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Spike Lee: Looking Back

X was a disappointment, and Crooklyn a disaster. What has happened to Spike Lee?

Alan A. Stone

Frantz Fanon, the visionary Black psychiatrist, described how "The Wretched of the Earth" under the yoke of colonialism had repudiated their African identity and, with feelings of shame and inferiority, covered their "Black faces with White masks." But even in Fanon's lifetime, a dialectical counter-movement had already begun as Whites discovered the beauty, mystery, and power of African art and African-American music. Elvis Presley and the Beatles were not the first performers who got their start by putting Black masks in front of their White faces and imitating the style and mannerisms of African-Americans.

Today the inspiration for mass popular culture in all its forms comes, in surprising measure, directly from the inner-city ghettos of the United States. African-American music, dance, dress, coiffure, argot, style, and the "Brother's" handshake, are to be found on every continent. No longer wearing the "white masks" of their colonizers, African-Americans have embarked on their own cultural colonization of the world.

Spike Lee, the most important African-American film-maker of his generation, is preoccupied with both sides of this dialectic: the shame of internalized oppression and the satisfaction of unselfconscious cultural exuberance. But discarding the "white mask" of acculturation is not a simple matter, as the struggle for Black pride and African-American identity makes clear. Most of Lee's films reflect his obsession with this problem of personal and collective identity.

Lee believes that Black audiences are starving for Black films -- films made by Blacks for Blacks. His premise is certainly correct in the sense that African-Americans have rarely had the opportunity to see films in which the larger than life hero and heroine are Black. For almost a century, in the medium that more than any other has constituted the images of modern consciousness, Blacks have watched the members of their race presented in demeaning and humiliating roles that reinforce racist stereotypes. When major studios finally recognized the box-office importance of Black audiences, they gave them generic sex and violence with Black faces. Lee certainly had a hunger to feed. Moreover, setting out in this direction made good artistic sense. He had a better chance of making authentic movies if, in addressing himself to Black audiences, he plumbed his own life experiences. That is exactly how Bergman, Fellini, Allen, and most of the other "auteurs" began.

Of course a successful film-maker, like any artist, has to be more than autobiographical. He must be able to imagine the experiences of others as well as to reimagine his own. He must be a technical master of his medium. And, to produce works of genius, he must find the universal in the particular images he creates, transcend his subcultural confines, and speak to humanity at large. Bicycle Thief, Wild Strawberries, Rashomon, La Strada, A Night at the Opera, Citizen Kane, Potemkin, On the Waterfront, Hiroshima mon Amour, Last Tango in Paris, and Annie Hall are some of the films that, in my view, meet that artistic standard.

Spike Lee has twice come close to that mark. His very first film, She's Gotta Have It, was a jewel -- imperfectly cut, but still a jewel. He survived the disaster of his second film and made Do the Right Thing. Although he is tired of hearing his White critics say so, this was clearly his greatest achievement. Since then, his films have begun to show signs of creative uncertainty and even amateurish confusion. It may be too early to say that Lee is on a declining trajectory, but Malcolm X was certainly less than had been expected and his latest film, Crooklyn, made less of a stir than his own hijinks performance as a Knick's fan at the NBA playoffs. To be sure, Lee may get his second creative wind, but there is now a question about whether his insistent political agenda stands in the way of his creative talents and future commercial success.

Lee's interest in making films for Black audiences has taken a decided Black separatist turn. Provincialism is no absolute barrier to an auteur, as the history of film demonstrates. (Consider, for example, Ray, De Sica, or Bergman). But to succeed, provincialism requires an artist who plumbs the depths of his narrow world and finds images that send a chill down the spine of everyone in his audience. Spike Lee's "separatism" seems to have led him not into autobiographical depths but into blind alleys of personal nostalgia that stifle rather than enhance his brash and mischievous talent.

Films can be budgeted and made for Black audiences, but it would be a mistake to think that African-Americans are so hungry that they will turn out for any film addressed to them. The disastrous reception of Crooklyn should prove that point even to Spike Lee. Moreover, for a film to make real money, it needs a broader audience.

