Director Spike Lee has not released a film during the Obama presidency. This was the man who helmed groundbreaking, commercially successful films on race like “Jungle Fever,” “Malcolm X,” and “Do the Right Thing.” When he arrived on the scene with 1986’s “She’s Gotta Have It,” he was hailed as a brave new voice in American filmmaking and the chronicler of the late 20th century black experience. As time has gone by, his films have become less urgent and far less racial. His only hit in this century was 2006’s “Inside Man,” a heist movie that happened to star Denzel Washington but was in no way a serious work on race. And in the last four years – since Obama has been president – he has not released a movie, period.
During his presidential campaign, Obama positioned himself as the first post-racial candidate. He made us believe that by voting for him we would usher in a new era in which labels like “black” and “white” would grow increasingly irrelevant. He was, of course, uniquely positioned to make this argument, given his background; the effect of his personal story and his rhetoric on this topic was intoxicating. He made affluent whites feel that by simply voting for him they were accomplishing more for black people than we had as a nation since the Civil Rights Act. With their vote, they would cleanse America of its original sin.
But despite that unspoken promise, many Americans remain in a state of de facto segregation. Most whites don’t know the black experience, and what they do know, they learn from the media. Electing a black president has not changed that. In some ways, it has made things worse, since the issue of race is barely discussed in public forums. When black issues are discussed, it is usually in a historically comparative sense. The civil rights era is used today as a point of comparison to discuss immigration issues or the rights of the LGBT community.
Despite the lack of conversation on the subject, there is no doubt that Obama’s election changed the way we look at and talk about race in America. Obama himself said it best in his 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention:
[T]here’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.
In retrospect, that moment was the beginning of Obama’s ascendance to the presidency. It was also the first time he explicitly defined himself as a post-racial candidate. And lastly, it was the end of director Spike Lee’s career. For if there is no black America, what happens to the filmmaker whose job it has been to chronicle it?
Lee’s first true masterpiece was 1989’s “Do the Right Thing,” a drama that took place over the course of one sweltering summer day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, a predominantly black neighborhood. In a key scene, our black protagonist, Mookie, argues with a white colleague, Pino, about race. Mookie questions how Pino can admire some African-Americans, like Prince, Eddie Murphy, and Magic Johnson, but disdain those that live in his community. Listen to his response:
The 1980s, when Prince, Eddie, and Magic reigned supreme, was the era in which the idea of racial transcendence was mainstreamed. And they were not alone. In that decade, black stars Michael Jordan and Bill Cosby were welcomed into the homes of middle-class, white Americans on a regular basis. Cosby eschewed serious discussion of race on his hit television show for fear of losing his audience. The problems that the Huxtables faced were those common in upper-middle class American families. Never did the show discuss poverty, HIV/AIDS, or serious drug use, each of them an epidemic in 1980s black America.
Jordan similarly protected his brand by staying mum on racial politics. When asked why he did not weigh in on a close Senate race in his home state of North Carolina that involved former KKK-member Jesse Helms, he responded, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”
The generation that grew up on “The Cosby Show” and Michael Jordan is the same one that elevated Barack Obama to the White House, and there is much evidence to suggest that were subconsciously linked in the minds of voters. Obama, like Jordan, made his name in Chicago and exhibited in his campaign the same calm under pressure that made Jordan the best to play the game. Of course, Obama, a big sports fan, never hesitated to bring up his fandom of the Bulls. As for the Cosby connection, many newspapers wrote, when describing Obama’s high polling numbers with white, suburban voters, of the “Huxtable effect.” Even his future running mate, Joe Biden, said of Obama that he was the first African-American candidate who was “articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” In other words, he was not what Joe Biden usually thinks of when he thinks of “black.” The fact that Biden’s remark did not prevent him from becoming Obama’s vice-president should be evidence enough that Obama is more concerned with appealing to white than black audiences.
There is no industry that has been more eager to accept the notion of racial transcendence than Hollywood; it’s an idea that is useful to filmmakers who are increasingly pressured to make films with cross-over demographic appeal. But this quest for widespread popularity has a dark side. The films of Obama’s first term portray racial disharmony in an antiquated, conclusory fashion, making everyone feel good about race, without asking audiences to lift a finger or even have an uncomfortable thought. Two such films, “The Blind Side” and “The Help,” were not only massive box-office hits but also were nominated for Best Picture by the mostly-white Academy.
“The Blind Side” and “The Help” connect to white Americans because they reflect the feeling Obama created during the campaign – that America had done something important to help African-Americans. Exposed in these films to the problems of black America, audiences leave the theater feeling that the drama in the film has been resolved – in each case by a white, affluent character.
