterous black crowd activity that used to accompany South African screening of Scarface or El Cid in urban working class areas such as District Six in Cape Town during the peak 1930s-1960s decades of cheap cinema. Then, thanks to frenzied fans in surging ticket lines, Hollywood entertainments were an occasional threat to civic sobriety or even public order in white cities.
None of this is to suggest that Malcolm X failed, as Americans say, to go down big. None other than Betty Shabazz, Malcolm's widow, while on a promotional tout in South Africa, was warmly interviewed at peak time on the state-controlled South African Broadcasting Corporation. Breathless black and white journalists were assured of an ultimate common cause between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the history of America's antiracist struggle. The English-language white press heaped considerable praise on the production, typified by the headline "Lee's Winner." The national Sunday Times observed, "Whereas King offered his followers comfort and hope, Malcolm X offered anger and action." Indeed, major Afrikaans papers provided positive reviews, with the influential Cape Town newspaper, Die Burger, declaring Malcolm X the hero of young, black South Africa. But, whereas English reviews neatly assimilated Malcolm X to the nonracialism of South African political correctness, Afrikaner critics were less sanguine about the film's radical black nationalism, suggesting that its extremism could be likened to the current antiwhite rancor of the Pan-Africanist Congress, with its "One Settler, One Bullet" slogan.
On the left, the Socialist (affiliated with the International Socialist Organization, based in the United States) criticized Lee for muffling Malcolm's hostility to capitalism and for glossing over Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) meddling in Africa but praised the film's portrait "of a tradition of uncompromising black struggle." On the other hand, ANC-supporting black papers and periodicals, such as the Johannesburg New Nation, carried the black role-model image as a strong theme, with the consumerist Tribute peddling Malcolm X goods in its March issue; Denzel Washington adorned the cover over the slogan, "VOTE for a New Government."
But the popular story is not all glitter. One unifying thread in responses to Malcolm X was skepticism, ranging from mild to caustic, about Lee's handling of historical facts and contingencies. Another was that dragging in Mandela to signify global black struggle was labored or trite. A third, coming, ironically enough, from the Afrikaans magazine Vrye Weekblad, was annoyance at the idea of Malcolm X as a torchbearer for South African resistance, on the grounds that local liberation movements have no need of imported heroes. A final reaction was that the saintly iconography of X was ultimately merely another Hollywood marketing opportunity, what one perceptive critic called "buy any means necessary."
This year, for the first time, demonstrating black students at the liberal University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg have hoisted a banner or two declaring, "By any means necessary." Perhaps more important, though, are the larger and longer cultural connections, many of which are not so politically comprehending. After all, Malcolm X entered a country whose youth, predominantly black but including whites, are in abject enchantment with American popular culture, be it rap or the Raiders. And, predictably perhaps, the film may find its true niche as the ideological equivalent of Cabbage Patch Kids dolls. Black street stalls sell X clothing and caps, stores in largely white shopping malls stock X merchandise from local manufacturers—all invariably without any reference to the source. Numbers of college students are under the quaint impression that X is the New York Giants or Chicago White Sox logo. A final South African irony for Malcolm X, the movie, is that the symbol of an oppressed people that had forgotten its surname may already be on the way to losing its first name too.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4722
SOURCE: "Sorrowful Black Death Is Not a Hot Ticket," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 4, No. 8, August, 1994, pp. 10-14.
[In the following essay, hooks asserts that Lee's Crooklyn presents an "anti-woman, anti-feminist vision of black family life."]
Hollywood is not into plain old sorrowful death. The death that captures the public imagination in movies, the death that sells, is passionate, sexualised, glamorised and violent. Films like One False Move, True Romance, Reservoir Dogs, Menace II Society, A Perfect World bring us the sensational heat of relentless dying. It's fierce—intense—and there is no time to mourn. Dying that makes audiences contemplative, sad, mindful of the transitory nature of human life has little appeal. When portrayed in the contemporary Hollywood film, such deaths are swift, romanticised by soft lighting and elegiac soundtracks. The sights and sounds of death do not linger long enough to disturb the senses, to remind us in any way that sorrow for the dying may be sustained and unrelenting. When Hollywood films depict sorrowful death, audiences come prepared to cry. Films like Philadelphia advertise the pathos so that even before tickets are bought and seats are taken, everyone knows that tears are in order, but that the crying time will not last long.
The racial politics of Hollywood is such that there can be no serious representations of death and dying when the characters are African-Americans. Sorrowful black death is not a hot ticket. In the financially successful film The Bodyguard, the sister of Rachel Marron (Whitney Houston) is accidentally assassinated by the killer she has hired. There is no grief, no remembrance. In most Hollywood movies, black death is violent. It is often trivialised and mocked—as in that viciously homophobic moment in Menace II Society when a young black male crack addict holding a fast-food hamburger while seeking drugs tells the powerful drug dealer, "I'll suck your dick", only to be blown away for daring to suggest that the hard gangsta mack would be at all interested. Pleased with the killing, he laughingly offers the hamburger to onlookers, a gesture that defines the value of black life. It's worth nothing. It's dead meat.
Even black children cannot be spared Hollywood's cruelty. Audiences watching the film Paris Trout witness the prolonged, brutal slaughter of a gifted southern black girl by a powerful, sadistic, racist white man. The black males who are her relatives are depicted as utterly indifferent. Too cowardly to save or avenge her life, for a few coins they willingly show the lawyer who will defend her killer the blood stains left by her dragging body, the bullet holes in the walls. Her life is worth nothing.
Audiences are so accustomed to representations of the brutal death of black folks in Hollywood films that no one is outraged when our bodies are violently slaughtered. I could find no Hollywood movie where a white child is the object of a prolonged, brutal murder by a powerful white male—no image comparable to that of Paris Trout. Yet no group in the United States publicly protests against this image—even though the film is shown regularly on Home Box Office, reaching an audience far wider than the moviegoing public, finding its way into the intimate spaces of home life and the private world of family values. Apparently the graphic representation of the murder of a little black girl does not shock, does not engender grief or protest. There is collective cultural agreement that black death is inevitable, meaningless, not worth much. That there is nothing to mourn.
This is the culture Spike Lee confronts with his new film Crooklyn. On the surface, the movie appears to represent issues of death and dying in black life as though our survival matters, as though our living bodies count, yet in the end the usual Hollywood message about black death is reaffirmed. Lee has made a film that is both provocative and controversial. To introduce it to consumers who do not take black life seriously, advertisements give little indication of its content. Huge billboards tell consumers "The Smart Choice is Spike Lee's hilarious Crooklyn", suggesting that the film is a comedy. The seriousness of the subject matter must be downplayed, denied.
Expecting to see a comedy, moviegoers I talked to were not so much disappointed as puzzled by the fact that the comedic elements were overshadowed by the serious representation of a family in crisis that culminates with the mother's death. When the movie ended, the folks standing around the theatre in Greenwich Village were mostly saying: "It wasn't what I expected. It wasn't like his other films." But Crooklyn differs from Lee's previous work primarily because the major protagonist is a ten-year-old-girl, Troy (Zelda Harris). Positively radical in this regard—rarely do we see Hollywood films with black female stars, not to mention child stars—Crooklyn invites audiences to look at black experience through Troy's eyes, to enter the spaces of her emotional universe, the intimate world of family and friends that grounds her being and gives her life meaning.
Lee's magic as a film-maker has been best expressed by his construction of an aesthetic space wherein decolonised images (familiar representations of blackness that oppose racist stereotypes) are lovingly presented. But this radical intervention is most often framed by a conventional narrative and structure of representations that reinscribes stereotypical norms. The laughing darky family portrait that advertises Crooklyn is just one example. Moviegoers want to see this image rather than those that challenge it. This contradictory stance tends to undermine Lee's ability to subvert dominant representations of blackness. His radical images are usually overshadowed by stock characterisations and can be easily overlooked, particularly by audiences who are more accustomed to stereotypes. Even progressive, aware viewers may be so fascinated by the funky, funny 'otherness' of typical Spike Lee black images that they refuse to 'see' representations that challenge conventional ways of looking at blackness.
J. Hoberman's review of Crooklyn in Village Voice is a perfect example of the way our standpoint can determine how we see what we see. Hoberman did not see a film that highlights issues of death and dying—to his mind's eye, "the grittier specifics of the Lee family drama" are exemplified by arguments at family dinners and witty disagreements over television programmes. Indeed, he saw the movie as having "no particular plot"; never mentioning the mother's death, he did not see the film as constructing a context in which this event, more than any other, leads to a ten-year-old black girl's coming of age. Hoberman is more engaged with the comedic aspects of the film, especially those that centre on the eldest child in this family of four boys and one girl, Clinton (Carlton Williams), the character who most resembles Lee himself. Not unlike other moviegoers I talked to, Hoberman seems more fascinated with the antics of Spike Lee, controversial film-maker, than with the content of his film. By deflecting attention away from Crooklyn and on to Lee, Hoberman and others do not have to interrogate the film on its own terms. To do that would require looking at Crooklyn's treatment of death and dying, and the way this aspect of the film fails to excite and challenge our imagination.
Play and pleasure
Crooklyn is most compelling in those moments when it offers fictive representations of black subjectivity rarely seen in mainstream cinema, depictions that counter both racist stereotypes and facile notions of positive images. The property-owning, artistic, progressive 70s black family portrayed is one that dares to be different. The Carmichaels in no way represent the conventional black bourgeoisie: they are not obsessed with being upwardly mobile, with the material trappings of success. Counter-cultural—a mixture of the nationalist movement for racial uplift and a bohemian artistic subculture—they represent an alternative to the bourgeois norm.