Because Lee makes his movies for Blacks, there have always been problems for his White "cross-over" audiences. He has acknowledged how common it is for Black audiences to laugh and react out loud to his movies, while White audiences tend to sit quietly and squirm uncomfortably. Part of the problem is that White audiences do not always understand Black English -- the idiom and the colloquial expressions of the Black Ghetto or the Black Church. I happened to attend Mo' Better Blues, the fourth of Spike Lee's seven movies, with two African-American friends and I had to resist the nearly continuous impulse to ask them, What's so funny? Indeed, seeing a Spike Lee movie at Cinema 57 in downtown Boston is a "happening" compared to seeing the same film in an all-White suburban multiplex.

There is, however, another reason many Whites do not laugh at Spike Lee's humor. Even when we understand it, we do not appreciate the joke, which is usually at our expense. Humor, of course, can be insensitive and cruel, and Spike Lee's humor is presented from the Black perspective for Black audiences. White filmgoers are not accustomed to being the outsiders who are the butt of insider jokes and stereotypes. Spike Lee is sophisticated about his medium and very much aware of how he is tilting or transforming the stereotypes for his "starving" Black audiences. Lee grew up in the only Black family in an Italian neighborhood, and has acknowledged that Italians might be offended by the way he has stereotyped them in Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever, but he responds: "look at the stereotypes of African-Americans in Sylvester Stallone's Rocky films."

The comparison is apt: all of Stallone's characters, Black and White, are stereotypes and, with a few notable exceptions, so are Lee's. Spike Lee lives and dies by stereotypes, be they positive or negative. He is a master of social situations, an artist of quick camera brush strokes. He is not much interested in depth psychology or character development, and he treats most of the White characters in his movies the way Blacks were treated for most of this century -- as two dimensional cartoon personalities who confirm the audience's negative preconceptions. As an artistic matter, this is not a fatal flaw; Gone With the Wind was filled with stereotypes (Black and White). Lee gets into artistic trouble with his stereotypes not because they are cruel and demeaning but because they are weird, and this is typically the case with his depiction of Whites. Weird caricature can be funny and interesting but it also turns the person into a thing, makes the subject into an object. The two Jewish owners of the nightclub in Mo' Better Blues, and the two Wasp owners of the architectural firm in Jungle Fever are hand puppets, not real people. These unrealistic caricatures seem out of place in the social situation Lee creates for them.

Lee's artistic problem has a practical side: he has been turning off the cross-over audiences he needs at the box office if he wants to make big movies. Whites want more than weird stereotypes from Spike Lee and many were troubled by the ambiguous message with which Lee concluded Do the Right Thing, a film about America's racial crisis. The film ended with two quotations. One quote was from Martin Luther King, Jr., the Christian apostle of reconciliation and non-violence. The other quote was from Malcolm X, the Muslim apostle of Black separatism and, when necessary, Black violence. The film left the audience wondering, but Lee wrote about his ambiguous ending: "Yep, we have a choice, Malcolm or King. I know who I'm down with." Lee is "down with" Malcolm X. Important films often challenge their audiences but if they are to feel the challenge, movie-goers need someone on the screen with whom they can identify. Only in Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever did Lee meet that need for his cross-over White audience.

When Lee writes and speaks to the media, he is much more political and acerbic than his movies are. Many people who know him only from the pages of The New York Times have decided that he is a vicious and dangerous anti-Semite who panders to Black racism and allies himself with divisive people like the Reverend Al Sharpton. At the very least in his public persona he has a chip on his shoulder and an "us versus them" mentality. But if Spike Lee is "nasty," his films have become increasingly bland. Instead of worrying his White audiences as he did in Do the Right Thing, he has committed the artistic sin of boring them.

Though peopled with stereotyped characters, Do the Right Thing was certainly a better and more original film about race relations in America than the Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy. That film showed an elderly White Jewish Lady and her aged Black chauffeur reconciled in their status as victims of social injustice. This is the traditional liberal vision of Jews and Negroes who find common cause and mutual concern in shared suffering. As we move to the end of the 20th century, Driving Miss Daisy is sentimental escapism. It reproduces the subordinating stereotypes that Black artists like Spike Lee will no longer accept for themselves or present to their audiences. The Black chauffeur, even if "uppity" and standing on his dignity, is not their role model. Lee, like Malcolm X, no longer wants reconciliation on White terms. But if Malcolm X is Lee's political inspiration, separatism has doused Lee's artistic fire.

