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The Decline Of Spike Lee: A Prisoner Of The Middle Class

Shadow and Act By Andre Seewood | Shadow and Act January 2, 2013 at 12:21PM

Having seen Spike Lee’s RED HOOK SUMMER (2012) in its entirety I can finally identify three major flaws that comment upon the general decline in the dramatic quality and commercial impact of Spike Lee’s narrative films in recent years.   It is highly recommended that you view the film RED HOOK SUMMER before reading this article as it forms the basis of this discussion.  RED HOOK SUMMER can be described as a “coming of age” story about a 12 year old boy that goes by the name of Flik (Jules Brown) who is taken by his mother from Atlanta to live for a summer with his Bible thumping Grandfather Bishop Enoch (Clarke Peters) in the Red Hook housing project of Brooklyn, New York.
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Spike Lee

Having seen Spike Lee’s RED HOOK SUMMER (2012) in its entirety I can finally identify three major flaws that comment upon the general decline in the dramatic quality and commercial impact of Spike Lee’s narrative films in recent years.   It is highly recommended that you view the film RED HOOK SUMMER before reading this article as it forms the basis of this discussion.  RED HOOK SUMMER can be described as a “coming of age” story about a 12 year old boy that goes by the name of Flik (Jules Brown) who is taken by his mother from Atlanta to live for a summer with his Bible thumping Grandfather Bishop Enoch (Clarke Peters) in the Red Hook housing project of Brooklyn, New York.

This is how the film could be described and indeed how the film plays for more than an hour and a half of its two hour running time.  But the story of this film is also that of a disgraced preacher whose penchant for pedophilia, which he had buried in his past, suddenly returns to scandalize the church where he preaches and endanger his life and his relationship with his grandson.  In this description of the film we can discern that RED HOOK SUMMER is really two stories in one narrative film: a “coming-of-age” story and a “story of comeuppance”.

The major difficultly for the viewer is in finding a way to reconcile the relationships among the characters in one story to the relationships among those same characters in the secondary story.  Specifically, if we accept and invest our time in the logic, relationships and themes of one story, then the logic, relationships and themes of the other story falls apart- and vice versa.  Curiously, Lee has done this kind of “story splicing” before where he begins one story and then folds another story within the same film.

This type of dual story narration has ecumenical roots that can be found most distinctly in the Gospel of Mark in the King James Version of the Bible.  Bible scholar, John Dominic Crossan has called this type of dual story narration, “intercalation” and that its purpose in a theological context is that,” it presumes that those two events, call them the framing event and the insert event, are mutually interactive, that they interpret each other to emphasize,” a theological intention. (1)  It could be said that Spike Lee often performs “intercalation” in his films to emphasize a certain irony that reverberates between the two stories.

The most satisfying Spike Lee films are the films where he brings the two stories together at a point of great dramatic conflict as in his masterpiece, DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) where the urgent plea for greater Black representation on the walls of SAL’s Pizzeria dovetails with the murder of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) and the subsequent riot that tears apart the neighborhood.   With DO THE RIGHT THING the frame story of Black representation on the walls of an Italian owned and operated pizzeria within the majority Black populated New York borough of “Bed-Stuy” comments ironically upon and interacts with the story of racial injustice regarding the murder of Radio Raheem by racially insensitive New York Police officers within a 24hour period.

The worst Spike Lee films are the films where as I have said before, the relationships, themes and logic between the two stories becomes extremely difficult to reconcile as in the corporate intrigues between Leland Powell (Woody Harrelson) and Margo Chadwick (Ellen Barkin) in SHE HATE ME (2004) and the story of sperm donation through sexual intercourse with lesbians who want to have children by the lead character John Henry “Jack” Armstrong (Anthony Mackie).  Complicating matters in this film were the references to Watergate security guard, Frank Willis which further made a dramatically satisfying reconciliation between the two different stories untenable as the fictional actions and circumstances of Armstrong are difficult to equate with the real life actions and circumstances of Frank Willis who died in poverty after his heroic actions precipitated the resignation of President Nixon.(2)

Returning to RED HOOK SUMMER, the explosive and dramatic nature of the Preacher’s pedophilic past that is revealed in one of Spike Lee’s finest cinematic moments, overtakes and drowns out the coming-of-age story of Flik.  In contemplating the pedophilic background of Flik’s grandfather, it becomes increasing impossible to reconcile Flik’s story and the relationships among Flik, his Grandfather, his Mother and the other male characters who could have potentially been among his victims.

