One night a few weeks ago I dreamt that I met filmmaker Spike Lee. For some reason I ran into him in a nice restaurant in Chicago, maybe in the Loop or Wicker Park, far from his native Brooklyn. Or maybe it was a bookstore, but it was definitely my turf. . I bashfully bloviated about his work and the companion books to his early films, which I read cover-to-cover when I was in college: She’s Got to Have It, School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues. I don’t recall the details of my illusory rhapsodizing, which hopefully did not include highlights from the ten-page undergrad paper I wrote about Do The Right Thing, nor the t-shirt emblazoned with that film’s logo that I wore down to a rag, but rather I remember the distinct urge to impress on him that this twelve-years-of-Catholic-school white girl from the South was down with his films. Ya dig, Spike? When a letter a friend sent me in the hot summer of 1990 while I was a college student in France fretted about the riots predicted to follow the opening of Do the Right Thing, I couldn’t wait to see it. I did (twice) and went straight to cinematic heaven. What Spike had started in School Daze and She’s Got to Have It maxed out in DTRT. It was da bomb before there even was a “da bomb.” The colors, the ambiguity, the dialogue, Public Enemy, Rosie Perez, the shots—oh, the shots! Who else shot straight-in-the-face soliloquies, fast-tracking into close-ups, wide-angles, huge crane swoops, and made you sweat like you were standing in the summer heat of Bed-Stuy with Mookie, Sal and Buggin’ Out? My film vocabulary was limited at the time and my viewing experience even more so, but I had never seen the like: an intelligent movie with a clear-headed vision that didn’t suffer to answer the questions it raised. The real question was obvious: why weren’t other films like Spike’s?
After watching his latest release, She Hate Me, I am asking the same question fifteen years later. Okay, a slightly different question: Why isn’t this film like Spike’s? I think it’s possible that there’s two Spike Lee films trapped inside of the She Hate Me, which is fitting since Spike’s work primarily dissects trapped lives. With this July 2004 release, now available on DVD, we can perceive a biting commentary on corporate greed and malfeasance concealed inside a French sex farce—or maybe it’s the other way around. At any rate, neither satire reaches far enough in what feels like a hastily assembled (reportedly a twenty-eight day shoot) project. Jack Armstrong, an ambitious, young executive at a biotech firm that is preparing a vaccine for HIV, prompted by the window-jumping suicide of the company’s top scientist, exposes his bosses’ (Woody Harrelson and Ellen Barkin) insider trading and other nefarious Enron-style business dealings. As soon as the inevitable Securities and Exchange Commission investigation commences, Jack is fired and, though he’s pedigreed with a Harvard MBA, finds doors slammed in his face up and down Wall Street and his assets frozen at the bank. Jack’s up you-know-what creek—until his ex-fiancée Fatima, a beautiful and successful businesswoman, prances into his New York loft with her equally beautiful and successful businesswoman girlfriend, Alex. “We’re feeling maternal,” they announce, and Jack reluctantly takes the $10,000 (each) Fatima offers him to impregnate both her and her lover, no fatherly responsibilities required after the births. The women, especially when Kerry Washington’s Fatima puts on a petulant sorority girl face, approach motherhood with all the deliberation of adding the latest Birkin handbag to their wardrobe—only they can’t get a baby on order at Barney’s New York. Jack’s services are successful, and soon a newly-expecting Fatima sets her ex out to stud—collecting a nice percentage off the 10 grand a pop—and ushers a steady stream of ovulating lesbians of every imaginable stereotype into Jack’s apartment. A total of seventeen of them are also “feeling maternal”, in fact, and examine him like sheiks at a thoroughbred sale (or, as Spike is probably implying, plantation owners at a slave auction). This being a Spike Lee joint, there’s plenty of graphic, not-gauzy sex, and, despite the fact they play for the other team, not only do all of the women very volubly enjoy their baby-making trysts with Jack, they are all impregnated with his implausibly inexhaustible manhood.
