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Ever the canny marketer -- remember all those X caps? -- Lee officially turned himself into a one-man conglomerate a couple years ago when he formed Spike/DDB, a partnership with the globally renowned ad agency DDB Needham in which Lee is the majority owner. Spike/DDB initially described itself as expert in the urban market (niggahs, anyone?), although Lee insists his outfit is hardly limited to any particular demographics or ethnicities -- they do black, sure, but much more, depending on client and need. Still, you have to wonder how all this squares with socio-artistic integrity. Isn't there a bit of moral conflict inherent in a conscious black filmmaker peddling $100 basketball shoes to an underemployed, overconsuming black populace whose culture is routinely exploited for the very purposes of advertising, whose very souls are mined with impunity and then sold back to them, plus tax?
There's no resolution here either. What's most significant is that Spike Lee is doing the right thing: He is establishing exactly the kind of entrepreneurial control in a big-league business, advertising, that black people still usually only dream about. He says he likes directing commercials, he likes all of it -- videos, features, shorts. Another dream of his is to direct a full-out movie musical. "All that stuff comes under the heading of filmmaker," he says. "Commercials are something you can do in between shooting features. It's all variations on one thing, film."
He recently wrapped some spots for the U.S. Navy, a bit of an eyebrow raiser: Lee has said more than once that he would refuse to endorse whatever he considers morally reprehensible in the context of black folks, like malt liquor and cigarettes. The armed forces seems like a possible offender -- blacks are certainly overrepresented, and not entirely in a good way. "The Navy provides people with the money to get an education," Lee says with the same equanimity with which he says most things. "People who are floundering, who have no direction, no discipline . . . I'm not saying join for life, but when they get out they're in a much better spot than they were before." He pauses, gets a glint in his eye. "Did a Navy SEAL spot, too. Land, air, sea -- man, those guys are assassins." He gives up, lets go a belly laugh worthy of Mike Myers' affably perverse Dr. Evil.
Gotta get paid, as Mookie the pizza delivery boy said with flat-eyed candor. Lee is building his body of work with real muscle, with something everybody's got to give him props for: profit. Cultural critic Houston A. Baker Jr. applauds Lee for doing what black artists of any discipline rarely manage. "In the manner of a true postmodern, Lee understands that his job is to get 'paid in full' so that he can continue producing films of Black cultural resistance," Baker writes in his essay "Spike Lee and the Commerce of Culture." "His mission is freedom -- that monumental and elusive 'it' that Black folks have always realized they gotta have."
Moneymaking talents aside, Spike Lee's most valuable contribution to the black cause will be his attitude. His brand of resistance is far more subversive than most people realize. While folks squabbled about the light-skin/dark-skin rivalry in School Dazeand the callow interracial dynamic in Jungle Fever, few noticed how absolutely tragic his people were -- full of grand gestures and language, but completely ineffectual in the world at large.
Lee has always said filmically what's been known for the last 10 years but has never been expressed: that black people are often full of sound and fury and funny remarks but little else, that their hopes are often vanquished before the first credits roll. That doesn't mean at all that Lee's people, or Lee himself, have no heart -- they do -- just that they have no answers, no semblance of a journey or larger purpose. And that is perhaps more militant a thought than anything an armchair militant like Baraka, or anyone else expounding on the virtues of a nonexistent black movement, could entertain. Lee once told Henry Louis Gates that he and Eddie Murphy got to talking about assembling a group of 20 or so influential black industry people to finance film projects, cohere around something, do whatever. To which Murphy replied that he would gladly offer his house as a meeting place, but as far as black people getting together over anything -- pleeeeeez! It recalls Robin Harris' heated rejoinder to his street-corner buddies in Do the Right Thing as they sat idle and fantasized about opening a black-owned grocery store in the neighborhood: "I'm tired of hearing that shit," grouses Sweet Dick Willie. "'I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna do that.' You ain't gonna do a goddamn thing . . . I'll tell you what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna go over there and give them Koreans some more of my money."
That's as irreverent and as sobering and as dead-on as it gets, an urban sentiment with far too many layers of meaning to make the final cut of a film like Money Talks,a vehicle for comedian Chris Tucker, a thoroughly unself-conscious descendant of Do the Right Thing's Buggin' Out. For all of their purported gritty "realism," the black films of the last decade have actually sustained a kind of fantasy in which complexity and ambiguity are neatly excised. Lee's last word on the hip-hop rubric: "I understand the 'real deal' argument, the argument that these movies show life as it really is, but there comes a point when you do something that has to elevate. Okay, so you're keeping it real, but we knew that reality all along."
The only answers, Lee believes, are more questions. Can we ask them?
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