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Renaissance Man 

Spike Lee, an American artist

Wednesday, Mar 10 1999
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Photo by David LeeSPIKE LEE'S FEATURE DEBUT, THE 1986 FILM SHE'S Gotta Have It, opens with a quote from Zora Neale Hurston's literary classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, a touchstone of the Harlem Renaissance. The quote, lyrical and incisive, lays out the different ways that men and women dream, and how those gendered dreams play out in the lives of the dreamers. More crucially, though, Hurston addresses the ways the two sexes cope with disappointment, how they even define it. With that passage, Lee wasn't merely setting the stage for his tale, he was grounding his film in history, laying claim to a tradition of politically layered black art -- where Hurston sits as patron saint -- in which groundbreaking aesthetics and technical virtuosity are put in the service of honoring the lives, voices and experiences of everyday black folk.

It's ironic, then, that on release the film incurred the wrath of many critics -- mainly women, but also a few men -- who felt that its heroine, Nola Darling, was a flimsily constructed character whose sexual bravado couldn't mask the partial truth that her voice and life were all being filtered through the perceptions and desires of the film's male characters. For these critics, Nola was a symbol of Lee's limitations as an artist; he couldn't get his own shit out of the way long enough to let her breathe. It's a charge leveled (quite fairly) at nearly all the women in the Lee films that immediately followed: the sorority girls in School Daze, the dark-skinned schoolteacher and light-skinned jazz singer in Mo' Better Blues, the white girl in Jungle Fever. Even the depictions of women in Malcolm X came under fire for being gross distortions, or simplifications, of their real-life counterparts.

As time passed, there were other charges. In addition to being labeled misogynistic, Lee was stamped as anti-Semitic, bourgeois, homophobic, self-aggrandizing, overrated. All the criticism came to a head in 1992 with Malcolm X, which received brutal drubbings from both the mainstream press and the black intelligentsia, among them Amiri Baraka, bell hooks and Greg Tate. While some of the carping was justified -- hooks complained that Lee's portrayal of Malcolm X's white girlfriend was unjustifiably harsh, fetishistic and inaccurate -- the collective criticism had the ferocity of long-simmering resentments and animosities being fired full blast.

Whether due to the controversy surrounding the making of the film, its hostile reception or changes in his personal life (he got married in 1993 and has a young daughter, Satchel, and a son, Jackson), the Spike Lee that's emerged post-X has directed and often written films that offer mea culpas for his earlier political shortcomings without forcing the director to grovel for absolution. Indeed, Malcolm X's journey to Mecca, where the sight of multihued Muslims at prayer sparked a profound shift in his philosophical, political and spiritual beliefs, found a curious parallel in Lee's professional life with the creation of the martyr's biography. Malcolm X is Lee's most conventional film both in structure and feel (it's his David Lean epic), and it represents something of the director's own Mecca: the grand old Hollywood of lavish spectacles and awesome musicals. The experience of making X transformed him deeply. The movies he has made since (Crooklyn, Clockers, the much-maligned Girl 6, Get on the Bus, Four Little Girls and He Got Game) all show the blossoming of an empathetic soul, grace of character and continued aesthetic growth, establishing Lee as one of the most important American directors working today.

GIVEN THE REDUCTIVE WAY THAT LEE'S HISTORY has been written, it's sometimes easy to forget how remarkable his career has been, how important it is, and all that it signifies. When he blazed onto screens in 1986, as writer-director-editor-producer of She's Gotta Have It, as well as the character Mars Blackmon (a brother so unlike anything then being pitched by Hollywood, he had to be from another planet: Brooklyn), he not only kicked off the current end-of-the-century wave of black film, but helped to elevate indie film into pop-culture consciousness.

By unapologetically playing the role of the huckster, Lee shrewdly turned his name into a trademark. He was no longer Spike Lee; he was Spike -- in sneaker commercials, in guest spots on Saturday Night Live, on the op-ed pages and on Nightline. In doing so, he drew up a now well-thumbed blueprint for scores of upcoming indie filmmakers, which has done as much harm as good. Few of his successors have had the innate moviemaking talent to balance their naked craving for celebrity. Few have been able to see that, while Spike quickly went on to make a slew of TV commercials and music videos following the success of SGHI, he utilized the language of advertising to market himself and his films without letting that language overwhelm or derail his art. (In truth, Spike was fluent in the language of hip-hop/the street, which was then on the verge of hijacking the mainstream; it's become advertising's new tongue due, in part, to him.) He took that lingo and attached it to larger themes and concerns, including, ironically, the very issue of selling out. Almost all his films, in either plot or subplot, deal with whoring one's self or one's art in some way or another. It's a struggle that's at the core of the American character, and that tension between art and commerce, between indie sensibilities and mainstream dreams, is what fuels the stories Lee tells and the aesthetic he's forged. It's what makes him not just a black artist, but an American artist.

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