I call them Spike Lee's *forgotten* films, not because we don't remember them, but rather because, when discussion of Spike's film (specifically fan favorites) are had, these are the titles that rarely get mention.
Films like Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X, Jungle Fever, She's Gotta Have It, and others are usually at the top of the list. They're also his most familiar films. Ask the average audience member what Spike Lee films they've seen, or know of, and one of these titles will probably be mentioned 9 out of 10 times - especially Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X.
But Spike has about 25 feature films in his oeuvre, including TV movies, and documentaries. How many of those have you seen?
This series will revisit those Spike Lee films that, for any number of reasons, just aren't talked about as much as the aforementioned few. Whether it's because they were poorly received by audiences and critics alike, or there just hasn't been as much awareness of them, maybe due to a lack of accessibility/availability. For example, how many of you have seen Sucker Free City - a TV movie/pilot that never made it to TV, as the series it was intended to be (Anthony Mackie starred in it by the way, which led to both he and Spike working on She Hate Me immediately afterward); Showtime never picked it up as a series; so HBO passing on Da Brick earlier this year wasn't the first time a Spike Lee project was killed by a cable TV network after the pilot.
The first film in this series is maybe the one work in Spike's library that many who saw it, would probably like to forget - 2004's She Hate Me.
So... here we go.
A LOT going on in this flick that left me utterly confused and frustrated when I saw it 8 years ago, and still does today; and with such a stellar cast; this list of actors, on paper, on any other project, would/should instantly draw your attention; even the late Ossie Davis’ turn as a judge in really a thankless role. Also Chiwetel Ejiofor as Frank Wills (the black security guard who alerted police to a possible break-in at the Watergate complex in Washington), in what was one of his earliest Stateside projects.
The rest: Anthony Mackie, Kerry Washington, Lonette McKee, Jim Brown, Woody Harrelson, Ellen Barkin, Brian Dennehy, John Turturro, Isiah Whitlock.
There are 3 or 4 different stories in She Hate Me, that could very well have been their own individual films – an attack against corporate greed/corruption; a man with his back seemingly against the wall, forced into making a decision that challenges his morals; the difficulties same sex couples face in having/adopting children; the story of a lesbian couple in which one half of the pair still fluidly moves between worlds (hetero and homo), and the challenges that set-up presents to their relationship; a family holding itself together by a thread (the strained relationship between Mackie's Jack Armstrong's mother and father specifically); a mob boss wanting grandchildren of his own, coming to terms with his daughter being a lesbian.
I read several reviews of those few critics who gave the film a thumbs-up, to ensure that my reception/understanding of it was well informed, from all sides.
However, in reading those reviews, most of them didn’t necessarily love the film as much as they applauded its ambition. There’s a difference, I think. None of them particularly heaped praise on it, as much as they loved the risks Spike took with the film, especially when compared to the homogeneity and lack of ambition and originality we’ve seen in studio films of the last 10 to 15 years or so. Others, like Roger Ebert, didn’t seem to entirely understand the film, but tried to make sense of it, giving Spike the benefit of the doubt, as a veteran filmmaker, who surely knew exactly what he was doing, even if we all didn’t.
But an ambitious, obfuscating, risk-taking film isn’t necessarily a good one, is it?
The film was certainly of its time – very topical, a few years after the Enron corruption scandal that saw the lives of many in the 99% destroyed; it starts out like a corporate corruption thriller – 3 years after Enron. I completely understood Spike’s intent with that particular thread, as our hero, the do-gooder who wants to do the right thing, indeed does the right thing; and like the story of Frank Wills (the black security guard who initially alerted police to a possible break-in at the Watergate complex, only to see his life destroyed for doing the right thing, dying penniless years later); Wills' story serves as a kind of history lesson we are (or rather Mackie’s Jack Armstrong is) supposed to learn from, if only so that he doesn’t end up like Wills did.
There was a potentially riveting drama there – the kind we rarely see, specifically with a black lead; the all-white corrupt corporate leaders, and (we could say, for once) the black hero who could certainly have gone along with The Man's plan, but who chose ethics over greed. And if Spike had chosen to stay on that corporate corruption course, instead of the several segues he takes later, I think this could have been a far more focused, and more interesting and entertaining film.
