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Summer of Spike

Photo by Kathleen Clark
SPIKE LEE HAS A DREAM.

No, it's not to make a biopic about Martin Luther King Jr., though that sounds perfectly logical (no one's done it yet) and pretty Spike-like, a companion piece to his career-defining Malcolm X. People of all colors and ideological persuasions would doubtless groan at his sacrilege, line up their fire before a single camera rolled -- controversy from moment one. That was the Spike Lee of old. The newer version has a fairly modest dream . . . of running a radio station. It would be dedicated to a kind of musical egalitarianism in which black and white, rock and R&B and their various precedents and permutations would share equal groove time. Certainly it would be a station King would approve of.

"Man, I'd play Steely Dan, Bruce Hornsby, Stevie Wonder, a little bit of Frank Sinatra," says Lee. "And I like The Who. I've always liked The Who, that album Who's Next. When I was coming up I couldn't play that stuff loud, though. If I had, people would have been like, 'TURN THAT BAD MUSIC OFF!'" He shouts for effect, between laughs, taps his ears. "Headphones. Got to do it with headphones."

Lee has mellowed since that summer in Cannes when She's Gotta Have It won the Prix de Jeunesse and he complained that it was nothing better than a booby prize, but the large, doleful eyes, bemused smile and laconic Brooklyn accent are still his signifiers. Infinitely more cautious in interviews, he is still prone to pick up a notion and run with it downcourt. "Do black stations now play people like Lenny Kravitz? Jimi Hendrix?" he continues heatedly. "Hell, no! It's sad. When I was growing up in New York, DJs played what they wanted to play. Now, everybody has the same play list -- you don't need a DJ at all."

Spike has to do the spinning or he doesn't play. That's still true. America's most famous (and occasionally infamous) black filmmaker may be more moderately spoken these days, but he is still best known for his self-determination, for doing the projects he wants to do. His latest feature, Summer of Sam, opening in theaters Friday, is a radical departure from everything else in his 15-film canon, mainly because it's the first Spike Lee Joint that is not a putative black film. The stories told against the backdrop of the grisly Son of Sam serial murders of the late '70s are those of white characters, living in decidedly white neighborhoods, which begs the question: Has Spike Lee gone soft? Has he caught the multicultural bug?

Well, let's see. The motley crew of friends and lovers in Summer of Sam are barely-working-class Italian-Americans -- a Spike Lee hallmark since Do the Right Thing, in which Italians provided white counterparts to the emotionally raw and recalcitrant black characters. Racial tensions bubble on the story's surface throughout; at one point, a black neighborhood cop and a Mafia don pick at an open sore as they argue through clenched teeth about who was the better ballplayer, Willie Mays or Mickey ã Mantle. Other details are not strictly racial but are vintage Lee: a close family of running buddies that breeds love and contempt in equal measure; a tight time frame, and the fact that it takes place during one of the hottest summers in New York history, the one that spawned the worst blackout in its history; tempers and paranoia that soar dangerously high; a wrongheaded vigilante mob that gusts up from normally hospitable streets like a waterspout, bent on retribution . . . Hey, it's Do the Right Thing 10 years later, down to the moral ambiguity, though minus the hyperrealism.

That's simplistic, but the comparison is inescapable, and in any case there is no doubt that this is a Spike Lee film, white characters notwithstanding. Face it: If this were a white-directed film, would Mira Sorvino stand at the side of the road screaming at her philanderer husband that she's going to get back at him by enlisting the services of a black man with a prodigious dick? Even Tarantino wouldn't go there.

Lee maintains that he's only doing what he's always been doing, telling a story, singing music in a universal key. The music in Sam, by the way, is his radio dream -- everything from disco to soul to hard rock to punk.

"I DON'T WANT TO SOUND LIKE A BROKEN RECORD, but a good director is a storyteller," Lee says. "I know that people have accused me of not telling a good story, but let me qualify that -- they accuse me of not telling a traditional story with a beginning, middle and end, one in which everything gets tied up in a neat little bow. I try not to do that. Not having a resolution is the way of the world. I mean, how could you possibly get a resolution out of Do the Right Thing?"  

Those bent on resolution have been arguing about that movie since its release in 1989, asking with wounded, bewildered, unanswerable anger, "Why did Mookie throw the trash can through the window?" That moment has been debated ad nauseam by the burgeoning ranks of cultural critics, and appropriated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in a montage of great film moments of the century. Whatever one thinks of Spike Lee, one must credit him with bringing to the screen what it had never previously illuminated: black people of postmodern sensibilities who are neither saints nor demons, who are unsure of each other in ways that have nothing to do with drugs or gangs or overweening social forces like poverty or buppification. Black people referencing nothing and no one but themselves, still steeped in uncertainty about identity and purpose at millennium's end. Which is not to say there's no humor in any of this -- there's plenty -- because Lee shows that without the urgent, solemnizing presence of gangs and drugs and other variants of urban pathology, there's a lot to laugh at. The suffering he depicts is more existential, subtle and of a qualitatively different nature than the suffering in, say, John Singleton's seminal thug-life film Boyz N the Hood.