Although I have emphasized Lee's political and racial agenda, his artistic talents and interests are light, not heavy. He is no ideologue and, despite being a visiting professor at Harvard, shows no evidence of being bookish. Like many other contemporary directors, Lee, when he wasn't glued to the television set, grew up on movies and has a deep understanding of the medium. He loves the Hollywood glamour, the technicolor extravaganza, the musical comedy production numbers, the cartoons, the whole cinema world of make-believe. As a movie-maker (writer, actor, director), he is in orbit around his own ego, yet he knows how to collaborate. He is an artist by instinct -- more Charlie Chaplin than Orson Welles.

His first film, She's Gotta Have It, is an anarchic celebration of sexuality. It tells the story of a Black woman, Nola Darling, who uninhibitedly enjoys sex with each of her three Black lovers. Her bed is an altar lit with hundreds of votive candles that ceremonialize her rites of sensuality. Despite the fantasy-fulfilling sexual satisfaction she gives and takes from each of her lovers, each is unhappy that she refuses to make an exclusive commitment to him. One of the funniest and most unforgettable scenes in the movie is when she invites all three to Thanksgiving Day dinner. This is Lee's situation comedy at its best.

There can be no doubt that Spike Lee intends to celebrate Nola's enviable capacity for sexual pleasure as he shows us how it is misunderstood: a psychotherapist tries to cure her; her romantic lover date-rapes her as he demands to know "whose pussy is it?"; and a lesbian tries to console her. None of these people really understands or accepts Nola Darling as we in the audience are meant to.

Although this summary may make the film seem a complex psychological study, it really is not. Each of the three Black lovers is a stereotyped character. The romantic turned rapist is an intellectual in blue jeans; the character played by Spike Lee is the wise-cracking sports fanatic; and there is the compulsive narcissist, a male model with body beautiful, who carefully folds his underwear before he makes love. One of Spike Lee's talents is his ability to establish his characters quickly as in this underwear folding scene. Still, what we see in a flash is a stereotype.

Nola Darling -- his first protagonist -- may be the only character to whom Spike Lee has been able to give hidden depth. She is more than a caricature but her personality eludes our grasp even as it intrigues us. Freud said that ancient people worshipped sexuality itself, whereas civilized people worship their sexual objects. Nola Darling returns to that ancient principle as she worships sexuality and not the three limited men who are her sexual objects. Through her character, Spike Lee thumbs his nose at conventional sexual morality. Such a film is bound to offend the bourgeois mentality -- Black or White. If there is a political perspective in this film, it is Bohemian anarchy not Black separatism.

The film, for obvious reasons, also offended feminists and lesbians, to whom Spike Lee showed little sensitivity. My own interpretation of this film's psychological inspiration is that Spike Lee is himself the person who's "gotta have it" and that Nola Darling was living out his erotic fantasy. Lee was not trying to understand a Black woman's sexuality, but rather flaunting his own. Interpreted this way, both the film and the objections to it can perhaps be better appreciated. Seemingly Lee's least autobiographical film, it may be the most revealing of Lee's inner self -- an exhibitionistic celebration of his real or imaginary harem. If women, and particularly feminists, faulted this brilliant film, they may have been correct in discerning that the dominant imaginative fantasy was a man's. However one might interpret it, though, She's Gotta Have It proved that Lee was an important talent.

The critical success of his first film allowed Spike Lee the freedom and financial support to make his second, School Daze, a sophomoric extravaganza and dismal failure at the box office. The film is important in that it introduces the theme of Black identity and separatism. Obviously autobiographical, the movie is set in an all-Black college divided into two warring camps, one searching to achieve Black identity, the other striving to look and act White. This is Franz Fanon's theme; it is sounded here and echoes through all of Lee's subsequent films. We get the sense that in this fictionalized Morehouse College the disease of Black self-hatred is endemic. Upper class Black girls desperately try to make themselves into White beauty queens. They, and their proper Black boyfriends, want to look as White on the outside as they think White on the inside and they disdain lower class "niggers." Lee is preoccupied with racism internalized within African-American culture and its demonstration of the White man's colonization of Black consciousness.

School Daze bored White audiences in part because Lee had no real interest in saying anything to them. This movie is also stylistically confused; the struggle for Black identity embodied in stereotypical characters is strangely interlaced with Hollywood production numbers a la Busby Berkley, which have become a characteristic and equally inappropriate feature of his subsequent films. Lee's directorial penchant for the weird is much in evidence; he uses it for humor and for pace. In this film it rarely works. But if School Daze failed, Lee clearly had found the basic subject for his next three movies: Black identity and the exorcism of White oppression and White culture.

