iSteve commenter Anon (a.k.a., Titles in Caps, etc etc) summarizes Spike Lee, whose latest movie, the celebrated but fairly terrible BlacKkKlansman, I reviewed in Taki’s this week. Spike is one of those 1980s figures like Oliver Stone who remain of interest to guys of a certain age, like me and Anon.
I’ll give one compliment to Spike Lee. He tried to be an artist. Maybe not a good one, but he tried.
He often said the only working American director he really looks up to is Martin Scorsese. Not a bad as Scorsese has been far and away the best American director since the 1970s.In style, Depalma could be just as formidable — CARLITO’S WAY, what a masterwork –, and Spielberg is second to none as showman with fireworks. But as artist, Scorsese had the best run. And even his failures are not total disasters (like some by Altman and Depalma).
So, I can appreciate Spike trying to be like Scorsese. But then, trying to be isn’t the same as being. Many tried to be like Kubrick but came nowhere close.
1. Lack of humility. Scorsese has been a bundle of energy and must have had self-confidence to have done what he did. But he was also a man of profound humility and curiosity, great appreciation for the masters who came before him. In contrast, Lee was infected by that black megalomania, as if all the blings belong to him.
Even after Scorsese made masterpieces like RAGING BULL and GOODFELLAS, he didn’t go around saying he deserves this award, that award. He’s been very gracious to his peers.
Scorsese was pretty heavy into cocaine in the later 1970s. But he got off it and it didn’t seem to ruin either his health or his character. Cocaine seems to be a drug that seeks out character flaws and exacerbate them. But, contra Fitzgerald, Scorsese went on to enjoy a pretty spectacular second act in American life. In truth, and a third act after the Scorsese’s megalomania got out of hand with Gangs of New York, but he geared back and made more audience friendly movies.
My vague impression is that Spike is a fairly clean liver, but one who doesn’t like to preach about it to other blacks. He got criticized, not unreasonably, for leaving out drugs from his portrayal of black life in 1989′s Do the Right Thing. But when he finally turned to addressing crack in Samuel L. Jackson’s breakout role as a crack addict in 1991′s Jungle Fever, he delivered a doozy. Of course, a lot of that was Samuel L. Jackson, one of the all time great supporting character actors, finally getting a showcase role.
But Lee? Total jerk. Bitching about not winning at Cannes. Whining, bitching, and harping like a baby throwing tantrums. Lee’s basic nastiness of character prevented him from learning and developing as an artist.
I suspect so. It’s an interesting empirical question whether being a jerk hurts a career in the arts in the long run on average. It can help at the beginning of a career – within a half dozen years of his first movie, Spike was one of more famous people in America, even without a particularly popular movie. But then … his movies stopped getting better.
Every time he made a movie, he’d act like he was making an Event that everyone should pay attention to. At least Ali was a big personality, and his megalomania was fun and endearing. With kermit-faced Lee, it was like suffering Yoko Ono.
2. Preachiness + Tribalism. Moral and spiritual meanings are found in Scorsese films, but they are not preachy. Also, just because Scorsese is Italian-Americans and feels rapport with the community doesn’t make him go easy on his own people. In contrast, Lee’s films are like the works of Stanley Kramer that were heavy with the Message. Lee made movies around issues and topics than around characters and meanings. So, DO THE RIGHT THING is about Race Relations. JUNGLE FEVER is about race and sex. MO BETTER BLUES is about, well, ‘a black guy is entitled to make the best movie on jazz.’ (It doesn’t work that way.) MALCOLM X is a Black Nationalism 101. Black Spartacus. It’s like reading a magazine article on some subject or other.
Unlike Scorsese who presents tribalism as a feature of life, Lee practices tribalism as an film-maker, and this undermines even his preachiness. In DO THE RIGHT THING, the message is clear. It doesn’t matter how much Sal tries to be a nice guy. It doesn’t matter how much Raheem is a damn fool. In the end, Lee sides with blacks because he’s black.
Now, such tribalism is part of life, but an artist is supposed to dig deeper than ‘my side right or wrong’. Also, it undermines the preachy morality because Lee himself is unwilling to rise above tribalism. Why preach to us about justice when Lee’s ultimate consciousness is ‘blacks must stick together?’
