Photo by David LeeSPIKE LEE'S FEATURE DEBUT, THE 1986 FILM SHE'S Gotta Have It, opens with a quote from Zora Neale Hurston's literary classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, a touchstone of the Harlem Renaissance. The quote, lyrical and incisive, lays out the different ways that men and women dream, and how those gendered dreams play out in the lives of the dreamers. More crucially, though, Hurston addresses the ways the two sexes cope with disappointment, how they even define it. With that passage, Lee wasn't merely setting the stage for his tale, he was grounding his film in history, laying claim to a tradition of politically layered black art — where Hurston sits as patron saint — in which groundbreaking aesthetics and technical virtuosity are put in the service of honoring the lives, voices and experiences of everyday black folk.
It's ironic, then, that on release the film incurred the wrath of many critics — mainly women, but also a few men — who felt that its heroine, Nola Darling, was a flimsily constructed character whose sexual bravado couldn't mask the partial truth that her voice and life were all being filtered through the perceptions and desires of the film's male characters. For these critics, Nola was a symbol of Lee's limitations as an artist; he couldn't get his own shit out of the way long enough to let her breathe. It's a charge leveled (quite fairly) at nearly all the women in the Lee films that immediately followed: the sorority girls in School Daze, the dark-skinned schoolteacher and light-skinned jazz singer in Mo' Better Blues, the white girl in Jungle Fever. Even the depictions of women in Malcolm X came under fire for being gross distortions, or simplifications, of their real-life counterparts.
As time passed, there were other charges. In addition to being labeled misogynistic, Lee was stamped as anti-Semitic, bourgeois, homophobic, self-aggrandizing, overrated. All the criticism came to a head in 1992 with Malcolm X, which received brutal drubbings from both the mainstream press and the black intelligentsia, among them Amiri Baraka, bell hooks and Greg Tate. While some of the carping was justified — hooks complained that Lee's portrayal of Malcolm X's white girlfriend was unjustifiably harsh, fetishistic and inaccurate — the collective criticism had the ferocity of long-simmering resentments and animosities being fired full blast.
Whether due to the controversy surrounding the making of the film, its hostile reception or changes in his personal life (he got married in 1993 and has a young daughter, Satchel, and a son, Jackson), the Spike Lee that's emerged post-X has directed and often written films that offer mea culpas for his earlier political shortcomings without forcing the director to grovel for absolution. Indeed, Malcolm X's journey to Mecca, where the sight of multihued Muslims at prayer sparked a profound shift in his philosophical, political and spiritual beliefs, found a curious parallel in Lee's professional life with the creation of the martyr's biography. Malcolm X is Lee's most conventional film both in structure and feel (it's his David Lean epic), and it represents something of the director's own Mecca: the grand old Hollywood of lavish spectacles and awesome musicals. The experience of making X transformed him deeply. The movies he has made since (Crooklyn, Clockers, the much-maligned Girl 6, Get on the Bus, Four Little Girls and He Got Game) all show the blossoming of an empathetic soul, grace of character and continued aesthetic growth, establishing Lee as one of the most important American directors working today.
GIVEN THE REDUCTIVE WAY THAT LEE'S HISTORY has been written, it's sometimes easy to forget how remarkable his career has been, how important it is, and all that it signifies. When he blazed onto screens in 1986, as writer-director-editor-producer of She's Gotta Have It, as well as the character Mars Blackmon (a brother so unlike anything then being pitched by Hollywood, he had to be from another planet: Brooklyn), he not only kicked off the current end-of-the-century wave of black film, but helped to elevate indie film into pop-culture consciousness.
By unapologetically playing the role of the huckster, Lee shrewdly turned his name into a trademark. He was no longer Spike Lee; he was Spike — in sneaker commercials, in guest spots on Saturday Night Live, on the op-ed pages and on Nightline. In doing so, he drew up a now well-thumbed blueprint for scores of upcoming indie filmmakers, which has done as much harm as good. Few of his successors have had the innate moviemaking talent to balance their naked craving for celebrity. Few have been able to see that, while Spike quickly went on to make a slew of TV commercials and music videos following the success of SGHI, he utilized the language of advertising to market himself and his films without letting that language overwhelm or derail his art. (In truth, Spike was fluent in the language of hip-hop/the street, which was then on the verge of hijacking the mainstream; it's become advertising's new tongue due, in part, to him.) He took that lingo and attached it to larger themes and concerns, including, ironically, the very issue of selling out. Almost all his films, in either plot or subplot, deal with whoring one's self or one's art in some way or another. It's a struggle that's at the core of the American character, and that tension between art and commerce, between indie sensibilities and mainstream dreams, is what fuels the stories Lee tells and the aesthetic he's forged. It's what makes him not just a black artist, but an American artist.
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.
In the 13 years since She's Gotta Have It, Hollywood has hyped a slew of next-big-thing black directors who have crashed and burned on the force of their own mediocrity, many of them having clumsily ripped off Lee's swagger and marketing savvy while possessing little in the way of intelligence or vision to back it up. The indie world, meanwhile, has produced black talent that it can't — or won't — either sustain or graduate to Hollywood. (Exceptions, such as Bill Duke, Carl Franklin and F. Gary Gray, have made it a point to downplay race in their films and career choices, which is political in and of itself.) As an unapologetic race man working in the movies, Lee has forged a stunning career in which he's willed himself to evolve both artistically and politically. That he's done it in the face of often clueless and mean-spirited critics, a less-than-supportive studio system, an indifferent movie audience specifically and, most bafflingly, the indifference of a black audience that claims to be starved for quality work, is testimony to his tenacity and his talent.