His third film, Do The Right Thing, was the cross-over box office success that made Spike Lee an international celebrity. In his book about the movie -- he has written interesting books to accompany his first four films -- he describes its basic idea: the hottest day of the year in Bedford-Stuyvesant with tempers frayed to the breaking point until an episode of police brutality sets off an explosion of Black racial revenge. The film was disconcerting to Whites and many critics said he had exaggerated the rage of the Black community. But the script proved to be an almost literal prophecy of the Rodney King-LA riots.

If Lee's real family were the only Blacks in a mostly Italian neighborhood, in Do The Right Thing the pizza parlor is the last Italian stronghold in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Mookie, played by Lee, mediates between the Italian father and his two sons on one side and the Black community on the other side. He literally delivers the pizza from one side to the other but he also has a human relationship with both sides. As the fires of racial hatred are fanned, Mookie continues to talk with both sides. But when the racial explosion finally occurs he leads the Blacks in destroying the pizza parlor. Dialogue with White folks is at an end -- even for money -- and Mookie/Spike Lee will no longer be co-opted. He has given up his role as mediator. He is now an advocate for Black identity -- Black separatism. This, I suggest, can be understood as an artistic, political, and autobiographical decision.

Lee is exasperated that White critics keep coming back to Do The Right Thing as his most important film. The race of the critic may influence the judgment, but a strong case can be made that this is his most artfully constructed film. It has classic dramatic structure. Every social situation is electric with racial conflict. The weird touches all work. Music and plot are woven together in a unified structure; the film comes close to being a rap opera. In one brilliant moment -- which Lee calls a "Racial Slur Montage" -- each of Bedford-Stuyvesant's diverse racial representatives -- Korean, Italian, Black, etc. -- delivers an astonishing rap song lyric of unrestrained bigotry. It is "in your face" street talk of inventive if stereotyped hatred and it has the prosody of poetry. Such stereotypical "bites" of experience are the stuff of Lee's imagination, and in that moment he brought them vividly to life. In rhythm and in content Do the Right Thing was Lee's debut as a rap director.

Mookie, Lee's own character in this film, plays a central role, and, like Nola in She's Gotta Have It, Mookie has depth. We are able to see the caricatures through Mookie's humanizing perspective. Humor, sex, money, and Black identity are the four points in Lee/Mookie's psychological compass and he explores them all. Because Mookie is mediating between the races, Black and White audiences can identify with him. Lee did not grow up in an inner-city ghetto, but in Mookie he plumbed his own depths.

Lee also gave the talented actor Danny Aiello, who played the owner of the pizza parlor, the opportunity to improvise his part and to resist Lee's impulse to stereotype and dehumanize him. The result is that Sal is a real person with whom Whites can identify. This was an important aspect of the film's appeal to Lee's cross-over audience and his White critics as well. The relationship between Sal and Mookie is the core of the film and it is one of the deepest and most moving relationships in any of his films. Sal is the White father and Mookie the Black son who finally rebels. This is unquestionably Lee's best performance as an actor and he may owe more to Aiello than he realizes.

Lee's next film, Mo' Better Blues, traces the life of a Black Jazz musician. Made in collaboration with his father, who wrote the music, it made no strong political statements but it did not abandon the themes of Black consciousness, Black identity, and the need for Black solidarity. Lee gave his father an incredible artistic opportunity and he has done the same for his siblings. These family collaborations -- Mo' Better Blues and Crooklyn -- have not been crowned with success. Like School Daze these are films where Lee turns inward and becomes nostalgic. The brash intelligence loses its bite, its originality, and its relevance to audiences, be they Black or White.

In Jungle Fever Lee brought his Black separatist perspective to bear on interracial sex. He also aimed his cameras at two other problems that threaten Black identity and the Black community -- the devastation of drugs and the growing loss of solidarity between affluent, upwardly mobile Blacks and those they leave behind in the inner city. Lee contrived a long and complicated screenplay to tie these disparate themes together and then had to cut and patch to make his film. The movie bears the scars of this cutting.