The setup could've been: Mackie’s Jack Armstrong uncovers some internal illegalities within the firm he’s a higher-up in, and risks plenty by exposing those illegalities; he’s made a scapegoat, fired from his job, his bank accounts frozen, nobody will hire him because the old employer has poisoned the waters; the SEC is on his back, his old employers want him silent, he's broke, desperate, and backed up against a wall; a familiar setup, usually leading to our hero intent on clearing his name (doing so covertly, and often with the aid of a sexy sidekick whom he falls in love with), and exposing the corruption that’s eating away at the insides of corporate offices around the country, with the little guy often left irreparably damaged, while the 1% responsible get off much easier than most would prefer.
That would've been a more interesting, focused story to tell, and I think Spike showed that he could handle that kind of crime drama with his next scripted feature film, Inside Man, 2 years later.
What you probably wouldn’t/didn't expect is an introduction to another narrative thread that involves a business proposal from his queer ex-girlfriend, that would see him earn $10,000 paid by each lesbian who wants his sperm – the old fashion way of course.
What straight man wouldn’t consider that offer? $10,000 a pop; especially if the lesbians looked like Kerry Washington, Dania Ramirez, Monica Bellucci, Michole Briana White, Sarita Choudhury from Mississippi Masala, and others. Where does a brotha sign up?
The film seems to want to comment on the exploitation or eroticization of women in media – film specifically – by switching the “object” of our gaze to the man, who’s technically the whore here, as we see more shots of Mackie naked (from the rear at least) than any of the women.
I’m just not sure that message of the male as objectified, is well-delivered, and so it doesn’t quite register. Not with me anyway.
I was too distracted by the shots of Kerry Washington’s bare butt cheeks as she struts into the frame, in a g-string and high heels, like a Victoria Secret model on the runway, right before her initial get-me-pregnant session with Mackie’s Armstrong; also, watching Washington and Ramirez get it on, on 2 or more occasions – once with Mackie present, observing; the second, really, for the audience. Although both have the same effect. It all felt gratuitous and exploitative.
I mention all that to say that the most confusing part of the film for me was indeed the lesbian impregnation drama that makes up the bulk of the film’s almost 2 ½ hour running time. I already said that I understood what Spike’s intent was with the other significant story thread – the attack against corporate greed and corruption, etc, etc, etc.
But he lost me once Armstrong opened his apartment door, to find a sultry, determined, confident Kerry Washington (showing early signs of Olivia Pope here) march her way in, with her equally dishy lover, and make him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Spike has said that his intent in She Hate Me was to demonstrate on film where the politics of the boardroom and the bedroom meet. But even that statement doesn’t entirely explain the film to me as it is, the numerous problems I found within it, and why he especially chose this particular story of lesbians wanting to be impregnated by this black male stud, as the battleground on which to tackle the issue of greed, morality, and ethics, and to do it so absurdly, that one can’t take it at all seriously.
It’s supposed to be satire, but I’m not sure what exactly that particular thread sheds light on, or exposes about us; and one is left to consider one of the most popular criticisms of the film - that it's essentially a dick thing, with regards to the lesbian storyline - a heterosexual man's fantasy, and also what I saw as both a reinforcing of heterosexuality as what is "normal," and everything else as unnatural; but, interestingly, the film also seems to simultaneously challenge those so-called traditional beliefs about sex, gender, and orientation.
And I suppose if you recieve that aspect of the film as just that - a mockery or ridiculing of how some straight men perceive lesbians, then maybe it works on that level; assuming that was Spike's intent.
Some related questions/comments that came to me as I watched, and that speak to that hetero male dream/fantasy:
- Why do they all (the lesbians) have to have sex with Jack? They all seem to have reasons for not wanting to get pregnant via artificial insemination, or adopt.
- Was there any concern by any of them about the potential for the spread of venereal disease, as each of them, successively has unprotected sex with Jack Armstrong?
- And how the hell does one dude have sex with all those women - in some sequences, 6 or 7 of them, individually, in one night - and is able to maintain an erection, bringing each woman (each lesbian) to a seemingly pleasurable, screaming orgasm, ejaculating each time, and, oh yeah, getting just about all of them pregnant the first time? Even with the help of Viagara, that's quite a feat for any man; and I suppose Spike is speaking to the stereotype of the black man's almost superhuman sexual ability and virility, there.