Questions of story logic and character motivation arise concerning: Did Flik’s mother know of her Father’s past?  How could she not know of his past if he changed his name to hide it?  Were their other young male victims?  Some of these questions can be answered by cleverly making assumptions that fill in the gaps that are within the story, as we do with every narrative film, but because of the small amount of narrative time (approximately 30 minutes) spent on this most compelling story, the portrait of a “reformed” pedophile is not satisfactorily developed nor is it brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

The preacher’s story raises more questions that cannot be answered or cleverly explained away by the spectator and casts doubt upon dramatic validity and depth of the coming-of-age story which it interrupted.  This leads to the damning assessment: the stories within the screenplay were not fully developed despite the co-authorship shared by Lee and novelist James McBride (Miracle at St. Anna).

Specifically, the idea that Bishop Enoch had renounced his pedophilic ways long ago and was no longer attracted to or molesting young boys flies in the face of much of the information that we know about pedophiles who hide behind institutions that have consistent contact with their youthful prey.  The most recent example of serial pedophilia being the 2012 conviction of Jerry Sandusky and the scandal at Penn State University which shows us that these types of pedophiles do not stop their behaviors when they are in daily contact with youth.(3)  Moreover, even if we consider the 2010 scandal and allegations of sexual molestation in the Black church concerning Bishop Eddie Long and New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Georgia we find a series of accusers who tell very similar stories of grooming, molestation and denial behind the walls of a respected institution.(4)

My point being that the good Bishop within the film, although he had changed his name and moved to New York, he was still involved in the Church which is exactly where he picked, groomed and molested young boys in the past.  The brevity of this story brings with it too many unanswered questions about the relationships that hinge upon the revelation and the denouncement of the Bishop.  Even the older gang member, Box (Nate Parker), who had known Bishop since he was a young boy, would have been a potential molestation victim of Bishop; another potential victim would have been the young male church organist, T.K. Hazelton (Jonathan Batiste).

And of course, by placing Flik at such a tender age literally in the hands of the pedophilic character, it is reasonable to assume that even he would have been prey to Bishop’s pedophilic desires.

So, although the Bishop’s story and its visual presentation are perhaps Spike Lee’s most daring and finest cinematic work, it is not very well developed and creates more problems when we try to reconcile the characters and circumstances within one story to those same characters and the different circumstances within the secondary story.

Yet I have only identified one aspect of the decline in the dramatic quality and impact of Spike Lee’s films there is another aspect that has perhaps been there in all of his films, but only now after so many works, can it be seen as a dramatic flaw when it was before only understood and tolerated as an authorial signature.  If the inability to reconcile the characters and circumstances of two different story lines in a single film has frustrated many of us (I know that it has frustrated me since JUNGLE FEVER (1991), where the story of the drug addicted and desperate character of Gator (Samuel L. Jackson) and his relationship to his mother and father overtook and drowned out the story of interracial romance between Flipper Purify (Wesley Snipes) and Angie Tucci (Annabella Sciorra), then the near constant presence of a disaffected character at the end of Spike Lee’s films is another frustrating aspect of his work that in my opinion has contributed to the overall decline of his films.

The disaffected character at the end of a Spike Lee film stands out like the remainder at the end of a long division problem or a sentence that ends with a preposition.  It is a character who somehow remains disaffected by all of the events and circumstances that have passed within the narrative of the film.  This disaffected character can be looked at from two perspectives: 1) he or she is disaffected by the events and circumstances of the story because of their inner strength or 2) he or she is disaffected by the events and circumstances of the story because Spike Lee is using that character as a lens through which we, the audience, can objectively view what passes within the narrative.  There are merits and flaws with each perspective.

If the character is disaffected because of their inner strength it becomes difficult to discern whether or not the character has learned anything from what they have experienced.  Is Nola Darling (Tracey Camilla Johns) from SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT (1986) any wiser from her experience with three simultaneous lovers?  Did the other characters actually heed the moralistic intent of “Dap” Dunlap’s (Laurence Fishburne) words to “wake up” at the end of SCHOOL DAZE (1988)?  What did “Mookie” learn after instigating the riot in DO THE RIGHT THING?

Conversely, it is true that the themes within Spike Lee films are explicitly directed at the audience either by direct address “Wake up!” or the devastating images of murdered Black bodies that begins CLOCKERS (1995), but as more diverse African-American filmmakers began to represent different themes, the notion of directly addressing a monolithic Black audience with a one-size-fits-all admonishment or moral directive began to seem pedantic and even patronizing.

Concerning RED HOOK SUMMER, one cannot help but notice the fact that Flik is barely affected by the revelation that his Grandfather is a pedophile nor does he have much of an emotional reaction to violence inflicted upon him by the community.  Worse, he doesn’t even call his mother after the revelation, when previously he talked with her via his I-Pad 2 to complain about his special food that had been thrown out by his Grandfather.  The film concludes with a reconciliation between Flik and what we can reasonably assume is his first girlfriend, Chazz Morningstar (Toni Lysaith), but it is a reconciliation that cannot be sustained given the intense and scandalizing circumstances of the Grandfather.  The ending feels false and dramatically flaccid if only because Flik appears unaffected by all that has taken place between his Grandfather and the community.