Jungle Fever was dedicated to Yusuf Hawkins, a young Black man who was beaten to death in Bensonhurst because he was thought to be dating a White woman. This was a modern day "lynching."

At the core of the psychology of racism is the forbidden zone of interracial sexuality for which "lynching" is the punishment. Lee, who until this film had never been lacking in candor, apparently sets out to explore that forbidden zone in Jungle Fever. He did make miscegenation visible on the big screen but, as critics have commented, the sexual and emotional relationship between Flipper, the Black architect from Harlem's Buppie neighborhood, and Angie, his White secretary from Bensonhurst, is surprisingly lacking in passion or purpose. When shown "making love," the couple looked like seasoned sexual athletes demonstrating their best moves. Lee provides us no glimpse of the sexual dialectic of desire and disgust, of attraction and fear, of revenge and submission, much less the racial version of this dialectic. Instead of a case of jungle fever, Lee is stalemated by his own stereotypes and he gives us just another case of sex at the office, an episode of promiscuity in everyday life as the frustrated and lonely secretary gets it on with the boss, who in this movie happens to be a talented African-American architect, carrying the whole White firm on his back. Lee's Black actors had complained in Do the Right Thing that none of the Black characters were good male role models. Flipper is apparently Lee's problematic answer to that complaint.

If Lee failed to convey the passion of interracial sex, he vividly portrays the racial hatred it provokes. That hatred is the real subject of Jungle Fever: the story of what happens when two people betray their tribes. From the inventive opening graphics with Stevie Wonder's electrifying music and a brilliant montage of street scenes and street signs, Lee delineates the contrasting tribal territories -- the lively diversity of Harlem, and the grim uniformity of Bensonhurst.

Wesley Snipes, who played Flipper, is a sexually attractive man and you can understand why his secretary might succumb to his charms. But Lee does not help us to understand why Flipper -- who has a beautiful, sexy wife -- gets jungle fever for his secretary. Lee knows that the ultimate White racist stereotype is that every Black man is a potentially dangerous rapist of White women who for any even imagined offense to a White woman should be castrated and lynched. Faulkner told this story in his brilliant novel, Light in August, and President Bush's infamous Willie Horton TV ad exploited this fearful sexual fantasy at the core of White racism.

And Lee knows the other side of the coin, the oppressed Black man's sexual feelings toward White women. In a remarkable book, Sex and Racism, Calvin Hernton described it very well: "Look at them, coming out of those offices, setting on their fine asses all day, doing nothing. I could screw everyone I see. . . . I bet I could make her moan and groan like no White man's ever done, make her love me." This is the stereotyped fantasy of jungle fever from the Black Man's perspective. His wishes fulfilled are the White man's fears realized. This element of conquest in which the Black man by sexually satisfying the White woman destroys the White man in his sexuality is the psychologically explosive aspect of interracial sex that Lee left out of his film. These wishes and fears reverberate in the violent fantasy life of men where the lines between myth and reality do not exist, where sex equals rape, and where a woman's love equals her orgasmic submission to the male's sexual prowess. The joy of sex becomes the underlying theme of African-American cultural hegemony. Lee reportedly jokes all the time about this subject but his movie stopped short of the jungle and never captured the fever.

Lee's film instead had a message of Black separatism: his hero has betrayed his family, his community, and his race. His miscegenation is a metaphor for the sin of taking his talents and himself out of the Black community.

Jungle Fever had a big, if confused plot, splendid cinematography, and powerfully realized social moments: Flipper bringing his White girlfriend to dinner at his disapproving parents' home, a Black women's support group, and a scene in the world's largest crack-house that out-Fellinis Fellini. Despite obvious flaws, it was a memorable film of an important movie-maker. Given Lee's trajectory, he seemed destined to make the Malcolm X film.

More than a movie, X was an historical event, a cinematic milestone that was a cause for rejoicing among most of the Black community. Unlike any previous Hollywood film, it was a grand scale celebration of Black identity and Black pride. That in itself is a remarkable achievement for Lee, but the film was untrue both to the spirit of Malcolm X and to his special place in African-American history.

