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In fact, Lee does the minutiae of Bed-Stuy black life much the way Woody Allen does Manhattan Jewish life and Martin Scorsese does blue-collar Italian life (the obvious difference being that Allen and Scorsese are lauded, not suspected, for their ethnic scrutiny). From She's Gotta Have It (1986) to School Daze (1988) to Jungle Fever (1991), from the most insular to the most polemic, his films offer up characters who are at once archetypal and maddeningly familiar; we do not so much watch them develop as wander into their living room or front stoop and sit a while. They are not explained, nor does Lee believe they should be -- he simply puts them in his movies. The light-skinned wannabes in School Daze, the put-upon little girl in Crooklyn (1994), the phone-sex operator in Girl 6 (1996) -- these are an equally urgent part of the black present. As academic and essayist Henry Louis Gates Jr. contextualized it in the black intellectual journal Transition, Lee has "collapsed the traditional dichotomy" between social determinism and humanism. "Also, as few filmmakers have managed, Lee combines a sense of humor with those larger political concerns: His vision is both playful and serious."
Not that Lee always maintains his balance; he has certainly been guilty of pounding the pulpit in movies like Get On the Bus(1997), a hastily conceived tribute to the Million Man March, and He Got Game (1998), a multilevel morality tale about family and basketball, driving home with a sledgehammer points about black male bonding and the corrupting power of money. He insists that he speaks only for himself, but he also knows that it is still not possible for any black public figure to function as an individual -- not yet -- and so he doesn't resist didacticism on occasion. Still, his missteps tend to be more the fault of ambition than of narrow ideology.
Successfully combining social issues and character-driven story onscreen is one thing; speaking as an individual on political and other issues is quite another. Over the years Lee has loudly decried America's descent into political conservatism, blasting everyone from Ronald Reagan to columnist Carl Rowan, and it was in the public arena, more than in Hollywood, that he forged a reputation as an activist and a cultural watchdog. He insisted that no one but a black director could do the Malcolm X story justice; during the making of the movie, he accused the Teamsters of racism because they didn't hire black truck drivers on the set; and he insisted on giving black journalists priority for interviews. Lee, now 42, married and the father of two, says he's pretty much retired from all that. "Before, when I was young and dumb, I used to get tricked by the media into commentating on everything black," he says. "The press would call me for anything. I don't do that now. I pick and choose what I speak about." As if to prove the point, he falls dead silent. But Spike still speaks -- about Quentin Tarantino's profligate use of the word nigger, about Oprah Winfrey's failure to hire a black director for Beloved, about Hollywood's ongoing failure to meaningfully employ its black talent. Nor is he above issuing the occasional incendiary statement, as he did last month when he suggested not only that the NRA be disbanded, but that its president, celebrated conservative Charlton Heston, be shot "with a .44 Bulldog," the same handgun used by Son of Sam. He still imagines that he fights the power, and while black folks may roll their eyes at his remarks, they also know there is much power to fight.
Yet can a black filmmaker -- the only black filmmaker -- who continually gets big studio backing, who is a product of the system and somewhat beholden to it, simultaneously and effectively argue for its reform? Can he at once assimilate and agitate? Those who say no are chiefly African-American; Lee's harshest critics, rather paradoxically, have always been black people. Some are simply not fans of his work, others ream him for exposing intraracial "dirty laundry" in his films, and still others are wary of the fact that white critics tend to embrace him because, for all his outward radicalism, he speaks more to their art-house sensibilities and less to the state of real black people.
Among those who've accused him of playing at militance is the writer and '60s firebrand Amiri Baraka, who has called Lee a "quintessential buppie, almost the spirit of the young, upwardly mobile Black petit-bourgeois professional. Broadened, he is an American trend. He rejects history and exemplifies the pop-cartoon approach to Black life." Film and cultural critic Armond White praised Do the Right Thingin 1989, but in a telephone interview says Lee's vision has devolved rapidly since then, that he has become a victim of his own success and of his own facility with surface and image. "Spike has become a first-rate marketer -- he knows what a young audience wants, and he supplies it," says White. "He's a mainstream Hollywood filmmaker who really doesn't think in terms of film, of story. In He Got Game, there's nothing in there that isn't on MTV every hour. Spike picks hot topics -- basketball, interracial dating -- but that doesn't mean you break ground. Barbara Walters picks hot topics every day. The pretense of seriousness doesn't mean you're serious."
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