3. Dishonesty. Whatever Scorsese’s real-life politics or views may be, he was honest as an artist. Sure, there were some things he couldn’t do. He couldn’t make the pimps black in TAXI DRIVER. And the Jews in WOLF OF WALL STREET had to be made more ‘white’. But there’s a sense of life with all the delirium, chaos, corruption, and venality. MEAN STREETS is raw and honest about what goes on in the underbelly of Little Italy. Sidney Lumet was comparable to Scorsese with DOG DAY AFTERNOON and PRINCE OF THE CITY, but he got progressively worse and formulaic later on.
Lee would like us to believe that he is a truth-seeker and teller-like-it-is, but there’s something essentially phony and rigged about his stories. Contrary to DTRT’s presentation of race relations, the ONLY group that caused real problems for everyone in NY were blacks. While every group may have gripes against others, it wasn’t very serious. Even Jews and Muslims pretty much get along just fine in NY except on issues of foreign policy. Whatever Mexicans and Chinese say about one another behind closed doors, they don’t cause each other trouble. The problem is blacks vs everyone else. If Lee were truly honest, he would reveal why blacks cause so much trouble. They are tougher, meaner, more aggressive, and look down on other races. But he won’t go there and just run the same old BS with black fist salutes.
4. Lack of nuance or subtlety. Now, one can be an artist without refined sensibility or much wit. But some of Lee’s stylistic antics are just plain dumb. When the kid in CROOKLYN goes to visit the suburbs, Lee goes for squeeze-frame. It’s about the most hare-brained way of conveying alienation. Spielberg with ET in the suburbs had a subtler touch than Lee with the black girl.
Another lack of subtlety is the out-and-out Negrolatry. It’s one thing to have a profound feeling for one’s people. It’s quite another to turn them into sacred objects. In CROOKLYN, the little girl is more than girl. She is black angel-goddess of the Nile. It goes beyond mere sentimentality. It’s a form of idolatry, like the use of APPALACHIAN SPRING for HE GOT GAME.
In AMERICAN HISTORY X (by Tony Kaye), the idolatry was used ironically — white anxiety wrapped in exaggerated cult of the ubermensch until the hero finally rediscovers his humanity — but Lee is too busy turning black faces and black bodies into sacred objects. Lee might have been happier as a painter or graphic art (in advertising).
Spike’s Nike ads with Michael Jordan caused a sensation three decades ago. Spike is a wealthy man and I would imagine (although I don’t know) that the majority of his earnings have come from the advertising rather than movie business.
When characters are turned into sacred relics, they are rendered boring and predictable (which is why I don’t like some of Robert Redford’s movies with its saintlike characters or holy-schmoly preachy messages; he avoided it in THE CONSPIRATOR, a good movie, but it bombed).
5. Envy. Even though Scorsese may have wished he had the box office successes of his peers, he chose his own path and stuck to it without complaint. In contrast, Lee was consumed with envy for Quentin Tarantino, not least because the latter copped things from Blaxploitation flicks of the 70s. Blaxploitation movies were big for a time in the 70s, but they vanished almost overnight around the mid 70s, and most blacks were embarrassed about most of them, just like everyone dropped disco almost overnight in the early 80s. So, when Lee came into his own, he wanted to be a serious film-maker, not some throwback to trashy 70s blaxploitation. Besides, he graduated from the prestigious NYU film school.
The Lees are Talented Tenth, or higher. Spike is a 4th generation college grad and 3rd generation Morehouse grad. His grandmother gave him $25,000 in the mid-80s to make his first film. I like Spike’s image of himself, like Francis Ford Coppola’s, as the latest paterfamilias of an old and cultured family. Of course, in real life, Spike and his father, having similar personalities, don’t get along.
But then, this kid comes along. He didn’t even go to film school. He looks like a retard and talks really funny. But he makes this movie with cool black hoodlums (copped from 70s blaxploitation films) where people (Samuel Jackson included) say the n-word a million times, and everyone loves it and calls it one of the greatest film since CITIZEN KANE.
Then, Tarantino gets even more explicit about blaxploitation and has another hit with JACKIE BROWN. Now, Lee is beside himself with envy and resentment. Here he was, a serious black director who put aside childish things and made SERIOUS-themed movies like DTRT and MALCOLM X, but this punkass white kid comes along and makes mishmash PoMo movie that blends blaxploitation with French New Wave and TV sitcom. He wins with both critics and audience.
Also, NO ONE ever said Lee’s movies were cool and hip.