The father Woody (Delroy Lindo) is an aspiring jazz musician and composer, the mother Carolyn (Alfre Woodard) a non-traditional schoolteacher. Their five children are all encouraged by progressive, hands-off parenting to be individuals with their own interests, passions and obsessions. These are not your average kids: they take a democratic vote to see which television show will be watched and are made to participate equally in household chores. Though black nationalist thinking shapes the family politics, the world they live in is multicultural and multi-ethnic—Italians, Latinos, gays and straights, young and old, the haves and have nots are all part of the mix. This is the world of cultural hybridity and border crossing extolled by progressive contemporary critics. And much of the film depicts that world 'as is', not framed by the will to present images that are artificially positive or unduly negative.
Beginning in the style of a fictive documentary (enhanced initially by the cinematography of Arthur Jafa), the film's opening scene offers a panorama of visual images of black community that disrupts prevailing one-dimensional portrayals of urban black life. Highlighting scenes of play and pleasure, the beauty of black bodies, the faces of children and old men, we see joy in living as opposed to the usual depictions of racial dehumanisation and deprivation. These representations signal heightened creativity, an unbridled imagination that creates splendour in a world of lack, that makes elegance and grace so common a part of the everyday as to render them regular expressions of natural communion with the universe.
Northerners in drag
This opening sequence acts like a phototext, calling us to be resisting readers able to embrace a vision of blackness that challenges the norm. Lee engages a politics of representation which cultural critic Saidiya Hartman describes in 'Roots and Romance', an essay on black photography, as "a critical labor of reconstruction". She explains: "It is a resolutely counterhegemonic labor that has as its aim the establishment of other standards of aesthetic value and visual possibility. The intention of the work is corrective representation." At rare moments through the film this strategy is realised. And it is marvellous to follow where the camera leads—to catch sight of such empowering images. Seduced by this initial moment of radical intervention—by the way it shifts paradigms and requires new ways of seeing—the enthralled viewer can sit in a daze of delight through the rest of the movie, failing to experience how the cinematic direction and narrative structure counteract the initial subversive representations.
A distinction must be made between oppositional representations and romantically glorifying images of blackness which white supremacist thinking as it informs movie-making may have rendered invisible. Visibility does not mean that images are inherently radical or progressive. Hartman urges cultural critics to interrogate this distinction, to ask necessary questions: "Simply put, how are redemptive narratives of blackness shaped and informed by romantic racialism, the pastoral and sentimental representation of black life? How is the discourse of black cultural authenticity and Afrocentrism shaped and informed by this construction of Africanism and do they too maintain and normalise white cultural hegemony?" Crooklyn is offered as a redemptive narrative. The counterhegemonic images we see at the beginning serve to mask all that is 'wrong' with this picture.
From the moment we encounter the Carmichaels at their dinner table, we are offered a non-critical representation of their family life. Shot like docu-drama, these early scenes appear innocent and neutral; the ethnographic day-in-a-life style of presentation demands that the viewer see nothing wrong with this picture. The camera aggressively normalises. These family scenes are presented unproblematically and so appear to be positive representations, fulfilling Lee's quest to bring to the big screen 'authentic' black aesthetic subjects.
Since Spike Lee's cinematic genius is best revealed during those moments when he documents familiar aspects of a rich black cultural legacy wherein collective internal codes and references that may or may not be known to outsiders converge, it is easy to overlook the fact that these counterhegemonic representations are constantly countered in his work by stock stereotypical images. When these are coupled with Lee's use of 'animal house' type humour appropriated from mainstream white culture, a carnivalesque atmosphere emerges that seems directed towards mainstream, largely white, viewers. This cultural borrowing, which gives the movie cross-over appeal, is most evident in the scenes where Troy travels south to stay with relatives in a Virginia suburb. Though the cinematography didactically demands that the audience detach from a notion of the 'real' and engage the 'ridiculous and absurd', these scenes appear stupid, especially the mysterious, not really comical, death of the pet dog Troy's aunt dotes on. Lee works overtime to create a comedic atmosphere to contrast with the seriousness of the Carmichael household, but it does not work; the switch to an anamorphic lens confuses (no doubt that is why signs were placed at ticket booths telling viewers that this change did not indicate a problem with the projector). In these scenes Lee mockingly caricatures the southern black middle class (who appear more like northerners in drag doing the classic Hollywood comedic rendition of southern life). Lee gives it to us in black face. It is predictable and you can't wait to return home to the Carmichael family. However, while he strategically constructs images to normalise the dysfunctions of the Carmichael family, he insists on making this family pathological. This attempt at counterhegemonic representation fails.
Anyone who sees the Carmichael family without the rosecoloured glasses the film offers will realise that they are seriously dysfunctional. The recurrent eating disorders (one of the children is coercively forced by verbal harassment to eat to the point where on one occasion he vomits in his plate); an excessive addiction to sugar (dad's pouring half a bag of the white stuff into a pitcher of lemonade, his cake and ice-cream forays, his candy-buying all hint that he may be addicted to more than sugar, though he is not overtly shown to be a drug-user); the lack of economic stability, signified by the absence of money for food choice, shutting off the electricity, as well as dad's mismanagement of funds, are all indications that there are serious problems. By normalising the family image, Lee refuses to engage with the issue of psychological abuse; all interactions are made to appear natural, ordinary, comedic, not tragic. The autobiographical roots of Crooklyn may account for Lee's inability to take any stance other than that of 'objective' reporter; working with a screenplay written collaboratively with his sister Joie and brother Cinqué, he may have felt the need to distance himself from the material. Certainly emotional detachment characterises the interaction between family members in the film.
Joie Lee stated that to write the screenplay she "drew from the few memories I have of my mother", who died of cancer when she was 14. Yet the children in Crooklyn are much younger than this and are clearly deeply ambivalent about their mother. Portrayed as a modern-day Sapphire with direct lineage to the Amos n'Andy character, Carolyn responds to economic crisis by constantly nagging and erupting into irrational states of anger and outrage that lead her to be mean and at times abusive. Even though the problems the family faces are caused by Woody's unemployment, he is depicted compassionately—an aspiring artist who just wants to be left alone to compose music, always laid-back and calm.
Sexist/racist stereotypes of gender identity in black experience are evident in the construction of these two characters. Although Carolyn is glamorous, beautiful in her Afrocentric style, she is portrayed as a bitch goddess. Her physical allure seduces, even as her unpredictable rage alienates. In keeping with sexist stereotypes of the emasculating black matriarch, Carolyn usurps her husband's authority by insisting that as the primary breadwinner she has the right to dominate, shaming Woody in front of the children. These aspects encourage us to see her unsympathetically and to empathise with him. His irresponsibility and misuse of resources is given legitimacy by the suggestion that his is an artistic, non-patriarchal mindset; he cannot be held accountable. Since Carolyn's rage is often over-reactive, it is easy to forget that she has concrete reasons to be angry. Portrayed as vengeful, anti-pleasure, dangerous and threatening, her moments of tenderness are not sustained enough to counter the negatives. Even her sweetness is depicted as manipulative, whereas Woody's 'sweet' demeanour is a mark of his artistic sensibility, one that enhances his value.
As the artist, he embodies the pleasure principle, the will to transgress. His mild-mannered response to life is infinitely more compelling than the work-hard-to-meet-your-responsibilities ethic by which Carolyn lives. Being responsible seems to make her 'crazy'. In one scene the children are watching a basketball game when she encourages them to turn off the television to do schoolwork. They refuse to obey and she goes berserk. Woody intervenes, not to offer reinforcement, but rather to take sides. Carolyn becomes the bad guy, who wants to curtail the children's freedom to indulge in pleasure without responsibility. Woody responds to her rage by being physically coercive. Domestic violence in black life is sugarcoated—portrayed as a family affair, one where there are no victims or abusers. In fact, Carolyn has been humiliated and physically assaulted. But her demand that Woody leave makes him appear the victim and the children first attend to him, pleading with him not to go. Her pain is unattended by her male children; it is Troy who assumes the traditional feminine role of caretaker.
In contrast to Carolyn, the ten-year-old Troy is concerned with traditional notions of womanhood. Her mother expresses rage at not being able to "take a piss without six people hanging off my tits", repudiating sexist thinking about the woman's role. Flirtatious and cute, Troy manipulates with practised charm. It is she who advises her dad to take Carolyn on a date to make up. Troy embodies all the desirable elements of sexist-defined femininity. Indeed, it is her capacity to escape into a world of romantic fantasy that makes her and everyone else ignore her internal anguish. When she lies, steals and cheats, her acts of defiance have no consequences. As the little princess, she has privileges denied her brothers; when her mother is sick, it is only Troy who is sheltered from this painful reality and sent down south.
In the home of her southern relatives, Troy meets a fairskinned cousin who is portrayed as conventionally feminine in her concerns, though she is eager to bond with her guest. By contrast Troy assumes a 'bitchified role'. She is hostile, suspicious, until charmed. Representing the light-skinned female as 'good' and Troy as 'bad', Crooklyn, like all Lee's films, perpetuates stereotypes of darker-skinned females as evil. While her cousin is loving, Troy is narcissistic and indifferent. When she decides to return home, it is her cousin who runs alongside the car that carries Troy away, waving tenderly, while Troy appears unconcerned. This encounter prepares us for her transformation from princess to minimatriarch.
