Monday, November 15, 2010

Spike Lee Speaks... but Not for Everybody

"Imagery is everything" -- Spike Lee 11/11/10

I am regretful to say that I was extremely disappointed in Spike Lee. First, I can't believe we spent $30,000 to have someone come and talk about himself for an hour and answer personal questions for another one. What a scam. No wonder he didn't want anyone taking video? What does he have to hide? Is he so frightened of ruining his image or saying something embarrassing, or does he simply want people to continue to pay him thousands of dollars to sit in a chair and talk about his favorite topic: himself. Lee mentioned that the most difficult thing about making films is getting funding. I wonder how much of his own funds from these events he contributes.

So why is this leftist so bitter and cynical about such a daring filmmaker? Well, it doesn't help that he sued Viacom several years ago for "stealing" his name, Spike, for the rebranding of TNN as the "first network for men"--as if TV hasn't generally been for men to being with! (But they're not anti-feminist: just recently they put up a Top Seven Cutest Feminists list, explaining "Contrary to popular belief, attractive women are allowed to be feminists").

To make things worse, the Atlantic reported in a recent article that Lee has sold-out to the French-owned corporation, Absolut.
In June, writers and fans converged on the Brooklyn Lyceum, in Park Slope, for the fifth annual Brooklyn Blogfest. This year, for the first time, it had corporate sponsorship: Absolut. Not coincidentally, Lee was the featured speaker... As for how to keep Brooklyn a "rich source of material and inspiration," Lee called on the audience to blog about his new vodka and proposed that each neighborhood could come up with its own Absolut Brooklyn-based cocktail... Maybe Lee just really loves Brooklyn... But if that's the case, why didn't he team with one of the many great Brooklyn-born-and-bred breweries and distilleries?

Lee likes to portray himself as an enemy of gentrification and a defender of the traditional, Brooklyn vernacular. Instead, he's become a tool in the borough's commodification and the worst enemy of everything he once stood for.
In other words, I was bias already going in. Yet, this did not entirely roast my optimism that I would walk away with some new knowledge.

Lee's narrative was as follows: "Parents kill more dreams than anybody"--don't listen to their pressure to make money. You are most blessed when you are doing something you love. Don't surround yourself with negativity. Just do it, but never alone--you need to collaborate to be successful in the film industry. And most importantly *everyone needs to find their own way*; there is no formula (something several audience members apparently didn't hear). The biggest problem in the black community is crack, or at least it his symbol of what went wrong since the 1970s (he divides African-American history into B.C. and A.C). Nowadays, only 50% of black youth graduate high school and there are more black male young adults in prison than in college. We spend more on our prisons than on our education, and we house something like 25% of the world's prisoners (despite having only 5% its population), most of which are incarcerated for drugs.

Lee does not stop there. The problem, he says, isn't simply the war on drugs and anti-poor government policy, but the absence of black male figures. I'm with Lee here, certainly, Afro-Americans boys develop their concept of self through modeling figures in the house, community, and media. And this is where he really infuriated me. Ultimately what his diagnosis for the socio-political ills of Afro-American communities is the presence of a man in the home! Now perhaps this could include a grandfather or brother or older cousin, but these were not the examples he provided. Instead, he was referring to either husbands or boyfriends of single mothers--as if black women could not raise respectable children themselves, that they are deficient parents because of their gender. Would the same be said of a woman--that girls always need the presence of a woman in the home? No, because as Simone de Beavoir explains, women are considered the inessential.

My suspicions of the heterosexist implications and presuppositions of this statement (an insult to all lesbian sistahs out there) found further evidence in his response to a question about why there are not more good roles for black women. Very frankly he said, "black women need to write their own roles." In a single sentence, Lee purged himself and other screenwriters of the responsibility to create roles for his sistahs in the industry--and this after he was complaining of the institutional racism of the industry that keeps people of color out of top tier positions to grant funding to controversial and films that don't target a middle-class white audience!

I became even more suspicious after his uncritical response to one of the few good questions from the audience: what did he think of the Antoine Dodson's auto-tune sensation? His response: "It's funny!" The inquisitor was paralyzed in silence, waiting for some kind of explanation. Of course, things become un-funny once you have to explain them, but did he really ponder why he thought it was funny? Isn't he after all a cultural critic? Why does a cat got his tongue on this subject? Is there simply something he wishes to hold back so as not to say to tarnish his image?

Supposedly he was naturally funny; but the song was made about an interview in which he was intending to be anything but funny, to hold the attempted rapists accountable. As was mentioned towards the end of the discussion, one of the students said she found him really gay. Immediately, people started laughing and nodding, saying they didn't even think about that. Whether conscious or not, such sentiments are still homophobic. Why people laugh is less because he is black, but more so because he is flamboyant. He's a gay caricature to laugh at (as opposed to with--at least until he attained popstar status)... And to be honest, I find it funny too, but I am not satisfied with finding the humor as being "natural".

So is Spike Lee homophobic and dismissive of being an ally to women? I don't know. But that is the feeling I had walking out of there that night beyond my disappointment. Perhaps, I'm being overly critical and judgmental--I accept that. But I don't think my intuitions are so unfounded to make such critiques mere antagonism.

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