There are many conflicting opinions about the man, Malcolm X -- what he came from, who he was, where he was going. But whether those opinions are derived from personal encounter, from Alex Haley's Autobiography of Malcolm X, or from the many other documentary sources, one thing seems clear: he was intimidating. Here, as in Jungle Fever, Spike Lee held back; he seems to have been unwilling or unable to portray that intimidating masculine presence. The movie lasts more than three hours and Denzel Washington is on the screen most of that time. But he never projects what Ossie Davis recognized as Malcolm's "style and hallmark, that shocking zing of fire and be damned to you. . . ." The real Malcolm X briefly appears at the end of the film to speak his famous phrase, "by any means necessary." You need only keep that jarring authentic moment in the center of your awareness as you reflect on the entire movie to get the measure of how much Lee fails to capture the real Malcolm.

Denzel Washington as directed by Spike Lee rarely, if ever, conveys the scowling body-language of controlled fury that radiated from Malcolm. It was Malcolm, "The Angry Black Man," who made his way into American consciousness -- Black and White. Recognizing this essential feature, Cornel West says of him: "Malcolm X articulated Black rage in a manner unprecedented in American History." He was the archetypal symbol of Black Power not Black conciliation; up from the ghetto and in your face. Denzel Washington's Malcolm instead makes us want to love him. Lee gave his Black audience the modern saint they wanted, and his White audience a tame and domesticated Malcolm X who did not send them home frightened. The X film, which begins like a musical comedy with Spike and Denzel as Hope and Crosby, deserves a G rating, guaranteed not to offend any audience.

In a film of epic proportions, portraying momentous psychological and political transformations, Lee's cartoon stereotypes become a liability. Like many of the White stereotypes in his earlier films, the White characters in Malcolm X are strange caricatures with whom White audiences find it nearly impossible to identify. Even Sophia, Malcolm's girlfriend -- the only substantial White role in the film -- is so two-dimensional as to be unreal. Because there is no one for White audiences to connect with in Malcolm X, no Danny Aiello, we are never engaged and made to feel the urgency of our own unresolved racism. Lee never allows his Malcolm to point that angry, guilt-inspiring finger at someone like us.

Lee has revealed that Minister Farrakhan was concerned about the film's portrayal of Elijah Muhammad's sacred legacy: "Minister Farrakhan's threats weren't even veiled. But, I think it would be too risky for them to try some shit with me." Minister Farrakhan should have no quarrel with Lee about this film. Whether or not it was out of deference to Minister Farrakhan, Lee has presented the messenger Elijah to Black and White audiences as a charismatic and spiritual figure unfettered by his real-life racist beliefs. This portrayal can only sanctify Elijah's legacy.

The last third of the movie, much of which uses Malcolm X's own words, is the most powerful and impressive part of the film. Lee periodically shifts from technicolor to black and white to signify the movie's ambiguous location between a created reality and the filming of reality. There is, however, no aesthetic coherence between this invocation of a documentary and the earlier "That's Entertainment" part of the movie, and even the documentary style does not capture Malcolm, the "prophet of Black rage." Malcolm was the man who refused to mourn J.F.K.'s death or to pretend he loved the White Jesus. It was the fierceness of Malcolm's anger combined with his intimidating intelligence that caused so many White people to fear and dislike him. Much of the religious doctrine of the Black Muslim faith that Malcolm X espoused is shocking to non-Blacks no matter how calmly the words are spoken. Blacks are the chosen people of Allah and the lighter the skin of the others, the more inherently evil they are. Whites are the creatures of Satan and Jews are his Serpent.

On his famous trip to Mecca, Malcolm abandoned these Black Muslim doctrines, which create absolute barriers to racial integration and justify anti-Semitism. By downplaying them, Lee diminishes the momentous significance of Malcolm's conversion to traditional Islam. Lee's movie makes it seem as though the Black Nation of Islam is merely the American congregation of the Islamic faith, rather than a religion with its own radically different pre-Adamite story of creation. In the end, Lee's Malcolm X was more politically correct than political.

Despite the initial hoopla and media attention, Malcolm X had no staying power at the box office. And if Alex Haley's Autobiography established the standard by which Lee's film ought to be judged, it was enough of a failure to make one wonder what Lee would do next.

