Saturday, May 23, 2009

Movies that simply can't be made. Scene 1.

Saw a shot of "urban auteur" director Spike Lee at an NBA playoff game the other day, and I got to thinking about his films. For reasons I'm not sure I understand, Lee is too often marginalized as a "black filmmaker"*; in any case, I can vouch for the fact that there are any number of whites who find much to dislike in Spike Lee's body of work, and have little good to say about the man personally. That's putting it mildly. I've heard Lee denounced as a racist, a reverse-racist, a hatemonger, an "angry black man," and worse. Sadly, a whole lot worse.

I've seen all of Lee's films, most of them several times. I admire their technical artistry, the obvious craftsmanship that went into them...and it's rare that I don't notice something new to admire with each subsequent viewing. But beyond that, the more I watch them, the less I comprehend the "sociopolitical" criticisms lodged against Lee. OK, so his films concern themselves with black culture and revolve around "black themes." Is that really so different from, say, Marty Scorsese, who concerns himself primarily with the Mafia, organized crime and "Italian themes"? Do we label Scorsese as just an "Italian filmmaker"? (Scorsese, by the way, is now working on a film about Sinatra.) More to the point, I do not see much evidence for the allegation that Lee is a cheerleader for, or even unduly sympathetic to, the so-called black agenda.

For one thing, his characters are complex, multidimensional and often conflicted; they are seldom if ever stick figures, placed in the movie to serve as archetypes/allegories for this
or that. Maybe he makes us root for his central characters, who happen to be black, but what filmmaker doesn't? And his heroes and heroines are hardly flawless and superhuman. From the messy but well-meaning Mookie in Do the Right Thing (whose "Da Mayor," played impeccably by Ossie Davis, also tended to deliver impolitic, Cosby-like messages), to the entire culture-clashing ensemble cast of Summer of Sam, to drug-runner extraordinaire Frank Lucas in American Gangster (with his Corleone-like paradoxes and ambivalences),+++ Lee has given us an unending cavalcade of fully fleshed out human beings.

Lee is no less honest and unflinching in his portrayal of the urban-American racial divide itself**, with the strong points and weak points of both sides adequately and, to my mind, fairly drawn. Sure there's white bigotry in Lee's the John Turturro character in Right Thing, or most (if not all) of the cops in American Gangster. But Lee's lens also gives us key moments of sympathy/pathos for even those who torment his central characters. In Right Thing, for example, this includes notes of sympathy for (and understanding of) Turturro and especially his father, played with wonderful nuance by Danny Aiello. Lee lets us see Turturro/Aiello's fumbling attempts to, well, do the right thing, to run and maintain a family business amid extremely difficult circumstances. He shows us Aiello's unmistakable (if grudging) affection for the local kids who "grew up on my pizza." Lee's films also contain frank imagery of the afflictions that blight inner-city neighborhoods: the absence of fathers, teenage parenthood, drug abuse, and the shiftlessness fostered by a multigenerational dependency on welfare and "the government cheese."

In truth, Spike Lee strikes me as one of the least politically correct of America's major commercial filmmakers. His films portray the black experience warts and all, hewing far less to the "authorized" view than do most other contemporary filmmakers.

Of course, the other side of this coin is that Lee is a special case among filmmakers. He is allowed his warts-and-all artistic license precisely because he's black. (Similarly: Could Blazing Saddles have gotten made, had Richard Pryor not had a direct hand in the more devilishly hilarious parts of the script? Could that movie be made at all today, regardless of who wrote it?) No other mainstream director could get away just once with the even-handed cultural portraits that are staples of Lee's filmmaking.

We'll get to that next time.

* i.e., rather than, say, a filmmaker who just happens to be black.
** which is to say, honestly from Lee's point of view. I think he films it as he truly sees it.
+++ See comment from Lou Perez, below, and my reply.


Lou Perez said...

Ridley Scott directed "American Gangster." It's not a Spike Lee Joint.

Steve Salerno said...

Wow, Lou. Thanks for making that point. Geez, where was my head on that one?

But you know what? I'm not going to change it. I'm going to leave it right there in the post, to memorialize my own stupidity. I'll simply add a footnote that directs readers to your comment.

Lou Perez said...

You might have been thinking about "Inside Man." I really enjoyed that film.

I appreciate the footnote, Steve. Keep up the great work.

Saoirse said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.