Commentary Magazine


Spike Lee

To the Editor:

Congratulations to Richard Grenier for his incisive debunking of the Don King of film-makers, Spike Lee [“Spike Lee Fever,” August]. Most reviewers—either out of misplaced guilt or peer pressure—seem afraid to expose this director’s glaring weaknesses, so Mr. Grenier’s piece is very bracing.

To start with, most analysis fails to mention that as a storyteller Lee suffers from a poor sense of structure. He seems to operate from the schoolboy notion that the more subjects one crams into a movie the more profound it is. He cynically attempts to insert a last-minute quotation or a token “good” character to disguise the ugly business he’s up to. Though he pretends to tackle the “big” subjects, Lee actually chews a lot more than he bites off. The best that can be said for him is that he is a rather crude polemicist. But in a love story like Jungle Fever he is out of his element. He cannot show us real affection or warmth or even lust. Such feelings would get in the way of his agenda. So instead of characters he gives us caricatures and in place of revelation he recycles hysterical clichés.

What is truly appalling about his work, though, is his blatant bigotry. In an era of political correctness, I find his bashing of Jews, Italians, and whites in general to be shocking. His separatist rhetoric on why the races should not mix could just as well be the rantings of a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I think such hate-mongering, whether it comes from Right or Left, should be roundly condemned. And I certainly do not think it should be mistaken for art! . . .

Dan O’Neill
Los Angeles, California

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To the Editor:

In addition to misreading Spike Lee’s latest film as anti-white, Richard Grenier’s article, “Spike Lee Fever,” contains misquotations of the film’s dialogue, factual inaccuracies, and unfounded assumptions. Mr. Grenier’s obvious unfamiliarity with the issues that are prominent among American blacks renders him nearly incompetent as a reviewer for the film. The fact that Mr. Grenier is not black does not disqualify him from evaluating Lee’s work, but attempting to gain authority by engaging a supposed random sample of African Americans is an untenable scam.

Admitting his relative ignorance of issues that are important to black communities, Mr. Grenier relies on second-hand information provided by his black friends that lead him to erroneous assertions. At the beginning of his article, he attempts to argue that the media have inflated Jungle Fever’s social importance and states, “the American blacks I have questioned confess privately that they hate it.” Granting that Spike Lee’s films are more controversial among African Americans than whites, to imply that most blacks hate Lee’s films is ridiculously false.

In a second dubious reliance on hearsay, Mr. Grenier asserts that the “war council” scene in Jungle Fever is unrealistic. He states: “Well dressed and economically middle-class, these women talk the way I’m told middle-class black women seldom talk, like streetwalkers (actually, like Spike Lee)” (emphasis added). Mr. Grenier’s informants have, if not deliberately, led him astray. The fact is that many middle-class women hold the attitudes and use the language that are depicted in the film. In addition, if he had done his homework, Mr. Grenier would have known that Lee let the actresses improvise during the scene to draw upon their own experiences and impressions, and did not script the scene, as he wrongly implies.

Besides relying on a small pool of black “friends” for misinformation, Mr. Grenier proceeds to commit factual errors about the film’s content that suggest he was not paying attention despite professing to have seen the film twice. In one short passage concerning Flipper’s ignored request to have a black secretary, he makes two glaring distortions:

His former secretary, now departed, was a “sister,” which is to say black, and the management of the firm has provided him with a temporary replacement who is white. Flipper protests vociferously. Perhaps he is struggling to increase or at least maintain the number of blacks employed by the firm, but if so he never mentions it; what he actually says sounds as if he simply does not like working with white people.

First, despite the assertion that Flipper’s former secretary, was a “sister” (Mr. Grenier’s term, not Flipper’s), the ethnicity of Terry, the previous secretary, is never mentioned. Second, contrary to Mr. Grenier’s claim, Flipper has specifically requested that a black secretary be hired for the vacant position, and when his request is ignored and he is suddenly presented with a secretary who happens to be Italian American, he asks in protest why he is the only black person working in the firm’s office. To my mind, this constitutes a rather explicit desire to “increase or at least maintain the number of blacks employed by the firm.” In a minor infraction, Mr. Grenier also mistakenly refers to a character named Lauren as Orin throughout a paragraph describing an important subplot in the film.

In his attempt to debunk Lee’s presentation of serious issues that concern African Americans, Mr. Grenier cruelly belittles genuine injustices that beset many blacks even today. He assails Lee for exploring the issue of skin color in Jungle Fever “to the point of obsession.” Yet, sadly, the pigmentocracy constructed by white supremacists in America continues to have pernicious effects on all too many black Americans. Mr. Grenier glibly dismisses the scene where Flipper is denied a well-deserved partnership in the architectural firm as a scenario that could “only have been introduced to prove that the black man will never get justice from whitey.” Yet the glass-ceiling phenomenon that Lee dramatizes is perceived widely by black professionals, and has been documented by Elizabeth Dole’s Labor Department. Mr. Grenier may have a point when he states that Lee’s execution of the scene is flawed by portraying Flipper’s employers as unrealistically intransigent, but to suggest that the issue of equitable promotional policies at the top of the corporate structure for historically excluded groups is an ideological fabrication is dishonest. Despite his evident lack of knowledge concerning many aspects of the lives of American blacks, Mr. Grenier seems to believe that he—with his second-hand sources—is a better judge of what is plausible to portray in films that depict the lives of blacks than Spike Lee.