What he did was to hide his light under a bushel. In his publicity releases, Lee describes Crooklyn as an attempt to "expand the subject matter of the films we do." He wanted to get away from "hip-hop, drug, gangsta rap, urban, inner-city" movies. He also wanted to make a film to which Black parents could take their children. To this end, he handed over the creative reins to his sister Joie Lee and his brother Cinqué Lee. Crooklyn is Joie's debut as a screenplay writer and it is a disaster. Although Joie is Lee's sister and he is part of her autobiography, the whole endeavor seems alien to Lee's creative sensibilities. There can be no doubt that this film has a "different voice." It is not Lee's and it speaks incoherently to a very small audience about the past.

Joie Lee wanted to create a film that would "look at the world through a child's eyes," in this case the "coming-of-age of a young black girl." The movie begins with a sequence of '70s children's games, and there is '70s TV, '70s afro haircuts, and '70s soul music. But if you were not a Black child of the '70s this beginning -- and the whole film -- is a little like watching Joie Lee go through the family photo album, a nostalgic journey for the Lee family but a bore for everyone else.

And although you can take your children to see it, this film will not appeal to them, be they Black or White. Children like a story with a beginning, a simple plot, and a happy ending. This screenplay has no direction or destination, and the mother dies in the end. Children like fairy tales and fables; this is a grim slice of life and social reality. Children love to hear parents tell stories about what life was like when they were growing up, but their fascination is not in the sort of historical details they are given in Crooklyn, it is in imagining their parents as children. Furthermore, the children in this film are given little opportunity to develop distinct characters. The exception is Troy, the girl who Joie Lee imagines as coming of age.

The film begins in the compressed style of Lee's music videos, certainly not a child's perspective but rather a sophisticated MTV collage of images of children's games. Next the film takes on a disconnected, anecdotal style as it attempts to establish the neighborhood setting. Lee's penchant for peculiar stereotypes adds a surrealistic and confusing dimension to the neighborhood mix. Only half way through the movie do we get the sense that in this reconstruction of family chaos the focus is on sister Troy. We witness her fights with her brothers, her shame about shopping with food stamps, her excitement about learning to steal from the grocery store, and her rebellion against her mother.

But the movie is not faithful to Troy's perspective and everything about the way the film is made seems derivative of better efforts in Lee's earlier films. The situations do not work; there is no inventive camera work and no visual aesthetic. Lee's talented cinematographer has left him and gone on to make his own movies. Arthur Jafa, who filmed Daughters of the Dust, is in charge of the camera. Here he is quite unimaginative and when the film stretches to be cinematically original, it becomes dreary and fails. In one episode, Troy is sent off to stay with her well-to-do, religious relatives down south. An anomorphic lens was used that makes the picture astigmatic, indicating Troy's sense of estrangement. And the aunt, a critical figure in this episode, is yet another caricature. It all fails miserably, in part because the film never convinces us that we are seeing the world from Troy's point of view.

Apparently, Crooklyn was meant as an homage to Lee's dead mother, who loved him, took him to movies, and shared her pleasure in them with him. But we see nothing of this in the film. She is portrayed as a long suffering and often angry woman who kept her family going on her schoolteacher's salary and food-stamps. She tries to teach her unruly children manners and discipline and refuses to give in to chaos. Her husband single-mindedly pursues his career as a jazz pianist-composer, making no money and refusing to recognize that musical taste has taken a different direction. The family struggles to get by, the parents quarrel, and then the long suffering mother dies of cancer. I have no doubt a good movie lies buried in this family tragedy, but Joie never got it out and Lee's "joint" is a downer.

There is a part of this unsuccessful family movie to which Lee might pay attention. His Crooklyn father, hoping against hope for recognition as an artist and thinking he will make some money, arranges to give a jazz piano recital. It falls on the night of the Knicks play-off game and not even his son (Spike) wants to attend the great event. Like Crooklyn, the recital is an embarrassment.

Perhaps in 50 years, Lee's father, like Scott Joplin, will be recognized as a great musician. But movie-makers, unlike musicians, do not get the opportunity to be discovered long after they are dead. Films are a creative medium with a short half-life. Even with television re-runs and video extending their life span they age quickly; only the classics and cult films endure. Lee will have to find his own way out of his doldrums and creative uncertainty if he is to reclaim his audience. But nostalgia is a blind alley for him and his recent decision to make a film about Jackie Robinson indicates he is still looking backward. I liked Spike Lee best when, in his uncontained cultural exuberance, he wrestled with racism and made his audience think about the future.

Originally published in the December 1994/January 1995 issue of Boston Review

Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2005. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

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