By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
What may be most important about the commercials and music videos Spike has helmed (or at least as important as the technical workouts they afforded him) is the financial autonomy they've allowed. Artists of the Harlem Renaissance were often at the mercy of white patrons whose purse strings were sometimes used to rein in artistic expressions and ideas that didn't conform to their notions of blackness or black art. They could only dream of having the freedom Spike had when he called Warner Bros. "a plantation" and effectively told them to kiss his ass. But just as those earlier artists were pained by the fact that their work was little-known by everyday black folk, Spike's African-American fan base has slept on some of his best recent work. The fault lies, in part, with studios who haven't really targeted that audience, who they just assumed would turn out. But it's also likely that a lot of black folks -- who get the same social conditioning as their white brethren -- don't know what to make of the more nuanced, considered depictions of black life that Spike has been offering for the last few years. It's been disheartening to see him not get his props.
FROM MARCH 15 TO 20, AMERICAN CINEMATHEQUE will do its part to correct the slights and oversights when they host a retrospective of Lee's work. It will encompass all the films he's directed, the television special Freak(John Leguizamo's one-man Broadway show that Lee shot for HBO) and his award-winning student featurette â Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. (Unfortunately, the Cinematheque won't be showing any of his commercials or music videos.) Of the pre-Malcolm stuff, She's Gotta Have It remains the most interesting. Do the Right Thing is more accomplished on every level, but stepping back and surveying Lee's filmography, it's SGHI that stands out in the first stage of his career. Its flaws make it as electric as its triumphs, but it's the film's thematic strands that fascinate.
All the issues, and a lot of the stylistic signatures, that would dominate Spike's future films are already on display in his first feature: his obvious love of dark skin and all the erotic possibilities contained therein; the tension -- often unspoken, though just as often howled -- between fair-skinned and dark-skinned women; the battle between black and white women for black men; the conservative -- if not reactionary -- sexual politics. There's the juxtaposition of sellout Negroes with those who are down for the struggle. The righteous rage of the political artist is hinted at in the collages Nola makes out of newspaper headlines that scream out instances of police brutality or racial injustice. We see foreshadowed the recurring struggle between parent and child, with one parent almost always absent. (It's telling that Nola's father is one of the men who get to comment on her, but her mother is never seen or heard from.) Music is important within the story and in Spike's telling of it. Finally, there's his perfect pitch -- like Zora Neale Hurston's -- in capturing the feel and evolving language of contemporary urban life.
Of the post-Malcolm films, Girl 6 and Crooklyn are the most interesting, although He Got Game (driven by Denzel Washington's flawless performance) is easily one of his masterworks. Girl 6, written by African-American playwright Suzan-Lori Park, is a viscerally affecting film that, in many ways, feels like the director's most personal work, the one that most reveals how he must feel as an artist working in what is often a whore's medium.
As a struggling actress who has humiliation heaped atop humiliation, the eponymous Girl 6's economic crisis forces her to take work as a phone-sex operator, and, for a brief while, she enjoys it. Critics who shredded the movie missed its point in their too-literal readings. The film speaks to what it is to be black, to be a woman, to be an artist (or some combination of the three), trying to exist and create within a system that not only is stacked against you, but has your degradation built in as both fuel and function. It's about what happens when you're seduced into thinking you can transcend whatever the oppressive holds are, when you're financially compensated for your delusion by the powers that be, and you have your eye cocked hard on some sort of victory -- while a beat-down looms on the horizon.
Though such commentary on what it is to be an artist, what it takes to be an artist and the state of black art can be found throughout Lee's films -- including He Got Game, where Washington's character observes, "Nowadays, these kids ain't gonna listen to nothing you say. They think they know it all. All they wanna do is dunk. Their fundamentals is sorely lacking" -- it's Girl 6 that reads as the most autobiographical lament.
Autobiography also drives Crooklyn (written by Lee's sister, Joie). Coming on the heels of Malcolm X, it's where we first see a real blossoming of Lee's heart, a newfound generosity in his world-view. The movie opens to the strains of the old Stylistics hit "People Make the World Go 'Round," which sets the stage for a gently comedic, poignant look at a '70s Brooklyn where arguments were settled with fists, not guns; where children who were a mixture of shades, accents and classes played in the streets; and even the neighborhood dope fiends were relatively harmless. It's a Brooklyn that, despite the prevalence of food stamps, manages to be home to a double-pronged vibe: It gives the children the secure feel of middle-class life and the intellectual stimulation of a bohemian outpost. Alfre Woodard's put-upon mom is the film's heart, but its backbone is Troy, the little girl through whose eyes we see the film. When she stands in the corner store mesmerized by the slo-mo dancing of hot-panted, long-legged RuPaul grinding with a chubby Puerto Rican trick, it's a bit of soul-tugging nostalgia, one of the most loving moments that Spike Lee has ever put on film.
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