Spike’s Nike ads with MJ were popular with the frequent flier set. Frequent fliers are a lucrative market, but not the coolest.
Even his jazz movie was admired for its seriousness, its ‘corrective’ as an authentic jazz movie made by a black guy. Lee was a serious guy, and critics were earnest in praising him. It was duty-bound. Good medicine for all. But it turns out that the critics weren’t really liking him and his movies all that much.
DTRT was over-praised but it was understandably why. It came after the Reagan 80s when most blacks in movies were happy sidekicks (like in GHOSTBUSTERS) or goofballs, like Eddie Murphy. So much of the black experience was hardly touched upon by Hollywood. Also, liberal directors were too goody-goody in presenting blacks as angels. Generally, black characters were either too good to be true, like the COSBIES (or BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET or COLOR PEOPLE) or thugs to be shot (like in SUDDEN IMPACT) or taught a lesson (like in ROCKY III). (Oliver Stone depicted blacks more realistically in PLATOON and BORN ON 4TH.)
So, given the record of depiction of blacks in the 80s, DTRT seemed like a necessary corrective about the real reality. And to Lee’s credit, he was willing to show the nasty side of blacks in DTRT.
In a way, Liberals were grateful to Lee for showing some of the ugly side of the black community that white directors were too afraid to show. Even as they endorsed Lee’s overall pro-black message, their subconscious was hoping that, via Lee’s airing of urban black pathologies, there could be a more honest discussion of race. (As it happened, NY got worse in the 90s under Stinkin Dinkins, and if NY got back on its feet, it required the DIRTY HARRY policies of Giuliani and Bloomberg, something NYers under DeBlasio are unwilling to admit.)
Anyway, when push came to shove, Lee chose tribalism, and there were many falsehoods throughout DTRT. Still, it made Lee’s name as a SERIOUS filmmaker, and he thought he would make a bunch of more SERIOUS movies and become admired like Scorsese.
But when Tarantino made PULP FICTION, critics flocked to him and left Lee in the dust. Tarantino made Lee feel like Jeb Bush after Trump got all the love. Lee felt like the Queen in SNOW WHITE.
Pre-PULP-FICTION, critics were respectfully sucking up to Lee even though they weren’t much enjoying his movies. (Similarly, critics always pretended to appreciate the serious movies of John Sayles when they didn’t much care. Sayles made one really good movie, BABY IT’S YOU, and it’s non-political. But stuff like MATEWAN are deadly in their preachiness and iconography of the Noble Worker. No way to make a work of art. Same thing with Beatty’s REDS. Pure ego-trip and syrupy sentimentalism of radicalism. Notice no one cares about MATEWAN or REDS. But then, the New Left lost interest in the working class anyway.)
Anyway, if anything drove Lee crazy, it was the success of Tarantino. Here, I can partly sympathize because apart from RESERVOIR DOGS, I think Tarantino has been an utterly useless director( though I admit PF and IB have flashes of brilliance and lots of inventiveness). Also, Taratino’s influence on cinema has been baleful.
Still, if rap and hip-hop were the music of the 90s, Tarantino was more into the groove of the time than Lee was. In terms of sheer sensibility, I prefer Lee’s seriousness to Tarantino’s hipster glibness. But Tarantino not only understood the Zeitgeist better but played a role (however negative) in changing the culture. For awhile, he was a one-man-redefinition of Independent Cinema, a spell that was finally broken perhaps with MULHOLLAND DR., which became the new gold standard of independent film-making and has influenced several directors since.
But in the 90s, it’s like everyone wanted to be the New Tarantino. I’m sure DJANGO UNCHAINED also pissed off Lee to no end. Again, Tarantino took elements of blaxploitation with spaghetti western and maybe what he saw on Ken Burns and made a smash hit. It was trashy but both critics and audience loved it. In contrast, Lee’s movies were being ignored by both critics and audience. He tried to be Tarantino-ish with remake of OLD BOY, but it didn’t go anywhere.
But Lee finally has his Tarantino Moment. The rise of Trump and Alt Right gave him something he can get easy A’s with. Just make a Hate-Whitey movie, and the critics will love him and shower him with endless accolades. Also, riff on blaxploitation, not least by making a movie that is set in the 70s when blacks had them bigass afros. And cook up some convoluted plot that allows for jokes and hijinks. Thus, he could be preachy as usual but also hip with some jiveass story about some cool black dude who pulls some jazzy shit to fool honkey.