Taken to the hospital to see her mother, Troy is given instructions as to how she must assume the caretaker role. Contemporary feminist thinkers are calling attention to girlhood as a time when females have access to greater power than that offered us in womanhood. No one in the film is concerned about the loss of Troy's girlhood, though her brothers remain free to maintain their spirit of play. Clinton, the eldest boy, does not have to relinquish his passion for sports to become responsible; he can still be a child. But becoming a mini-matriarch because her mother is sick and dying requires of Troy that she relinquish all concern with pleasure and play, that she repress desire. Sexist/racist thinking about black female identity leads to cultural acceptance of the exploitation and denigration of black girlhood. Commenting on the way black girls are often forced to assume adult roles in In the Company of My Sisters: Black Women and Self-Esteem, Julia Boyd asserts: "Without fully understanding the adult tasks we were expected to perform, we filled shoes that were much too big for our small feet. Again, we did not have a choice and we weren't allowed to experience the full developmental process of girlhood." Lee romanticises this violation by making it appear a 'natural' progression for Troy rather than sexist gender politics coercively imposing a matriarchal role via a process of socialisation.
Carolyn did not make gender distinctions about household chores when she was well, and the movie fails to indicate why she now has an unconvincing shift in attitude. As if to highlight patriarchal thinking that females are interchangeable, undifferentiated, the film in no way suggests that there is anything wrong with a ten-year-old girl assuming an adult role. Indeed, this is affirmed, and the mother's dying is upstaged by the passing of the torch to Troy. The seriousness of her illness is announced to the children by their father, who commands them to turn away from their gleeful watching of Soul Train to hear the news (even in her absence, the mother/matriarch spoils their pleasure). Throughout Crooklyn Lee shows the importance of television in shaping the children's identities, their sense of self. While the boys panic emotionally when they hear the news, bursting into tears, Troy's feelings are hidden by a mask of indifference. That the children obey their father in their mother's absence (not complaining when he tells them to turn off the television) suggests that he is better able to assume an authoritative parental role when she is no longer present. Woody's transformation into a responsible adult reinscribes the sexist/racist thinking that the presence of a 'strong' black female emasculates the male. Carolyn's death is treated in a matter-of-fact manner; we learn about it as the children casually discuss the funeral. We never see the family grieve. Troy, who is emotionally numb, only confronts the reality of this death when she is jolted from sleep by what she imagines is her mother's raging voice. Bonding with her father in the kitchen, her suppressed grief does not unleash tears; instead she vomits. This ritual cathartic cleansing is the rite of passage that signals her movement away from girlhood.
Taking her mother's place, Troy is no longer adventurous. She no longer roams the streets, discovering, but is bound to the house, to domestic life. While the male children and grown-up dad continue to lead autonomous lives, to express their creativity and will to explore, Troy is confined, her creativity stifled. Since she is always and only a mother substitute, her power is more symbolic than real. We see her tending to the needs of her brothers, being the 'little woman'. Gone is the vulnerable, emotionally open girl who expressed a range of feelings; in her place is a hard impenetrable mask. Just as no one mourns the mother's death, no one mourns the erasure of Troy's adolescence. In their book Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girls, Myra and David Sadker document the pervasiveness of a "curricular sexism" that turns girls into "spectators instead of players". Troy becomes a spectator, standing behind the gate looking out at life, a stern expression on her face.
Though dead, Carolyn reappears to reassure and affirm her daughter. This reappearance is yet another rejection of loss. The controlling, dominating mother remains present even when dead, visible only to her girl child, now the guardian of patriarchy who gives approval to Troy's subjugation. Powerful black mothers, who work outside the home, the film suggests, 'fail' their families. Their punishment is death. When she is dying Carolyn gives lessons in sexism to her daughter in a way that runs counter to the values she has expressed throughout the film (she does, however, encourage her daughter to think about a work future, if only because it is her own career that ensured the family's economic survival).
The Sadkers conclude their introductory chapter, which exposes the way sexist socialisation robs girls of their potential, with a section called 'Silent Losses' that ends with the declaration: "If the cure for cancer is forming in the mind of one of our daughters, it is less likely to become a reality than if it is forming in the mind of one of our sons." Whereas Crooklyn attempts to counter racist assumptions about black identity, it upholds sexist and misogynist thinking about gender roles. Order is restored in the Carmichael house when the dominating mother-figure dies. The emergence of patriarchy is celebrated, marked by the subjugating of Troy, and all the household's problems 'magically' disappear. Life not only goes on without the matriarch, but is more harmonious.
Crooklyn constructs a redemptive fictive narrative for black life where the subjugation of the black female body is celebrated as a rite of passage which is restorative, which ensures family survival. Whether it is the grown woman's body erased by death or the little girl's body erased by violent interruption of her girlhood, the sexist politics embedded in this movie has often gone unnoticed by viewers whose attention is riveted by the exploits of the male characters. In failing to identify with the female characters or to bring any critical perspective to these representations, audiences tacitly condone the patriarchal devaluation and erasure of rebellious black female subjectivity the film depicts. Oppositional representations of blackness deflect attention away from the sexist politics that surfaces when race and gender converge. The naturalistic style of Crooklyn gives the sense of life-as-is rather than life as fictive construction.
Lee is indeed fictively re-imagining the 70s in this film and not merely providing a nostalgic portrait of the way things were. In his ahistorical narrative there is no meaningful convergence of black liberation and feminist politics, whereas in reality black women active in nationalist black power groups were challenging sexism and insisting on a feminist agenda. In Crooklyn Lee's aggressively masculinist vision is diffused by excessive sentimentality and by the use of Troy as the central embodiment of his message. Writing about the dangers that arise when excessive emotionality is used as a cover-up for a different agenda, James Baldwin reminds us that: "Sentimentality is the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion. It is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel." Such emotional dishonesty emerges full force in Crooklyn. The focus on Troy's coming of age and her mother's death is a non-threatening cover for the more insidious anti-woman, anti-feminist vision of black family life that is the film's dominant theme.
It is used to mask the repressive patriarchal valorisation of black family life, in which the reinscription of sexist idealised femininity symbolically rescues the family from dissolution. Death and dying are merely a subtext in Crooklyn, a diversionary ploy that creates a passive emotional backdrop on to which Lee imposes a vision of the black family that is conservative and in no way opposed to the beliefs of white mainstream culture. The aspects of the film that are rooted in Lee's own life-story are the most interesting; it is when he exploits those memories to create a counter-worldview that will advance patriarchal thinking that the narrative loses its appeal.
Testifying that writing this script was cathartic, that it enabled her to confront the past, Joie Lee declares: "The emotional things that happen to you as a child, they're timeless, they stay with you until you deal with them. I definitely cleaned up some areas in my life that I hadn't dealt with before—like death." But the film Spike Lee has made does not confront death. In Crooklyn, death and dying are realities males escape from. There is no redemptive healing of a gendered split between mind and body; instead, Crooklyn echoes the patriarchal vision celebrated in Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death, where the hope is that "unrepressed man" "would be rid of the nightmares … haunting civilization" and that "freedom from those fantasies would also mean freedom from that disorder in the human body."
The messiness of death is women's work in Crooklyn. Expressing creativity, engaging pleasure and play is the way men escape from the reality of death and dying. In the space of imaginative fantasy, Lee can resurrect the dead female mothering body and create a world where there is never any need to confront the limitations of the flesh and therefore no place for loss. In such a world there is no need for grief, since death has no meaning.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 835
SOURCE: A review of Crooklyn, in Sight and Sound, December, 1994, pp. 44-5.
[In the following review, Dargis praises Lee's Crooklyn citing the camera work, the music, and the fact that the film is presented through the eyes of a nine-year-old African-American girl.]
For a number of years now, Spike Lee has made more of a name for himself as an ideologue and entrepreneur than as a film-maker. Although he's one of the busiest of directors—six features, in addition to TV commercials, music videos, a production company, a record business, retail stores—his off-screen words and deeds have often commanded as much if not more attention than his work in film. Whatever the personal gain, Lee's extra-curricular activities have cost him dearly. Acclaimed by the black community (at least publicly), patronised, condemned and fetishised by the white media, the artist has been swamped by his own creation, a phenomenon otherwise known as Spike Lee.
Crooklyn is Lee's most personal work since his startling debut eight years ago with She's Gotta Have It, and decidedly his best to date. The semi-autobiographical film, which Lee co-wrote with his sister Joie and younger brother Cinqué, traces the emotional arc of the fictional Carmichael family over a few crucial months dúring the early 70s, a sentimental interlude that closes in tragedy. Amy Taubin has called the film "operatic", and it's not for nothing that in one scene the clan's patriarch and resident tortured artist Woody proclaims that he's writing a folk opera. Some 20 years after the fact, Lee has done just that.
Woody is a purist under siege. A composer and jazz musician, he's pressured by his wife Carolyn to compromise his art to put food on the table. Although clearly adoring, Carolyn is weary of playing the heavy for both her kids and husband. When Woody complains about her lack of support (he's just bounced his fifth cheque of the month), she reacts with fury, storming, "I can't even take a piss without six people hanging off my tits," and pointedly counting him into the equation.
Bristling with passion, Carolyn is by turns nurturing and punishing, a woman whose frustrations with her family are tempered by overwhelming love. She's also Lee's most complicated female character since his first feature, and her eventual departure goes a long way toward explaining the general failings of his other cinematic women. While Woody sneaks the kids sweets and spins out promises, Carolyn is the one who rises at dawn, conjures the meals, and does time from nine to five. Tougher than Woody, and demonstrably less sympathetic, she's the only parent who's keeping it together.
For all that Crooklyn is a family melodrama, nearly as much time is devoted to the outside action as that rolling about inside the Carmichael brownstone. Lee launches his film with one of his characteristic flourishes, the camera sweeping over a riot of sounds and images, rushing to keep pace with all the children running, jumping and hurtling through these less than mean streets. This is Brooklyn as it used to be, a place where gossiping neighbours outnumber jiving glue sniffers, and racial unease simmers but rarely burns. More to the point, this is Brooklyn as remembered by its children.