He would not only be profoundly alienated from his Grandfather, but also from his mother who sent him into the arms of a pedophile.  In this instance, his disaffected behavior at the end of the film appears as incomplete story development rather than a deliberate artistic strategy.

Returning to the looking at this kind of disaffected character that is an authorial signature of Spike Lee from two different perspectives, if we see Flik as demonstrating an inner strength it is an inner strength that is no different than when he first arrived at his Grandfather’s house; we cannot tell if he has actually come-of-age.  If we see Flik as an objective “innocent” lens through which we should see these hypocritical circumstances then we have no way of knowing through what is on film, that we should be concerned since his own “innocence” was never actually threatened by the actions of his Grandfather.

Only if we contemplate the danger that Flik was in as he was delivered into the hands of a pedophile can we begin to wonder if we should question our own sense of naivety with regards to child sexual abuse, but such concerns are overtaken by the questions about the relationships between Flik’s mother and her Father about which the film is deliberately reticent.  

In my opinion, the disaffected character that can be seen at the end of nearly all of Spike Lee’s films has become a dramatic flaw that does not encourage us think about the circumstances as they might be seen operating in our own lives, but instead the disaffected character makes us question the dramatic validity and verisimilitude of the circumstances that Spike Lee has constructed.  In short, we don’t know if this is something pertinent to our real lives (as Radio Raheem’s death was to actual racially motivated police brutality in DO THE RIGHT THING) or just some obsessions conjured up from Spike Lee’s unresolved issues with women (as Armstrong’s sexual prostitution with lesbians would seem to suggest in SHE HATE ME).

Consequently, it is not surprising that Spike Lee’s next film is a remake of the South Korean film, OLD BOY (2003, Park Chan-Wook) which is itself a violent quest for vengeance and incest where it is unclear by the story’s end if the lead character has really changed morally from the beginning of the story: perfect for Spike Lee given his penchant for disaffected characters.  All he has to do is deliver on the intense violence and not tamper with the disturbing theme of incest and it will be a successful remake, but perhaps only another hollow Spike Lee joint.  

And finally the third aspect that has contributed to the decline of the commercial impact of Spike Lee’s films, is Spike Lee himself.  Specifically, his outspokenness which many of us used to consider a source of his strength, particularly during the times when there weren’t as many practicing African-American filmmakers.  Yet today, his outspokenness has now become a commercial liability as it can turn off many potential audience members from going to see his films.  During the release of MALCOLM X in 1992 it was Spike Lee who cautioned us to check our ticket stubs to ensure that the ticket we had purchased actually had the title of the African-American film that we wanted to see.

It was perhaps the most important thing he has ever said, because it called into question the box office accounting of exhibitors for African-American films and alerted us of the collusion among theatre exhibitors and movie studios that could potentially disenfranchise African-American filmmakers that I described in a previous article: Evidence of Things Not Seen: The Structure of Power Notes for a Revolution in African-American Filmmaking (Part Two).  He gave us a warning that many of us follow to this very day whenever we go see an African-American film at the movie theatre: we check our ticket stubs.

Recently, Spike Lee’s comments concerning the work of Clint Eastwood and Quentin Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED have not been the prescient comments that inspire other African-American filmmakers to tell their stories, but instead vitriolic statements that seem to demand that only African-Americans can tell African-American stories in film.  Spike Lee said he would not see DJANGO UNCHAINED because it,” disrespects our ancestors.” (5)   To which one can quickly rejoin,” if you’re not going to see it, how do you know that it disrespects our ancestors?”

Reading the script of DJANGO UNCHAINED is nothing like seeing the film and it proves the point of Italian filmmaker, Pier Paolo Pasolini that a screenplay is,” a structure that wants to become another structure,” and therefore a screenplay is always, by necessity, incomplete because it has to be visualized.(6)  Spike Lee of all people knows this to be true.  His 2006 comments about the under-representation of African-American soldiers in Clint Eastwood’s two part epic, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, while justified such comments did nothing to inspire him to deliver a dramatically compelling rebuttal with the film, MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA (2008); a film that fails in no small part due to the previous narrative flaws I have just discussed concerning Spike Lee’s work.

Spike Lee’s outspokenness has resulted in some powerful commentary throughout his career, the best of which alerts our attention as potential audience members for his films about race related issues of the day (his rebuke of Mickey Rourke after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, his comments after the 2005 Katrina disaster), but the worst of his comments has caused great division within the cinematic community (his comments against African-American filmmaker Matty Rich because of his “lower” class non-film school background and other White filmmakers).

