Spike Lee Does Not Bite
Joe Queenan interviewed Spike Lee for the October 1996 cover story of Movieline magazine. If you have been reading the Movieline articles posted here, then you know that Queenan is a divisive figure. He can be funny. But he can also come across as arrogant and abrasive. You could say the same about writer-director Spike Lee. Both men come away from this interview clearly annoyed with one another. I will be interested to see who readers side with, so let me know in the comments section.
I don’t know any white people who like Spike Lee. I know white people who used to like Spike Lee, but that was before his anti-white tirades, his publicly going to bat for the likes of Mike Tyson and Albert Belle, and his perceived ubiquitousness caused him to wear out his welcome with the race that, let’s face it, runs this country. In saying this, I am aware that I cannot speak for all white Americans, just as Lee cannot speak for all black Americans. But I can speak for a lot of them.
From the moment his career took off, Spike Lee has been dogged by two irksome paradoxes. On the one hand, he has become the champion of an underclass to which he does not actually belong. This got some members of the media on his case, because once they discovered that Lee was not an oppressed inner-city youth but the product of a thoroughly middle-class background, many journalists decided that the irascible filmmaker was a bit of a fake, a conclusion their white readers no doubt wholeheartedly endorsed.
Nor did Lee’s public masquerade as a pop revolutionary win many plaudits from the press gallery, if only because real revolutionaries do not do Nike commercials, do not direct videos shown on MTV, do not hang out with Michael Jordan, and do not have courtside seats at Madison Square Garden. In the eyes of many, perhaps most, whites, nobody with court-side seats at Madison Square Garden has the right to criticize American society. People sitting up in the cheap seats can criticize American society all they want. You Woody Allens and John McEnroes and Alec Baldwins better keep your damn mouths shut. You too, Spike.
All this notwithstanding, I would like to say a couple of things in Spike Lee’s defense. In portraying the misfortunes of a class (the poor) to which he does not actually belong, Lee has done nothing that has not been done a thousand times over by novelists, painters, playwrights, rock stars. What, you think Springsteen actually worked in a factory?
More pertinently, Lee deserves credit for not going Hollywood like Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg and Michael Jackson. Unlike many African-American artists who are black when it is convenient to be black, but then retreat into the amorphous race that all superstars belong to, Spike Lee is black 24 hours a day. Had he chosen the obvious career path after his brilliant and hilarious (though not wildly popular) School Daze was released, Lee would now be churning out formulaic $45 million comedies about the misadventures of lovable African-American suburbanites (Home, Black and Alone II), instead of making, say, his $2.8 million film Get On The Bus, about 15 black men riding on a bus to the Million Man March in Washington last fall. Instead of becoming a dark-skinned Chris Columbus or the African-American Joe Dante, Lee has continued to make interesting, complex, thought-provoking films. When white directors shun Hollywood and persist in making interesting, complex, thought-provoking films, they get good seats at Elaine’s and totally undeserved Academy Awards. When Spike Lee does it, he gets dissed.
That pretty much constitutes my entire defense of Spike Lee the Man. The Spike Lee who pillories white America and then shills for Nike, the Spike Lee who signs on to make an HBO feature about the slugging dickhead Albert Belle, the Spike Lee who pauses in the middle of an interview conducted at his 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene to tell me how glad he is that the sex offender/college hoops star Richie Parker got a second chance is either a complete enigma or a complete … well, let’s not get personal.
Look at it this way: Either Spike Lee has devised some idiosyncratic philosophy whereby all these contradictions cohere in some otherwise unintelligible fashion, or he just does this stuff because he knows that it really annoys people. Personally, having just interviewed him, I now think that he does it because he knows that it really annoys people. At no time during our tête-à-tête in the gorgeous converted firehouse that is the base of his operations do I get the sense that Spike Lee cares about annoying people. He’s not mean or coarse or vulgar or belligerent or even unfriendly. He’s just annoying.
The tradition of annoyingness from which Spike Lee derives a large part of his personality may well be a European rather than a Brooklyn one. Generations ago, the French developed the concept of épater le bourgeois, which, loosely translated, means; “Do everything humanly possible to get on middle-class people’s nerves.” The Dadaists did it, the Surrealists did it, the Absurdists like Ionesco and Genet did it all the time. Tellingly, one of the things that the bourgeoisie always found so annoying about this was that the offending artists depended for their livelihood on the very people they were annoying. The artists didn’t care. And that just made them more annoying.
