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James McBride (Co-Writer Of "Red Hook Summer") Pens Open Letter Addressing Spike Lee/Sundance Fuss

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act January 26, 2012 at 2:01PM

Several people, including the folks at 40 Acres, sent this to me this morning; and I've since noticed that it's been traveling the web, usually with lots of "hoo-hah" accompanying it by those sharing it, as well as within the comments that follow.
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Spike Red Hook

Several people, including the folks at 40 Acres, sent this to me this morning; and I've since noticed that it's been traveling the web, usually with lots of "hoo-hah" accompanying it by those sharing it, as well as within the comments that follow.

Spike Lee's co-writer of Red Hook Summer, James McBride (who also penned the script for Miracle At St Anna) took it upon himself to address critical reactions to Red Hook Summer, as well as Spike's post-screening premiere *chat* that's also been passed around quite a bit.

McBride wrote a letter to Hollywood, and I suppose the rest of us titled “Being a Maid," in which he essentially decries the state of things in Hollywood where black people are concerned, and the challenges Spike faced in getting Red Hook Summer made, comparisons to George Lucas and Red Tails, and more.

In it, he says things that we've already talked about ad naseam on S&A, notably the same old Hollywood doesn't care about black people lament that we've heard over and over and over again; and to which I always respond, over and over and over again, so what do we do now?

McBride also addresses the attention black people gave to George Lucas's statement about Hollywood not wanting to fund the movie because of its all-black cast, and all the "support Red Tails or black cinema will die" chants we all read and heard leading up to the film's release. McBride compares that to reactions to when Spike makes similar comments and isn't met with a similar fervent reaction.

If you recall my post, Yes, Support Red Tails; Just Don't Forget Spike Lee, AFFRM & The Black Indie Film Movement, you'll remember that I pretty much made a similar case, wondering whether Red Hook Summer would get a similar push, since Spike also funded the movie himself, much like Lucas did for Red Tails; and in my review of the film, I made the following statement addressing Lucas' comment about Hollywood not financing the movie because of its all-black cast: "Maybe because it came from the mouth of a white man, and we all somehow felt like our plight had been validated - like that would make much of a difference in that plight anyway." My point being that we (black people) have been saying that shit for decades now, but it's never really been followed with as much excitment as there was over Lucas' statement.

McBride also throws a few grenades, like taking a swipe at folks like us here on S&A, saying "Within minutes, the internet lit up with burning personal criticism of him stitched into negative reviews of “Red Hook Summer” by so-called film critics and tweeters." Maybe he wasn't speaking to S&A directly (my review of the film certainly didn't contain any of what he called "burning personal criticism," although it was a negative review; it was actually more like a plea to Spike to talk about what his intentions were for the film), but I'd say it's a bit presumptuous of McBride to jab the same people he probably expects will help his open letter reach readers (after all, 40 Acres, where the letter resides, sent it out to blog editors to read and share with their readers).

But I'll let you read the letter and judge for yourselves (or not).

Here are 2 of the more incendiary paragraphs from the piece:

But this kind of cultural war puts minority storytellers – Blacks, Asians, Latinos and people of color – at a distinct disadvantage. My friend Spike Lee is a clear example. Three days ago, at the premiere of Red Hook Summer at The Sundance Film Festival, Spike, usually a cool and widely accepting soul whose professional life is as racially diverse as any American I know– lost his cool for 30 seconds. When prompted by a question from Chris Rock who was seated in the audience, he blurted out a small, clear truth: He said one reason we did Red Hook Summer independently was because he could not get Hollywood to green light the follow-up to “Inside Man” – which cost only $45 million to make and grossed a whopping $184,376,240 million domestically and worldwide – plus another $37 million domestically on DVD sales. Within minutes, the internet lit up with burning personal criticism of him stitched into negative reviews of “Red Hook Summer” by so-called film critics and tweeters. I don’t mind negative reviews. That’s life in the big leagues. But it’s the same old double standard. The recent success of “Red Tails” which depicts the story of the all black Tuskegee Airmen, is a clear example. Our last film, “Miracle At St. Anna,” which paid homage to the all-black 92nd Division, which fought on the ground in Italy, was blasted before it even got out the gate. Maybe it’s a terrible film. Maybe it deserved to bomb. The difference is this: When George Lucas complained publicly about the fact that he had to finance his own film because Hollywood executives told him they didn’t know how to market a black film, no one called him a fanatic. But when Spike Lee says it, he’s a racist militant and a malcontent. Spike’s been saying the same thing for 25 years. And he had to go to Italy to raise money for a film that honors American soldiers, because unlike Lucas, he’s not a billionaire. He couldn’t reach in his pocket to create, produce, market, and promote his film like Lucas did with “Red Tails.”