In a tortured interpretation, Mr. Grenier presumes Flipper to be “our hero.” But Lee creates Flipper to be anything but heroic. He is an adulterer who betrays a loving family to pursue an affair, based on a superficial fascination with racial differences, with a woman he doesn’t even love. When Flipper and Angie part company Mr. Grenier writes, “Flipper . . . shows virtually no remorse over his unfeeling behavior, having done at last, I suppose, the right thing” (emphasis added). Flipper is absolutely not the object of our admiration, nor the possessor of good judgment.

Contrary to Mr. Grenier’s specious claim that Spike Lee is stridently anti-white, Paulie and Angie, of Bensonhurst, are portrayed as the most noble characters in the film. Angie does appear to have more than superficial feelings for Flipper, and Paulie evaluates people as individuals and not on racial assumptions. Neither Angie, Paulie, nor Vito and Sal of Do the Right Thing (the major white characters in Lee’s brief career) embodies Lee’s supposed “assumption that whites feel a limitless and nearly insurmountable hatred toward blacks.” Mr. Grenier’s simple-minded formulation simply does not square with the facts.

Finally, Mr. Grenier’s utterly fantastic conception of Hollywood’s benevolence toward black directors would be laughable if it were not so at variance with the cruel facts. The 1970’s black-exploitation films that he refers to depicted blacks in derogatory roles as pimps, pushers, prostitutes, and engaged in other illicit pursuits. Mr. Grenier alleges that the market for these pictures evaporated after the initial enthusiasm of blacks subsided. A part of the story he fails to mention is that many blacks, and the NAACP in particular, waged a campaign to stop the negative images that these movies promoted. There was a long drought between these films and Spike Lee’s remarkable breakthrough. Strangely, Mr. Grenier claims that Lee’s accomplishments are unmerited when he says:

He benefited from considerable favoritism in winning his first Cannes prize, and his talen is so negligible that if he were not black I suspect he might never have found the financing to make a single movie in America. Spike Lee, in fact, is a product of Hollywood’s real if unofficial affirmative-action program.

This lie is so vicious that it cannot be attributable to the benign methodological sloppiness, or to the innocuous willful ignorance demonstrated in other parts of his article. Mr. Grenier provides no evidence for his claim of favoritism at Cannes. Spike Lee’s initial film, She’s Gotta Have It, was independently financed on a minuscule budget of $170,000. Lee raised money from independent investors, benefited from a grant from a small coop for independent black filmmakers, and in addition sold T-shirts on street corners. A large factor in Lee’s success is his considerable entrepreneurial acumen. He owns his own film-production company and merchandise stores. Despite the fact that all of his films have been financial successes, he has continually had to haggle over film budgets with stingy studios. The Hollywood establishment has done Spike Lee no favors. To imply otherwise is a gratuitous insult, and a shameful attempt to negate Lee’s hard work.

But of course the real problem that makes the emergence of Spike Lee “an unattractive situation” for Mr. Grenier is the black-nationalist tilt displayed in his films. If Mr. Grenier finds Lee’s politics distasteful, why doesn’t he say so with honesty and candor? . . .

At the front end of his article, Mr. Grenier makes a comparison between Woody Allen and Spike Lee. I find it inconceivable that COMMENTARY would permit a review of one of Allen’s films to appear that was written by someone who knew nothing about Jews (except, of course, what he learned from questioning his Jewish friends), and that contained several mistakes and outright lies. Why this kind of negligence for one of Spike Lee’s pictures?

Eric Bryant Rhodes
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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Richard Grenier writes:

My thanks to Dan O’Neill, who puts the case against Spike Lee very well. I quite agree that, woefully short on artistic talent, Lee is little more than a “rather crude polemicist.”

Eric Bryant Rhodes’s letter I find somewhat overheated. An “untenable scam”? Beneath my “supposed” random sample am I concealing a scientifically calculated sample? His letter contains an extensive list of factual errors. I do not “imply that most blacks hate Lee’s films.” Far from it. What I certainly don’t imply but say outright is that more blacks seemed to like Mario Van Peebles’s New Jack City, which takes a far more benign view of black-white relations. Mr. Rhodes has only to check major Hollywood studios’ box-office returns to see this for himself.

