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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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