But there’s a deeper, even more critical element here , because it’s the same old story: Nothing in this world happens unless white folks says it happens. And therein lies the problem of being a professional black storyteller– writer, musician, filmmaker. Being black is like serving as Hoke, the driver in “Driving Miss Daisy,” except it’s a kind of TV series lasts the rest of your life: You get to drive the well-meaning boss to and fro, you love that boss, your lives are stitched together, but only when the boss decides your story intersects with his or her life is your story valid. Because you’re a kind of cultural maid. You serve up the music, the life, the pain, the spirituality. You clean house. Take the kids to school. You serve the eggs and pour the coffee. And for your efforts the white folks thank you. They pay you a little. They ask about your kids. Then they jump into the swimming pool and you go home to your life on the outside, whatever it is. And if lucky you get to be the wise old black sage that drops pearls of wisdom, the wise old poet or bluesman who says ‘I been buked and scorned,’ and you heal the white folks, when in fact you can’t heal anybody. In fact, you’re actually as dumb as they are, dumber maybe, because you played into the whole business. Robbing a character of their full dimension, be it in fiction or non fiction, hurts everyone the world over. Need proof? Ask any Native American, Asian, Latino, Gay American, or so called white “hillbilly.” As if hillbillies don’t read books, and Asians don’t rap, and Muslims don’t argue about the cost of a brake job.

[...]

It was terrible lesson for a young man fresh out of college and I did my best to forget it. But I understand it then and I understand it now: This is what happens when you walk through a supermarket and hear muzak playing ninth chords borrowed from your history; when you see instructions books made from the very harmonic innovations you created, and in my case, when you spend a lifetime watching films that spoof your community. Your entire culture is boiled down to greasy gut bucket jokester films, pornographic bling-rap, or poverty porn.

So there ya have it; my question is still the same: so now what?

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that I didn't get to talk to Spike, or the film's cast at Sundance this week while I was there; I never got an invite to RSVP for a slot to interview cast and/or crew (others apparently did); but I did get an invite to cover the red carpet premiere... but just the red carpet - you know, take pictures of the celebrities as they walk into the theater, and asked them superficial questions. I passed. I don't do red carpet. I don't see the point. But obviously I was good enough to cover the red carpet for S&A, but S&A obviously isn't good enough to get time with the film's cast and crew, even though other indieWIRE sites apparently did. The one site within the indieWIRE network that focuses on *black cinema* didn't get to talk to the black filmmaker and black cast of one of the most anticipated films (black films) screening at the festival.

Why? I don't know. I wasn't given a reason. Maybe I didn't make my request early enough? I don't know. So I'm just left to speculate.

I think we've been fair and balanced in our coverage of Spike and his films. There's been criticism certainly, but there's also beein praise; lots of it actually. And my review of Red Hook Summer was probably one of the least virulent.

But my request still stands; if Spike Lee (I'd rather get it directly from him) would be so kind to grant S&A an interview about Red Hook Summer, I'd love to talk to him about the film, the biz, the challenges he's faced, etc, etc, etc. 

In the meantime, you can read McBride's entire piece HERE.

This article is related to: Things That Make You Go Hmm...


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