Yet none of the knocking boots and knocking up, accompanied by the animated quest of Jack’s sperm, each bearing his smiling face, achieves the razor-sharp focus of satire. Nor do the actors, nor the script penned by Spike and Michael Genet, especially as the character Pierre Delacroix, centerpiece of Spike’s previous film, 2000’s Bamboozled, defines satire in the first moments of that film. Delacroix’s voiceover lays out the good old Merriam-Webster definition; that’s Spike letting us know that’s what we’re going to see, a satire on media depictions of blacks that uses the worst possible of all stereotypes: the minstrel show. Where She Hate Me seems befuddled and uninspired, Bamboozled hits its targets with the laser precision and courageous emotional investment and intellectual engagement we’ve come to expect from a visionary like Spike Lee. The former tiredly trots out the characteristic elements that are indelibly Spike, but the colors are strangely muted, Matthew Libatique’s camera work cannot match Spike’s early collaborator Ernest Dickerson, the dialogue is limp, and the digressions are meaningless. Case in point: Bamboozled concludes with a typical Spike technique, a monthage, a distressing one of disturbing images of minstrelsy and blackface, from Little Black Sambo to Judy Garland and Andy Rooney greasing up their faces, punctuated by Terence Blanchard’s expressive score. Did I mention She Hate Me’s ending? The conclusion to the Jack-Fatima-Alex love triangle is bewilderingly packaged as a ménage, or rather, family à trois, thankfully underscored by Blanchard’s sensual jazz scoring rather than the boom-chicka-boom of the soft porn this tableau closely resembles. Watching them trade kisses all around, I was disturbingly reminded of the time I observed a male acquaintance—who had a girlfriend elsewhere—and an unstable young actress I knew suck down more and more drinks and inevitably hook up: people who are going to go have sex and you really, really wish they wouldn’t. Watching She Hate Me causes a worse discomfort than the laughing-though-you-shouldn’t uneasiness prompted by the racist dissertations of Do the Right Thing’s Brooklynites or Mantan and Sleep’n’Eat’s shucking and jiving in Bamboozled: you just wonder, God, what the hell is Spike thinking?
She Hate Me’s male-fantasy finale adds little to nothing to the already meandering story, about as much as its Watergate break-in sequence, the pointed anti-Bush diatribes and the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington courtroom oration do. Oh, and the mafia sidebar that has always-able John Turturro spouting a dead-on Brando Godfather, I forgot that was in there, too, but apparently it appears because one of Jack’s Sapphic moms-to-be is the daughter of the mob (Monica Belluci), anxious to give her papa grandchildren. Usually, tangential stories about characters that you know Spike knows well (or at least has taken the time to learn about) add a subtle richness to his films that leaves you in hushed awe or doubled in laughter. Bamboozled’s aspiring television professional Sloane argues with her brother, who has renamed himself “Big Black Africa,” and fronts a black militant (think Public Enemy with low IQs) rap group, the Mau Maus. The crack epidemic that riddled black communities in the early Nineties is exposed in Jungle Fever through Samuel L. Jackson’s heartbreaking performance as Gator and as Spike’s camera takes us into the heart of Harlem darkness, into a crack den. And Spike can vocalize Bensonhurst, Brooklyn with equal effortlessness, in the strangled rants of Angie Tucci’s father and brothers and the gentle dreams of her boyfriend Paulie, doomed to wash his father’s back and run his sweet shop the rest of his life in Jungle Fever.
The seamlessness that singularizes his films from She’s Gotta Have It to Bamboozled, and the determined execution of Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X are sorely missed in the hollow She Hate Me, and I wonder if it’s because Spike just didn’t pose, starting with his script, the questions about identity that suffuse his best films. Was his heart even in this? Critic Stanley Crouch notes in the documentary that accompanies the Bamboozled DVD how well Spike understands “the prison of stereotype.” The only prison detailed in She Hate Me is the one into which Jack is inexplicably (for whistleblowing? for fathering nineteen children?) thrown halfway into the film.
If Spike wanted to, as She Hate Me’s press materials relate, “raise questions about the decline of morals and ethics in America – from the boardroom to the bedroom,” the moral and ethical—and emotional—implications of Jack’s actions are invisible to us. We can sense the depth to which the transformation of Manray and Cheeba into grinning minstrels Mantan and Sleep’n’Eat affects the former street performers as they apply blackface using the traditional burnt-cork method. Sadly, Anthony Mackie’s Jack Armstrong is merely a cipher as he screws his way out of the boardroom into the bedroom. “Survival makes a person do things they know in their heart is wrong,” Turturro’s mafia don Bonasera tells him, but Spike doesn’t let Jack do the right thing and instead rewards him with not one, but two, hot mamas.
Bamboozled’s coda, taken from African-American author James Baldwin and uttered by the pretentious Pierre Delacroix as he bleeds to death, actually could be a more fitting axiom for She Hate Me: “People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become, and they pay for it very simply by the lives they lead.” But Spike has no one pay for anything in She Hate Me, despite the fact that eventually the greedy corporate scum is correctly identified and thrown in jail by the film’s end. Spike’s been quoted (possibly misquoted, knowing his track record) as describing his films as “litmus tests” that measure the pulse of public opinion on social issues. I wish I could go back to my dream and ask Spike to—please—test us again by any means necessary, just not those that allow you make movies that you know in your heart are all wrong.