One of the remarkable things about this remarkable film is that much of it is seen though the eyes of a nine-year-old African American girl. Troy is both the film's conduit and its wellspring, the one for whom the world either slows down to a sensuous crawl, or squeezes together for a surreal kink. Devoted to her mother, enamoured with her daddy, Troy's gender makes her an outsider within the litter as well as, the script suggests, a keener witness to the family romance. For all that the boys of the Carmichael Five struggle to rock their world, it's Troy who signifies the loudest.
Shaped more by sensation than by narrative thrust, Crooklyn unfolds through a succession of shifting scenes, some little more than snapshots. With one striking exception (Troy's trip south, a sequence lasting roughly 20 minutes and related entirely through the use of an anamorphic lens), the mood is familiar, intimate, soulful. Arthur Jafa's camera keeps close to characters but doesn't crowd them, while the extraordinary soundtrack, as lush as that in GoodFellas, eases everyone on their way.
The original definition of melodrama is drama with music, and there's scarcely a moment in Crooklyn that isn't punctuated by either Terence Blanchard's plangent score or the wild style of over three dozen hot licks, pop hits, ballads, lamentations and sundry witless ditties. As much as the dialogue or lighting, it's music that shapes the film, filling in texture and building density. From Curtis Mayfield to the Partridge Family, the Carmichaels are awash in music, a fact that has as much to do with Woody's calling as with the cultural moment in which the director himself came of age. Long before he found his voice in film, Lee had discovered the pulse and pleasures of Brooklyn, New York.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1127
SOURCE: A review of Clockers, in Sight and Sound, October, 1995, p. 45.
[In the following review, Taubin asserts that "In terms of form and content [Clockers is] easily Lee's riskiest and most accomplished film to date," but argues that the film does have flaws.]
In a drug-ridden Brooklyn housing project, Strike is a 16-year-old-clocker (lowest level drug dealer). Troubled by ulcers so severe they cause him to spit blood, he is nevertheless the favourite of Rodney Little, the local crack kingpin. Rodney asks Strike to prove his loyalty by killing Darryl, a young pusher that Rodney claims has been cheating him.
Strike heads for Ahab's, a fast food joint where Darryl does his dealing. Trying to work up his nerve, he goes to the bar next door where he meets his older brother Victor, a model African-American citizen. Strike babbles some story about how Darryl deserves to die because he beat up a 14-year-old girl. When Victor says that he might know someone who could kill Darryl, Strike realises that his brother is drunk and splits. A short while later, someone pumps four bullets into Darryl.
The next day, Victor turns himself in, claiming he killed Darryl in self-defence. Veteran homicide detective Rocco Klein thinks Victor is protecting Strike. Rocco begins pursuing Strike with a vengeance. For Strike, Rocco is one too many among the people—narcotics cops, his mother, local black cop Andre and bright, idolising 12-year-old Tyrone—who hassle him on a daily basis. Rocco arrests Rodney, suggesting that it's Strike who ratted on him. Strike realises he'd better get out of town. While packing his gear, he realises his gun is missing. He gives Victor's wife the money for Victor's bail but Strike's mother refuses to make peace with him.
Errol, a stone killer in the last stages of AIDS dementia and Rodney's right hand man, comes gunning for Strike. Tyrone sees him before Strike does, pulls out the gun he's 'borrowed' from Strike and shoots Errol dead. At the police station, Andre begs Rocco to help Tyrone get off with a minimum sentence. He then beats up Strike for getting Tyrone involved. Strike barely makes it back to his car when he spots Rodney coming after him. He takes refuge in the police station where Rocco presses him to confess to murdering Darryl. Suddenly, Strike's mother appears and tells Rocco that Victor came home that night acting crazy and that his story is true. Strike is set free but, finding his car has been trashed by Rodney, he leaves on a train heading west.
Adapted from the Richard Price novel of the same name, Spike Lee's Clockers is about black-on-black violence. Lee shifts the focus from Price's central character Rocco Klein (a middle-aged white cop having an identity crisis) to Strike, the African-American teenage crack dealer who makes what he believes is a rational choice—to earn his living selling a product people want even though it kills them—and finds himself torn apart by the violence of the drug world and the unexpected revolt of his own conscience. The film shows that there are no positive choices for black men born into the underclass. Attempting to live an upstanding life, Strike's brother Victor is also driven crazy.
Clockers opens with a title sequence that's bravura even for Lee. The camera travels over a succession of grisly police photos of murder scenes—black male bodies torn apart by bullets. Behind a yellow police tape, crowds of black faces watch a nightly spectacle of bloodletting that's both too immediate and too removed to be comprehensible. At once didactic and operatic, this opening positions us for the film that follows. What's most startling about Clockers is its intimacy. Lee puts us inside the skin of a kid who seems morally reprehensible at the outset, making the agony of his experience inescapable.
Lee's choice of camera placement and movement has never been more brilliant. The camera's erratic rhythms and circular patterns articulate the extreme confinement of Strike's world and his panicky sense of being held in a vice. Similarly, the narrative, though dense with incident, seems to turn in on itself, covering the same ground over and over again. Everything in Strike's world—the repetitive riffs of rap music, the claustrophobic space of video games, his fetishised electric trains that circle a single track even as they testify to the existence of unknown and distant places—reinforces the feeling of confinement.
Given everything that comes before it, the final sequence—Strike's face pressed against the train window as it crosses a desert landscape that must seem to him as vast and charged with possibility as outer space—is, for a moment, wildly liberating. But Lee undercuts this feeling with a cutaway to one of Strike's crew, lying dead in a pool of blood on the concrete platform where we first saw Strike. Already the crowd is gathering around the corpse. Strike has escaped but he carries his past with him. Given what we know of American society today, why would we think there's place for him that's different from where he's been?
In terms of form and content easily Lee's riskiest and most accomplished film to date, Clockers is not without its flaws. In focusing so much on Strike, Lee makes the other characters one-dimensional. Newcomer Mekhi Phifer makes an amazing Strike, so much like an ordinary kid it's hard to remember that he's acting. Yet such extraordinary actors as Isaiah Washington, Delroy Lindo, Harvey Keitel and John Turturro are strait-jacketed by the script and direction.
Lee encourages cinematographer Malik Sayeed to extend the experiments with the cutting together of various types of film stock begun by Arthur Jaffa in Lee's Crooklyn. Sometimes this method yields expressive results, as in the flashback sequences which have the texture of over-saturated 16mm Kodachrome. Just as often, the effect is purely decorative, as in the burnt-up look of the police interrogation scenes which seem borrowed from Oliver Stone's J.F.K.
The director's most serious mistake, however, is to toy with a whodunnit structure until the climactic and hopelessly stagy interrogation of Strike by Rocco reveals the truth about Darryl's death. Viewers who have read the novel will know that Strike is not a murderer (Price puts that issue to rest early on in his narrative) but newcomers will be led down paths that are irrelevant, if not downright destructive, to the sense of subjectivity that Lee wants to convey.
With the mystery out of the way, the film seems infinitely more powerful on the second viewing, and even more so on the third. Desolate, hallucinatory and fearlessly heartfelt, it is the 'hood movie to end all 'hood movies. In its violence, there is neither glamour, nor pleasure, nor release.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1422
SOURCE: A review of Girl 6, in Sight and Sound, June, 1996, pp. 43-4.
[In the following review, Felperin analyzes Lee's Girl 6 as a response to criticism of Lee's treatment of female characters and in terms of its relationship to his earlier film She's Gotta Have It.]
New York City. The present. A young actress goes for an audition with a famous director, but when he insists she take her top off, she walks out, upset and humiliated. Her agent is furious with her, but her upstairs neighbour, Jimmy, offers sympathy. Fed up with low-paying jobs, she speaks to a woman who runs a 'phone-sex' business, but because she hasn't got her own line she has to look elsewhere for work. Eventually, she lands a job doing phone sex at an office-based company, where she is trained by supervisor Lil, introduced to her co-workers and renamed Girl 6.
Before long, Girl 6 is drawing in regular customers and proving to be highly proficient at her new career. One night she sees a news report about a little girl, named Angela King, who has been injured falling down a lift shaft and the news story of her recovery is tracked closely by her. At work, Girl 6 starts to get disturbing phone calls from Mr Snuff, a client who likes to talk about his sadistic fantasies. Girl 6 agrees to meet a client she likes but is stood up by him. She meets with her ex-husband and demonstrates how she talks on the phone but she refuses his sexual advances.
Getting too involved with her work, Girl 6 starts to have a breakdown. Lil recommends she take some time off. Through the agency of the woman she met earlier, Girl 6 sets up business at home. However, after an especially disturbing phone call from Mr Snuff who reveals that he knows where she lives, Girl 6 decides to quit working in phone sex and move to California to resume her acting career. She gives some money to Angela King and says goodbye to her ex-husband, who calls her by her real name, Judy. In California, Judy goes for a reading with a director who asks her to take her top off. She refuses and calmly walks out, but not before she finishes giving the monologue she started during the first reading at the beginning of the film.
Girl 6 opens with it's unnamed heroine trying out for a part by reciting a monologue which originally opened director Spike Lee's first feature, She's Gotta Have It. In the speech, Nola Darling explains that she only agreed to take part in this film because she wishes to "defend herself" in the face of others' distortions. The defensive note is significant. It's an obvious in-joke, but on a brute level of realism, it's not inconceivable that an aspiring black actress would audition with these lines. (As the film points out, there are precious few good parts written for black women.)
On another level though, Lee alludes here to his earlier film because Girl 6 seems to constitute a response to a persistent criticism levelled at him—that he doesn't pay enough attention to black women's experiences. Through this monologue, Lee reminds us that not only has he explored this territory before, but also he declaims his intention to go further this time. In other words, for Lee, Nola Darling in She's Gotta Have It was the audition, while this is the 'real thing'.