Ultimately, the decline of Spike Lee is found in a combination of factors (poor story development, disaffected main characters, his own outspokenness) that all come from the same source: Spike Lee is a prisoner of his own Black Middle Class value system that only allows him to see the events that affect African-Americans from one “myopic” perspective.(7)

He is unwilling and unable to validate or be sensitive to other value systems beneath or even above his own that impact and change the Black cultural traditions which he so cherishes.  Those from an older generation often see the changes in Black culture as negative, just as the younger generation views many older Black cultural traditions as too constricting.  As an artist such a myopic class perspective on culture cannot help but to have a deleterious effect on the artist’s work and its reception as times change.  And as times change, Spike Lee’s outspokenness sounds more and more like the complaints of a bitter old man, than the prescient comments of a committed artist- in spite of all the dubious publicity such comments create.  

Spike Lee is such an exceptional and gifted filmmaker that the attempts to have him adapt material that he has not written, like Richard Price’s CLOCKERS (1995) or pair him with another writer like James McBride in RED HOOK SUMMER, results in the same flaws that I have discussed.  This is because Lee knows how to use the tools of the cinematic language through editing, dramatic tone, music and scene arrangement to maintain the Black Middle Class values and uphold the Black cultural traditions that inform his vision of African-American life, in spite of the source novel or co-written screenplay.

Although Spike Lee’s Middle Class value system has given us many marvelous works, like the woefully underrated CROOKLYN (1994, co-scripted by Joie Lee and Cinque Lee) it is a value system that blinds him from fully comprehending the other competing value systems that make up the “Black community”.  As sociologist Elijah Anderson has asserted, even though many African-Americans adhere to Middle Class values the despair within many African-American communities,” is pervasive enough to have spawned an oppositional culture, that of “the street” whose norms are often consciously opposed to those of mainstream society.”(8)

The changes in African-American culture through class disparities (the growing Black underclass, the shrinking Black middle class, the silent Black Elite class), the expansion of Black voices in the cinema (Female, Gay and Lesbian, etc), and the notion that one does not have to be Black to make genuine and engaging African-American films, has also contributed to the commercial and dramatic decline of Spike Lee’s films.

All of this is not to detract from the incontestable fact that Spike Lee is a master filmmaker and much of his work stands as the best of African-American cinema.   But, if he is indeed a prisoner of his Middle Class value system (even though his income places him well outside of the actual parameters of the Middle Class), only Spike Lee has the key to release himself from this prison.  He would have to be affected by the fact that opening up to different perspectives within the African-American “community” is not a rejection of those Middle Class values or a bankruptcy of Black cultural traditions but instead adds to the richness and the diversity within our culture, but I fear that it is Spike Lee who has fallen asleep and none of us, out of respect for him and his legacy, possesses the boldness to tell him to,” Wake up!”                          

NOTES

(1) Pgs. 100-101, WHO KILLED JESUS: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus by John Dominic Crossan, San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1995.

(2) See: The Unsung Hero of Watergate by Armstrong Williams, 6,3,2005:

http://archive.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2005/6/2/175430.shtml

(3) See: Jerry Sandusky’s ‘Make Believe World’ by Ann O’neill and Wayne Drash, Cnn news, 11,10,11: http://www.cnn.com/2011/11/19/us/sandusky-memoir-profile/index.html

(4) See: Bishop Eddie Long Denies ‘False Allegations’ Plans to Address Church by Adelle M. Banks of Religion News Service: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/09/26/bishop-eddie-long-denies-_n_738820.html

(5) See: Spike Lee Slams Clint Eastwood Over Representation of Black Soldiers, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/05/21/spike-lee-slams-clint-eas_n_102867.html ; Spike Lee Slams Patriot, http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2000/jul/06/news.spikelee ; Spike Lee Rips Coens and Eastwood at Cannes, http://www.reuters.com/article/2008/05/21/us-spikelee-idUSN2134974820080521 ; Mickey Rourke Slams Spike Lee – The actor suggests that Lee and John Singleton are to blame for the LA Riots by Jeffery Wells Entertainment Weekly, May 22 1992,  http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,310564,00.html ; Also see Shadow & Act article: http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/surprise-spike-lee-wont-see-django-unchained-calls-it-disrespectful-to-ancestors#9f806c30-50e6-11e2-a726-12313817dfd7

(6) pgs. 187-196, Heretical Empiricism by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

(7) Some of us might remember this charge of being too entrenched in Black Middle Class values having been previously leveled at Spike Lee during the shooting of MALCOLM X in 1991 by Poet and Activist Amiri Baraka.  See: Malcolm X: Firestorm Over a Film Script by Evelyn Nieves 8, 9, 1991 in the New York Times.  http://www.nytimes.com/1991/08/09/nyregion/malcolm-x-firestorm-over-a-film-script.html

(8) Pgs. 32-33, CODE OF THE STREET: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City by Elijah Anderson, New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.

Andre Seewood is the author of SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film. Pick up a copy of the book via Amazon.com HERE.

This article is related to: Spike Lee


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