- The lesbians initially gripe about the amount of money they’re paying for his “services” and demand that they first see what exactly they’re paying for (although, I thought what they were paying for was his sperm, not his body and/or the size of his tool); and in that scene, Jack strips naked, revealing his various parts, and one woman yells “Sold," as another says, “Damn where do I sign,” after he's asked to turn around and show his butt. These ARE lesbians, right? I suppose the point there was to make the man the eroticized object for once. I'm just not sure it works.
- Of course, we have to see almost every sequence with Jack and each woman, either about to get into, or already in the middle of the act - all played as comical.
- And also we had to see the encounter when Jack first discovers Fatima isn't entirely hetero, walking in on a naked Fatima having sex with another woman.
- And if that wasn’t enough, we're *treated* to a few sexy *rounds* between Kerry Washington and Dania Ramirez.
- Dania Ramirez’s character returns to Jack's place, frustrated that she hasn’t gotten pregnant via artificial insemination, and wants to do it the traditional way; and in her frustration, she tells him that she wishes she could do all she needed to do without a man, but, “we still need you… I still need you." All of that suggests what I think many found problematic with this particular thread in the film - in a nutshell, that there’s something incomplete about being a lesbian, because, they still need men; and not just their sperm; they need to experience all of a man (via the physical act of sex) for pleasure, to become pregnant, to give life; only through this “natural” act (negating any other experience as *natural* – including homosexuality).
- And then comes Monica Bellucci with her sob story, available and ready to strip down and do the deed with Jack; her father a mob boss played by John Turturro, wants grand kids. And just like the other lesbians, she also has her reasons for not wanting to get pregnant artificially. “This is the only way,” Bellucci says as she hands him the stack of money. Once again, suggesting that there’s only one way; only one *natural* experience – that being between a man and a woman.
- The stereotypical Italian depictions of that specific family. For whatever reason, Spike felt the need to insert this ultimately pointless Godfather-esque subplot, maybe just to give John Tutorro a role. And in the “mobster’s” house, there’s actually a poster of The Godfather, which led me to this question: do Italians really have these gigantic posters of The Godfather in their homes? Do they sit around and reenact scenes from the movie just for fun? It's all very comical, and obviously not to be taken seriously; at least that was my interpretation of it. The question is, to what end, and how does any of this connect with the main narrative? What is the main narrative?
- The montage of news footage after Jack's money-making venture is made public, in which various people express their feelings on Jack’s actions. The montage ends with a group of women (we assume lesbians) holding up signs in support of Jack, and chanting “Jack, Jack, he’s our man, if he can’t do us, no one can.”
- And despite the fact that Fatima and her lover both initially tell Jack that he’d have absolutely nothing to do with the children they have, thanks to his sperm, in the end, the opposite happens. Again, reinforcing the idea of a *natural* experience, which means a man must be present to complete the family unit. They (both women) still NEED him.
- He’s like the ultimate man; it's one thing to impregnate many heterosexual women; it's another to do the same with homosexual women, as if he's such a dynamo that even lesbians are willing to, we could say, *turn* to be with him, not just sexually, but they also want him present in their lives after the fact.
Throw in the SEC courtroom drama - a present-day Frank Wills narrative. Although, unlike Wills who found himself (in that fake flashback sequence) at the center of a clan-like rally, like a lynching, Jack manages to avoid his own “hi-tech lynching”; and so you take all the above in, and you say to yourself, my goodness, this guy just WINS! He gets it all - everything he wants comes to him in the end, all as the soundtrack swells, and a montage of scenes follow, including a shot of him sitting on a staircase, with all the women he impregnated and their babies, sitting beside and behind him, all smiling and happy, reinforcing his virility, what essentially defines his masculinity.
He's manhood, the fantasy, secured.
All I could do was just laugh at the absurdity of it all; you watch all of this and you think, ok... you want to give Spike the benefit of the doubt, and so you say to yourself, obviously I'm not supposed to take any of this seriously, given just how ridiculous the ideas are, right? Including the SEC court hearings at the end of the film that felt like scenes straight out of Mr Smith Goes To Washington, and the shout-out to the real-life whistleblowers; it all makes you wonder what the heck all that has to do with the last 90+ minute male lesbian fantasy drama that unfolds, including its snappy title (She Hate Me), which one isn't entirely sure if it's Spike ridiculing the clichéd perception of lesbians as “man-haters,” or whether it's Spike's own perception of lesbians.