Yet, despite their dissimilar plots and the fact that the screenplay for Girl 6 was written by Suzan-Lori Parks, the two films seem to be in some kind of dialogue with one another. Where She's Gotta Have It concerned Nola's refusal to settle for one man in favour of sexual freedom, Girl 6 features a largely celibate central character, but one no less interested in being in control of the sexual relationships, conducted almost entirely over the phone, that she is involved in.
An adventurous inclination to explore unconventional visual styles is displayed in both films: She's Gotta Have It had its documentary, to-camera scenes, while Girl 6 features odd pastiches of older black genres and texts, including Carmen Jones, blaxploitation films and The Jeffersons, (none of which further the plot but are rather fun). Within both films, the central characters act as screens on which other characters project idealised notions of femininity. This is very effectively figured in Girl 6 when, during the course of a single conversation, the protagonist changes with the flick of an edit into all the different guises—blonde bimbo, afro-haired 70s chick, smooth besuited lady—we've already seen her as throughout the film. Both women are presented as strong and attractive, empowered by their sexuality, yet limits are brutally imposed on them by their respective narratives. Crucial to both films is the moment when their respective characters lose control: Nola eventually decides to settle down with Jamie only after he rapes her, while Girl 6 chooses to abandon phone sex when Mr Snuff, the sadistic client, gets literally too close for comfort.
This last plot twist in Girl 6 symbolises one of the film's major problems—it can't seem to make up its mind what it thinks of phone sex. It starts out by appearing to celebrate it by making the office Girl 6 works in a happy, matriarchal utopia, offering kindly lady bosses and sisterly colleagues, good money and a measure of sexual liberation. Then, just when Girl 6 seems to have become a success at it, she's shown to have become "too close" to the job, goes a little off her head and eventually chooses to reject it. In the end, she gives away most of the money she's earned to a little girl damaged in a lift-shaft accident, a plummeting downwards that is explicitly matched with Girl 6's descent into the world of phone sex. The result is not complexity and productive ambivalence, but just a sense of bafflement as to what point the filmmakers are trying to make.
A similar feeling of perplexity is produced by the film's capricious games with realism and fantasy. I have already mentioned the film's odd pastiche interludes, but the most puzzling thing about them is that you have no idea whether these are meant to be Girl 6's own fantasies or her customers', or filmic non sequiturs tied to no one's consciousness in particular. The third option is that they are meant to work as Brechtian distanciation devices. In that case, they are certainly effective frustrations to involvement, working well with the distancing apparatus of phone sex itself.
Girl 6 is shot in such a highly expressionist manner anyway—cinematographer Malik Hassan Sayeed uses a rich palette of hot reds and electric blues and features many striking tracking shots and other lovely visual flourishes—that one starts to wonder whether this all might be a fantasy. This feeling is particularly acute when weird things happen in the 'real' world of the story, such as telephones raining down from the sky when Girl 6 kisses her ex goodbye. A similar disjunctiveness is achieved by the use of largely old songs by the artist formerly known as Prince while, though evocative, often bear no lyrical relation to the action on screen.
At one point, Mr Snuff mentions that he saw an Oprah Winfrey programme about phone sex and that it revealed that most the women who worked the lines were "ugly". Even though his remark is meant to reflect his misogyny, it does make you think about how phoney this version of phone sex work we've seen so far probably is, featuring a cast of almost all beautiful girls, including Naomi Campbell, Debi Mazar and Madonna as Boss 3. The reality is probably much closer to the conditions shown in Short Cuts, where poor working-class women in K-Mart clothes jiggle babies on their knees or cut their toe nails at home while lazily describing blow jobs over the phone.
In the end, you get the impression that Lee wants to acquire a few feminists credentials and eat his cheesecake too. When She's Gotta Have It was originally released, many critics and viewers felt thrilled by its energy and visual inventiveness, but its treatment of women, especially given its rape scene, divided many viewers. Girl 6 is equally as inventive, comes with many amusing moments and a fine central performance (in a sketchy role) by the protean Theresa Randle. However, its script is much weaker than its direction, and ultimately it is a poor defence against the accusations about Lee's clumsy handling of female characters that are obliquely invoked in its opening monologue.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3432
SOURCE: "Spike Lee and the American Tradition," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 1, 1996, pp. 26-31.
[In the following review, Lindroth discusses Lee's Do the Right Thing as an American narrative in the tradition of Huckleberry Finn.]
From the moment it opened, Spike Lee's movie Do the Right Thing has raised questions and aroused controversy among critics and ordinary moviegoers alike. From its initial success at the Cannes Film Festival to its almost complete exclusion from the Academy Award nominations, the film has provoked heated response from both defenders and attackers, and publications as disparate as Vogue, The New Yorker, American Film, and Mother Jones reviewed, interviewed, and often second-guessed Lee. The film was praised for its "unclichéd, antiheroic vision of … contemporary racial tension," and for "asking questions about the country's racial chasm that few artists, or even political leaders, are willing to broach." So much of the focus has been on the political message of the film, however, that much of its real artistry, and nearly all of its relevance to the tradition of American literature as a whole, has been overlooked. Even a review that considered it necessary viewing, for example, praising its "easy, colloquial vivacity" and "sensational look," also dismissed most of its characters as being "there to represent something or to move the plot along" and complained that its style is a "belligerent, in-your-face mode of discourse" that "winds up bullying the audience." In focusing on the message and condescending to the style, The New Yorker critic, like many others, missed much of the movie's power and most of its subtle, apparently offhand artistry.
Viewed more analytically, Do the Right Thing is a worthy addition to a central tradition of American literature, the tradition dealing with difficult moral choices. While Lee does not dwell on the fact, his characters occupy the same moral landscape that American heroes from Natty Bumppo to Huck Finn have always occupied. Faced squarely with moral choice, the American hero has always tried to "do the right thing," and has usually succeeded. Lee's movie is a particularly somber entry in this tradition, however. Despite its deceptively simple title—what could be easier than doing the right thing?—the events of the movie suggest that, in the modern world, it may no longer be possible to make the right choice, no longer possible to recognize the right thing.
In this respect the movie resonates most strongly with Huckleberry Finn, and their differences and similarities illustrate the complexity of Lee's vision of America. During the course of his journey, Huck frequently finds himself challenged to do the right thing, most significantly in racial terms. He is nagged by guilt over his complicity in the escape of the runaway slave, Jim. His Southern social conscience, very much imposed from without, tells him he should turn Jim over to the authorities; his growing sense of self, however, knows he will do no such thing. Confronting these conflicting demands in the moral climax of the novel, he rejects this "conscience" shouting, "All right then, I'll go to Hell!" In choosing Hell, paradoxically, he does the right—the truly moral—thing. As he shucks off the false "conscience" of a slave-owning society, he frees himself to become an independent individual. The rightness of the choice has resounded throughout American literature ever since it was made.
Things refuse to work out this way in the Brooklyn of 1989, however; hence the unsettling quality of Lee's movie, and the strength of audience response to it. Lee focuses strongly on the ironic possibilities of his title. Between an early admonition to "do the right thing" and a final scene in which Sal, standing in front of his burned-out pizzeria, repeats those exact words with heavy irony, much has happened. A community in Brooklyn has survived the hottest day of the summer, a variety of racial and ethnic hatreds has been expressed, a young Black man has been killed, and a neighborhood landmark has been burned down. Clearly, the right thing has not been done. Even more ominously, none of the things that did happen were intended. Events have gone out of control.
Lee, like Twain, makes it clear that he is dealing with a microcosm of America in his work. Twain is characteristically elliptical in making this suggestion. In his "explanatory note," for example, he specifies the variety of dialects he uses in his novel: "the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the back-woods Southern dialect; the ordinary 'Pike County' dialect; and four modified varieties of this last." Despite its apparent lightheartedness, this note and countless references in the novel make it clear that he is presenting a careful cross section of the world he knows. Similarly, Lee's Journal reveals his concern that his movie be truly representative, a valid and accurate cross section of the modern urban landscape: "The neighborhood will have a feel of the different cultures that make up the city, specifically Black American, Puerto Rican, West Indian, Korean and Italian American. Unlike Woody Allen's portraits of New York." Twain insists that his presentation of the South, with its slavery, hypocrisy and materialism, is nineteenth-century reality. Lee insists that his picture of racially torn Brooklyn, with its volatile variety of races, is a true cross section of twentieth-century reality. Woody Allen and other film-makers might present more attractive, commercial portraits; his he promises, will be a true one.
Lee's intention to present an objective picture of "race relations,… America's biggest problem … since we got off the boat"—without letting it become "just a diatribe"—reveals the significance of the film's frequent reminders that these events are part of the fabric of American life. In response to Buggin' Out's demand that the "Italian Wall of Fame" in Sal's Famous Pizzeria include "some brothers … Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Michael Jordan," Sal flatly refuses. "You want brothers up on the Wall of Fame, you open up your own business, then you can do what you wanna do," he says. "This is America," he adds proudly, making it clear that the individual's right to free expression is an important part of America's meaning for him.
Faced with a second, stronger challenge, this time from his son Pino, who desperately wants to sell the business and move to their "own neighborhood," Sal is equally adamant: "So what if this is a Black neighborhood, so what if we're a minority," he says. "I've never had trouble with these people, don't want none either, so don't start none. This is America. Sal's Famous Pizzeria is here for good." The American dream of self-determination is clearly part of Sal's ethical makeup, as is a strong sense of fair play: We don't bother them, they don't bother us. "This is America."
