When Spike Lee Talks, We Should Listen

Remember Spike Lee? The acclaimed filmmaker was once considered the preeminent film chronicler of the American black experience, but his career has taken a bizarre turn for the worse in recent years. I addressed this issue in depth in my 2012 post, How Obama Killed Spike Lee’s Career, but since then, things have only gotten more dire. His 2012 film, Red Hook Summer, grossed less than $1 million, and last year’s Oldboy – which many predicted would be his return to commercial success – grossed less than $5 million worldwide against its $30 million budget.

Cynics might then suggest that his outburst directed toward an attendee at a NYC event Tuesday night was a ploy for attention, but Lee has always had his finger on the pulse of the black community, and his comments are almost always worthy of consideration. Salon was there on Tuesday night. Here is their take on it:

Lee, who’s been famed for his explorations of class tensions and community ever since his groundbreaking 1989 “Do the Right Thing,” went on to expound about “some bullshit article in the New York Times saying ‘the good of gentrification.’” As Joe Coscarelli reports Wednesday in New York, Spike told the crowd, “I don’t believe that” before launching into an expletive laced seven-minute discourse on the G-word.

“I grew up here in Fort Greene,” he explained. “I grew up here in New York. It’s changed. And why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed-Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better? The garbage wasn’t picked up every motherfuckin’ day when I was living in 165 Washington Park… The police weren’t around. When you see white mothers pushing their babies in strollers, three o’clock in the morning on 125th Street, that must tell you something.”

Lee’s outbursts of anger are regular occurrences, and it’s not my place to ask whether it is warranted in this case. But it does explain why his opportunities to make the kind of films he used to seemed to have dried up. It’s not just because he is a controversial figure. After all, that never stopped him before. Do the Right Thing, his masterpiece, was one of the most controversial films of that year, and it was still nominated for 2 Oscars in major categories (Supporting Actor and Original Screenplay).

The real problem is that Hollywood is uninterested in asking the type of tough questions Lee asked about gentrification on Tuesday night. There is no denying that 2013 was a landmark year for racial films, especially if we measure by volume. 12 Years a Slave is an instant classic and already a hugely important volume in the American film canon. 42 was a rousing, crowd-pleasing telling of a classic civil rights hero, even if it leaned on its “white savior,” Branch Rickey, a bit too much. The terrific Lee Daniels’ The Butler dramatized the ethical issues over “white savior” narratives perfectly and packed an emotional wallop, too.

But are any of these films as incisive and thought-provoking as Do the Right Thing? Or Malcom X? How about Jungle Fever or Crooklyn? Hardly. The films of 2013 are historical in nature; they tell us little about where we are, only where we’ve been. Some critics even suggested that 42 was more about LGBT equality than civil rights, since its setting – the world of professional sports – is where that debate is being played out today.

To be fair, there was one racial film this year that actually looked at our present, not just our past. Fruitvale Station told the tragic story of Oscar Grant, a young black man in San Francisco who was killed by police after a brawl on a public train. The film also marked the emergence of two major black talents – Michael B. Jordan and director Ryan Coogler. Still, its matter-of-fact approach to its subject hardly measures up to the political statements made by Do the Right Thing and Lee’s earlier works.

So while we celebrate racial cinema – which we may be doing again in the wee hours of Sunday night – it is worth considering whether we have actually progressed from where we were 25 years ago, when Lee was inspiring discussion about our racial politics on a near-annual basis, or whether the quantity of racial films hides a qualitative regression.

There are, of course, other ways of measuring our progress on racial equality in film. The success of films featuring mostly black ensembles – such as Ride Along and About Last Night – indicates that Hollywood has nothing against the black community in principle; they certainly have no qualms making money off of it. Meanwhile, the casting of Michael B. Jordan in the Fantastic Four reboot is a landmark moment; for the first time in a Hollywood film, a black actor will depict a superhero nearly always previously depicted as white.

Still, the political and social struggles of the black community – the ones that Lee is now forced to raise offscreen – are mostly absent from the cinematic landscape. And that’s a problem that the Oscars can’t fix.

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3 thoughts on “When Spike Lee Talks, We Should Listen

  1. Very insightful piece. I agree that Lee still has plenty to say but isn’t being given the opportunities to do so. There’s also the issue with the changes in the structure of Hollywood films. Mid-budget movies like Lee would make are now being avoided for the most part (and Oldboy’s lack of success shows it’s not always a bad move). This puts Lee in the position of doing micro-budget indies or something like Inside Man. It’s a tough situation for him, especially given his reputation.

    • I’d chalk Oldboy’s failure to the a lack of marketing and, perhaps, the American public not being psyched about a hyper-violent movie about incest, but in general I agree with you. Directors like Lee are sort of being priced out of the market. I would hope, however, that with the renewed interest in movies that cater to black audiences, he could find some meaningful work again soon.

  2. There’s a very good reason Spike Lee is the greatest black director in America, rather than the greatest director in America. https://roycelerwick.wordpress.com/ Just for the record you can find the most detailed analysis of Spike Lee and his body of work, complete with a very thorough breakdown of Do the Right Thing at my blog. I know this is really old news but the film is not going away any time soon and will continue poisoning generation after generation of young black minds the same way its creator does in person all over the nation, at every opportunity.

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