In “The Help, that character is Skeeter (Emma Stone), a young, ambitious Southern woman who breaks convention by writing a book that compiles the horrible, sometimes hilarious stories of local black housekeepers. Skeeter is, for all intents and purposes, a modern woman and seems completely out of place in early 1960s Mississippi. She wants to work, not marry. She despises any form of prejudice, which is odd because most of her friends are unabashed racists. Skeeter is an accessible and sympathetic entry point into the story for a modern, white audience, but the implication in her characterization is troubling. She helps an entire community of oppressed African-Americans housekeepers by giving them a voice. She is, in a small way, freeing them. The implication is that the politics of today – represented in this modern woman – have rectified the politics of the past, and in this way, “The Help” asks us to believe that race is no longer an issue in America, as long as there are millions of young Skeeters out there.
It is a similar story in “The Blind Side,” which was based on true events. Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for the role of Leigh Anne Tuohy, a strong, willful Southern housewife who takes a poor black young man, Michael, into her home and teaches him to assimilate into white society, represented by a large football program at a southern state university. We share Leigh’s sadness when we hear of Michael’s poor upbringing.
But we are also asked to be thrilled when she takes the “street” out of him. A pivotal moment comes when he tells her that he hates being called “Big Mike,” the moniker he has been saddled with since childhood. He prefers being called “Michael.” In this moment, he transcends his previous existence in a poor, African-American community. It is almost as if he is casting off his slave name.
In both films, the central African-American characters are rescued from the bonds of the black experience, yet there is little care taken to relay what happens to them afterwards. The real Michael went on to play in the NFL, a profession in which ex-players are increasingly suffering from mental illness and suicide – due to the high number of concussions they suffer during their career. Given the opportunities afforded to him by living with Leigh Anne and her rich husband, perhaps a career as a modern-day gladiator was not the finest choice, but it is in reality the best choice for some who grow up in inner cities without education.
In the final scene of “The Help,” Aibeleen, the middle-aged housekeeper whose story we have been following, is fired by her boss. As she walks away from her home, she tells us that she feels free for the first time and that she never took a similar job again. But she never shares with us how she earned a living. It is as if not working for an oppressive white boss is enough; but what will she do with her newfound freedom? What other jobs exist for a middle-aged black woman with no education or experience? These are the questions that are not asked in a post-racial film, and they are questions that have not been asked enough by our current post-racial president.
Blacks continue to suffer from the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, obesity, death from cancer, and infant mortality. But Obama has done little to improve federal nutrition programs. He has stood idly by while Republicans cut food stamp benefits. He has extended the Bush tax cuts that favor the wealthy and refused to tackle a tax reform plan that does not continue to burden the poor. He has been nearly invisible on education. And he has been worse than that on the War on Drugs.
Of course, most of these are not racial issues per se. They are class and economic issues. And this is the problem with a post-racial president. Because of how he framed his candidacy, Obama allowed middle and upper-class whites to bump the issue of racism far down their list of urgent American problems and, in doing so, gave them the liberty to ignore the class issues that so disproportionately affect minorities.
And so with the black experience so far from our minds these days, the skills of Spike Lee have just not been called for. In fairness, his problems getting funding for his films have not solely been the result of a post-racial environment. His most recent feature films about the black experience (“She Hate Me” and “Bamboozled”) have been wildly uneven and even more controversial than normal.
So instead, Lee took his talents to cable. In 2008, the year Obama was elected, Lee produced and directed “When the Levees Broke,” a powerful and urgent two-part documentary on Hurricane Katrina that focused specifically on how the disaster affected poor, black communities in New Orleans. It was an important film that exposed suffering that had been glossed over by the mainstream media. But he had to make it at HBO, which is not beholden to ratings or ticket sales, and it’s doubtful that a major studio would ever have sponsored such a project or that most of American has even heard of it.
Lee’s next film is “Red Hook Summer,” in which he reprises his role from “Do the Right Thing” as Mookie. But interestingly, the film is not about race. Its subject is religion, which may have replaced race as the divisive American institution of the day. Even “Red Hook Summer” has obtained only a miniscule distribution. You will have to live in a major urban area to see it.
And so Lee appears to be a casualty of post-racialism, albeit one that no one will cry any tears for. He has made his millions. But as a reflection of white perception of the black experience, his disappearance is a real loss. We have lost a powerful voice for the poor and a filmmaker who made visible that which society tries to hide. He could have been Obama’s counterpoint from the left, someone who pushed him away from his comfortable spot in the center. Instead, next year Lee is remaking “Oldboy,” a hyper-violent Japanese thriller. If it does well enough, maybe someone will give him a chance to make a serious movie again. In the meantime, we will wait patiently and simply hope that our original sin is not just hidden or dormant but truly redeemed by a single election.