As for the way middle-class black women talk when they are among themselves (whether or not they talk like streetwalkers), I am perfectly willing to accept instruction, but not from Mr. Rhodes, who, as far as I can tell, is not a black woman and hence is also operating on “hearsay.” His faith in the veracity of actors’ improvisations is touching. Mario Puzo had sharp differences with Francis Ford Coppola on how his movie mafiosi should behave in The Godfather, with Coppola insisting that all his actors, when called upon to improvise, had produced an adorably vivid bit of stage business. Puzo finally exploded: “But they’re not mafiosi! They’re actors!” Black actresses these days might be almost as foul-mouthed as white actresses, which is saying something. But if respectable female members of the black middle class, preferably with church connections (Drew’s father-in-law is a minister of the gospel, remember), would care to step forward to testify that among themselves they talk like streetwalkers I shall listen with respectful interest.

I am perfectly aware that Spike Lee is a great crusader for hiring blacks, but if Mr. Rhodes thinks that the extremely discourteous way Flipper initially treats his new white “temp” is the pure product of his personal affirmative-action program, and that if there were only enough blacks employed by the firm he would have greeted the white temp with warmth and affection, I can do nothing for him. On the face of it, Flipper’s initial rudeness to Angie the temp, his sexual conquest of her, and then his very cold dropping of her later on, would appear to be some kind of race vengeance. In my article I made no reference to the “glass ceiling” at the top of America’s “corporate structure.” In any case, Flipper is not at the corporate “top.” Mr. Rhodes must know that at Flipper’s professional level (and even at Harvard, a place not unfamiliar to me) blacks enjoy what I can only call substantial advantages. Am I “cruel” to point this out? I can only repeat that Spike Lee’s presentation of the white world as having a uniform, ice-cold, systematic determination to prevent an even conspicuously talented black man from getting ahead is fanciful. If Mr. Rhodes believes the white world has this inflexible determination he is under a pernicious delusion.

The reader is free to speculate as to who this “Lauren” is Mr. Rhodes is talking about. The cast list of Jungle Fever issued to the press by Universal Pictures names Paulie’s girlfriend, played by Tyra Ferrell, as “Orin,” exactly as I have it. There is no “Lauren” anywhere to be found.

Is or is not Flipper the film’s “hero”? I am at a loss here to explain Mr. Rhodes’s extraordinary insistence. A hero, after all, is not necessarily a saint. Julien Sorel, in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, commits adultery. Is he then the novel’s villain? In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, is not the adulterous Antony a “tragic hero”? Is everyone wrong on this score but Mr. Rhodes? And what of Jungle Fever’s emotional ending: Flipper, with a cry of anguish, clutching to his bosom a black street prostitute? Is it “tortured” of me to think that Spike Lee intends this to be seen as a highly humane and even epiphanic action? As for Angie and Paulie being the “most noble” characters in the film, I don’t think Mr. Rhodes would have much difficulty—if the movie’s race relations were turned upside down and all the blacks were white and all the whites were black—in seeing that Angie and Paulie are Jungle Fever’s Uncle Toms.

I would like to suggest to Mr. Rhodes that I know rather more than he does about the Cannes Film Festival (having attended many times as a newsman), about the way films are financed in Hollywood, about the way they are distributed (more important), and even about the history of black-exploitation movies. Was the Richard Roundtree character in Shaft a pimp or pusher? I remember him, and he has been so described, as a “black super-cop.” On the mechanics of how Hollywood not infrequently lets its heart get the better of its head on Left-liberal causes, I refer Mr. Rhodes to my “Hollywood’s Foreign Policy: Utopianism Tempered by Greed” in this summer’s issue of the National Interest. He will find in the article quite a bit of chapter and verse.

Is Hollywood filled with racists? Maybe, but if so they are remarkably discreet. I’ve never met one yet. I do, in fact, find Spike Lee’s black-nationalist politics distasteful, and my article, “Spike Lee Fever,” makes this perfectly clear. Mr. Rhodes might be interested to learn that I have written at least two rather long articles about Woody Allen for this very publication, some of the material for which was obtained by “questioning Jewish friends.” Despite his disclaimer, Mr. Rhodes labors under an assumption I have encountered before: that the life experience of a person of color is so different that whites can know absolutely nothing about it, whereas all its mysteries are immediately unlocked by other people of color.

Well, well. I read of myself: vicious, incompetent, erroneous, ridiculous, cruel, dishonest, shameful, tortured, specious, simple-minded, laughable, utterly fantastic, scam, distortion, willful ignorance, lie, lies, and, worst of all, “benign methodological sloppiness.” Mr. Rhodes really knows how to hurt a guy. I had intended to end my reply with an oratorical burst, pleading youthful poverty, stoutly maintaining I have not a racist bone in my body, and finally throwing myself on Mr. Rhodes’s mercy as a true friend of the black man. But on rereading his letter I have abandoned the plan. I have the sad feeling that Mr. Rhodes’s mind is made up.

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