In America as elsewhere, however, being right does not prevent one from doing wrong, and good intentions frequently count for nothing. Part of the irony in Do the Right Thing is that no one means the tragedy to happen; neither, however, does anyone do anything to prevent it, and together everyone blunders into violence. Six characters find themselves on a collision course. Each thinks himself to be in the right; to some extent each is in the right; no one can clearly communicate his feelings and disaster results.
Buggin' Out is a forceful example of an uncommunicated desire. In demanding room for the brothers on the Wall of Fame, he is making a reasonable request; unfortunately, his disposition and demeanor are so intense, his demands so heated, that they are never couched in reasonable terms. His words pour out in torrents, overwhelming his audience, drowning his meaning and infuriating Sal. Offended by the stridency of Buggin' Out's demands, Sal rejects his ideas; yet Sal, too, is within his rights. Buggin' Out has a reasonable request, which he communicates with unreasonable force; Sal has a reasonable reservation, which he communicates with contemptuous dismissal. No one is entirely wrong here; two rights block each other. Sal is right in feeling free to put his own heroes in his own walls; Buggin' Out is right in feeling that, in a Black community, a Black face or two among those heroes isn't too much to ask. Unfortunately, feelings, instead of reason, speak.
A second figure on this collision course is an equally forceful symbol of communication blocked or misdirected. Radio Raheem communicates at once too much and too little. His beloved "boom box," the radio so huge one wonders how he can lug it around, blares an unmistakable and certainly understandable message: "FIGHT THE POWER!" It's the only song he wants to hear. He himself, however, is almost totally inarticulate, and when he does speak his words seem to belie his music. His size, his blaring radio, his formidable demeanor all shriek "FIGHT!" Yet his first words, uttered to a group of neighborhood children, are a disarming "Peace, y'all." For the most part, Raheem's demeanor communicates for him. Everyone in the neighborhood, whether willingly or reluctantly, gives him the space his size and his noise demand, and there is no violence. His radio is his identity, however, and when that is destroyed his only means of communication is physical.
Yet a third character whose blocked communication puts him on a collision course with tragedy is Smiley, the ironically named character who almost never smiles. Smiley, who constantly listens to the speeches of Malcolm X on a Walkman, stammers so severely as to be literally incomprehensible. Incessantly referring to "Martin" [Luther King] and "Malcolm" [X], Smiley accosts everyone he meets, trying to involve them with these heroes of the Black American experience. His incoherence, however, coupled with his insistence, turns people off instead of involving them. Ironically, none of these Black Americans want to hear much about Martin or Malcolm on this hot summer day. Smiley only adds to the tensions of the neighborhood when he interrupts Sal and Pino as they clash over Sal's refusal to sell the pizzeria. Infuriated, Pino leaps to his feet, cursing Smiley and threatening him and his heroes. Smiley, accustomed to gentler treatment than this even from the bigoted Pino, backs off in anger and resentment, stammering incomprehensively. Eventually, this rebuff and those of Buggin' Out and Radio Raheem become the combined links in the chain of events leading to violence.
Countering these three Black characters are Sal and his sons, Pino and Vito. Their motivations, too, are understandable and they are not entirely in the wrong. Even Pino, the most furiously bigoted man in the movie, is not simply one-dimensional. More weak than evil, he detests the neighborhood, detests its residents, detests his customers, and detests his own embarrassment in front of his friends who taunt him for his "demeaning" job. In his frustration, he, too, has become uncommunicative; his main avenues of expression are through racial insults to Mookie, whom he is constantly calling "nigger," and punches for his brother, whom he bullies endlessly. But although he remains a bigot, Pino is a complex character. Mookie challenges him to name his favorite athlete—Magic Johnson; his favorite comedian—Eddie Murphy; and his favorite rock star—Prince. Trying to explain these loyalties in one who hates Blacks, Pino fumbles for reason: "It's different. Magic, Eddie, Prince, are not niggers. I mean are not Black. I mean they're Black, but not really Black. They're more than Black. It's different." As Lee's screen directions wryly reveal, "With each word Pino is hanging himself even further." Pino, fumbling for a rationale for his contradictory feelings, becomes as incomprehensible as Smiley.
Pino's contrast to Huck Finn is telling here. Like Huck, Pino has grown up with a set of unquestioned attitudes imposed from without, attitudes that tell him Blacks are inferior. His own tastes, however, tell him that Black individuals—Magic Johnson, Eddie Murphy, Prince—are admirable. Unlike Huck, Pino fails to resolve this tangle of inner and outer attitudes. Instead of managing to think for himself, he resorts to hatred and invective, hurrying the movie's tragic confrontation along.
If anyone is to manage to do the right thing it should be Vito, Sal's second son. Vito feels no hatred for his neighbors and is genuinely fond of Mookie, who treats him with more brotherly affection than does his bullying brother Pino. But Vito fails to bridge the gaps of hatred around him. Challenged by Mookie to stand up to Pino just once, he tries to do so, but fails. He cannot break the habit of years any more than anyone else in the movie. Unable to articulate his feelings, he fails himself, his family, and his friends. He doesn't hurt anyone; he simply does nothing.
It is Sal's characterization, however, that is most complex. As played by Danny Aiello, he is full of contradictions. On one hand he is affectionate, generous, proud of his sons, proud of his business and generally pleased that the kids in the neighborhood have literally grown up on his food. After the fire, he violently rejects Mookie's suggestion that the insurance money will solve his problems. It's not the money, he roars; it's his sweat, his effort, his very life that was destroyed with the building he put together with his own hands. Sal is also obstinate and irascible, however, and not immune to feelings of racial superiority. The pride represented by his Wall of Fame is admirable but his blunt refusal to add "some brothers" is condescending, and his highhanded ejection of Buggin' Out is insulting. His demand that Radio Raheem turn down the volume is understandable—the noise level is painful and Sal has to scream to be heard at all—but his contemptuous dismissal of the music itself is an affront to Raheem's racial identity. Although he may feel the right thing—regard for at least some of his neighbors, affection for Mookie, and a strong senses of fair play—he fails to communicate these feelings. Instead he communicates condescension toward Black cultural pride and hatred of both the noise and the message of Raheem's radio.
Resentment, hostility, misunderstanding, and flaring tempers conspire to produce tragedy. Ironically, the violence almost does not happen; an accident of timing brings it about. The long day is over; exhausted by the heat, Sal and his son are closing their doors for the night. The neighborhood kids, however, suddenly gather at the door, begging for one last slice. Feeling generous at the end of a profitable day, Sal good-heartedly gives in. At this point, however, Buggin' Out, Radio Raheem, and Smiley suddenly appear, joined in their resentment of Sal's earlier brusqueness. Buggin' Out demands a boycott until Sal grants his requests; Smiley shakes his pictures and stammers about Martin and Malcolm; Raheem turns his radio up to full volume. Exhausted and enraged, Sal loses control. Screaming over the noise, he grabs a baseball bat and attacks, demolishing Raheem's radio with a brutality that suggests that his real target is Raheem himself.
Raheem, his identity smashed, attacks Sal. He in turn is attacked by Sal's sons; Buggin' Out and Smiley join in and the whole mass spills over onto the sidewalk. The crowd gathers; the police arrive, and as violence and chaos escalate, they "put a choke hold on Radio Raheem to restrain him"—and instead kill him, in a scene whose physical details make it clear that this is to be seen as another kind of lynching. Now it is too late. Whatever the right thing might have been, it can no longer be done.
For a long, tension-filled moment, the onlookers—now described in the screen directions as a "mob"—stare in mute rage at Sal and his sons, blaming them for yet another outrage against a Black man. Suddenly, but with actions clearly thought out, Mookie seizes a garbage can, carefully removes the lid, and—screaming "HATE!!!"—hurls it through the pizzeria window. As the screen directions phrase it, "All hell breaks loose. The dam has been unplugged, broke. The rage of a people has been unleashed, a fury." The pizzeria is looted, fire is set, the building is destroyed—an event no one intended has occurred.
Yet Lee does not end his movie with this moment of hatred, frustration, and destruction. Rather he ends it with an uneasy, tentative rapprochement between Sal and Mookie on the next morning, in a final scene whose delicate balance between hostility and understanding reveals how effectively Do the Right Thing and Huckleberry Finn illuminate each other.
Much of the contrast between movie and novel lies in the relative freedom of their characters. For all his narrow escapes, Huck is essentially a free spirit from the moment he gets away from Pap. His developing conscience depends on his physical freedom. After rejecting the social conscience of his environment, whether he understands it or not, Huck can never retrace his steps. When he lights out for the territory at the end of the novel, Huck is establishing his freedom of conscience along with his freedom of movement. It is essential that he do so. The Huck who would "go to Hell" rather than betray a friend will hardly be welcome in the communities of the slaveowning South. But no such physical freedom exists for the residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. The economic realities of the modern world limit the personal freedom of Whites and Blacks alike. They are bound together, like it or not, and must face each other on the morning after violence, just as Sal and Mookie face each other, resentful and uneasy, in the movie's final scenes.
The fact that they can face each other at all gives cause for some hope, and the movie ends with balance, stasis, rather than in action. It is a balance which has been present throughout the movie, though never as strongly as in the final scenes. Earlier, forces in conflict have balanced each other: Old balances young, passive balances active, White balances Black, male balances female. Above all, the elements of comedy, which dominate the earlier scenes in the movie, balance the possibility for tragedy. The accidents of timing which precipitate the tragedy upset this balance, but Sal and Mookie reestablish it as they regard each other in front of the remains of the previous night' violence. They face each other uneasily, aware that last night made them enemies: Sal's destruction of the radio was the first step on the road to Raheem's death, and Mookie's hurling of the garbage can was the first step on the road to the pizzeria's destruction.
