By Amy Nicholson
By LA Weekly critics
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Anthony D'Alessandro
WHERE LEE MAY ONCE HAVE BEEN INDIGNANT about such remarks, today he is sanguine: A man who champions irresolution has to know that black people's popular regard of themselves -- as auteurs, as public figures, as, what the hell, individuals -- still qualifies as about the most unresolved thing in America. Lee is therefore the most important black filmmaker around, and the least important; he is the most haplessly assimilated, and irrefutably unique. He represents; he is merely Spike.
Lee blows away all this existential angst with one of his frequent big sighs, but not before getting in his own digs. It plays like a scene out of She's Gotta Have It, where Nola's three suitors snipe at each other over a game of Scrabble. "Baraka!" he fairly spits. "He was the Greek-chorus bum in Bulworth. I hated that movie. 'You my niggah.' Pleeeeeez!" He casts his eyes at the ceiling. "An old story. Black people leading a white man to his own spirituality. Yeah, it was good for Warren Beatty -- it was a chance for a woman like Halle Berry to lust after him. That's about it."
But everyone would agree -- from Baraka on down -- that we are all mired in the notion of what sells as black authenticity. This is not a new notion; it crested in the '60s but gained new, alarming currency through the cynical '90s, when most of the so-called black films coming out of Hollywood were essentially tales from the hood that saw as their audience "the urban hip-hop rap gangsta ghetto motherfuckers," as Lee succinctly puts it.
Rather a giant leap backward from the mid-'80s and the Black New Wave, an independent-film movement of which Lee was the unofficial leader because he had resoundingly proven with She's Gotta Gave Itthat a black film could be both black andcommercially successful -- terms that had been nearly mutually exclusive since the mid-'70s and the death (well-deserved, many people said) of blaxploitation flicks like Superflyand The Mack. The movement was small, but auspicious in its furthering of new world views, exemplified in such films as Julie Dash's lovely, languid Daughters of the Dust, Charles Burnett's passionately enigmatic To Sleep With Anger and Killer of Sheep, Charles Lane's lighthearted Sidewalk Stories,as well as a slew of black-themed foreign films such as Diva and Chocolat. But as quickly as this New Wave was described, it dissolved. None of the new directors picked up significant feature deals, the '90s ushered in an age of neo-blaxploitation in America, and Lee turned out to be the only repeat phenomenon in an industry famous for giving one shot -- if that -- to black directors with a literary bent.
Whatever one's opinion of them, Lee's films stand in pretty remarkable contrast to what black films have generally become: stories of unremitting ghetto violence (Menace II Society), black-white buddy pictures (Lethal Weapon, Money Talks) and sex comedies (Booty Call, How To Be a Player). It's more than ironic that someone who was once lauded for having his finger on the pulse of restive black youth may now be, as one Newsweekwriter recently suggested, distinctly out of touch with that black youth. Since Malcolm Xin 1992 -- his first big-budget film, at $25 million -- Lee's movies, even the critically acclaimed ones, have made only modest profits (not atypical for black movies, it must be noted). With his penchant for allegory rather than strict realism and his Terence Blanchard jazz scores, is he now too cerebral for his own cause?
Predictably, the director brushes aside the notion of a monolithic black audience, despite the fact that Hollywood and other marketing-driven entities have grown very fond of the idea. "Actually, I don't think the so-called urban audience was ever the group that went to see my films, at least not the bulk of my films," he says. "More white moviegoers saw She's Gotta Have Itthan black. But of course I have black audiences in mind -- look at School Daze. What happened is that the studios started making one type of film, catering to a specific niche of the ã black moviegoing audience. They do that for white films, too -- they'll make teen films, for example, but of course that niche has more variety within it than our niche."
Lee adds that the black urban-pathology trend has run its course, that what tends to get made now are romantic comedies (though whether Sprungand Woo deserve to be called romantic comedies, even bad ones, is eminently debatable). "That's fine, but I think these have to be done intelligently," he says, implying that they are not. "Did you see Trippin'? The ad with the guy jumping up in the air?" He shakes his head. "You look at that and you think, 'I'm not gonna go see that.'"
Yet he puts much of the blame for the dearth of quality black films on the black audience itself. Black audiences, he says, have allowed progressive directors like Charles Burnett to die box-office deaths while they were out patronizing mainstream "black" product like Booty Call. The black audience, alas, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy of Hollywood's design.
Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!