I think that Spike Lee falls squarely into this group. I do not think that Lee is simply a “world-class hustler,” to use one critic’s dismissive term, a calculating huckster who does and says annoying things because he thinks it will sell more tickets to his films. I think that Lee honestly believes that artists have a sacred obligation to get under the public’s skin, to constantly rock the boat, to boldly don the mantle of annoyingness. It is a mantle he wears quite well.
Unfortunately, Spike Lee the Man has drawn so much attention to himself that he has diverted attention away from Spike Lee the Filmmaker. So much has been made of Lee’s hot-blooded rhetoric that almost no one has noticed how thoroughly intelligent, thoughtful, innovative and evenhanded most of his films are. Looking at Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X and Clockers, you really have to wonder what all this fuss about Spike Lee’s racial attitudes is about. As opposed to Spike Lee the Public Figure, Spike Lee the Director makes films that are nuanced sensitive and remarkably free of political cant. Indeed, in a society where white people get all bent out of shape about the way Caucasians are depicted in his films–most of which they have never seen–it is Lee’s treatment of black people, and particularly of black men, that should be the most controversial subject.
Ranging from Samuel L. Jackson’s crackhead thug in Jungle Fever to Delroy Lindo’s malefic drug dealer in Clockers, Lee has not hesitated to portray certain members of the black community as mesmerizingly unappealing figures. And when they have not been villains, they have often been clowns (the preposterous black fraternity members in School Daze, the boom box-toting lunkhead in Do the Right Thing, Wesley Snipes‘s cheating spouse in Jungle Fever, Lee’s one-dimensional pussy hound in She’s Gotta Have It). While certain white critics have gotten all hot and bothered about the alleged anti-Semitic portrayals of the jazz club owners in Mo’ Better Blues, hardly anyone has noticed how regularly, and mischievously, Lee has used his films to criticize or at least satirize members of his own ethnic group. It’s as if white America has said: it’s OK to cast your fellow African-Americans in an unflattering light, because you’re black and that’s your turf, but for God’s sake, leave our ethnic groups alone. In other words, only us drunken Micks can make films about us drunken Micks: only us racist Italians can make movies about us racist Italians.
As a matter of fact, one of the things that is most remarkable about Lee’s films is how accurately he portrays white people. Name a film where a yuppie schmuck has been brought to life with more precision than Tim Robbins in Jungle Fever. Tell me that Nicholas Turturro and his candy shop henchmen in that film aren’t the spitting images of the boys from Bensonhurst. Or that Danny Aiello and Harvey Keitel don’t fit the bill as the Racists with Hearts of Gold in Do the Right Thing and Clockers, respectively. For a clearer idea of Lee’s achievement, try to imagine a major white director making a movie about people from Bedford-Stuyvesant and coming within 10 miles of the target. Jim Jarmusch? Oliver Stone? Brian De Palma? The Woodman?
“What people don’t realize is that when you’re a minority you know everything about the majority culture, because you’re bombarded with that every single day.” Lee patiently explains to me while looking out the window at Brooklyn Hospital, “So I think that Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans know everything about white culture, because that’s all we see. That’s always on television, radio and in the newspapers. The reverse is not the same.”
Since he’s so good at it, I ask Lee if he could make an entire movie about white people. I suggest that after the less-than-blockbuster box office take for Crooklyn, Clockers and Girl 6, it might be a good idea to pull a The Age of Innocence and make a movie completely outside the range of his normal experience.
But Lee doesn’t take the suggestion in the spirit it was intended.
“It would have to be a good story,” he snaps. “But I’m not going to do that to validate myself to show that I’m not a racist. I get asked that all the time: ‘When are you going to do a film with white people in it?'”
It just so happens that Spike has had plans to make one. The project, Reliable Sources, postponed for now, features a script by Joe Eszterhas and deals with a reporter involved in a hostage situation.
“I think the majority of those characters are white,” says Lee.
Lee’s problems raising cash for his long-planned Jackie Robinson biopic in the wake of the cost overruns on Malcolm X and the far-from-thrilling response to Crooklyn, Clockers and Girl 6 are no doubt a big part of why he has just finished making a quickie film for $2.8 million. Get On the Bus deals with 15 black men who trek from Los Angeles to Washington in October 1995 to attend the Million Man March. Funded by African-American men such as Wesley Snipes and Danny Glover, it stars Ossie Davis, Isaiah Washington, Richard Belzer, Charles Dutton and a host of other fine performers, all of whom worked for scale. The characters include a gay couple, a policeman, an elder states-man, and a father and son who are shackled together by court order. The obvious question: what kind of movie can you make for $2.8 million?
“A very good one,” Lee explains. “You just don’t have a lot of the toys. You know, you don’t stay at the best hotels–all that stuff that really has nothing to do with filmmaking. All the money has to be on screen.”