Yet they can put that behind them and regard each other as individuals. After Sal's impassioned explanation of what his business meant to him, Mookie understands him more clearly than he had before. And Sal surely understands the feelings of this community with more clarity and compassion than he had previously felt. They face each other awkwardly, still resentful, but with more openness and less artificiality than they have previously shown. The chance to do the right thing is still there. It will be more difficult for Sal and Mookie than for Huck, since there is no free territory for them to light out to; it is not impossible, however. Both novel and movie end in openness.
One of the most intriguing statements in T.S. Eliot's essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" is his assertion that "what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it … it is not preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past." At first glance, it seems impossible that a new representative of a tradition could change something created a century earlier. Consideration of Do the Right Thing in conjunction with Huckleberry Finn, however, illuminates Eliot's remark at the same time that it affirms Lee's artistry and Twain's centrality to American literature, current as well as past. Mookie's and Sal's uneasy truce, together with their awareness of their shared future, illuminate once again the rightness of Huck's choice. His freedom to make that choice and then "light out" illuminates the reality of life in contemporary America. This sense of balance and openness, the idea that important choices are still to be made, is soberly emphasized by the quotes from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X that follow the last scene of the movie. As Lee concludes in his Journal, "In the end, justice will prevail, one way or another. There are two paths to that. The way of King, or the way of Malcolm."
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3729
SOURCE: "The Invisible Man: Spike Lee," in Film Comment, Vol. 33, No. 1, January/February, 1997, pp. 42-7.
[In the following essay, Jones discusses Lee's body of work.]
The proof of Spike Lee's insight is the clamor of opposing rash positions around his films—how difficult is it to imagine a scene from a Lee movie in which a gaggle of film critics scream their opinions about the relative worth of a young African-American filmmaker's oeuvre in each other's faces, shot in contrasting off-angles and perfectly sculpted light? His less sophisticated admirers, in other words those who are unwilling to apply the same sort of hardworking analysis to his work that he applies to American society, have never done him any favors by pushing him as an "innovator." (Some innovator: his actor-on-the-dolly move, cribbed from Mean Streets and monotonously reprised in every film from Mo' Better Blues through Girl 6, is numbingly off-key and gives the impression to the unsuspecting viewer that certain sidewalks in the New York area are equipped with conveyor belts.) Then there are those who claim that he is basically reheating old-fashioned social consciousness in a rock video microwave. But the classic social consciousness of, say, To Kill a Mockingbird begins with an abstraction—Racism, and How It Can Be Overcome—and structures its narrative accordingly: a racist malefactor and a good and righteous man square off against the backdrop of an amorphously indifferent populace that could be swayed either way and finally listens to reason. Lee, on the other hand, always starts from the specifics that make up the fractured consciousness of African-American males. "Hey daddy, I'll suck your big black dick for two dollars!" drawls the teenaged whore to Wesley Snipes's Flipper Purify before he screams with indignation and takes her in his arms at the end of Jungle Fever. It's one of the few sweepingly rhetorical moments in modern cinema that earns its weight and self-importance because it's the culmination of a whole battery of anxieties, horrors, disappointments, and subterfuges that have all been laid out by Lee with his typical block-by-block, hard plastic clarity.
There is also the overgrown-film-student charge, somewhat easier to fathom but essentially wrong and recklessly dismissive. What I understand people to mean by this is that Lee is a showoff, which is true enough. His camera never gets comfortable, and no stroll down the block is complete without at least six changes of angle. He is also constantly throwing aesthetic blankets over large chunks of his movies: changes of film stock for different locales in Clockers and Get On the Bus, high-def video for the images of the phantom callers in Girl 6, the infamous (and truly maddening) squeezed anamorphic image for the Southern section of Crooklyn. That's not to mention the liberal application of pop songs ladled over large portions of his films. There are few filmmakers whose work seems less organic and more the sum of their aesthetic choices.
Moreover, there are few filmmakeŕs who are less interested in (or less adept at?) giving us the rhythms of quotidian existence. The world of Spike Lee is almost completely devoid of the everyday tasks and actions that make up the backbone of most films. When he does have a go at everyday life, it is often editorialized to a level beyond absurdity. Annabella Sciorra's family in Jungle Fever is so heavily singularized and lacking in nuance that "Italian Family" seems to be a new flavor of salad dressing. The opening scenes of Malcolm X are the most embarrassing, a fifth-hand evocation of zoot-suit culture. Lee's relentless, never-ending control leaves you with the feeling that when his good actors (Snipes, Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, Giancarlo Esposito) score a few points, they're getting one over on their director.
The fact is that legibility and visibility are more important to Spike Lee than anything else. Every film has its own eye-catching design and every moment is held only as long as it takes to register as a sign; everything beyond that feels like a holding action. Lee is a completely arrhythmic filmmaker in this sense: tempo and nuance are always sacrificed for clarity. It's fascinating to watch one of his attempts to render abandon because of his cómplete unwillingness to surrender his lock on the visuals. (Image and sound often seem like two separate categories with their own energies: while the visuals feel uptight, cramped, and fixated on the center, the soundtrack is always a mighty river of words and music.) When Denzel Washington's Bleek is composing a tune in Mo' Better Blues, Lee puts his poor actor on the dolly and spins the room around him. It's very similar to Troy's dream of a glue-induced flight over the block in Crooklyn because of the way that both actors are all but stapled to the camera. What is supposed to play as a sense of flight, artistic in the first instance and psychosexual in the second, is instead tidy and tight as a drum. On close inspection, though (and close inspection of Lee's cinema is always rewarding), there's something conceptually right about the Mo' Better scene, since the story deals with the way that artistic expression can be the unhealthy result of a transferral of guarded aggression from mother to son, a mask of mastery to wear in a racist world.
Which is pretty close to a self-portrait, at least based on the evidence of Lee's films (and his acting: in all of Lee's performances his voice and his body seem to be going in two different directions, which plays like a bizarre and quite intriguing evasion technique). His detractors make an enormous leap when they lazily insist that there's nothing but a vacuum behind all that "style." How ridiculous: what other filmmaker has been more adept at delineating the process of American racism and treating it as a living organism rather than a frozen entity? It's no small achievement, even when the film is as artistically pallid and mushy as School Daze or Mo' Better Blues. The insistence on leaving nothing to chance, which often flattens out his representations of jazz clubs, city blocks, and middle-class homes to the point that they feel like computer art, has a painful, extracinematic edge. You can feel Lee's desire to loosen up, but it's always checked by his fear of making a move without the protection of his agile mind. His films are personal in the strangest sense: the artist is revealed by the many ways with which he chooses to constantly camouflage his personality.
The film school complaint is the other side of the coin from the more absurd charges of "reverse racism," divisiveness, and separatism, all of which are hogwash, and all of which start from the wrongheaded assumption that Lee is some kind of "special interest" filmmaker. Aside from the fact that people are constantly attributing sentiments voiced by Lee's warring characters to Lee himself, what's so striking about the frequent criticisms and judgments of his work is their eagerness to reduce it to a lowest "cinematic" denominator and sweep it under the rug. The idea that Lee is a propagandist grows out of what can only be understood as fear of encroachment on the sacred territory of American cinema and its myths. It's the same kind of fear that once prompted a friend of mine to make the following remark to an acquaintance on the neighboring barstool who said he was afraid to go to Harlem: "Let me get this straight—you're afraid to be a white man in America?"
Lee goes against the grain of the model well-rounded filmmaker, balanced between the thematic and the organic, between action and emotion. As an artist, he has firmly positioned himself midway between didacticism and dialectics. The didactic side is his tireless effort to keep the desires, frustrations, looming terrors, and class diversity among African-American men visible and viable within mainstream, i.e. white, i.e. racist American culture. (He is less interested in women but willing to keep his films democratically open to their viewpoints, as in the interminable but informative improvised discussion in Jungle Fever.) The dialectical side is the rigorous manner in which he breaks down and presents the warring components of American society, a pot in which nothing melts and everything congeals (he has never been interested in the currently fashionable Hollywood idea of "positive images of black people," in which Wesley Snipes or Samuel L. Jackson is afforded the same golden opportunity as Bruce Willis or Harrison Ford to play the lead in idiotic action movies). The ensuing tension, which catches characters in a grid between the personal and the societal, is palpable in every one of his films, from the throwaway Girl 6 to the hymnlike Get On the Bus, from the synthetically delicate She's Gotta Have It to the grandiose Malcolm X, from the awful yet shaggily lovable School Daze to the magnificent Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever. And that tension makes something odd but undeniably beautiful out of Crooklyn, an autobiographical reminiscence filtered through his sister Joie (he co-authored the script with her and brother Cinqué) that all but denies the possibility of Proustian reverie in favor of a systematic and seemingly exhaustive survey of the focal points, obsessions, and imagery of an early-Seventies African-American childhood. It's a haunting film in which the action is interestingly dispersed across a more delicate visual palette than the burnished tones of Ernest Dickerson would have allowed (courtesy of Daughters of the Dust cinematographer Arthur Jafa), suggestive of public-school mural art.
