Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Four-Star Review of Spike Lee's Next Five-Star Movie

               Last year a friend went to the University of Missouri to visit her son, who is a student there. She came back with a photograph of herself and Spike Lee. That it was the famous auteur is without question: he’s a little guy, with a big pair, two aspects of his persona that were both somehow evident in the photo, together with his trademark tortoiseshell eyeglasses and the deadpan cool brother expression. Rumors of Spike Lee’s next film project floating around at the time were that it would have something to do with race, because his work usually does, specifically the student protests at Missouri which led to the departure of U of M’s senior leadership, or alternatively about the Texas cops and the death of black motorist Sandra Bland, outside Prairie View, which was the race scandal du jour for such a long, long time. Who knows? Lee may simply have been passing through or was there to offer support to the kids.
            If you like movies, and who doesn’t, you may wonder from time to time how bad movies get made (“What were they thinking?”) or, more critically, how an entire kind of filmmaking gets created, especially one that doesn’t continue to resonate through the years. Westerns come to immediate mind, a genre with a storied past, including many great movies, that gets resurrected from time to time but is basically dead, for many reasons, not least of which that the films produced have borne little relationship to how the West was really “won.” Cinema doesn’t have to be realistic, sci fi for example, but if it’s trying to be and isn’t, that’s a problem. It seems sometimes that Spike Lee is headed in the same direction, in his own work, that he's at risk of creating films that may be popular and artistically-merited but that bear little relationship to the history of civil rights in this country or race relations in modern America, while trying to be. Someone needs to talk to him before his next film debuts. Let’s try that here.
            If race protest in America today most resembles the ‘60s and ‘70s variety, as some believe, there is a missing element. Those old enough to remember the heyday of the Black Panthers, et al, may wonder about a bit of missing jargon and ideology this time around: Where are the Toms? If you take a look at revolution/revolt in other areas and other eras, you’re struck how much time, expense—and how many bullets—revolutionaries have devoted in years past to fighting their own counterrevolutionary elements. Mao used a trip to the countryside, the Soviets used a trip to the Gulag or a trip to the morgue, and Fidel eventually used a boatlift to Florida in order to rid his brave new society of undesirable reactionary elements. So too civil rights in this country. The revolution has spent a lot of time fighting the counterrevolution, in other words, represented by the Uncle Toms and Tomasinas, the Aunt Jemimas and “handkerchief heads” who have had more interest in the status quo than in civil rights or who have made a living by pleasing The Man. You don’t hear about these folks so much today. It’s not that we’re too P.C. to call someone a handkerchief head anymore, it may actually be that there are fewer around. The loosening of strictures on being black in America, through the years, may mean there’s less to be gained by selling out. An example of an Uncle Tom or a Aunt Jemima is therefore helpful for those who haven’t met one before.
            During the last Bush administration there were two high-profile black members of the Cabinet who both took shit for joining the Republicans. One was a Tom by any reasonable measure and one was not. Secretary of State Colin Powell, like the rest of us, was deceived regarding the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, when he signed off on the invasion. National Security Advisor (and eventual secretary of state) Condoleezza Rice chose to promote the invasion for her own reasons, which amounted to accepting a full-scale attack on a sovereign country and the deaths of tens of thousands of brown-skinned people under conditions that, and based upon “evidence” for which, she almost certainly would not have agreed to an intervention in Europe. Aunt Jemima or Handkerchief Head—you can choose—but there don’t seem to be many other options. Today, in the Trump Era, we have Sheriff David Clarke of Milwaukee, allegedly a black man, who was rumored to be joining the Department of Homeland Security. Come the revolution there’s no need for a trial for Sheriff Clarke—we can go straight to, “Up against the wall, motherfucker,” and “Fire.” Some people would like to out Trump’s lone black cabinet member, Ben Carson, of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as a Tom, but he’s actually a surgeon, a form of life that transcends race. Like many surgeons Dr. Carson is almost totally self-obsessed which may be why he doesn’t often identify with blacks, it’s because he identifies mostly with God. It's sad to say but does grant him a certain immunity in the present context.
            Spike Lee is also no Tom. He has shown courage throughout his career and one can only imagine the struggle he himself endured to break into the whites-only country club called Hollywood. But as with everyone else, every other kind of art and artist, we have to look at the work he’s producing too. The struggle is one thing, the product another. Everyone is a critic, after all, but the arts also play a critical role in conflict and since film-making usually involves a look back, at things that have already happened or conditions that previously existed, as in, in this case, pre-Barack Obama America, well, Mr. Lee may have issues. There’s less of a market for selling out today, at least for black people, but it was a booming business at one time and almost certainly one of the principal reasons why the civil rights struggle has spanned so many generations is that not all black people have been on board with the plan. We need to get that on film. Civil rights has turned out to be such a long-running drama not merely because whites have been so recalcitrant, although they have been, but because it was in the perceived best interests of some black people, especially successful black people, or black people who wanted to be successful, to give whites a helping hand. At a price, usually power. And you don’t see that in Spike’s movies, basically—or in any movies about civil rights in this country. The theme of American filmmaking, as it is expressed in this genre, is almost always dastardly, corrupt white people versus noble long-suffering African-Americans. We are noble, and long-suffering, but some of that suffering has been at the hands of our own people.
            One is reminded of the black nurse who ran the Tuskegee syphilis experiment for the U.S. Public Health Service, and the African-American cops who, even today, are still showing themselves just as willing to shoot a running black man as their white counterparts. For every black church leader who, like Martin Luther King Jr., preached integration, there were just as many who promoted the status quo in order to maintain their own positions as important middlemen between whites and the black community. There were black businessmen who didn’t want integration because that meant the end of segregated markets, with captive clienteles, and the unwelcome reality of competing with established white enterprises. Integration meant the end of many black-owned concerns and some African-Americans foresaw that and didn't want it. And there’s also Spike’s own stomping ground Hollywood where there’s been a history of black stars who cut ties with their own race as quickly as they could. Instead of helping other people of color, these Toms took full advantage of being part of a mostly-white elite. Bill Cosby comes to mind, a brother who had no use for other blacks until his rape trial when he suddenly re-discovered the travails of being a black man in America.
            A few years ago Spike Lee had a well-publicized dispute with Clint Eastwood after Mr. Lee accused Mr. Eastwood of downplaying the role of non-Caucasians in this country’s history and culture. Eastwood’s filmmaking tends toward portrayals of old-school white guys with square jaws who shoot straight and get the bad guy/guys who very often have darker skin. Lee is right, it is an oversimplification of whatever struggle Eastwood is portraying, stick-figure white heroes versus stick-figure villains, but the same thing can be said of recent and more sympathetic films about blacks and racial struggle in this country. One advantage Spike Lee has is that he often works with Denzel Washington, the American actor who bests conveys an evil, opportunistic side, even when he's doing good. You can easily visualize Denzel as a revolutionary or a collaborator or both. In any case though the script has got to change. Post Obama, post Dallas, post Ferguson, having shown Caucasians a thing or two, for black people it’s now time to take care of our own business. That means outing the Toms, both on film and in life.