But regardless of which it is, the film introduces the idea but never quite challenges those perceptions - a problem that's common throughout the film. It takes on a range of issues, all organized around money and avarice, but is too ambitious, much to its detriment, leaving its ambition as really the only appreciation audiences are left to have of it, and thus in a state of confusion.
It's meant to be a farce, social satire; I'm just not sure it's entirely successful - not the way a film like Bamboozled was, which introduced itself as a satire from its opening frames, and was unrelenting in that fact. It stayed the course. It's message was very clear - maybe a tad heavy-handed, but we got it.
She Hate Me is more of a mixed bag.
Spike said that the underlying mission of the film was to expose America's failing morality; the boundless/questionable lengths many of us will go in order to get what we want - whether it's money, or family. And I understand that motivation, which does make sense within the context of the film; but I'm not sure why he chose this particular plot - the lesbian plot - as the battleground on which to expose these particular ills of society, and the perplexing ways in which he went about it.
It seems to both negate the *other,* labeling it as *unnatural,* (as I already explained above), as well as champion the fluidity of identity and sexuality, one of the film's pluses. Specifically, Kerry Washington's Fatima's refusal to identify as either lesbian or bi, representing a generation of queer women, comfortable with who they are, who recognize that identity and sexuality are more fluid than accepted labels and categories (we could say that it's a step forward from the one-dimensional depiction of a lesbian in Spike's feature film debut, She's Gotta Have It).
And also, the film's ending, while still supporting the male lesbian fantasy, seemingly showing a coming together of all 3 as a unit (Adam and Eve and Eve, as the closing credits song sings) as coparents, it still emphasizes that Fatima and Alex are very much a couple, but also presents a radical vision of a future where the heterosexual nuclear two-parent family is not the only model; suggesting that the most important thing is that the "family" be defined by the people involved, based on love, respect, and commitment.
It's almost as if the film itself is conflicted on these issues; It's not sure what it wants to be, suggesting that maybe Spike himself isn't sure about what he thinks of the ideas he introduces and themes he explores, and this was his way of working them all out - presenting questions, and hoping for answers from the discussions that would follow.
I don't know. But then you also wonder, does Spike know?
I'd like to believe that he certainly was fully aware of all the objections/criticisms that were to follow the release of the film, given just how structurally unbalanced it is, and the absurdity of the lesbian storyline. And assuming that to be the case, the next question you'd ask yourself is why would he then still go ahead and make the movie the way he did? Was this Spike at his most politically INcorrect? Taking on taboo subject matter and gloriously (whether successfully or not) flaunting it all. Or was he still peeved about the lack of support Bamboozled got at the box office, making it one of his least financially successful films - a film that was, you could say, a true work of satire, approaching its subject matter with a heavy hand - "a full frontal assault," as Roger Ebert put it; and because that approach didn't quite work (if box office is the determinant of success), Spike returned to satire, but this time using "indirection," leading to audience confusion, which upsets us, and which may have been Spike's intent all along - for us to feel the anger and frustration he felt at the time - post-Bamboozled, post-9/11, post-Enron; whatever malaise he was experiencing at the time.
And just when you think you've found something within the film to grab onto as its throughline, the film comes to an end, and then you listen to the song that plays in the closing credits, which only further muddles things up. Titled Adam 'n Eve 'n Eve, the tune contains sentences like, "I don't want to burn in hell... Adam 'n Eve 'n Eve is not what I believe, but I just wanna be there;" which I read as, what you're doing isn't right (again, negating the *other* as unnatural, even un-Godly), BUT, I fathered both of your children, and what I believe is right is that I be there for you and them; forget what you both want for yourselves; it's about what I want.
And in the end, he gets what he wants, reinforcing the fantasy/dream.
“Jack, Jack, he’s our man, if he can’t do us, no one can.”
So what did you see in She Hate Me?
Next week in this series, I'll revisit Girl 6.