Placing Lee as a filmmaker rather than as a public figure or a provocateur has been somewhat set aside over the years. An instructive comparison would be Claire Denis, another essentially cold and precise filmmaker intent on rendering the multicultural makeup of modern life, who also strategically casts her films in warm, convivial tones and atmospheres. Denis is also a filmmaker of choices: a handheld camera for S'en fout la mort, interlocking narratives in J'ai pas sommeil, extreme closeup sensuality spread dolloped all over Nénette et Boni. But there are moments of comfort and reflection for her characters, and none whatsoever for Lee's—the people in his films are just as guarded and wary as their creator, who may never be relaxed enough to make a spontaneously generated autobiographical work like U.S. Go Home. A better precedent for Lee in world cinema is Nagisa Oshima, in whose films the patient accumulation of dry detail and opposing forces bursts open with an emblematic action at the film's climax. The ending of Jungle Fever or Mookie's garbage can in the window at the end of Do the Right Thing are kissing cousins to culminating moments like the eating of the apple in Cruel Story of Youth or the moment in Dear Summer Sister when the girl says, "They should never have given Okinawa back to the Japanese." Oshima is a more naturally elegant and economical filmmaker than Lee—more than he would probably have cared to admit in his angrier days—but they are both children of Brecht with a shared obsession with clarity, specificity, and the abandonment of personal concerns in favor of political directness. An interesting cultural divide: where one might say that Lee "likes" all of his characters, one might in turn say that Oshima "hates" all of his, at least in early films like The Sun's Burial (perhaps it's more correct to say that he equalizes them to a uniform unpleasantness). In any case, the net effect is virtually identical.
Lee may be even bleaker than his relentlessly tough Japanese cousin. There is always a lot of high spirits, Fifties-style sentimentality, and verbal jazz in Lee's work. But they hide what is in the end a despairing vision of existence, in which the backdrop of divisiveness and polarization not only never gives way to transcendent action and understanding (the way it does with the kiss at the end of Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence) but shadows his characters mercilessly. When it's not felt in the restless visuals or through the neurotically inert characters—Lee's people, like Fassbinder's, are forever making small, tightly circumscribed movements across a limited selection of folkways that make them look like rats in a maze—it's there in the oppressively heavy atmosphere, a side effect of turning every field of action (Morehouse College, a movieish jazz club located in some unimaginably bland netherworld, the life of Malcolm X, a project courtyard, a Brooklyn block) into a metaphorically charged space. There's an uncharacteristic moment in Jungle Fever when Lee suddenly cuts to Flipper standing on a bad corner of Harlem a split second before he consorts with some unsavory characters in search of his crackhead brother (Samuel L. Jackson). You can feel his tension, distaste, and angry confusion in the way he mills around, his body tight. It's an unusual moment because it hands over the reins to an actor, no matter how short the duration. The entire Harlem—swanky-architectural-firm—Bensonhurst social grid that Lee has set up seems to be pressing down on Flipper.
There are appalling things in Jungle Fever but it remains his most devastating film, perhaps for the crazy reason that it's the one most packed with interlocking thematic material. That's the paradox of Lee as an artist: the more linear and streamlined his films are, the duller they get and the more they flounder. The Tim Robbins-Brad Dourif yuppie tag team, the Italian family scenes (Anthony Quinn's performance as a supposedly prototypical Italian father—"Your mother was a real woman!"—is like an industrial disaster in an olive oil factory), the floating conversations between Lee and Snipes all just sit there, but their place in the grid that Lee sets up, the way they counterpoint, amplify, and bruise one another, give the film a remarkable fullness and social three-dimensionality. As in Do the Right Thing (which has some similarly awful moments that are nonetheless vital cogs in the machinery, like Lee and Turturro's conversation about niggers), Lee achieves something rare in American cinema, which is an illustration of the degree to which people are products of their environment, a far cry from the bogus individualism of so much American cinema. Flipper and Angie (Sciorra) are ciphers at the center of Jungle Fever, surrounded by a range of far more vivid characters: Ossie Davis's terrifyingly stern, separatist, Old Testament father and Ruby Dee's pathologically genteel mother, John Turturro's haloed candy store proprietor, and Samuel L. Jackson's horrifying crackhead. And on reflection what seems like an artistic miscalculation turns out to be a dialectical strategy. Lee is speaking to middle-class people like Flipper (and himself, presumably) who keep things status quo by avoiding the cacophony of warring voices in their ears, just as in Do the Right Thing he is speaking to layabouts like Mookie who try to float through the world and eventually act out of sheer psychic exhaustion. When Mookie throws that garbage can through the window, he is egged on by his neighborhood friends, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has correctly pointed out, but he is also making a fruitless and mindless gesture that is the result of so much heat, aggravation, and sloganeering. It seems appropriate that the characters are diminished by the confusion that makes up their world (was this the reason Wim Wenders made his insane and now legendary comment that Mookie was not enough of a hero?) and that they have no time or room to analyze calmly.
In his less successful work, the striking moments come unmoored in a sea of heady aesthetic choices. Since Lee films every moment with equal weight and at an unvarying rhythm, his hyperbolic clarity can backfire on him when the focal points are reduced in number. Clockers is an unsatisfying film because the sheer immersion technique of Richard Price's novel is antithetical to Lee's aesthetic strengths. If any of his films does actually follow the old social-consciousness model it's this one, in which every character represents not a societal force but a different symbolic aspect of The Drug Problem In The Ghetto. (Lee is about as good a candidate for an in-depth study of life in the projects as Richard Attenborough.) But there are impassioned moments, particularly the montage in which a slow track away from Strike (Mekhi Phifer) playing with his trains is intercut with terrifyingly immediate shots of real crackheads scoring and getting high. There's nothing terribly wrong with Malcolm X beyond the fact that it drains a lot of the flashfire anger and drama out of the autobiography to give us a good, sturdy, dignified tour through the subject's life (the most striking passages of the film move with the slow and stately rhythm of Washington and Angela Bassett's immaculately acted mutual respect). Girl 6, which seems to enter a more playful mode, devolves into nothing much by the end (although it does have one of Lee's most physically frank moments: Isaiah Washington's shoplifter sweet-talks ex-wife Theresa Randle into an alley and shoves her hand down his pants).
Get On the Bus marks a turning point for Lee, a move towards a valid, tempered feeling of uplift and more faith in his actors and away from so much fanatical control. Lee finds myriad ways of exploring the faces of his uniformly magnificent actors in worried contemplation, to the point where his film takes on a singing beauty and a simple closeup of the great Charles Dutton carries real weight. There have been some ridiculous things written about this buoyant, defiantly old-fashioned movie, far from a song of praise to Louis Farrakhan. The Million Man March does not take on ideological but symbolic import: the simple and joyous fact of one million African-American men congregating in one place is what motivates everyone to get on the Spotted Owl to Washington, and the feeling is echoed by the actors as they bite into their meaty roles. The makeup is standard WWII bomber crew stuff: an old failure, a young upstart actor, a gentle cop, a reformed gangbanger, a homosexual couple, a silent Muslim, a Republican businessman, an estranged father reunited with his gangbanger son and chained to him by court order, a Jewish relief driver, an aspiring filmmaker/witness ("Spike Lee Jr.," as one of the characters calls him), and the bus driver-spokesman hash out what seems like every conflict that currently besets the African-American community in a more musical version of vintage Rod Serling or Reginald Rose. But as always, Lee short-circuits any answers beyond a lonely self-respect. There is a painfully beautiful moment midfilm when the cop, whose father has been killed by gang members and whose beat is the ghetto, listens to the murder confession of the former gangbanger-turned-counselor, a moment made possible by the fellowship of the bus ride. And the cop suddenly turns the tables and tells him he'll have to arrest him when they get back to L.A. Lee cuts away from the standoff to a shot of the moon seen from the front window. This is presumably one of the moments in the film that's been called a cop-out, but is it a cop-out to illustrate a hopelessly divisive issue and refuse to put a Band-Aid on it? Lee isn't turning away from the conflict but turning towards the sad flow of time.
Get On the Bus may be his most heart-felt movie, but it still has the protective coating of every other Lee film—its materials are just more human. As he slowly loses his audience in the increasingly foul atmosphere of corporate culture (Bus disappeared from theaters with ruthless speed), it's puzzling to imagine how Lee will evolve. As a filmmaker he is caught between a rock and a hard place: he is too resolutely anti-American for the self-satisfaction of the current political climate, and he is too tightly coiled an artist to generate new enthusiasms now that the first flush has been over for some time. As much as I admire his abilities as a dialectician, the most penetrating moments in his enormously complex cinema are the small, instinctive ones. There is a moment at the end of Crooklyn when three of the children are walking up a public staircase, two of them holding hands and the other straggling behind, and they are lackadaisically singing a song that is gently echoed by a harmonica in Terence Blanchard's score. When they stop they wonder what they'll be wearing to their mother's funeral. The heart-break—and the moment is heartbreaking like few moments in recent cinema—is in the high oblique angle that places the kids in a vast expanse of concrete, a detail that feels as if it comes straight from the filmmaker's memory. And it's in the stoic trudge up the steps, the sense of a burden that must be shouldered with dignity at all costs.
And then there are two moments in Jungle Fever and Get On the Bus, almost identical. In Jungle Fever, during the crushing scene where Snipes and Sciorra are fooling around on the hood of a car, Lee makes a brief cut to a shot from the point of view of an apartment window looking down on them. We never see the inhabitant and the shot is over quickly, but once Lee cuts back to his interracial couple we just wait for the sirens to start blaring. And in Get On the Bus, amidst the guarded but real camaraderie of a Memphis bar (exemplified by a lovely moment in which Davis and the proprietor bridge their racial divide with a shared passion for rodeo, reminiscent of the scene in Powell's A Canterbury Tale in which the Oregonian G.I. and the Kentish carpenter talk woodworking), Lee makes an almost subliminal cut to a shot of a random white face staring. We don't see what he's staring at, but we don't have to. In both in-stances, a whole range of anger and fear is shot right into the heart of the film. It's during moments like these that I feel another, more vulnerable Spike Lee lurking beneath the quicksilver intelligence and stoic demeanor of the one we know. The question is: does he really want to reveal himself to those staring faces and open windows, positioned throughout American culture, even in the supposedly generous world of cinephilia?
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