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 Thing in 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."

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 It that a black film could be both black and commercially successful -- terms that had been nearly mutually exclusive since the mid-'70s and the death (well-deserved, many people said) of blaxploitation flicks like Superfly and 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 Newsweek writer recently suggested, distinctly out of touch with that black youth. Since Malcolm X in 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 It than 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 Sprung and 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.

"Look, if you're a black filmmaker and your film is not successful, it gets that much harder to make another one," Lee says. "Black filmmakers are held to higher fiscal standards than white filmmakers. As black films are being made, black people have to go out and support them, because that stuff is not happening. If you don't go out and see Eve's Bayou, studios take note. They look at the bottom line, money. Hollywood's vision is so narrow in terms of what they think a black audience will see . . . It just makes it that much harder for a black filmmaker to keep going, to put together a body of work."

SUMMER OF SAM IS AN INTRIGUING addition to Lee's corpulent body of work, for more reasons than usual. The most obvious is that it's not about black people, and the idea of the aggressively black director doing a non-black project seems inherently conflicted. It isn't: Sam is in fact a "white" movie with a black sensibility that is fully Lee's, down to the rolling dolly shots, loopy camera angles and cameo appearance by Lee himself as phlegmatic television reporter John Jeffries. Armond White says, without apparent irony, that the film will be Lee's biggest hit in a long time, "because it seems to be about white people, and the only memorable character in his films was Sal the pizzeria man from Do the Right Thing."

"I consider myself a New York director, and this is a New York story," says Lee, shrugging off questions of propriety as he has grown so used to doing. "I was there in New York that summer. I know what it was like."

In true Spike Lee form, the project sparked controversy well before its release date. Survivors of the Son of Sam killing spree, including families of victims and David Berkowitz, the imprisoned murderer himself, have protested what they call the cinematic exploitation of the most harrowing time in their lives. Folks have raised the specter of Lee as a cold, hard capitalist, a self-proclaimed visionary whose real vision is the ongoing agglomeration of fame and wealth. "The madness, the ugliness of the past is resurfacing again -- all because some people want to make some money," the born-again Berkowitz told The New York Times. "I am just so sorry this movie is coming out. I am disappointed in Hollywood and the Walt Disney company."  

Lee knows dangerous waters when he sees them; he maintains, as he has since it premiered in Cannes, that the movie is far less about the murders than about the convergent lives of its fictional characters. "We never thought the film should be about the Son of Sam," he says measuredly. "It's not about a serial killer. That's something we tried to say from the get-go. It's more about the effect this crazy guy had on people, or, as Jimmy Breslin called him in the movie, 'this sick fuck.'" He laughs out loud in spite of the gravity of it all, or at the gross absurdity of it all; it is suddenly easy to see where his movies get their peculiar humor, their casual off-centeredness and, even in their sunniest moments, edges of darkness.

Sam is full of couples, of people orbiting each other -- is it essentially a love story? "What? Who? Between Vinnie and Richie?" Lee exclaims, referring to Adrien Brody's character of indeterminate sexual orientation. He chuckles; he's not telling. "Yeah, well, it's a twisted love story, all the way around. Nobody gets off the hook, with the exception of Mira Sorvino. But it's about relationships. The cross-dresser of the neighborhood, everybody calls him a faggot, but he's their faggot -- he's family."

The soundtrack's eclectic survey of '70s songs -- ABBA's "Dancing Queen," the Emotions' "Best of My Love," Sinatra's gaily bombastic "New York, New York" -- moves the story along as briskly and purposefully as dialogue, connecting feeling to action in ways that words simply can't. The supersaturated colors of the film, which almost bleed into each other at points, serve a similarly visceral purpose: "I wanted to convey the madness," Lee says, "visually and musically."

LEE HAS LONG BEEN ON A FIRST-NAME basis with the rest of the world (to the suggestion that his recognition quotient is up there with Jesse's or Duke's, he half snorts, half laughs), but he has always found time amid the business of being Spike to do the mentor thing. As an executive producer he has aided the careers of such promising young directors as Rusty Cundieff (Tales From the 'Hood), David Johnson (Drop Squad) and two first-timers, his cousin Malcolm Lee and Gina Prince, whose feature debuts are both due out this year. Nor has Lee limited his filmic scope to features: He directed the Oscar-nominated documentary Four Little Girls, which chronicles the fatal Birmingham church bombing that helped catalyze the civil rights movement, and since the '80s he has made dozens of music videos and commercials, the most famous being his Nike spots featuring Michael Jordan and Lee himself doing Mars Blackmon, the memorable bike-messenger Romeo from She's Gotta Have It.

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 Daze and 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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